Poetry Tow Truck 4 – Workshop in a Box: Titles

I had a VERY busy week – out of town last weekend and getting ready to step into a new job description at work – so this week, we will discuss an element of craft that can be troublesome: titles.

One of my biggest struggles is selecting titles for my poems. So today’s workshop in a box will focus on title-finding suggestions I have collected over the years from different teachers and workshops.

  • The old stand-bys

Let’s get these out of the way first, and let’s call them reminders of things we have seen often in poems. But just because they are common options doesn’t mean they are not good options- give them a try.

*  The title as label or mini-summary or scene-setter

*  The title as “Untitled” or some form of untitled, like Simon Perchik’s asterisks. (Personal aside –  the asterisks bother me. Or anything called untitled unless it has some connection to the narrative of the poem. I will get off the soapbox now. Sorry.)

*  Using a phrase or line that appears elsewhere in the poem

*  An allusion to other literature or pop culture

*  A line of direct address (“For…” or “To…”)

  • Count up five to seven lines from the bottom of your poem (depending on which workshop leader you listen to…) and find your title hiding there.

This advice counts on the fact that five to seven lines from the end of your poem is probably where you start to turn toward your concluding purpose. Many workshop leaders recommend looking at those lines for a phrase that may work as a title.

  • Use the thesaurus.

After your poem is complete (or as complete as it will be for the moment), identify key words or concepts in the poem, and use a thesaurus to find synonyms that may resonate as titles.

  • Use a map…or a time machine.

This advice came from a workshop with Katie Ford on writing a series (or a long poem in parts). Her suggestion for many of the participants was to make the title a very specific place or date that resonated with the truth of the poem.

For example, a piece about a relationship that started in your teen years could use the specific street/town name where that relationship started. For example, if the hypothetical poem above was my poem, it could be called “On Elgin Avenue” – the street where I grew up – or “Forest Park: 1976” – my hometown and the year I started high school. I think that the idea is to bring a real specificity of place and time to the piece.

So work on your titles this week and make them do some of the heavy lifting in your poem. My most recent draft  started with the title of  “Heaven” then changed to “Unfolded” then changed to “How I Will Outwit Grief.”  Which one would you rather read? 🙂

If you have any foolproof title tricks, please share them in the comments section – we would all appreciate even more ideas to share.

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22 thoughts on “Poetry Tow Truck 4 – Workshop in a Box: Titles

  1. Donna this is a great workshop. I have the worst
    time with titles. I find when I am done with a poem
    I will sit there trying to come up with a suitable title.
    Usually a not very good one either:)

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  3. Interesting post – I like the idea of looking to the ‘turn’ for a title (and hadn’t heard of it before).

    One difficulty with titles is that they can either duplicate what’s already there (and hence be unnecessary), or not fit with it (and be irrelevant). But I like to think of them as a sort of ‘keystone’ – part of the structure, but prominent top and centre…

  4. Titles give me fits. I posted one this past week as “Green”, for lack of something better. It was the right title for the poem, but, like your “Heaven”, gives nothing to a potential reader. It’s hard to grab attention but not seem…needy.

    • They give me fits as well, but I think I am getting better. I have a tendency to “one-word” my titles, which most of the time doesn’t help the reader, as you say. Sometimes simple is perfect (like your poem “24”), but usually it’s just the easiest way out.

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  6. I struggle with titles. Heck, I struggle with writing poems/fiction/rants/the grocery list….

    However, I tend to do one of two things (so far) when titling a poem. I either make up something that vaguely connects, or use the title as a starting point. Sort of a hook, the drag the reader in.

    Today, for example, I made a draft of a poem that has every stanza except the last start with the line:

    “I do not know if”

    And named it ‘Self Aware’ which can be taken one of two ways. Which fits the draft (needs polish or grease, not sure which) and the idea behind it. That’s where I emphasize the idea mainly, in the title.

    Usually.

    Great post and wonderful thoughts. I’ll be back.

    • Well, yes, in theory. But I’m a greater baker. I can bake a delicious cake and frost it well. But the crowning touches, frosting roses, basket weaving, piping little scallops, are more challenging than making the whole stinking cake. Yes, I CAN make them, but damn they’re difficult. And done badly, they look like blobs instead of flowers.

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