The One About the Really Good Title

Being part of the Glamorgan MPhil network means that I get sent all sorts of odd little snippets of news from the world of publishing. One recent one is from the Hodder blog, about the importance of using a good title for helping book sales.

Me and titles … Sheenagh Pugh used to say that I oscillated between great and awful. So ”Mrs Winslow’s Deformed Left Ankle” got thumbs up, but my suggestion of A Dark Feathered Heart for the collection received the sort of reception usually reserved for lunatics, habitual drunkards, and people who try to sell religion door-to-door. (Note the cunning recycling of that title for this website! Haha!!! Victory is MINE!!!!!)

(Sorry about that.)

But it got me thinking about some of the great book and poem titles I’ve come across. It’s hard to go past Tony Hoagland’s What Narcissism Means to ME, although his new collection, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty sounds as though it’s aiming the same direction. Away from poetry (and back to my own bookcases) there’s the informatively titled Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky, author of  The Trouble with Testosterone and  A Primate’s Memoir. (Jokes aside,  Zebras is a great book. Highly recommended.) Returning to poetry (and staying with my own books), wouldn’t you just have to pick up a book called The Porcine Canticles? Or Dressing for the Cannibals?

Titles for poems don’t have to do quite so much selling, although it certainly helps if they’re memorable. As long as the poem can live up to it, of course. And there are some titles that just scream run away, run awaaaaaaay to me – editing three NZPS anthologies has made me feel distinctly apprehensive whenever I see a number in the title, especially if paired with an emotion. (Just call me Pavlov’s editor …)

The classic example of a weird but wonderful title is James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” (clicking here will take you to another page where you can listen to a recording of Wright reading the poem). What does the title have to do with the poem? Nothing. Everything. Both.

Partly it comes down to what you want the title to do – set the scene? Ease the reader in? Give context? Provide a key piece of information that only makes sense when they reread? Or that will give the reader a different view of the poem when they reread? Mystify? Intrigue? Titillate? Not offend?

The most gobsmacking title I’ve ever come across was a poem I read in Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Poetry Home Repair Manual (thank you Catherine!) It’s by a poet I hadn’t come across before – Joseph Stroud:

And I Raised my Hand in Return

Every morning for two weeks on my walk into the village
I would see the young goat on the grassy slope above the stream.
It belonged to the Gypsies who lived in the plaza below the castle.
One day on my walk back to the mill house I saw the little goat
hanging from a tree by its hind legs, and a Gypsy was pulling
the skin off with a pair of pliers which he waved to me in greeting.

– Joseph Stroud
from Below Cold Mountain
(Copper Canyon Press, 1998).

Packs quite a punch, doesn’t it? Impossible to sustain though – you’d have to have poems with quite innocuous titles either side of it, or the reader would be bleeding.
So what are the best – and worst – poem and/or book titles you’ve come across? And what do you look for in a title?

5 Replies to “The One About the Really Good Title”

  1. Currently having great fun introducing kids to poems from Michael Rosen’s book and CD ‘Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy’ (Bloomsbury)which comprises poems from two earlier books ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ (Andre Deutsch) and ‘Don’t Put Mustard in the Custard’ (Andre Deutsch).

  2. And sometimes the joy is in the subtitle, as in ‘BLEEDING HEARTS Love Poems for the Nervous & Highly Strung’ edited by Michelle Lovric (Aurum Press). The foreword contains the apposite line ‘For late twentieth-century practitioners, love is much less a smooth swoon of luscious lyricism than a neurotic emergency.’ Bring on the ice cream…

  3. When I look at all the poems I see online it’s pretty obvious that most people use titles like labels, tags, just a way of differentiating one from another. I have to admit I always come to a poem’s title last by which time I just want to be done and often slap on any ol’ thing which is a shame because a good title can change the way you think about piece. It’s the first thing you come to and can become a helpful filter to target your readers’ attentions. It can provide setting or context or perspective – way more that just a way of telling one poem from another.

  4. There can of course be a problem – when someone in a workshop says hesitantly, “I love the title”, it sometimes means “but after that, things went rapidly downhill” and sometimes a weird and wonderful title is the only interesting part of a book!

    I like titles that aren’t necessarily fascinating phrases in themselves but which pose questions the reader would like answered. Paul Henry is good at these – “The Milk Thief”, “Ingrid’s Husband”.

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