Saturday, August 22, 2020

Writing Great Titles for Your Poems, Part 2: The Title as an Invitation to the Reader

I recently picked up a book by Chana Bloch, a poet who is particularly good at writing titles for her poems. Chana was the one who suggested the title of my book The Number Before Infinity. For one of her own poetry collections, she came up with one of the best titles I know, The Past Keeps Changing, almost a Zen koan.

Chana Bloch (1940–2017)
Chana Bloch,1940–2017. (photo by Margaretta K. Mitchell)

Just looking randomly over the table of contents of Chana Bloch’s collection Blood Honey, I spot a number of poem titles that grab my attention. The first one that arrests me is “The Messiah of Harvard Square.” In this title, she mixes the mundane with the spiritual in a way that intrigues me. Who is this Messiah of Harvard Square? I want to know.


Chana also has a poem in this book called “The Discipline of Marriage.” Again, a bit of a paradox. We don’t often think of marriage as being a discipline, but that’s what’s intriguing about the title. How is marriage a discipline, and what can I learn about relationships from this viewpoint?


Another title I like in this collection is “Wild Honey.” Anytime you have the word wild in a title, it piques my interest, and honey is something sweet and delicious, so the combination is irresistible. There is also a one-word title that makes me want to read on, “Blue.” Since we all feel blue from time to time, that title welcomes us into the poem. In a similar vein, there’s a poem in this collection called “The Naked Future.” Now that, I really want to know more about.


In short, Chana Bloch’s titles often beckon the reader to learn more, to unravel a paradox, or to explore a complex situation—all good ways of buttonholing readers and getting them to look deeper.


I picked up another poetry collection to see what titles made me want to read the poems, Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968–1998 by Linda Pastan

Linda Pastan (photo by Margaretta K. Mitchell)

Linda’s titles often make me eager to find out what comes next, either because they suggest interesting puzzles or the revelation of secrets, or they present a conundrum. Here are a few I really like:


“The Obligation to Be Happy”

“RSVP Regrets Only”

“There Is a Figure in Every Landscape”

“You Are Odysseus”

“It Is Raining on the House of Anne Frank”

“25th High School Reunion”

“Who Is It Accuses Us?”

“Routine Mammogram”

“The Myth of Perfectability”

“The Apple Shrine”


Do you see what I mean? Each of these titles poses a question of a sort. The reader is engaged, wanting to find something out. What happened at her 25th high school reunion? Was she pleased, disappointed, depressed, embarrassed, refreshed, seduced? Was the mammogram really routine? What the heck is the myth of perfectability?

Chana Bloch and Linda Pastan demonstrate that a poem title can do so much for a poem. A poem title is almost like a trailer for a movie. It should whet your appetite, and get you to want more.

Writing Great Titles for Your Poems, Part 1

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

Other posts on writing topics:

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: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry