How A Poem's Title Can Unlock Its Meaning

September 25, 2015 Jim R

Useful for making an accurate first reading of a poem, helpful for the unseen poetry element of AQA GCSE in English Literature.

Poems are daunting. Titles aren't.

Right. First. Poems are usually made up of two things: a title and stanzas. Stanzas are the chunks poets divide their poems into, if there are no chunks then it's a one stanza poem! GREAT. EASY. Poets, (real people just like you or me) usually title their poems AFTER the stanzas have been written. It's like making a model aeroplane first, and then calling it DAVE. What does the name DAVE tell you about the plane? Is it likely to be a Spitfire, a Tornado Jet? Nah, chances are it's more likely something cumbersome, something slower. Like a B52.

The same goes for poetry. If a poet, after the long slog of working out her poem, doesn't come up with a title that gives you, in a snappy way, clues about her poem, then she's being deliberately mysterious. What does that mean? It means you know that the poet is trying to be mysterious! Great! That means you've analysed something really well! PAT ON BACK TIME.


BUT most of the time there's a lot of nectar to be juiced out of the title. For instance, here's a title from a poem by Vicki Feaver published in Section B of a past paper:


SLOW READER


Your first job is to put a thought bubble around each word and freestyle ideas. A list of associated words will do. Ignore words like 'the' or 'a', go for adjectives, nouns and verbs. I can't draw a bubble 'cause I'm typing but here's what I can do...

SLOW

Okay, I've got - calm, careful, deliberate, learner, novice, snail, sloth.

You see? And, don't feel if you didn't understand any of my words you can't do it. English is a BIG party where everyone's welcome. If you like you can take any simpler words you've come up with and look them up in a thesaurus, then, whoa, you'll find SYNONYMS (words that are related to each other like in a family). This will help you to improve your vocabulary.

READER

Okay, I've got - study, books, palm-reader, detector, psychic, sensory, robot.

Once you've done this for all title words, read the poem once but scan it, don't overthink it. Now ask yourself:

'Do the words I came up with for the title words connect to the overall 'feel' of the poem?'

Now take the first and last lines of  Vicki Feaver's poem SLOW READER, they are:

FIRST LINE

He can make sculptures

and fabulous machines

LAST LINE

he'll never run

quite free again.


Next, to show you, I'm going to connect up the words I found from freestyling around 'SLOW' with what I think about the 'feel' of the first two lines:

For me, the first line connects with the word careful because to make decent sculptures you need to think carefully about it - it can't be a rushed process. This makes me also think deliberate is a good word to have in my backpack. Whoever 'he' is, I think he must be a special person in a quieter, calmer way - as the studied tone of these two lines give me an impression he might be the focus of the poem, and is an inventive person.

So, you see, this is a way to begin having INDEPENDENT ideas about the poem. And your INTERPRETATION is what matters to the examiners.

You try it with the last line and see how you get on. You can apply this to any poem - it's a great way to start tucking in.


Good luck!


Jim R















background

Have you thought about online lessons?

Online tuition gives you access to brilliant tutors across the country
Connect one-to-one with a tutor or share your lesson with a group for 50% of the tutor's hourly rate! Find a Tutor for One-to-One Find an Online Study Group

Want to know more?

Visit Jim's profile to find out more and send a message.

Visit Jim's Profile

Resources others found helpful

11+ exam practice paper

English, Maths and Verbal Reasoning 11+ exam practice paper

learn more

BMAT

Information about the BMAT including scoring, timing and question type

learn more

Specific Learning Disorder

This section explains what specific learning disorders are and describes some of their key features

learn more

Verb Tense Table

A comprehensive review of Spanish tenses

learn more

Free resources, revision notes and past papers for students

Find revision guides, exam papers and sample essays amongst hundreds of free resources available to students.

Find resources any subjects

Maths resources | Science resources | Music resources | Spanish resources | English resources | French resources