Fiction Editor Joe Hiland recently reflected on how a story’s title can build intrigue and interest from readers and editors, and I’m contractually and spiritually obligated to agree with everything he says. Personally, though, I’m more interested in book titles.
A friend of mine wanted to name his second book Migratory Restlessness. Actually, there was some fancy German word for “migratory restlessness” that he originally thought sounded cool, but he obviously couldn’t name his book after the German word for “migratory restlessness”–so one of his friends suggested he name it The German Word for Migratory Restlessness. He ultimately picked a shorter, saner title, but the whole thing got me thinking about conventions in book-titling.
I’ve noticed at least two major trends in contemporary poetry in terms of titles (there are certainly more). On the one hand, there are those books with long, strange, even zany titles–usually a phrase or a sentence, at least. I love those titles. The best of them are like a poem in themselves, a preview of the style or voice or wildness I am to find in its pages. Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, for example, or shorter phrases like S.E. Smith’s I Live in a Hut (my own first book’s title follows this shorter-sentence mode).
On the other hand, I’ve seen lots of recent and forthcoming books with one-word titles–usually a relatively common word. I’m thinking of Carolyn Creedon’s Wet, Jamaal May’s Hum, Susan B.A. Somers-Willett’s Roam, Rebecca Hazelton’s Vow, Ida Stewarts’s Gloss. These shorter titles are more elegant, possibly even classic. Robert Hass’s book, Praise, is one of my very favorite books–and the title fits it perfectly. At the same time, they’re simply less memorable, less flashy, and more likely to blend in. (I’d love to hear from readers who prefer these short titles in the comments thread.)
It’s tempting to try to read deeply into these choices, to make assumptions about a poet’s aesthetic based on their titles, but I think it’s also a mistake. I might assume that the one-word titles are home to smaller, quieter, more elegant poems; that’s simply not the case with the books I’ve listed above.
My favorite titles, though, regardless of the length or comparative zaniness, are titles that are taken from somewhere in the text itself–titles that don’t necessarily sum up or frame the work, but instead simply appear within it. It’s such a thrill, for me, to be paging through a book, wondering why in the hell it’s called what it is, and then to come across the titular word or phrase. It’s an ecstasy. (While reading submissions for the Exploding Pinecone Chapbook Series, which I co-edit, I read just such a title, and I literally jumped out of my seat in excitement when I got to the collection’s titular moment.)
Anyway, here are my ten all-time favorite book titles (many of which are taken from pivotal or beautiful moments in the works themselves):
10. How to Seduce a White Boy in Ten Easy Steps by Laura Yes Yes
9. Eat Quite Everything You See by Leslie Adrienne Miller
8. Then We Saw the Flames by Daniel Hoyt
7. Fragment of the Head of a Queen by Cate Marvin
6. Riding the Earthboy 40 by James Welch
5. I Was the Jukebox by Sandra Beasley
4. Bringing the Shovel Down by Ross Gay
3. Music for Landing Planes By by Eireann Lorsung
2. I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl by Karyna McGlynn
1. Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form by Matthea Harvey
Please feel free to tell us your favorite book titles in the comments!
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino
I love the long titles. There’s a simultaneous dignity and humor in them.
Have you ever read E.V. Rieu’s poem, “Soliloquy of a Tortoise on Revisiting the Lettuce Beds after an Interval of one Hour while supposed to be Sleeping in a Clump of Blue Hollyhocks”?
The Psychoanalysis of Fire by Gaston Bachelard
Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk by Charles Simic
So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks by Rigoberto González, ALL DAY
I tend to minimal titles which shift slightly in meaning and significance as the reader progresses through the novel. My historical series…
The Officer’s Code
The Versailles Legacy
The English General
A Good Soldier.
Perhaps not poetic (neither are the novels) or mysterious, the meaning of the title deepens right to the end.