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.
‘How to come up with the right titles for your poems (with examples)’(2018) Writer’s Relief. Available at https://writersrelief.medium.com/how-to-come-up-with-the-right-title-for-your-poem-with-examples-88136f3aaa93.