I am not good at titles. I struggle with them. I ask people for help. I brainstorm. I struggle some more.

So in an effort to help me think clearly about them and maybe help you some, too, here are some thoughts on effective poem titles.

They make the reader ask a question that the poem will answer.

I like this one. I’ve heard this said in a couple of different poetry classes, and it makes sense to me. They intrigue a reader enough to make her read the poem. Here are some examples of that type of title, followed by the question they bring to mind for me:

  • Almost Perfect (who or what is almost perfect, and, more importantly, what’s not perfect about it?)
  • I Bought My Dog a Cell Phone (and then what happened?)
  • Whispers to the Wall (what wall, and who whispered what?)

They have a pleasing sound to them.

Poems with alliterative titles often appeal to me, just because I really like alliteration. Ditto with clever rhyming titles or ones that use internal rhyme. Here are a few I like:

  • Ocean Emotion
  • The River of Forgiveness
  • Until I Saw the Sea

They set a mood.

Some titles let you know what mood to expect, and that’s a good clue for the reader.

  • Going-Away Presents
  • Math Makes Me Feel Safe
  • Mini Ha Ha (Or, the Atomic Joke Is on You)

For me, the least intriguing titles are one-word label titles. I’ve written plenty of those:

  • Volcano
  • Refrigerator
  • Stapler
  • Airplane
  • Easter

Those don’t work well because they tell the reader nothing about the poem, and they don’t even make the reader curious about the poem, unless she happens to be curious about that subject in general. I usually try to go back to work on those kind of titles and come up with something more intriguing.

So, how do you come up with a decent title? Let’s look at a specific poem.

Dancin' Snowman I used the title “Dancin’ (Snow)Man.” That’s an ok title, but I could probably do better. How? I’ll use these characteristics I’ve listed.

What question does my poem answer, and/or how can I make my reader curious enough to read the poem?

  • Dancing ’Til I Melt
  • When Snowmen Hear Music
  • Snow Dancing Around the World

What fun language can I use in a title?

  • How Does a Snowman Dance in France?
  • Shimmy, Shake, Snowman
  • Swivel Hips Snowman

How can I reveal the mood?

  • Joyous Snow Jig
  • Dancing through Winter
  • Come On—Dance!

After I do a little brainstorming like this, one more thing I like to do is the alphabet brainstorm. I put the letters A through Z down the left side of a sheet of paper and give myself 5 minutes to fill in every line with a title. They can stink (and many will), but often, tucked among the really bad ones, will be the seed of a good title. Here we go:

Around the World in Winter
Belly Dancing, a Whole New Way
Calypso, Anyone?
Dancing Snowman
Everybody Dance
Follow Me!
Gotta Dance
Hula Man
Ice Dancing Snowman
Joy of Dance
Kick Higher
Leading (Snow)Man
Macarena Madness
Next up: the macarena
Pick Up Your Feet (if you have them)
Quick, Dance with Me
Rhythm of Winter
Step by Step Around the World
Two-Steppin? Snowman
What’s Your Dance?
You Know You Want to Dance

OK, my 5 minutes are up, and that’s how far I got.

So far, out of my 10 minutes of working on a title for this song, I’ve come up with several that I think are better than Dancin’ (Snow)Man. My favorite so far is

How Does a Snowman Dance in France?

That does several things. It makes the reader ask a question. If I read this title, I’d want to find out how a snowman dances in France (or anywhere, for that matter). It uses fun language with internal rhyme (dance and France). And it sets the mood. Because of the silliness of the question and the rhythm of the title, the reader can sense that this is going to be a humorous poem that probably rhymes. He might not actually think, “OK, this is going to be a funny, rhyming poem.” But his mind will make those connections, and that will help him decide whether or not to read the poem. And if he does read it, it will match his expectations. It’s a humorous, rhyming poem. If I put this title, which I like, on a serious, meditative, free verse poem about a quiet snowfall in France, it might still work. But more likely, it won’t be what the reader is expecting, and they’ll feel it misses the mark.

Now, look at one of your poems and see if you can come up with a better, more intriguing title for it!

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