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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Title Tales: on finding effective titles for your poems

The other day a poet said he always starts a new poem with a title, which bothered me only because of the word “always.” Poems often do offer up their names by way of introduction to get our attention or coax us into taking the time to write down whatever follows. However, an effective title – for the poet and for the reader – generally acts as an open door. If, though, that door locks the lines too tightly before they have their say, the title can hinder the poet and also the readers from getting to know a poem beyond the nodding acquaintance of a name.

To give you examples of titles that seemed to work reasonably well, I scanned the list of poems I’ve placed over the years, and here’s what I found:

A title hints but does not give away the story. For example, my title “After Selling Joseph into Slavery” draws on a familiar Bible story to examine how Judah might have felt after he and his siblings sold the younger brother of whom they were so jealous.

A title might be one word, one phrase, or one long sentence that meanders into a poem. “The Middle-Aged Mother Goes Up, Up, Up in Iambic Pentameter with Champagne After” sets the stage for a rhythmic poem about my terrified then buoyant experience of riding in a hot air balloon.

A title entices but does not tease readers with fake labels. “Abracadabra” sounds like a magic trick but was actually the title rhat came to me for a light poem with a rhyme scheme of a, b, c, and d with r for repetition.

A title gives a poem a tag your readers can remember. “Bugged” tagged a humor piece about my efforts to kill a cockroach that just would not stay dead.

A title plays with words, sounds, thoughts, and symbols until the poet finds an appropriate name. As I stressed over a subject to write about, the title “Following the Brick Road” played with a Wizard of Oz symbol for finding my way home and writing about what I care about or know.

A title seldom repeats or replays what the poem says or shows. Using a title to repeat words or phrases in a poem usually seems like a waste of space! Nevertheless, I entitled a poem “Wait” to emphasize something my religious readers (and I) often need to consider. Apparently the title had the desired effect because the poem has been accepted and published over the last fifteen years by five different editors, but see what you think. Better yet, read the poem aloud and, hopefully, you will hear why I chose to repeat a word from such a short poem for the one-word title:


Wait for God to respond.
He hears.
He turns toward His crying child.
He reaches down into your clay crib
and brings you up, high,
into His bosom.
He sets you on His shoulder.
He jostles you on His knee.
And when you're comforted and quiet,
He holds you closely
and teaches you to speak,
to pray.

by Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.



© 2011, Mary Sayler. Please do not use any of the above contents without permission.



  1. Interesting to read Mary.
    I have found it happens all different ways for me.

    I have been prompted to write a poem after a title occured to me that brought a subject to the front of my mind, the title I had thought of acted as a guiding hand while I wrote the poem.

    Other times I have just let my thoughts flow freely and allowed a poem to develop and then once complete I put my mind to thinking of a title that would most effetively represent it and guide a reader.

    I have not developed a preference, for me each poem is unique in how it forms, including how the title comes to be.

  2. Hi, Matthew. Yes, different poems have different approaches for me too. Being open and receptive to each poem can also bring surprises to the poet, so I'd just as soon not have a preference for ways to work :)

  3. Mary, you have described the subject very nicely. Title of a poem is an important subject; I know for some people this is an issue. I always place a title when the process of catharsis is complete. Sometime my titles reflect the soul (But not the tale) of poem.

  4. Thanks, Rafiullah. I usually do that too, but sometimes an interesting title pops into my head, and I let the poem flow from there.

  5. mary its wonderful post along with a nice poem thanks for posting and share with peoples .

  6. mary its wonderful post along with a nice poem thanks for posting and share with peoples .

  7. Thank you, Niraja. I like to play with words, which makes it fun to think of titles. Hope the article helps.

  8. Thanks, Kattate. Hope you and other blogs readers will check out The Poetry Editor website for more tips and the Poetry Editor Group on LinkedIn for discussions about all aspects of poetry.