First impressions are essential — especially when it comes to poetry.
As is the case with each stanza, poem titles should be pithy and pregnant with meaning.
It’s a tall order, and crafting a good title is tough.
Some argue it’s the most challenging part of penning a poem.
So today, we’re demystifying the magic behind how to title poems.
We’ll begin with a few Dos and Don’ts, hop to a how-to list, then close with a handful of poem title ideas and examples.
- What Should Good Poem Titles Do and Not Do?
- How to Write Poetry Titles in 9 Steps
- 7 of the Best Poem Titles
- 1. “Epic of Gilgamesh” by Unknown Ancient Sumerians
- 2. “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
- 3. “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes
- 4. “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- 5. “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne
- 6. “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Sara Teasdale
- 7. “A Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde
- Final Thought
What Should Good Poem Titles Do and Not Do?
Good creative poetry titles embody certain qualities. With that in mind, let’s break down what you should and shouldn’t do.
Good Poem Titles
Good poem titles may seem simple, but looks are often deceiving. Some poets report spending multiple days — if not weeks — mulling over ideas for a given work.
What do they consider? Let’s look at the three main pillars of a captivating poem title.
Poems are infused with intrigue, and so should their titles. Make it something that sparks interest. But don’t go overboard. You don’t want to be misleading or ostentatious.
Meaning gives poems their weight — their gravitas. That passion should be apparent from the beginning. Titles should steep the work with further significance. Remember, though, that “meaningful” isn’t synonymous with “maudlin.” Don’t be overwrought.
The title is a poem’s “shingle” — the sign that explains what’s inside. Therefore, it should mirror the tone of the piece unless, of course, satire is the goal.
Bad Poem Titles
We’ve all run across bad poem titles. Admittedly, we’ve also written our fair share. It’s a poet’s rite of passage. But as you mature as a writer, the goal is to grow and improve. To that end, what should you avoid regarding poem titles?
Remember when you thought the height of powerful poetry was a repeated chorus line? Please don’t read us wrong. The technique can be used for a moving effect under an experienced and nuanced pen.
But clunky attempts stand out for the wrong reasons — and are frequently made worse by appointing it the rank of title. It’s overkill; avoid it.
Some may argue that poetry, in and of itself, is a pretentious endeavor. We’d disagree but still caution poets against leaning into their grandiloquent demons. Finding the perfect word is a linguistic virtue; trying to sound highfalutin is a literary sin.
Avoid bland and common poem titles. Sure, if you must go with “Untitled,” as is a poetic tradition, have at it. But steer clear of generic titles or ones that other people have used.
How to Write Poetry Titles in 9 Steps
Consider the following steps, tips, and questions when workshopping poem titles.
1. Do You Need a Title?
Not every poem needs a title. In fact, going without is somewhat of a poetic tradition. However, if publication is the goal, come up with something. Titled works are more likely to be included in compilations than untitled ones.
2. Make it Evocative
Craft something that grabs the reader — something evocative. The aim is to conjure memorable imagery in the mind’s eye. Your words should invoke a time, place, and mood.
Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” is frequently cited as a poem title that expertly paints a picture.
3. Use Archetypes and Stereotypes
In most areas of life, it’s good to look past archetypes and stereotypes. But when it comes to poem titles, leaning into them can be the answer.
Think of archetypes and stereotypes as semantic shortcuts. They allow you to convey emotion with very few words.
Consider Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells,” “The Sleeper,” and “The Raven.” All immediately bring to mind a specific mood and imagery.
4. Get Emotional
One of the magical things about poetry is that it connects people across time and place. As such, leveraging emotionality when conveying a universal joy or fear is part of the art.
Emily Dickinson’s “It Was Not Death, for I Stood Up” and John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy” are both declarative, stirring poem titles that speak to collective worries.
5. Use Length as an Indicator
Writers use sentence length to pace their work, and it’s also an important consideration when crafting a poem title.
Will a punchy, one-word moniker work best? Or would something more meandering convey the voice and vibe of the work?
Remember that shorter titles need powerful words, and longer ones work best with a surprising twist, like Billy Collins’s “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House.”
6. Infuse it With Conflict
Don’t overlook the power of conflict when creating poem titles. Many people use Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” as a perfect example of hinting at conflict positively and concisely, rendering it an ideal poem title.
7. Try a Name or Place
T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” immediately come to mind as examples of name titles.
James Lynne Alexander’s “A Day at the Falls of Niagara” and John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” illustrate strong examples linked to specific places.
8. Will Comedy Work?
No rule insists that poems must be serious or pedantic. So if your work twinkles with joviality and comic undertones, reflect that energy in the title.
Consider using a pun, as the unknown author did for “Do You Carrot All for Me?” A pun-analogy poem in which the second line reads: My heart beets for you.
Nonsensical phrases and titles can also work, like Spike Milligan’s “On the Ning Nang Nong” and Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”
9. Make Sure It’s Not Taken
Legally speaking, copyright law prohibits poets from copyrighting titles. However, it’s a terrible form to plagiarize something from the past or present. Sure, there are millions of poems appropriately titled “Mom” or “Family.”
But don’t make up something uncomfortably close to another poet’s title. Nobody unironically wants “The Love Song of G. Alfred Prufrock.”
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7 of the Best Poem Titles
One of the best ways to learn how to write a title of a poem is to study great work. In that spirit, let’s examine seven fantastic poem titles and what makes them work.
1. “Epic of Gilgamesh” by Unknown Ancient Sumerians
The “Epic of Gilgamesh” is the first long poem known to modern man. Archeologists believe it was written sometime between 2100 and 1200 BC and tells stories of Mesopotamia’s ancient rulers.
It made our list of the best poem titles because a) it’s historical significance and b) it packs a lot of information into a pint-sized title. The word “epic” does a lot of heavy lifting and lets readers know they are in for a long tale of magnanimous proportions.
Poem Trivia: Academics regard the “Epic of Gilgamesh” as the first heroic saga.
2. “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is one of the most popular but misunderstood English-language poems of all time.
Most folks think it’s a laudatory ode to following one’s own path. In reality, it’s a clever exploration of how both options represent loss and gain and are essentially the same.
The title is excellent because it tugs on universal human heartstrings. Everyone entertains “what if” once in a while, and Frost’s construction teases a revelation that urges readers to continue.
Poem Trivia: The spark for the poem came from a real-life walk when Frost and a friend couldn’t decide which path to take upon arriving at a fork.
3. “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes
People of a certain age best know Alfred Noyes’s iconic poem “The Highwayman” thanks to Anne Shirley’s (of Green Gables) recitation. In truth, Noyes originally published the narrative ballad in 1906, and it’s widely considered “the best ballad poem in existence for oral delivery.”
What makes the title great is that it’s dripping with romantic imagery of the time, when “highwaymen” were mysterious figures around which many fictions were slung, and fantasies were woven.
Poem Trivia: The BBC listed it as Great Britain’s 15th most-beloved poem.
4. “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is often regarded as one of the most profound English poems ever written. A romantic treatise on the impermanence of life, it describes how even the brightest legacies are destined to decay under the ravages of time.
Shelley went with a one-word name title, which works brilliantly with the theme, as Ozymandias was once a powerful pharaoh who was revered worldwide. But at the time of publication, the fallen ruler was a lost footnote in the bowels of a forgotten archive. Ozymandias’s pre- and post-mortem life embodied Shelley’s thesis, making it a great title and model metaphor.
Poem Trivia: “Ozymandias” was written as part of a friendly competition between Shelley and Horace Smith.
5. “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne
Also known as “Sonnet X” or “Holy Sonnet 10,” John Donne’s famous 14-line missive “Death Be Not Proud” urges readers to examine their opinion of death as a fallible entity. A metaphysical thinker, Donne opted to personify “Death” and dress it down for its pride.
“Death Be Not Proud” is a great title because it mixes several techniques. It’s evocative, infused with conflict, emotional, and even a tad humorous in a slightly satirical way.
Poem Trivia: Though Donne was a cleric and stoic literary talent, he was always without money due to womanizing and vice fulfillment. (He also had 12 kids!)
6. “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Sara Teasdale
Published in the immediate wake of the 1918 pandemic and WWI Ludendorff offensive, Sara Teasdale’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” reminds readers of Nature’s ultimate superiority and chastises the waging of war for all its unnecessary attendant waste.
It’s a brilliant title. For starters, the phrase “soft rains” invokes feelings of natural comfort, the anchoring theme of Teasdale’s work. Moreover, the anticipatory “there will come” imbues the title with an air of hope, rendering it evocative and emotional.
Poem Trivia: Teasdale, and this work specifically, was heavily influenced by the work and findings of Charles Darwin.
7. “A Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde
Womanist, LGBTQ+ activist, and committed academic Audre Lorde was revered for her linguistic mastery of expression. In “A Litany for Survival,” Lorde succinctly explains the quotidian realities of existing in marginalized bodies.
Using the word “litany” instead of “prayer” is perfection…poeticized. Though synonyms, litany connotes repetitiveness, which speaks to the frustrating and maddening inescapability of one’s genetics clashing with the status quo.
Poem Trivia: Lorde was raised in a strict family and struggled to communicate as a child. Finding poetry was revolutionary for her, as she once explained that she naturally “thinks in poetry.”
Best of luck trying to craft the perfect title for your latest poem. Try not to stress out about it. Perfect options have a way of popping up when you’re relaxed and not toiling over the issue.