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How to Write Poem Titles: The Ultimate Guide

Do you find yourself stuck when it comes to titling your poems? You're not alone. It can be challenging to come up with the perfect title that accurately represents your poem and grabs your reader's interest. In this post, I will go over everything you need to know to write a poem title that does both things.


how to write poem titles


Why Is Coming Up With a Poem's Title So Difficult?


If you're like me, you write your poem first and say: voila, poem written! And then you go, oh yeah, the title. Title, title, tile...


Writing a title for your poem can be difficult. Writing the title seems more like a chore than part of the joy of writing your poem. The title can seem to exist outside the world of your poem, so it's easy to get bogged down thinking about what on earth it should be.


But I'd encourage you to not think of the title as existing outside of your poem—the title is just as much a part of the poem as the body. If you can reframe your thinking to consider the title as part of the poem's universe, it can become easier to write.


Let's take a look at what a great poem title achieves by studying some on-point poem titles.


In the examples below, the titles of the poems will appear in bold text.


woman writing poems in journal

What Does a Great Title for a Poem Accomplish?


Sometimes, it seems like the title is an afterthought or an advertisement to get people to read the poem. But this isn't so.


A good title is just as much a part of the poem as the poem itself.

A good poem title can accomplish many things:

  1. Make us curious about the poem

  2. Lead us into the poem

  3. Provide orientation (place, time)

  4. Make us think twice

  5. Provide context (what is this really about?)

#1 A Great Title Leads Us Into the Poem


One method of writing a good poem title is to use the title to serve as the first line of the poem. To use this method, the entire title should both serve as the first line of the poem and give an overall idea of what the poem is about.


Take the below example by poet Barbara Crooker. An excerpt of the poem appears below.


And Now It’s September,


and the garden diminishes: cucumber leaves rumpled

and rusty, zucchini felled by borers, tomatoes sparse

on the vines. But out in the perennial beds, there’s one last

blast of color: ignitions of goldenrod, flamboyant

asters, spiraling mums, all those flashy spikes waving

in the wind, conducting summer’s final notes.


As you can see, the title of the poem also serves as the first line of the poem. It even has a comma at the end of the line to emphasize that fact! But it also makes an excellent title because it encapsulates what the poem is about.


It lets the reader know this poem will be about the beginning of September, the beginning of fall, and the changing of the seasons. It's genius in its simplicity!


girl walking among fallen leaves

#2 A Great Poem Title Provides Orientation


Another method for writing a poem title is to come up with a title that lets us know where we are in time and space. Take the example below.


"Awakening in New York" was published in 1983 in the great poet Maya Angelou's collection Shaker, Why Don't You Sing. This a short poem, so the entire text is shown below.


Let's see how Ms. Angelou uses the poem title to bring context to her writing.


Awaking in New York


Curtains forcing their will

against the wind,

children sleep,

exchanging dreams with

seraphim. The city

drags itself awake on

subway straps; and

I, an alarm, awake as a

rumor of war,

lie stretching into dawn,

unasked and unheeded.


Here, the title serves as a reference point—it lets the reader know where we are and what this poem is about. The title is simple, but the words are poetic and tell a story.


If we were to read the poem without reading the title, we may enjoy it, but we may be left a little curious as to where we are and what's happening.


The title "Awakening in New York" informs us that this is about someone waking up in New York and the city itself awakening. Also, the word "awakening" has multiple meanings. It can mean to literally "wake up" but it can also mean to realize something, or it can mean a change is occurring.


"Awakening in New York" gives us many roads to travel as we consider the poem's meaning.


new york city street

#3 Great Poem Titles Makes Us Think Twice About a Poem


A writer can use the title to give a whole different context to the poem that wouldn't exist without the title. These are some of my favorite types of titles. They are akin to a plot twist.


Read the short poem below by Langston Hughes.


The calm,

Cool face of the river

Asked me for a kiss.


What are your impressions? To me, it sounds like a serene moment. It personifies the river, having it ask the writer for a kiss.


What a sweet love song to nature, don't you think? Well, maybe things aren't always as they seem...let's look at it again with the title.


Suicide's Note


The calm,

Cool face of the river

Asked me for a kiss.


Okay, now we are thinking twice about that sweet ode to the river! The author's title turns this individual story from a few lines about a river into a haunting story about the contemplation of suicide.


What I find interesting about this poem and its title is that the writer never takes responsibility for the suicidal thoughts. The river asks him to dive in head first, he's not thinking about it. The note belongs to suicide, not to the writer.


By personifying these elements, the poet achieves a certain distance from a terrible thought.


woman looking out over a european river

#4 A Great Poem Title Makes the Reader Curious


If you want to grab a reader's attention and make them read your poem, your title should pique curiosity and get people wanting to find out more.


Take the poem title "Small Poems for Big" by Chinaka Hodge.


Small Poems for Big? What is that all about? Who is Big? How small are these poems? How many are there?


See how this title gets us asking questions?

Now let's look at an excerpt.


Small Poems for Big


Twenty-four haiku, for each year he lived

when you die, i’m told

they only use given names

christopher wallace


no notorious

neither b.i.g. nor smalls

just voletta’s son


Okay! From the first two stanzas, the reader sees that the "Big" referred to in the title is none other than the Notorious B.I.G., Biggy Smalls, aka the late rapper, Christopher Wallace.


Again, another simple title that accomplishes so much. I love it.


typing a poem title on a typewriter


What About Great Poems That Have Simple Poem Titles?


Now that we've discussed what a great poem title might do and looked at some examples, let's talk about the elephant in the room.


That is, there are thousands of amazing poems by some of the greatest poets in all of literature that have very simple titles. The title is often either a repetition of a phrase or word that appears in the poem (for example Audre Lorde's "Afterimages") or, the title just labels the form of the poem (for example, William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 2").


If you're reading this post, likely, you have not yet become a master poet. I certainly haven't. So, until you are a master poet, all your poems should begin with creative titles that can stand on their own and draw attention.


Until you are a master poet, all your poems should begin with creative titles that can stand on their own and draw attention.


My Process for Writing Poem Titles


I'd like to share the process of coming up with poem titles for my chapbook White Noise Crucible (published in 2022 by Bottlecap Press).


Most of the poems in my chapbook were originally shared on my Instagram without titles. When I was compiling them as a chapbook, I at first decided to leave them without titles. Let them speak for themselves, I thought.


When it was time to submit my final manuscript to the publisher, that is when I decided they should have titles, if only for a table of contents!


Below is the first poem in the chapbook, now titled "passing through." I would label this title under the makes us think twice category of titles. Let's read the poem first.


passing through


photons penetrate

fill me with light

everything blooms

and passes


fleeting

life


The title phrase, "passing through", has a couple of meanings in this poem. It can refer to the "photons penetrate" line, which is about light particles passing through our bodies. Or it can refer to the ephemeral nature of life and how we are just visitors passing through it.


In that sense, I wanted to get people to think twice about the poem. Let's look at one more.


book of poems

This next poem title is an example of providing additional context to the poem. The poem's title is "it's a reference to DNA." The title is meant to spell things out and help the reader understand the poem better, as it contains scientific references not everyone may immediately get.


it’s a reference to DNA


magic had me dazzled

in a fated well

blackness boomeranged into me

no drag on the fletching of time’s arrow

to go back

to understand

what i had yet to learn


it is this:


eons are enemies

a crucible of time, mutation, selection,

meiosis, mitosis—

a G where a C should have settled

an A where a T should have been


Without the title of the poem below, I realized many people would not understand what this poem is about unless they can remember back to high school biology. The letters in the last stanza G, A, C, and T refer to the nucleotides that comprise DNA. The fact that they are mixed up in the poem means something has gone wrong and a mutation has occurred.


Side note: A reader once asked me if I worked in the medical field. They noted that my poetry contained a lot of scientific language. I hadn't considered this before and thought it was an interesting observation. I do not work in the medical field, but I did major in psychology and find our biological nature to be very poetic. So that's perhaps where my use of scientific language in poetry comes from.


How to Write a Poem Title


If you're trying to write a good poem title and are having trouble, don't get discouraged. You just need to put some thought and care into it. I recommend looking at examples of poems from your favorite poets to gain inspiration if you are feeling stuck.


blank notebook and calligraphy pen

Remember the best titles for poems :

  • Lead us into the poem

  • Provide orientation (place, time)

  • Make us think twice

  • Provide context (what is this really about?)

  • Make us curious about the poem

Exercise: Brainstorm 3-5 titles for your poem. It's good to see where your creativity can lead you. Then choose the best one!


Try using different methods from the list above. Avoid simply repeating a word or phrase that occurs in your poem. Make the title a part of your poem just as much as the rest. And make sure it's going to grab the reader's attention so that they'll move beyond the title and continue reading.


Best of luck in writing your titles. If you want to chat more about writing poem titles, DM me on Instagram @elysehartpoetry.


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