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Essay

The Title Above the Name

Don't judge a poetry book by its cover–judge it by the very first words you see.
Introduction
"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." Michael Atkinson revels in the highs, and lows, of poetry book titles.

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.

Related

  • 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).

Essay

The Title Above the Name

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

Related

  • 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).

Other Information