Aramis with his constellation coat blinks at me from between the green fronds. I first met him near the Quai Saint-Bernard. That is to say, I met him in the pages of a poetry collection. The theme of the collection was animals. The poem stood out to me because of its title: “Black Jaguar with Quai Saint-Bernard”. I immediately thought of a painting, perhaps because I have studied art history and this composition of two seemingly unrelated objects reminded me of how paintings are often titled. My second thought was, what is a black jaguar doing in the centre of Paris?
This poem by Pascale Petit is still one my favourites. I never forget a first impression from a poem. I have come to the conclusion that there is simply no point in being quiet in poetry. Imagine someone going psst, while you’re walking on a busy road. Sorry or excuse me isn’t going to cut through the noise of the traffic. Our dear poems are always surrounded by others, so it would be good if we could make them shout a little.
Single word titles
Traditionally, poem titles have been quite short—two or three words—in the last case one of the words usually being “a” or “the”. Sometimes they are only one word: “Daddy”, “Howl”, or “Power”. One word titles aren’t very good at catching people’s eye when surrounded by a lot of other writing. Plath, Ginsberg and Lorde sent their poems to editors, and yes, there was competition too. But they weren’t contending with bumper to bumper poems like rush hour at the Paris bank near the Fauverie.
For poetry to happen in this century of internet and social media the title needs to be clickable. Yes, you have caught my meaning correctly. I am indeed suggesting that we come up with clickbait titles for our poems.
But there is a caveat: never over-promise. We must deliver what the title suggests. Here is where we start to see our poems through the eyes of readers. Try to describe the content of a poem or try to evoke it through a strong image. This shift in perception will give a different energy to the poem.
Descriptive and evocative titles
A descriptive title is a straightforward grouping of words that describes the content of the poem: “Immigrant Haibun” (Vuong), “The lady and the earthenware head” (Plath), “Things I didn’t know I loved” (Hikmet), or “An alternative history of stones” (Booker).
A descriptive title can also focus on a specific character or place: “Kubla Khan” (Coleridge), “Song to Gabriel Hirsch” (Olds), “To Ailsa Rock” (Keats), or “mati lampu, jakarta” (Barokka).
To enhance the clickability of these titles, try to think of unusual places or characters.
An evocative title, on the other hand, is descriptive of the atmosphere around the poem. It is a title that evokes, rather than directly describes the content: “The Colossus” (Plath),” Kissing a jaguar” (Petit), “Self-portrait as exit wounds” (Vuong), or “Flame, speech” (Paz). Titles such as these often go for the emotional jugular or make references to archetypes.
In reality, I find it hard to write purely descriptive titles, and they seem to be a little dull. Most titles will also bring some evocation into the mix.
And then there’s “Sitting room with circus lion”, a poem I wrote a few years ago. Is this title descriptive or evocative? Could it be both? In a way, this title is certainly descriptive. There is a lion in this poem, and at one point this lion does indeed find himself in the sitting room. But we are talking about a metaphorical lion when we get to the end of the poem. This is a different lion from the one at the start. The lion turns into a metaphor during the course of the poem. So the title is also evocative.
The title is also both descriptive and evocative in the sense that it is based on a way that many paintings are titled, by literally naming its subject. The inspiration for this title came from the poem by Pascale Petit which I mentioned before. The duality and quirkiness of the title is designed to get a reader’s attention, but it also suggests the shift from reality to metaphor that happens in this poem. Additionally, “Sitting room with circus lion” scores a few points by raising a question: “What is this lion doing in the sitting room”, or possibly a conflict: “WTF! There is a lion in my sitting room!”
I think we should pay more attention to the titles of our poems if we want them to stand out. Poet Rishi Dastidar probably won’t read any poems entitled “Rain”, so if this is your chosen title, that is at least one reader you won’t get.
Anderson, L. (2006) (ed) Creative Writing: a workbook with readings, Abingdon: Routledge / Milton Keynes: The Open University.
Dastidar, R. (2019) (ed) The Craft: A guide to making poetry happen in the 21st century, Rugby: Nine Arches Press.
This is the start of a new series of poems called After. These poems are inspired by, and go into conversation with, some of my favourite poems. I kept the poem titles of the originals (after checking copyright rules of course).
I’ve already posted a couple of these on Instagram, and I’ll post those here shortly as well.
Today’s poem responds to a poem by East Sussex-based poet Howard Young from his collection To Know The Way Back. You might have read him in several of the Free Verse Revolution anthologies. I first met Howard on Instagram, where he still posts on a regular basis.
The first time my poem “Please pay at the reception desk on your way out” was published was in the late autumn of 2020. It was accepted by Blanket Sea, a small indie publication dedicated to poetry about chronic illness. I received the honour of having my poem nominated for the Best of the Net Awards that year.
But the poem’s journey didn’t end there. I have been lucky enough to have this poem picked up a second time. This time it’s appearing in Kaleidoscope magazine, a publication run by United Disability Services (Ohio, US), that creatively focuses on the experiences of disability through literature and the fine arts.
And the old clock in the kitchen stands still now. Always quarter to seven. The warm knitted stitches in autumn days forming, one by one, a warm colourful scarf. For friends, for herself, knitted in is the quiet, lost time in this house. Quiet hours, gone and forgotten. Like tassels of her imagination, the same. Each carefully knitted stitch is a meditation, a prayer for peace, calm. In turbulent, stressful days. Opposite the cemetery, in a deserted village full of strangers now, lying underneath collapsed tombstones, overgrown with ivy and misty shrubs, the old dead family members in their graves. The quiet witnesses of a forgotten time, in which I went to school and played. Skipping on their arm. Four family members in one grave. “Now they can play cards”, my mother said at the time. At the very last funeral. Anais knits time and thinks about the days of old. I add a pebble to the grave in the cemetery and whisper softly “hearts are trump”. Perhaps the old can still hear me. And I wrap a warm knitted autumn scarf around me, while I turn the corner of life in a bitter wind. Braving time.