My last two books have consisted entirely of poems with no individual titles. This felt like the right decision in each case; I want the poems in the manuscript I just finished, for example, to be read as a running internal monologue (the speaker, Judy, is a character I borrowed from a play). Titles would be interruptive to this experience, and overly aggrandizing — Judy wouldn’t frame her own thoughts that way. But as a result, I worry I’m forgetting how to title things. I worry I’m becoming a critic who can judge good titles from bad but cannot produce good titles herself. Take the title of this essay: a semi-ironic gimmick. It could be in scare quotes.
What are titles supposed to do, exactly?
Recently in conversation, the poet Ed Skoog told me “Titles are advertising.” I think this is true, especially for book titles — like covers and blurbs, they are trying to tell you what kind of book you’re holding, what other books it is like, and what kind of person is supposed to like it. But good titles do something more than that; they make the book better, by telling you how to think of it. Like a detail of a painting, they enlarge what’s important. The First Bad Man, I think, is not a bad title, but it’s the wrong title for the book. It’s taken from a line of dialogue in the novel (Miranda July’s most recent), and was chosen perhaps for its resonance within the scene, the way a simple demonstrative phrase can feel instantly symbolic, global instead of local. But it doesn’t tell you anything about the book as a whole, and worse, it sets the wrong tone — an ominous tone for a funny book that is not about bad men or men at all.
I have a strong aversion to formulaic titles. The absolute worst is “What We Talk About When We Talk About X,” followed closely by “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About X But Were Afraid to Ask.” Nevertheless, I’ve been known to use formulaic titles. Poets do it all the time; they call the poem “Poem” or “Sonnet” or “Love Poem” even when it isn’t. It’s defensible laziness when the title at least does not make the piece worse, because there are so many ways for a title to be outright bad. There are trends in titling, trends that are mercifully recognized as such in fiction (The So & So’s Daughter, The So & So’s Wife) and nonfiction (The Secret Lives of X), with their higher sales figures, leading them to die more quickly than they do in poetry. Long book titles are an irritating poetry trend that won’t go away, titles that are complete sentences of seven words or more, like Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea (a real book, but not one I’ve read, and not, I admit, a very bad title).
Another quality I dislike in titles: a rhythmic sing-songiness, as in Then We Came to the End. All the Light We Cannot See. I Know This Much Is True. (Wally Lamb used the exact same three-foot iamb pattern twice: The Hour I First Believed.) These titles are suspiciously regular in their meter. I distrust them. As far as meter goes I think spondees make for the best, snappiest titles: White Noise. Jane Eyre. Bleak House.
When I first met my husband, many years ago, he had some poems coming out in a new anthology; he wrote poetry then. One of the poems was a six-parter called “6 Notes for the Afterlife”; each section of the poem had its own title: “1. In the Afterlife.” “5. It Isn’t Like This Life.” When I commented on the piece, he said, “I always wanted to write a poem with little titles.” Instantly I appreciated the appeal of “little titles” — a welcome aggrandizement, a way to make the poem bigger than it was, even physically bigger, by word count. It struck me as a clever trick.
Here’s another good trick, if you’re struggling to title your poem: Use a phrase from the poem as the title. It’s a trick because the mind likes familiarity, so when it lights upon the phrase the second time, inside the poem, there’s an almost subconscious ding of recognition. But it needs to be a phrase worth highlighting, and it should make sense as a title even if, hypothetically, you removed those words from the poem.
Mary Jo Bang employs a variation of this trick in her recent collection The Last Two Seconds. Rather than titling a poem with an exact phrase from the poem, she’ll rearrange it, rejigger the syntax to create another layer of meaning, as in “Except for Being, It Was Relatively Painless.” The first line of the poem is “It was relatively painless except for being”—followed after the line break with “all she could see: a world made of dinner, very pleasant.” The break creates a miniature cliffhanger of suspense (except for being what?) but the title doesn’t. In the context of the title, “being” is not a linking verb but a state in itself, and it becomes a recursive statement of sorts, half-twisted on itself like a Mobius strip: Being (existence) was relatively painless, except for the being part.
Another Bang poem uses as its title a phrase from the last line (its verb and object) but changes the subject. Here’s the poem in full:
COSTUMES EXCHANGING GLANCES
The rhinestone lights blink on and off.
I’m sick of explanations. A life is like Russell said
of electricity, not a thing but the way things behave.
A science of motion toward some flat surface,
some heat, some cold. Some light
can leave some after-image but it doesn’t last.
Isn’t that what they say? That and that
historical events exchange glances with nothingness.
Why do the glance-exchanging events and nothingness become “costumes” in the title? I have no idea, though it makes the poem feel even more removed from the real, more like a set piece, a diorama, a reenactment. (I adore this poem.) Another poem takes its title, seemingly, from the poem on the opposite page. The poem on the verso side, page 22, is called “Can the Individual Experience Tragic Consequences?” None of these words appear in the poem. But the following poem, on page 23, ends with these lines: “I call myself doctor but really, I’m consequence. / The winter of consequence. I can’t learn.” As an alternative possibility, perhaps Bang wrote the poems in this order, or close to it, and took the previous poem’s title as inspiration for the ending. Maybe she fell into delight with the word consequence, or became inadvertently obsessed with it, like the time my friend Alyssa kept tweeting the word “spatchcock”: Spatchcock. Spatchcock. SPATCHCOCK. Either way, again, the sense of trickery — a glimpse of the hand behind the curtain, a bit of light catching on the puppet strings. •