When a title just won’t do, the title becomes “untitled.” This type of title is useful when the author doesn’t want to give any clues to the meaning or intent of the piece. As we’ll see later, titles can do that sometimes.
There’s an odd sub-set of the “untitled” title. For example “Untitled (Blue, yellow, and green on red)” by Mark Rothko. Here there is no title, but the name suggests an identifying characteristic of the work. That is an important reason why we name things, to tell them apart.
The “First Line” Title
With poems, the first line is a reliable identifying characteristic. For example, many poems by Emily Dickinson have the first line for their title. The author gave no title to those.
Title that Names the Subject
If the work is a focused study of a subject, perhaps the title should be the name of that subject. For example, “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams.
The Title that Names the Setting
There’s a difference between subject and setting, of course. Sometimes the title recalls the setting’s time or place. Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California” is one example. Another is “A Poem on the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy” by Nikki Giovanni.
The Form Title
The form of a work can be important, but may need emphasis at times. Edmund Spencer’s “Epithalamion,” for example, refers to an ancient Greek form. These were addressed to a couple on their way to their marital chamber.
The Emphasis Title
Sometimes the author wants to emphasize something that isn’t the subject, setting, or form of the work. Some titles draw attention to a specific idea within the work. Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” does name the thing depicted, which also happens to be the setting, but the focus is different here. This work is about the meaning of the decision to take or not take one road or another. This type of title can give a clue to the point the author is trying to make.
The “Ars Poetica” Title
What should you call it when the poetic turn is present within the title and not the work? (A “turn” in the poetic sense is an epiphany, an “aha,” or “eureka” moment.) I chose to call it an “ars poetica” title. In the case, the work, taken independently of its title, cannot be understood to have the same meaning as it would, taken along with its title. I’m still hunting for the best example of this type of title. If you know of any examples, please let me know.
The Allusion Title
This is not a definitive list, and surely there are other kinds of titles. To conclude, though, I’ll end with the “allusion” title. Here, the title refers to some other work or idea. This example isn’t a poem, but it is a good one: Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.”
Are there other types of titles? Let me know if you think of any.