Your Poem Title Helps Make Your Poem
The titles and first few lines of your poem represent the hand you extend in friendship toward your reader.
–Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual
A few weeks ago, someone dared me on Facebook to prove a person could find poetry in something as unpoetic as roadkill. Now, Tweetspeak Poetry may have begun on Twitter, but I owe my own poetry beginnings to challenges issued on Facebook that pride demanded I answer. So, I thought back to the day the raccoon stood firm against the onslaught of my little gold Malibu and found the poetry:
Come to think of it, there was
something strangely poetic
about the raccoon standing
in front of the Chevy
on two iambic feet, enjambed
across the glowing center line—
his eyes frozen blank
like a verse in headlights
pooled on the pavement
eager to receive his fresh offering.
A defiant thought flashed
across black-masked eyes
at the sound of the tires’ screech,
I’m not about to be a
The editor picked up the untitled poem on Facebook, and assigned a title to it: Roadkill. She read the poem and saw the raccoon’s defiant, hands-on-hips, I’m-not-taking-this-lying-down stand in the middle of the road, and felt the simplicity of Roadkill let the raccoon’s fierce bravado speak for itself.
As has been known to happen, the editor saw something in my poem I had not yet recognized, and meanwhile, I had asked that it be called Poetry Slam, a mischievous title more in line with other poetic wordplays in the poem, from enjambment to free verse to a long-stretch onomatopoeia (ten points if you figure that one out). Titling the poem Poetry Slam or Roadkill produces a change in tone significant enough that, though both are brilliant (I think), it could be argued you have two different poems. (We used “Poetry Slam.”)
Kooser says that a poem’s title is the “first exposure [a reader] has, and you want to make a good impression.” Titles tell a reader what a poem is about, and often times can be used to relay information that might be disruptive or clumsy (or boring) to include in the poem itself or even can be used as the poem’s first line. But he cautions the poet: “titles build expectations. Use a title like ‘A Snowy Night in Oshkosh’ and you’ll be expected to follow through with real snow and a real Oshkosh.”
Here are nine more poems with make-or-break titles. Consider what function the title fulfills: Does the poet use it to set the tone, as exposition or background, or to accomplish some other purpose? In the case of “And I Raised My Hand in Return, ” notice how poet Joseph Stroud ingeniously uses the title as the ending. Or in L.L. Barkat’s “Meet Me in a Minimalist Poem, ” the title is . . . well, I’ll let you decide what the title is.
moth’s wings, enormous, celadon, trembling.
— Melissa Stein
hung from the morning like a pearl pendant.
I love the drape of the red towel.”
St. Eve in Exile
Here amid a field of light
You say my name.
And I am not she
the girl You called Your own.
My mouth a cavern.
My chest an empty cave.
I am dry and dusty.
I am not wet or well.
Not the riverbed of love
You shaped me to be,
wide as a delta,
deep as any mine-
ful of diamonds,
not this common coal,
my birthstone, my rock
of heavy longing.
I am black with it
where You would have me white.
Ever a disappointment,
I grew breasts
where you shaped me straight and smooth,
spoke when you asked for a song,
agreed where you hoped
I would exceed,
climb out of the hole
You dug for me,
place where You planted
me in the dark
who never knew my name.
You cut me in two.
I take half the blame.
— Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
And I Raised My Hand in Return
the skin off with a pair of pliers which he waved to me in greeting.
Meet me in a minimalist poem, where we can wear
COMPOSED UPON WESTMINSTER BRIDGE, SEPTEMBER 3, 1802
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and the temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
— William Wordsworth
No one spoke
The host, the guest,
The white chrysanthemums
—Ryota (tr. Kenneth Rexroth)
To the Engraver of My Skin
I understand the pact is mortal,
agree to bear this permanence.
I contract with limitation; I say
no and no then yes to you, and sign
—here, on the dotted line—
for whatever comes, I do: our time,
our outline, the filling-in of our details
(it’s density that hurts, always,
not the original scheme); I’m here
for revision, discoloration her to fade
and last, ineradicable, blue. Write me!
This ink lasts longer than I do.
Photo by Jenny Downing, Creative Commons license via Flickr.
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland