What’s in a name? asked Shakespeare’s Juliet, lamenting that her lover was a Montague, at enmity with her own Capulet family.
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
But would it? (Some of IKEA’s Swedish furniture names, for example, have had unfortunate connotations in English.)
I’m one of those annoying people who goes by their middle name. Mary is who I am, part of my personality. I never feel comfortable with my first name which is only used by the bank, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and the National Health Service. Oh, and don’t get me started on changing names.
I’m searching for a name, a title to be precise, for a new collection of poems which has just been accepted for publication in 2019/10. My provisional working title was not terribly exciting so I’m now on the hunt for something else. The shorter the number of words, the longer it takes to find the right one(s).
I’ve been looking at the titles of some of the poetry books on my shelves. It seems incredible that, years ago, poets frequently got away with simply Poems (Auden 1930) or with the addition of a number, Eighteen Poems (Dylan Thomas 1934). But perhaps the fashion is coming back – the T S Eliot prize-winning collection this year was in the same style (Three Poems). But, let’s face it, they’re not exactly riveting titles.
One word titles are catchy – Girl by Rebecca Goss, Tilt by Jean Sprackland. A lot depends on that one word. It can be a lure to draw in the reader (as those two titles are) or mystifyingly boring. Is the word sturdy enough to be applied to the whole collection?
Then there are concept collections, where the title states clearly what the concept is – Elaine Feinstein’s Portraits (the poems are studies of various people) or Angela France’s The Hill (a sequence of poems on Leckhampton Hill, near Cheltenham).
Some collections take their names from a single poem (I did this with The Art of Gardening). Moya Cannon has a variation on this with her collection entitled Keats Lives (no apostrophe, verb not noun). She has shortened the longer name of her title poem ‘Keats lives on the Amtrak’. The poem is about a conversation she has with an Amtrak conductor who is a fellow Keats enthusiast:
I’m going to get a t-shirt with
Keats Lives on it
I hope he has. But a poem needs sufficient gravitas to bear the weight of becoming a title poem.
Some titles are just wonderfully original. Robert Wrigley’s The Church of Omniverous Light, for example, or that classic by Wendy Cope, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis.
And lastly there are guerrilla titles which I remember simply because they bear no relation to the collection (Jeremy Over’s Deceiving Wild Creatures). A guerrilla title takes the reader by surprise and is (hopefully) a way to increase the reader’s engagement in a collection. In a way my Art of Gardening was an almost-guerrilla title in that my book was emphatically not a gardening book.
Finally any title has to have staying power. It might seem a great idea late one evening but can I live with it for a long time without wincing ‘I wish I’d called it something else’?
Maybe that’s a good title!