How A Poem's Title Can Unlock Its Meaning

September 25, 2015

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:


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...


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.


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:


He can make sculptures

and fabulous machines


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

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