Skip to content

Thinking about poem and book titles

How easily do poem titles come to you? How about book/pamphlet titles?

I’ve always found titles quite hard to come up with. I’ve been through all kind of exercises to try to break the back of it. I look at other people’s titles to see which ones jump out at me (or not). And I remember Carol-Ann Duffy once reading the title of a poem and exclaiming ‘Now that’s a title that gives me confidence in the poet!’

I know there have been various trends over the years: the Very Long Intriguing And/or Witty Title is still popular, (especially when it comes to competition entries) although I wonder if it’s waning. I’ve done a few of those myself but can’t help wondering if the title can end up being more interesting than the poem.

The good old basic single-word title is surely a classic. But the first line had better be AMAZING if the title is ‘Daisies’ or ‘Evening’ or whatever.

How about the first-line-as-title? I confess I quite like this arrangement and have used it a fair bit – in the sense of the title being the actual first line, so that the poem runs on from the title (rather than repeating the first line, although this is also possible of course).  But it doesn’t suit every poem.

And what about collection titles? I know we’re commonly advised to use the title of one of the poems, or use a phrase or a line from one of the poems. Sometimes Very Long Intriguing And/or Witty Titles are more memorable. When it’s come to pamphlets, I’ve always gone with the title of one of the poems, with the exception of ‘Why?’ which I wanted to call ‘Was it the Diet Coke?’ but that didn’t work out, for fear of a certain mega-company based in Atlanta coming down on us like a pantechnicon of canned drinks.

But now I’m working on a full collection, I’m coming up against two issues. The first is not having a collection title. None of the individual poem titles feel substantial enough to carry the whole book. And yet without at least a decent working title, it’s hard to refer to it and even think of it as an (almost) fully-fledged collection.

My second issue is that I have the urge to change quite a few of the poem titles, mostly because I think that will help them to ‘speak’ to each other in the context of the book. I suppose that illustrates how unwedded I am to my first choices of titles. Perhaps I will change them temporarily, to help with the ordering and also to help me have an idea of the book’s themes firmly in my mind (which will help with selling it/talking about it). And maybe the new titles will stick, maybe not.

Either way, it all feels a little seat-of-pants. I’ll let you know how I get on. And as ever, I’d love to hear how you’ve approached this, if you’ve had similar dilemmas.

PS one of my New Year’s Resolutions was to have a break from Twitter. After nearly 15 years, I find it changed beyond recognition. I haven’t cancelled my account yet, but I’m not active there at the moment.

Published inBlogBooksPoemsWriting

15 Comments

  1. Think about the contents page in a poetry anthology, would the title you’re thinking of for your poem be enticing enough to tempt a reader to read yours as one of the first? When editing ‘Welcome to Leicester’, so many submitted poems were simply called ‘Leicester’ which would have made for a tricky contents list, so we had discussions about alternatives.

    My collection “Ghosts in the Desert” doesn’t share a title with one of the poems. Instead it seemed to encapsulate the themes in the collection. Initially the publishers asked me to suggest alternatives which were poem titles so I came up with a shortlist of three over a weekend but by the time I got back to the publishers with my list, they decided that the title was a good fit and stuck with it.

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Hi Emma, that’s really interesting to hear, including the bit about the publisher asking for alternatives and then deciding your idea was the best. I think if I can find a title that encapsulates the themes then that would be grand. I’ll work on it. Thanks!

      • Emma Emma

        It’s worth adding that some reviewers will read a collection under review through the lens of the title poem (if there is one), so it’s better to choose one that has a focus on your themes/intentions rather than a ‘best’ poem.

        • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

          Thanks Emma, good advice.

  2. Moira Garland Moira Garland

    Reflects my concerns when I have submitted for pamphlet comps – yet to be accepted. I guess there’s no ‘right’ answer as so much depends on the judge/editor’s response.

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Hi Moira. Yes, I guess everyone has their own preferences as to what is appropriate/attention-grabbing (particularly in a competition, although even once published the book is for ever in competition with others for readers). Thank you for commenting 🙂

  3. grainnemhaol grainnemhaol

    Sometimes a phrase or line from a poem in the collection works too.

    Great progress with the first full collection! You are admirably busy and productive. Maybe I mean enviably – the pandemic has left my head on hold from habit. Best of luck with it all. XX

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Thanks Grainne, yes I’m trying to keep an eye out for phrases within a poem that might work. I quite like that when I read a collection, wondering where the title comes into it and then finding it inside a poem, like an easter egg! Busy and productive – well yes. It’s a sad time here, I’ve had a bereavement, but I think it has kicked me up the bum a bit, made me want to press on and not spend my life procrastinating. I hope you get your writing mojo on again soon. X

      • grainnemhaol grainnemhaol

        Very sorry to hear you have had a bereavement, Robin. Death does tend to throw everything into a new perspective. Its great that you can use this change rather than being floored by it.

  4. Sometimes, for a poem, it’s there in a flash, other times not, sometimes never and I resort to using the first line as a title . . .
    I’ve been hugging the title of my first collection to myself for years. Must get on and put it together and approach someone – but whom, that’s my question? How to choose a publisher? There seems a vast choice. I am at this point quite baffled.

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Hi Sally, yes I agree! The ‘inspired title’ has come to me occasionally in the past. If you’ve got a title AND a collection then you should definitely start submitting it. The choice actually isn’t vast, as most publishers don’t consider unsolicited collections. But there are some that have windows when you can submit manuscripts – Nine Arches, Arc, Burning Eye, Live Canon & Seren come to mind, even Bloodaxe and Carcanet . Give it a try and good luck 🙂

  5. Congraulations on a collection sure to be winner whatever the title.
    I was was advised to use title of one of the poems But later suggested by a publisher not enough poems related to title.
    You may have read it, but article ‘Working titles Magma 51 is good and easy to google.Goid luck

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Hello Ann, and many thanks for your kind words. That’s my problem I think, if I pick what feels like a good poem title to use as the collection title, I’m not sure enough of the other poems are going to relate to it. Thanks for the tip re the article, I haven’t read it, but will seek it out. Xx

  6. Hilaire Hilaire

    Echoing what a couple of other people have said – perhaps try to find a title for the collection that reflects the main theme, or the thread that holds the collection together. I’ve also used a line from one of the poems as a title when I’ve been sending out a pamphlet, though no success as yet! You will get there I’m sure! xx

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Thanks Hilaire, yes, I’m thinking through various possibilities. It’ll come together somehow!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Robin Houghton 2021
%d bloggers like this: