Friday, September 18, 2009

"Good title!"

“Good title!” says the young William Shakespeare everywhere he goes, whenever he hears a bon mot, in Tom Stoppard’s witty movie, Shakespeare in Love. Out of ideas, short of cash, Shakespeare is adept at pilfering – mostly stealing ideas from surrounding life. His own titles are abysmal, for example, “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter.” We all know how that one turned out. According to Stoppard, it wasn’t Will who came up with the right title.

I felt a little like Stoppard’s young Shakespeare (but not in a good way) when I worked with poetry book editor Bryan Roth of Red C Services on my new manuscript, Gods of Water and Air. “Good title!” Dona Stein said on her radio program, Poetry Show, on which they discussed Bryan’s editing of my book.

My manuscript’s current title was one of my devising, but not as a title. It was buried in the midst of a poem. I didn’t notice it until Bryan pointed it out, after convincing me that Artist House, the title I had been using, didn’t get there. It took some work to get me over that hurdle. I had been clinging to it harder than young Shakespeare to his Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. The title was given to me, in a similar way as the imagined Shakespeare derived his titles, by a friend who commented on my manuscript. I will be forever grateful for that title, as it formed a bridge to the new one and a way of thinking about the themes in the collection. But, as Bryan said, it’s essentially a “label title,” carrying no poetic resonances, just flat and accurate. Flat and accurate doesn’t win contests.

We worked on many of the poem titles in the same way. We often started with a faintly sardonic editorial note: “Best title?” I quickly learned that this did not mean it was possibly the best title. Then we mined good lines from poems for title possibilities. Suddenly, where I had been a title pauper, I had a wealth of choices. Some were good enough for books or book sections, others just for the poem from which they emerged.

I once wrote an essay for Avatar Review on the art of selecting a good title. To research the subject, I thumbed through the many books on craft in my library, and found just one that had a chapter on titles, Michael Bugeja’s The Art and Craft of Poetry. Michael had this to say about label titles: “A descriptive title depicts content, a suspense one sparks interest, and the label variety is just that -- a word or two as on a can of vegetables: ‘Beans’ or ‘Creamed Corn.’”

Perhaps I should go back and reread my own essay. I need to work harder to find good titles. I will also listen more carefully to my editor when I get that question, “Best title?” When he says, “Good title!” I’ll know we’re there.


  1. Gods of Water and Air is a fabulous title. I love it, Rachel and Bryan!

  2. Sigh, and thank you. I've always thought that overly poetic titles were a little pretentious and highly unnecessary. My titles are almost always (sometimes ironic) label titles and I have had a couple editors say something about it, which I egotistically took as a lack on the part of the establishment to get over their own obsession with over the top titles. (As in, I once had an editor read my manuscript, an editor of a major press, and her response was, I swear to God, "I like stanzas of equal lengths."

    But after reading your essay I grudgingly admit your point, especially with the side by side title comparisons! Which would I read first? I am as guilty as anyone of prefering more interesting titles. Now I have to retitle about half of my manuscript. Thanks./! If I win a contest I'll have to give you some credit!

  3. I found the title advice from my editor, Bryan Roth, invaluable. I have always given titles a quick pass, but I won't do that anymore. After he found title ideas from within my own poems, I realized that I've just been lazy about the title area of a poem, that it really is as much a part of the whole as any other line. And I hope you do win a contest!

  4. Michelle, Thanks for your vote of confidence on the book title. After living with it for a few weeks, I like it better and better. And remain a little amazed that I wrote it and overlooked it.