Organizing the contents page of this blog I realized something. Came to a realization, as we say. While I understood early on that prose was always going to be beyond my natural means — I wisely gave up trying around 1983 — what I can do is titles. I believe I could declare, with a completely straight face, that my ability — my talent — for titles approaches the supernatural.
Indeed many of the essays on this site have been contrived (and contrived really is the right word for it) to justify the existence of the titles they bear. What’s a title, after all, unless it announces something? A title should be followed by a work. And that work — story, play, poem, philippic, etc — should be a work in which whatever nuances of irony or scathing derision or multi-layered wit its title conveys are then at length disclosed.
My best one so far, the best title I’ve ever come up with and will perhaps never surpass, is Derivative Sin. The piece that this very fine title announced was an unspeakable mess. Unspeakable and unreadable. And even meaningless. It wasn’t stupid, just tangled, conflicted. Several pretty good ideas, insights, wrestled nakedly on the page, somewhat like Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in Women in Love — full of grunting bravado, full of terrific head-locks and flips, but a bit shriveled due to the prevailing chill.
Of course titles are not real writing, such as you’d find in — that is, inside — a great work of art like The Ambassadors or The Peregrine or The Voyage Out:
The heat was suffocating. At last the faces went further away; she fell into a deep pool of sticky water, which eventually closed over her head. She saw nothing and heard nothing but a faint booming sound, which was the sound of the sea rolling over her head. While all her tormentors thought that she was dead, she was not dead, but curled up at the bottom of the sea. There she lay, sometimes seeing darkness, sometimes light, while every now and then some one turned her over at the bottom of the sea. (Virginia Woolf, 1915, Chapter XXV)
Nor are they nothing at all. Some would credit them equally if not higher. At a dinner party the poet Allen Tate was once overheard to caution a young inebriated protégé who had attempted, with postprandial flourish, to deflate the importance of titles. Tate interlaced his fingers behind his head and gazed upward, toward the chandelier, or even beyond the chandelier. “The poem comes from you,” he said, pausing right there for a long, long time, “but the title comes from God.”