Essay

The Title Above the Name

Don't judge a poetry book by its cover—judge it by the very first words you see.

by Michael Atkinson
It’s tougher than ever to sell a book of poetry, so the serious poet might well consider what will make readers plop down their double sawbucks. Most of us spring for a full-on volume because we’re already interested in the poet, or because we’re sold on a back-cover blurb from a more famous versifier; perhaps we trust the publisher.

Some just go for the title. I do, sometimes without even opening their covers first. A poetry book’s title is its most authentic advance guard, its first tendril of voice sent out to you from a skinny spine on a bookstore shelf, characterizing in just a few words the poet’s entire literary project at that moment. It makes sense to shop this way—what you’re looking to buy, after all, is the transcendent, evocative, calisthenic employment of words to catch you in the throat, sting your eyes, cause you to dream sitting up. Why pony up cash if the poet can’t even muster a wondrous title for their collection? Titles count, and regarding them as mere marketing instruments overlooks the fact that they are an extension of the poems inside the book—a literal first line, and thus like all first lines should strive for seduction and originality and powerhouse flavor.

Imagine you’re browsing in a real, honest-to-Eliot bookstore—how could you resist picking up a volume titled Worshipful Company of Fletchers, or Imperfect Thirst or Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest? A gangbusters poetry book title should not only cook with language, but echo and sing of the real world in ways new to us. Ideally, it should suggest that a feast is before you, and that it will taste of ideas and humankind and beauty, and that it will not be finished too quickly or lightly. Regrettably, many poets underutilize their titles, and sell their books short. I love Stephen Dunn’s work, but you’d hardly ever be compelled to buy him based on a title like Between Angels or Different Hours or Local Time. Charles Wright is another case: he’s so prolific that he occasionally hits on a head-ringing, allusive title (as with his debut, The Grave of the Right Hand), but otherwise settles for shrugs (Littlefoot, The Other Side of the River, Bloodlines, etc.). Consider as well Carl Dennis, caught in the habit of undernaming his collections: A House of My Own, Climbing Down, and so on. (Practical Gods has a little flair, but its suggestiveness is limited.) His poems aren’t dull; does he mistrust the principle of book titling itself?

Usually, poor titles suffer from anemia or archness. Just look at the last few years of National Poetry Series winners, all halfhearted vagueries (The Welcome, The White Train, Hip Logic, Renunciation) and pretentious poses (Sanskrit of the Body; Three, Breathing; Theory of Devolution). They may well be terrific books, but I’m unlikely to find out.

On the other hand, I’ve been compelled to pick up books and trot them to the check-out counter on the strength of their titles alone, including Susan Hahn’s Harriet Rubin’s Mother’s Wooden Hand (oh, the operatic particularity!) and Barry Gifford’s Ghosts No Horse Can Carry. I bought Stephen Hume’s And the House Sank like a Ship in the Long Prairie Grass for its free-range domestic-apocalypse suggestiveness, and Doug Anderson’s Blues for Unemployed Secret Police for the pungent history secreted within the jokester quip. Eliot Khalil Wilson’s The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go simply demanded to be owned, exuding more poetry in seven titular words than most entire poems. I gravitate toward titles rich with stuff, but they don’t have to be lengthy—I was similarly drawn to Laurie Sheck’s Amaranth and William Heyen’s Pterodactyl Rose, both managing to evoke a fierce-voicedness that you just don’t get reading, say, Mary Oliver’s interchangeable titles (Blue Iris, White Pine, Red Bird). I wasn’t necessarily epiphanized by all of the poetry inside the books I purchased this way, but I still felt righteous and almost obligated to buy them all the same. If you can trounce me with a lyrical statement made within a five- or six-word title, you deserve my ten-spots.

Perhaps that’s why so many poetry titles are underwhelming—modesty. Come on, you’re titling a book here, not a single lyric but a deathless tome that may, if you’re very lucky, survive you and become the testament to your time alive. No one’s naming their books Dark Fields of the Republic or The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World anymore. But rarer still is the poet who can name volumes distinctively—I’d count Billy Collins, who dares to battle pretension with a sly smile (The Apple that Astonished Paris; the Nabokov-quoting Picnic, Lighting; The Trouble with Poetry), and Philip Levine, whose working-class-time-travel voice could be heard like a bell chime in titles like 7 Years from Somewhere and What Work Is. Charles Simic, too, makes his quizzical rogue sensibility sing right off the book spine; I’d have to choose a connoisseur’s favorite from between early Simic (Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk) and late (My Noiseless Entourage).

But Robert Bly might be the title-king among the standing and writing. There’s no neutrality about a Bly title. The Man in the Black Coat Turns is referential and kindling enough, and Sleepers Joining Hands is undeniably warm, but Loving a Woman in Two Worlds is a simple, iconic, ungloved-fist knockout, the kind of title that could name a hundred excellent works of art, but must in fact name only this book, by this man, at that moment. But also consider This Body Is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood, What Have I Ever Lost by Dying? (I usually don’t go for first-person-singular titles, but that one makes you chew on it awhile); My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy; Friends, You Drank Some Darkness; and The Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door. (The latter two were for translations, but they need electric titles, too.) You can hear Bly throwing paint at the wall, in contrasting fistfuls of satisfaction and doubt, mythic resonance and life-science trivia, word-love and fondness for humans as they cross his path. Care what you may for what’s inside, but you won’t be wondering at the gate if the poet has anything on his mind.
Originally Published: September 10, 2008

COMMENTS (10)

On September 11, 2008 at 10:04am Anthony L. Barkhaus IV wrote:
Great article!

I think I did pretty well for myself for naming my first two chapbooks. If you have a moment I would love a simple thumbs down or up regarding the titles I have choosen.

These Dogs Painted Like Tigers. Bite.

&

Roses, Never!

Thank You!

On September 12, 2008 at 10:18am Cristobal Crisosto wrote:
Michael, I liked your call to put some punch in the title´s fist.

Still, I think readers would be better advised to take their time and try to go far beyond the title. I still love white, minimalist covers with the magic word ¨Poetry¨ on it: it is still about the poems, right?

On September 12, 2008 at 8:25pm Jay Thompson wrote:
I love this article. I'm glad someone else cares about this so passionately! Something to be said as well for those wonderful plain two-word titles, like:

"Some Trees"

or

"Thank You"

On September 12, 2008 at 9:56pm Corvus wrote:
I enjoyed Michael Atkinson's piece, so

much so that I went to my shelves to

come up with my own list of top ten titles

culled from my own collection. If you're

interested, you can find them at http://corvus-at-

large.blogspot.com/2008/09/poetry-

titles.html

On September 15, 2008 at 7:55am William Keckler wrote:
There is one book with a very boring title Mr. Atkinson might want to check out someday.

It's called The Dictionary.

He might be amazed to learn that a word like "vagueries" don't really exist.

Did he mean "vagaries?"

If so, that doesn't really make much sense in the context in which it is used here.

But then this isn't really an article of any substance, is it?

Scrape, Poetry Foundation, scrape.

On September 17, 2008 at 9:57am Gregg wrote:
Dear Wordsmiths and Poets:

A new Web site looking to engage poets in the current election on the themes of "change," "hope," and "freedom," and whatever else comes to mind is looking for verse.

Poets for Obama at www.poetsforobama.org seeks American poets who want change.

We will post poems at least once per week, posting every Sunday.

If you have a poem, please send one to poetsforobama[AT]gmail.com within the email text only.

We will consider all poems for publication. We also welcome comments on all our blog posts, whether in prose or poetry, so feel free just to add something there!

This blog specifically was inspired by Barack Obama’s convention speech. Check out www.poetsforobama.org

On September 21, 2008 at 2:43pm Gregory Christiano wrote:
The essay touched on a very essential topic. An effective title establishes the subject, sets the voice/tone, clarifies direction, and (if applicable) states the author and title of the literary work explicated. It's important. Therefore, authors should prefer specific nouns and verbs in your titles; combining elements of their subject that fit together. Sometimes it's helpful to combine the elements that are at war with each other: many good titles contain tension. I personally listen to the language of the author's title to find the subject and the voice that will be used in writing about it - to hear words and phrases from the title. The article brought out how important a title must be. Enjoyed the read.

Gregory

On September 25, 2008 at 1:12am hannah wrote:
one of my faves:

The Country without a Post Office - Agha Shahid Ali.

On September 28, 2008 at 12:55am Patrick Cotter wrote:
A vagary of English could be the sudden birth of the word vaguery. meaning something which is vague.

On November 28, 2008 at 10:15am order cialis online wrote:
Yes I agree with you!

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Biography

Michael Atkinson is the author of six books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press), and a debut volume of poetry, One Hundred Children Waiting for a Train (Word Works).

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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