For many poets, a title is a necessary evil, a part of the work that the writer would rather not bother with. After all, the substance of the poem is in the body of the poem, right? What’s to be gained by adding some frilly header that repeats what’s already in the poem, or that only relates obliquely to the rest of the text?
But titles can play an important role in bringing the reader into the poem. I enjoy the titles that the poet Robert (“Bob”) Hershon gives his poems, so I interviewed Bob recently about his ideas on titles.
Q. Do you like to title your poems?
Bob Hershon: I do. One thing I like about a title is that it can do the work of several lines in the poem that you can then omit. A good title eliminates the need for that “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” type of filler.
Q. What’s your advice for writing a good poem title?
BH: Something that speaks to the poem without summing it up. I’m partial to “No poetry but in things,” to paraphrase William Carlos Williams. Your title should stand out, it shouldn’t sound like everybody else’s titles.
Q. What do you think about poems that don’t have titles?
BH: When I see a poem that’s just called “Untitled,” it seems like an opportunity lost. Many poets, including writers I’ve published and whose work I like, don’t use any title at all. In that case, it’s hard to identify the poem. For all practical purposes, the first line then becomes the title.
Q. What do you think of simple titles or one-word titles?
BH: I think a title should be fun. I know that many poets I admire and like personally take a different approach and use simple, generic-sounding titles. They’re entitled to their titles.
Q. Are there kinds of titles you just plain don’t like?
BH: There’s something terribly ostentatious to me about calling a poem just “Poem.” I also don’t particularly like a title with a “This and That” structure, such as “Truisms and Inconsistencies.” That particular construction annoys me, for some reason.
Q. What’s a recent title you’ve written for one of your poems, and how did you arrive at it?
BH: Recently I wrote a poem about the brain’s inability to forget old song lyrics. Initially I had a kind of flat title for it. This morning I woke up with a different title for it in my head, “An Old Cowboy Went Riding Out One Dark and Windy Day.” Some people might recognize that as a line from the old pop song “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” But even if you don’t recognize it, the title works on its own in a different way. Adding that title allowed me to cut a line or two from the middle and tighten the poem up.
Robert Hershon’s most recent book of poems is End of the Business Day. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He was executive director of The Print Center for 35 years and has been coeditor of Hanging Loose Press since its founding in 1966. Among his awards are two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Writing Great Titles for Your Poems, Part 2
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka, The Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry