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The title to the poem

In which learners reflect on the history of titles and their function.

Why not begin this article on poem titles by looking at the title we’ve used for this step? The Title to the Poem. In the first place, it seems to have a clear function. It says: this step is about poem titles. However, on closer inspection we can see that the phrasing is not quite right. It says ‘The Title to the Poem’ rather than of. So, while clearly indicating that this is a step about titles, the title also raises questions regarding the relationship between title and poem.

The step title actually comes from the book The Title to the Poem (1996) by Anne Ferry.[1] In her detailed account of the history of poem titles, perhaps one of the most useful insights is her reminder that poems historically did not always have titles. In fact, there are several famous poets (such as Emily Dickenson, for instance) who shun the use of titles altogether. However, for many poets these days, the decision on whether to use a title or not is not even asked. It is just assumed that it is something you do.

Your first decision then is whether or not to title your poem. To make an informed decision about that, you need to know what the title can offer you and your poem. Here are a few ideas:

• A title can work very hard, harder than you think. It can do much of the work for the poem so the poem doesn’t have to. This includes references to time, place, or even who is speaking. If the title does this, then the poem can get on with doing something else. ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’ by James Wright [2] for instance provides highly specific geographical information as well as information on what the speaker is doing. This means the poem is free to function as a reflection on the speaker’s surroundings and their state of mind.

• Titles do not have to be precise though. They can also be a lot less direct. These are often the titles that draw you in the most powerfully. You might think of Warsan Shire’s title ‘Things We Lost in the Summer’ [3] for instance, which raises the question of what these ‘things’ are, and sends the reader to the poem for an answer; or the titles of Selima Hill’s poems such as ‘Portrait of my Lover as a Horse’ [4] which instead raise the question of what that might look like!

• Titles can also engage with tradition. They might do this by indicating the form of the poem in the title. In this way poems such as the nineteenth century ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by John Keats (1795-1821) [5] and Sharon Olds’s 21st-century ‘Spoon Ode’ (1942-) [6] are in conversation about the possibilities and limitations of a particular poetic form. Poems can also do this by sharing the same title, so that one becomes a response to the other: e.g. John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ [7] written in the seventeenth century and Adrienne Rich’s poem of the same name written in the twentieth century.

How do you choose your title though?

You may simply wish to use the first line of the poem, or a key word. Try to think of other options as well: can you think of a poem that creates contrast? Is there a title that raises questions, making the reader want to look to the poem for answers?

Come up with three possible titles for your poem and paste them below. If responding to others, let them know which title of the three you liked the most and why.


[1]Ferry, A. The title to the poem. California: Stanford University; 1996.

[2] Poetry Foundation. (2018). Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota by James Wright. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].

[3] Poetry Foundation. (2018). Our Men Do Not Belong to Us by The Editors. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018]. Warsan Shire

[4] (2018). Selima Hill | [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].

[5] Poetry Foundation. (2018). Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].

[6] Poetry Foundation. (2018). Spoon Ode by Sharon Olds. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].

[7] Poetry Foundation. (2018). A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by John Donne. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].

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