Namesakes: On Titles

Jake Adam York
March 27, 2012
Comments 1

A few weeks back, I was in Boston for a reading when a friend showed me the Amazon page for Jane Springer’s forthcoming book, Murder Ballad. My friend asked “Doesn’t she know about your book?”

My friend was a little incensed and, in a way that makes me grateful to have such a friend, defensive of my Murder Ballads and, it would seem, its claim on the phrase—though I borrowed the title myself from a Nick Cave album.

Titles aren’t copyright-able, unlike trademark names of products or businesses, so we see this every now and then. In 1995, David Barber published a book called The Spirit Level. Two years later Seamus Heaney published a book called The Spirit Level. (And there had been at least two books of poems before those  called The Spirit Level.) Larry Levis’s posthumous Elegy (1997) and Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy (2009) share a title.

Jorie Graham’s seemingly idiomatic Region of Unlikeness (1991) nearly shares a title with Robert Lowell’s very first book of poems Land of Unlikeness (1944), which seems coincidental rather than genetic. But some books highlight the inevitability of the echo, as Joshua Ware’s Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley, which converses with Rod Smith’s “Homage to Homage to Creeley,” which speaks back to Jack Spicer’s “Homage to Creeley”; Ware’s book speaks back to those poems in method as well as in name.

Some writers are able to get their particular idiom into the title-space in a way that seems uncopyable, whether it’s C. D. Wright in Deepstep Come Shining, R. T. Smith in Brightwood, Forrest Gander in Science & Steepleflower, G. C. Waldrep in Disclamor and Archicembalo. The contemporary classic uncopyably idiomatic title is probably Maurice Manning’s Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions.

I’ve just read Eduoardo Corral’s wonderful Slow Lightning, which seems so singular a book that I expected to find no other Slow Lightnings, but there are, as it turns out, at least three other books with that title, but they’re all novels (two of them sci-fi) so I guess there’s no danger of confusion.

What’s in a title? And what are some of the common or most peculiar titles you know?

 

One thought on “Namesakes: On Titles

  1. What a generous reply, Jake–of course I chose my title because I love the murder ballads that my collection tries to emulate, if in an abstract way. When I discovered your book by the same name, my own was half way through production and folks at Alice James were not keen on switching names.

    So I did what any sensible person would do: read your book to see what your take was on “what makes a murder ballad.” I see there a communal tragedy, haunted rooms where ghosts break bread over the past, bloody-Gothic landscapes set to an utterly original score.

    A drop dead gorgeous book, really, and to think I may not have stumbled across it had I not tread down this already beaten path–such accidents, common as they are, thrill me.

    Fondly, Jane

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