Titling Short Stories and Poems
Titling short stories and poems is an art. I was thinking about this when American Life in Poetry sent this lovely Barbara Crooker poem to my inbox. It’s full of beautiful imagery, moving metaphors, and effective line breaks. But what caught my attention and what I want to comment on is the title…
And Now It’s September,
and the garden diminishes: cucumber leaves
and rusty, zucchini felled by borers, tomatoes sparse
on the vines. But out in the perennial beds, there’s one last
blast of color: ignitions of goldenrod, flamboyant
asters, spiraling mums, all those flashy spikes waving
in the wind, conducting summer’s final notes.
The ornamental grasses have gone to seed, haloed
in the last light. Nights grow chilly, but the days
are still warm; I wear the sun like a shawl on my neck
and arms. Hundreds of blackbirds ribbon in, settle
in the trees, so many black leaves, then, just as suddenly,
they’re gone. This is autumn’s great Departure Gate,
and everyone, boarding passes in hand, waits
patiently in a long, long line.
Whether or not it really happened, I’m imagining that this poem got a title upgrade. I can see Crooker thinking of this poem as a “September” poem, and using that as a placeholder title. Some poets would stop there. After all, if Charles Simic can title his poems “Leaves” and “The Chair”, what’s wrong with “September”? Fair enough. But “September” is also a label you might stick on your monthly expense report, so, you know.
What if Crooker lingered for a moment to consider the valuable real estate of the title? What if she thought of a simple move that would take the title from noun to sentence. Might that be an upgrade? “It’s September”. Hm. And maybe she kept going and added an adverb for emphasis and immediacy—”Now It’s September”. And now we’re cooking. But not finished. Is that the best she can do?
With the addition of a conjunction and a comma, she’s transformed the title into not just a label that indicates season and nothing more, she’s given the reader the beginnings of an experience.
And Now It’s September,
Reader, that’s voice you’re hearing. Someone is speaking. Someone who’s been speaking, and we are pulled in mid-thought, mid-conversation. That’s a title that not only contains information, it contains movement.
I want to give you a few ideas for titling short stories and poems. I’m thinking mostly of flash-length works and poems, but these ideas will also work for longer short stories.
I’m backtracking here. Yes, the imagined title “September” seems a little bit dull to me, but maybe not if it’s sitting atop a knock-out poem or flash piece. Often a simple title paired with a dynamic work feels like some sort of balancing move. But make sure that that is an actual goal, otherwise, your title is not accomplishing all that it could.
The title is a terrific spot for contextual details that might be boring if you had to put them in the work itself. Reg Saner’s short personal essay “Late July, 4:40 A.M.” orients us specifically in time without that information needing to take up precious space in a short piece.
Check out James Wright’s famous poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” for an example of an efficient poem that was saved from the need to force contextual information into the work itself.
2-Use a Line From the Piece
Your short work may contain a line or phrase that represents the impulse or theme you’re working with. Additionally, this strategy can enrich the reference when the reader gets to it in the piece.
Diane Williams chose a line of dialogue from a conversation two characters were having in her flash story “Oh, Darling, I’m in the Garden”. The title not only highlights the woman in the garden, but it also sets a tone for the conversation that begins the piece.
In a work of brief nonfiction, Maxine Kumin takes her title, “Enough Jam for a Lifetime”, from a phrase in the second-to-last sentence of the essay. When we get to it, there’s a feeling we were waiting for it.
A word of caution when titling short stories and poems: Don’t necessarily use your best line if using it as a title will diminish the experience for the reader when they get to it. And don’t give away information that might work better being withheld until the right moment. If you’ve got a killer last line, save it for the end.
3-Go with Symbol or Metaphor
See if there’s an image in your piece that could represent more than one aspect of your theme. I once wrote a short story that was, in part, about a troubled marriage. The final image was of a car driving down the highway with “Just Married” painted on the back window. I used those two words for the title, which also conveyed the fact that the couple was “just” married, as in “merely” married, but lacking a deep relationship.
The list of famous works with metaphorical titles is endless: Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck”, Raymond Carver’s short story “Popular Mechanics”,…
In workshop, we always give props to writers whose titles are doing more than one thing—conveying information and symbolism, building suspense and setting a tone. Finding the right metaphor for your title will almost always do double duty for your piece.
Whatever you do, do title the thing. And “Untitled” doesn’t count. If you’re feeling noncommittal, then the work is unfinished and you must find a path to commitment. If you’re thinking your untitled work is unconventional or avant-garde (I heard a poet once call these headless dolls), my money is on an editor moving on to the next submission.
Readers are drawn to titles that are fresh and enticing. U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser says that titles “…represent the hand you extend in friendship toward your reader.” So don’t let your title be an afterthought. Ask yourself if your piece would be diminished without its title. If not, then work on it until your answer is an emphatic “yes.”