What makes a poem's title unusual?

Expert Answers
favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A poem's title is unusual (among titles of other types of works: novels, works of nonfiction, dramas) in that it often gives us a great deal of information that is necessary to understanding the poem or information that very much enriches the poem's meaning. Poems are so concise, so condensed, that even the title has to have an impact and has to convey something of importance.

For example, consider the poem "The Adversary" by Phyllis McGinley:

A mother’s hardest to forgive.
Life is the fruit she longs to hand you,
Ripe on a plate. And while you live,
Relentlessly she understands you.

An adversary is an enemy or opponent, and this is not typically how we think of a mother, especially a kind mother who just wants to help and understand us.  However, the verbal irony of calling such a loving mother an "adversary" helps us to understand the poem's purpose: to point out how we often perceive our mothers' good intentions as irritating or even oppositional.  

Or, consider the poem "Suicide's Note" by Langston Hughes:

The calm,
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.

In this poem, without the title, we would likely not interpret the action as that of a person taking h/er own life. The narrator speaks of the river as one might a lover, personifying the water as being capable of requesting an act of physical intimacy. However, because of the title, we come to a completely different understanding of the poem's meaning. The speaker, describing suicide in such a tranquil and loving way, allows us to consider what might have prompted h/er to take h/er life: maybe it was loneliness, despair, or anxiety. They crave the "calm[ness]" and "cool[ness]" and connection to something. Without the title, however, we perceive little or none of this depth.

Langston Hughes's poems "Harlem" and "Cross" are equally as impacted by their titles. Titles of poems have a much bigger job than titles of prose works. A novelist can use thousands of words to make h/er point, but a poet has many fewer. Each one must count.