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Saturday, December 17, 2016

10 Tips on Titles for a poem or poetry book

Reading a poem or poetry book starts with the title, which can add interest and dimension to all that follows. For wonderful examples, study the titles of poems by the late Wallace Stevens – recipient of the Pulitzer, Bollingen, and National Book Award prizes in poetry.

Also, consider these tips:

• Use the title of a poem as the extra space of an added line, which doesn’t repeat any other line within the poem – unless you’re effectively using repetition for artistic effect.

• Play with symbols, phrases, and yes, clichés that relate to your poem. For example, the cliché “s/he’s a brain case” became the jumping off point for a poem I wrote to describe physical, mental, and mysterious aspects of the brain. The resulting poem, “Brain Case: In Forty-Eight Fluid Ounces,” first appeared in the medical journal Chest with “origami-folded wedges of memory” (physical description) and “forty-eight oz. of wizards” (mystery shown in word-play of ounces to play on wizard of Oz) and (mental) in the lines “She won’t open the case by herself,/ so you might as well give her the truth.”

• Use titles to catch a reader’s attention while staying true to the content. The recent fad of making shocking statements in titles for manuscripts that say just the opposite are misleading, not to mention annoying! For instance, my title “The Middle-Aged Mother Goes Up, Up, Up in Iambic Pentameter with Champagne After” sets the stage for a rhythmic (yeah, iambic pentameter) poem about my totally terrifying then uplifting (pun intended) experience of riding in a hot air balloon.

• Let each title give your readers something to hold onto as they enter a poem. To show you what I mean, the title of this poem readily identifies the “who.” Otherwise, readers must guess and will feel smart, dumb, or ____. Want to play?

The music breaks
strike the page
with spikes and slivers.

Vermont maples
red and gold
with no syrup
to make the fragments stick.

A dark stare
from a paper-white face
at that bruise beneath
your left rib.

by Mary Harwell Sayler, © 2016, from book Faces in a Crowd

If you've read the works of classical American poets, you’ve already guessed what the title makes plain “Emily Dickinson Dips Ink.”

• One mundane reason that titles are important is that they help you keep track of each poem's whereabouts. For example, I have a Word file called “Poetry Submission List" with titles in alphabetical order. When I submit a poem (usually 3 to 5 in a batch) to a potential publisher of a journal or e-zine, I note the place and date that piece was sent off for consideration. Since the file is now many pages long (I’ve been doing this a while), I needed a way to find which poems are still available, so I type an * before titles that have placed and + in front of those presently being considered. The remaining titles are ready to revise or try elsewhere.

• When poems have placed, I list the titles (again, alphabetically) in my “Bio” file with the name of the publisher and the date of publication. The titles also help me to find the actual poems by searching my “Poetry” Word file, so I can copy/ paste the poems in a new book grouped around a particular theme. Since I note the topic – “faith,” “Bible,” “nature,” “children’s poem,” etc. – at the top of each poem in the “Poetry” file, I can search for those key subjects to see if I have enough poems for a book. For instance, my “nature” poems went in my book, Living in the Nature Poem, published by Hiraeth Press, and my “Bible” poems went in Outside Eden, published by Kelsey Books. “Nature” and “children’s poems” came together in Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, also published by Kelsey Books. My newest book, Faces in a Crowd, resulted from a search of “people” and poems on “relationships.”

• In writing for children, I like titles to hint at humor or the light-heartedness kids enjoy such as “Jelly Fishing” (about a jelly fish), “Questions for a Spider,” and “Conversation with a Sand Crab.” The book title included “Wood Chimes” to let potential readers know the poems would help children to experience beach scenes and woodsy surroundings of interest.

• A single word or tag can provide a workable title too. For instance, “Bugged” is not only about being annoyed but that the cockroach I’d reluctantly killed wouldn’t stay dead! A totally different tone occurred with the poem “Wait!” which invites readers to wait for God to respond, so the Lord “holds you closely/ and teaches you to speak/ to pray.”

• Titles can also hint at a scene or story without giving away the full situation or plot. For instance, the title poem for my book Outside Eden lets us know we all live outside the Garden, and many of us keep trying to find our way back inside. The title Living in the Nature Poem hopefully lets readers know to expect poems in a natural setting, written by a nature-lover who’s had to get used to some aspects of the natural world. And, hopefully, the title Faces in a Crowd helps readers decide if they want to read my take on people. In case you do, I’ll enclose an ad to click.

• If any of the above tips interest you, but you don’t quite know how to go about it, here’s my biggest tip: Give your poems the time they deserve. They might have to sit awhile, but with enough time and attention, something fresh and unique will eventually come to you.

by Mary Harwell Sayler, © 2016

Faces in a Crowd, paperback


  1. Mary: I just purchased your Living in the Nature Poem, and have observed some of these strategies in your titles. Thanks for sharing this on LinkedIn. Christmas! Richard Havenga http://walkwithfathernature.blogspot.com/2016/12/cheers.html

  2. Cool! Thanks, Richard. Have a blessed Christmas.