Titles (In Articles, Books, Movies, Stories, Songs, etc.)


That’s a better title than plain old “Titles,” isn’t it? I have your attention now, don’t I?

Sometimes a title, or headline, is everything. It determines if you read a certain article or not, whether you go on or close up shop.

The Toronto Star on May 31, 2018, had an article by Vinay Menon, Entertainment Columnist, on Melania Trump. The headline read: “Here’s the truth about Melania Trump’s mysterious disappearance.” I was hooked. Where did she go? I didn’t know she had gone missing for weeks.  That is, she hadn’t been seen publicly for weeks.

The writer deepened the mystery by posing a question. “For a man who traffics in conspiracies, you’d think Donald Trump might be intrigued by a mystery that now hits home: Where is his wife?” During her absence “there have been sightings of UFOs, sea monsters and a wolf-like creature in Montana.”

The article goes on to playfully spoof the possibilities of her whereabouts:

Melania is ditching the White House and returning to New York City! Melania is secretly working with special counsel Robert Mueller! Melania has entered the Obama Protection Program and is living with the former president and his wife Michelle, who are helping her write a tell-all that may or may not be titled, “I Kicked Donald Out Of My Bed And So Can You, America.”

Now that last sentence— “I kicked Donald Out of My Bed and So Can You, America” —would make a terrific title for a short story or a poem or a “true confession” or a great campaign slogan. The fun suddenly gets polemical and hard-edged, the way good satire is wont to do.

Sometimes you might think that Melania self-satirizes or satirizes the Trump Brand at least. She was recently seen wearing a Zara olive-green jacket with white graffiti-style lettering on the back: “I really don’t care. Do u?”  Now, that’s a great title for a book, a film, a song, or a summary of the Trump presidency. It’s wonderfully ambiguous. Do you take the words literally or metaphorically, as exhortation to get engaged, as societal critique, as despair, as giving the finger, as planned distraction? The possibilities are endless.

I think I have a handle on Mr. Trump. He’s Captain Ahab, maimed by a White Whale. I just don’t know the whale that bit him—his dad, New York elites, President Obama? He wants revenge. Mrs. Trump, I’m not sure of. Is her attitude: I’m Rich and You’re Not or is it I Love to Quietly Subvert the Donald? Maybe she wants revenge, too.

Maybe that’s a necessary quality for a good title – ambiguity.

Tabloids such as Star Magazine are particularly good at titles and headlines. How’s this?  “Roseanne Barr is Back on Twitter & You Won’t Believe What She’s Saying Now.” It had me at Twitter. Interesting how its structure mirrors one of Jonathan Swift’s great sentences from A Tale of a Tub: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how it altered her person for the worse.”

Titles catch you or they don’t.  When I first read John Updike’s short story title – “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car”—I had to read the story. I haven’t yet read his “The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother’s Thimble, and Fanning Island,” but I will—for the title alone.

Several years ago, my wife and I went to see a play at the Shaw Festival on Niagara-on-the-Lake. I didn’t tell her it was because of the title, but it was. Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures I found irresistible, such an incongruous concoction.

Sometimes movies get the title right, sometimes not. In the Star Wars series, The Force Awakens works for me. Rogue One not so much.

Sometimes songwriters have a talent for titles. I’m thinking of Whitehorse (the husband-and-wife duo Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland). Hard to beat “The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss.” I’m enough of a romantic to think that may be true. Or, how about that brilliant variation on the theme of ‘leave no stone unturned’: “Leave No Bridge Unburned.” New words, new vision.

I once bought a book for its title, or more specifically, its subtitle.  It was by Daniel Aaron and was called Commonplace Book, 1934-2012 and it had the subtitle

“Quotations (Books, Articles, Reviews, Letters), Recollections (Persons, Places Events), Words (Archaic, Obsolescent, Technical), including Story Plots, Fancies, Sententia, Verse, and Nonsense.”

How could I say no?

In my own history of title-making, occasionally I’ve hit it right. I once wrote an essay for The Nashwaak Review in New Brunswick. It concerned the Trappist monk from Kentucky, Thomas Merton. It read: “Rhinos, Lizards & the Click of Being: Thomas Merton as a Reader of Poetry.”

Poet-friend Susan McCaslin and I are hoping that we hit it right in the title of our new book coming in October with Wood Lake Publishers in BC. The book is called Superabundantly Alive: Thomas Merton’s Dance with the Feminine. That gorgeous modifier “superabundantly alive” comes from Robert Lax’s description of his friend Tom’s literary production. We applied it more broadly to Merton’s life.

Don’t you want to be superabundantly alive?