Saturday, 1 December 2012

Title Search

Philip Harvey 
This is the seventh in a series of pieces about the book in poetry released at this blogspot.
Quoting the opening line can serve as a reminder of the whole poem and serve as short-hand for the whole poem. This was the view of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. We know what he means when we volunteer the words “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…” or  “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…” or, if you are an Australian, “There was movement at the station…” An entire world of meaning and feeling is brought to mind, we connect to Keats’s enriching affirmation of autumn, to Shakespeare’s so-cool appreciation of the beloved, or to ‘Banjo’ Patterson’s alert to the action world of bush horses and their riders.

The same may be said of the titles of favourite books. Whenever the name Anna Karenina is even mentioned in polite society my mind fills with dozens of images and their lively connotations: Oblonsky (always Stiva) at the ice rink (the unforgettable opening scene), Anna’s conversation on the train with the countess, Levin scything the harvest, Vronsky at the racetrack. It goes on, my thoughts never crowded, and yet a society at work and all of it conjured back to life by mention of one woman’s name. To say ‘Anna Karenina’ is to be reminded of that whole world of fictive reality. Likewise, something like ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is not an incidental alliteration but an entire summer and winter of Edwardian high jinx and firm friendships. ‘The Trial’ is not a glum word for an avoidable circumstance, but a personal confrontation with modern, urban existence that stays in the mind for years, even if we have never lived in Prague and never known the miseries of the Habsburg bureaucracy. And so we could go on playing this game for hours.

The titles of books serve as short-hand for the contents of the book itself. This is never just a book, not even a fixed set of words, though we can count them all. (Films are the same, much of the time, the very words ‘The General’ or ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ or ‘Apocalypse Now’ setting off connections that head in all directions.)

These thoughts were prompted by reading a favourite list poem (I have a weakness for list poems) called ‘Title Search’, by the American poet John Ashbery:

Title Search

Voices of Spring. Vienna Bonbons.
Morning papers. Visiting Firemen. Mourning Polka.
Symphonie en ut dièse majeur. Fog-soaked Extremities.
Agrippa. Agrippine. Nelly and All. The Day
the Coast Came to Our House.

Hocus Focus. Unnatural Dreams. The Book of Five-Dollar Poems.
Oaks and Craters. Robert, a Rhapsody. Cecilia Valdès.
The Jewish Child. Mandarin Sorcerers. The Reader’s Digest
Book of Posh Assignations. The Penguin Book of Thwarted Lovers.
The American Screwball Comedy.

Scenes of Clerical Life. Incan Overtures. The House on 42nd Street.
The Man in Between. The Man on the Box. The Motor Car.

Rue des Acacias. Elm Street and After.
The Little Red Church. The Hotel District.
I’ll Eat a Mexican. The Heritage of Froth.
The Trojan Comedy. Water to the Fountain. Memoirs of a Hermit Crab.

The Ostrich Succession. Exit Pursued by a Turkey.
In the Pound. The Artist’s Life. On the Beautiful Danube.
Less is Roar. The Bicyclist. The Father.
This poem was first published in 1994, at the time when ‘Title Search’, that established search strategy on library catalogues, was first becoming part of common English parlance.  At least, common English computer parlance. The Ashbery poem reminds us that books are finite, they have what Sven Birkerts calls “ledge”. A poem that was a list of websites and blogspots, while it may conjure interesting conjunctions, would not have the same effect as the Ashbery poem because their names imply endlessness, infinity of possibilities, a distinct lack of “ledge”. (Electronic information culture has its own implications for poetry and language, but that discussion is for another time.)

What do we make of the Ashbery poem? Some titles cause the described effect. For example, I instantly recognise ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’, George Eliot’s first work of fiction, published in 1857. These are stories about different Anglican clergymen set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. My immediate memories are of difficult parochial existences created by the social disputes of the period. The title reminds us of the start of that author’s long journey of ethical discovery, as she uses her Christian moral framework to test the changing mores of English Victorian society. A four-word title equals a range of meaningful responses. But soon Ashbery’s bibliography becomes baffling.

We can imagine the likelihood of such titles as ‘Vienna Bonbons’, which happens to be the name of a famous waltz by Johann Strauss, or ‘The Motor Car’, which would have to be the name of several books of the same title, one would expect. But other titles are not only unlikely, but completely impossible. ‘The Penguin Book of Lovers’ is just possible, ‘The Penguin Book of Thwarted Lovers’ not at all. A title search on Google fails in fact to detect ‘The Penguin Book of Lovers’; I don’t even bother trying Ashbery’s invention. Or one looks at a title like ‘Oaks and Craters’ with a mixture of amusement and disbelief. What kind of book could that be? The first hit on Google connects us to a residential address in Crater Oak Drive in Calabasas, California. Some titles evoke images of their own that could be books, or should be books, or will be books. ‘The Day the Coast Came to Our House’ sounds like the sort of book title that ought to exist, even if it doesn’t. One can imagine it existing in time and space, especially after Hurricane Sandy. Googling reveals the title of a poem by this name written in 2007 by Paul Cary-Kent, my guess being the title is taken from the Ashbery poem itself. Other book titles are so peculiar that they register as part of Ashbery’s own private language world of gags and conjectures. ‘Fog-soaked Extremities’, for example, seems considerably unbelievable, a work that if it existed would cause a sensation by its mere presence on a bookshop counter.

What is John Ashbery up to? At one level I think he is up to his usual tricks, confounding our expectations about the very purposes of a poem, deriving pleasure from the creative use and misuse of established forms, mucking up with high culture in order to enliven, enlarge, and enrage. At another level he is scripting his own series of comic excursions within the frame of a single work, the clue to this interpretation being the book title at the end of verse 2: ‘The American Screwball Comedy’.

But I think he is also fascinated by the power of a single book title on the individual mind. They have the ability to draw us in, to ask questions of the author and the content, to wonder at possibilities beyond the mundane. Once read, the title leaves us with other sensations, every sensation from the indifferent and forgettable to the utterly transformative and totally unforgettable. It is at this upper end of the spectrum that we find ourselves spending our time, our life enriched, tied as it has become to the simple object called the book.


  1. The P should be capitalized in "Morning Papers," and in the penultimate line, "On the Beautiful Danube" should be "On the Beautiful Blue Danube."

  2. I was reminded of 'Title Search' by Rhys Coren's text at which made me look it up on the web and here I was - you are of course right about where my 2007 title came from...

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