What if your parents decided not to give you a name and you went through life as “that kid” or “hey, you?” Names are important. Chances are your parents puzzled over a name for you for months, changing their minds multiple times until you arrived. I was told my parents exhausted the alphabet before I was born; even so, my original birth certificate reads, “Baby Levinson.” I never liked the name they finally gave me. I always wanted to be Elizabeth or Susannah.
Some poets will omit a title or name a poem “untitled” for various reasons, all of which l believe leave the poem without an anchor. When I start to write a poem, I use what is commonly called a “placeholder” name as a springboard to get me started, but it rarely becomes the final title for the poem. I may have a general idea of what the poem will be about, but, very often, I find that somewhere down the page, the poem begins to take on a life of its own and I merely become the transcriber of what it is trying to say.
Because there are various types of titles, it is not always a simple task to decide which title will do the best job. Sometimes a short poem wants a long title and vice-versa. There are no hard and fast rules, except to alert the reader to “here’s a great poem I have for you.”
I wrote a book of retold fairy tales, The Owl Prince, and all the titles have two parts, as in “Ella at Fourteen or Why a Good Man is Hard to Find.” Someone remarked that the titles themselves were almost a poem. I often use one word, “Nightmares,” or two words, “Eating Chocolate,” because that’s the main focus of the poems. Some titles can also take a significant line from the poem that sets the stage for what follows, as in “Stay on the Path, Mimi,” where, on a trail in the woods, my four-year-old granddaughter warns me that there are snakes in the underbrush.
Sometimes information, perhaps a necessary location or a proper name that would take up too much space to explain inside the poem, will fit nicely in the title, as in “Riding the Funicular with a Rugby Player from New Zealand.” Or a title can set a tone, as in “Playing Chess with the Muskrat” or “Cousin Leon and the Playboy Bunny” I also like to open some poems with titles such “How” or “Why” as in “Why I Never Want to Fly across Montana Again.”
Most of these examples were not the first, or even the second or third titles I tried out on the poems. Every time I draft a poem, I do several revisions, and each time I will revisit the title and often change it. Titles are not necessarily cast in stone either. I’ve had poems published with one title, and then for my book, A Siege of Raptors, I gave every poem a new title to fit the special format for the book.
Remember that your title is your best free advertising. We write and publish our work with the hope that someone will read it. When I pick up a new book of poetry, I scan the pages. There are two things that will make me stop and read a particular poem. First, the title, and second, how the poem is arranged on the page, but that is another issue. Make your titles do some work. Don’t let them get lazy and just take up space, or fail to show up. Yes, you can fall in love with a particular title, but make sure it headlines the right poem.
Nancy Scott (email@example.com) has been managing editor of U.S.1 Worksheets, the journal of the U.S.1 Poets’ Cooperative in Central Jersey, for more than a decade. (We do not publish poems without titles!) She is also the author of nine collections of poetry. Her most recent, Ah, Men (Aldrich Press, 2016) is a retrospective of the men who influenced her life. Scott worked for the State of New Jersey for twenty years, first on behalf of abused and neglected children, and then to assist homeless families find permanent housing in the community. Running Down Broken Cement (Main Street Rag, 2014) was inspired by these experiences. Find a sample of her poems and other information at www.nancyscott.net. Her books are also available at Classics Used Bookstore.