Photo by by Oriol Domingo
by Mike Smith
The naming of poems is a thorny business. I went through a period of my life as a poet in which I gave up giving my poems titles. Instead I numbered them according to the notebook they were scribbled in (you don’t number your notebooks??), and the order in which they appeared in it. Poem 34/10 was a fourteen liner that appeared in Write On, a publication produced by students of Cumbria University, for the 2009 Words By The Water literary festival in Keswick. I got the numbering idea from reading John Berryman’s collected poems. The downside is that 34/10 is absolutely no use at all when it comes to getting the right poem down off your shelf, unless you have a card index (I’m showing my age), unless you have a database memory!
Which brings us to the point where I can say, the most obvious use of a title is as a label. It tells you what’s in the jar. It tells you what to expect. It tells you what a piece of writing is about, and in that sense it operates at the beginning of your short story.
Here are some short story titles:
Ivy Day in the Committee Room (James Joyce)
A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)
A Canary for One (Ernest Hemingway)
The Coup de Grace (Ambrose Bierce)
Rothschild’s Fiddle (Anton Chekhov)
Of course, something else is often going on as well, (and Damn it Janet, here I’m going to risk spoiling some stories for you, unless you look away, now). The Dickens title is probably the most label-like, stuck onto the front of a story that is a celebration of the Christmas spirit. The Joyce one helps to set the scene (having said that, not understanding the political reference, I spent my first reading waiting for Ivy to show up!)
Ambrose Bierce is doing something different though. There is an actual coup de grace in his story, so as a label the title works fine. But there is also a metaphorical coup de grace which, when we reach it, makes us flash back to the title. Or rather, the event in the story re-energises the title, and gives it resonance, like an echo. As the actual and metaphoric coups are at the end of the story, we can say that the title serves a function at both the beginning and the end. Hemingway’s obscure title does the same, for in his story the ending sends us back through what we have read, re-evaluating both the story, and its title. The title here is a label, but also a puzzle that the end of the story, to some extent, solves.
In Chekhov’s ‘Rothschild’s Fiddle’, the label again points to a metaphorical meaning, and again operates on the end of the story. The fiddle does not become Rothschild’s until it is passed to him in the final paragraphs, and its passing mirrors the passing on to us of the understanding that he has gained.
A recent piece of short fiction written by one of my students had the title ‘Tracks’. Set in a London Underground station, the title served to clarify the setting at the beginning, pointed to a sustained image – literal and metaphorical – of the tracks of the animals and people in the story and implied back-stories, raised our awareness of the idea of tracking, and, at the end, heightened our sense of threat when it seemed someone might end up on the tracks! The student said that most of these functions were pure luck, but to have a one-word title that operates on so many parts of the story simultaneously, yet distinctly, seems to me to be exceptionally good luck, indeed, and reminds me that we have a hand in making our luck!
Titles that are ironic may also operate effectively throughout a story, with the nature of the irony being slowly revealed. It is this ability to be active at different parts of the story, and in different ways, that makes a title a useful tool in the hands of the writer. It also makes it a risky one. The wrong title, perhaps, can do as much damage as the right one can do good, making explicit what might have been implied, making obvious what could have been subtle, or simply misleading the reader.
There is also the issue of ‘working titles’, which, perhaps by keeping us alert to underlying themes or motif, will help us with the writing. A published title is an aid to the reader. A working title may not be! And it may be worth sparing a thought for changed titles, when something is published ‘elsewhere’, or is translated, or adapted. The question Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was not posed by the film Blade Runner, and the Chocolat, of the movie was not, to my way of thinking, as dark and bitter as that of the novel.
Finding titles can be difficult. It might help to ask what metaphors we would use to clarify what we think a title is, and should do. I think of them as ‘frames’, and as ‘mirrors’ (often slightly skewed), and I’ve referred to them here as both labels and puzzles. What we think a thing is, I suspect, will greatly influence the way we try to use it, by any name.