Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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What do you think of lines of poetry for book titles?

So, I’m still struggling with possible titles for the TENAI trilogy.

By “struggling,” I mean, this is just impossible and frustrating. No wonder everybody gives up and uses the character’s name as the title, or names the book “XYZ’s DAUGHTER,” or whatever. I swear, those random title generators are starting to look like a pretty good idea.

For fun, I paused to actually use the random title generator linked above. “I’ve written a book,” I tell the generator. “Give me a title.”

SWORD’S MASK.

Well, close! There’s a sword! Otherwise, nope. Let me try again:

THE WAR TEMPLE

Ha, that is so far off base, it’s funny. Okay, I clicked on the random title generator a dozen times — it’s kind of fun to see what pops up — but obviously this sort of thing is entirely useless.

So, questions:

A) Is it okay to use lines from real poems as the titles of fantasy novels?

B) Is it okay to use Latin words and phrases as the titles of fantasy novels?

Here is what I’m thinking of so far:

Tenai Book 1 — the prelude —

  1. Memoriae
  2. Too Long for Those Who Grieve — that’s from “Time Is” by Henry van Dyke
  3. Last Year’s Leaves are Smoke — that’s from “Time Does Not Bring Relief” by Edna St Vincint Millay

Tenai Book 2 — the first half of the main story —

  1. In Tenebris
  2. The Memory of Finished Years — that is from “Echoes” by Christina Rosetti

Tenai Book 3 — the second half of the main story —

  1. Lux Aeterna
  2. How Dark and Bright — Houseman’s “Easter Hymn”

Probably the above is all hopeless and I should start over. Possibly with random title generators.

****

In struggling with ideas for titles, I stumbled across this poem, which I like and thought I’d share:

Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

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15 Comments What do you think of lines of poetry for book titles?

  1. Robert

    Wow, I haven’t seen that poem in years. Thanks for posting that.

    As for book titles, you can use whatever you can get away with. :) But I like the poem titles. They’re nicely evocative without being as cryptic as the Latin phrases.

  2. Elaine T

    Titles from poems have worked in the genre before, most recently to my knowledge for Marie Brennan. (Midnight Never Come).

    When I have more time I’ll look at the poems you’re considering and check back in. We’re getting ready for major contractor work in the house.

  3. Louise

    I love the poem lines as titles, and I would honestly be more inclined to pick a book up with a title like that than any of the “daughter of blank and blank” titles that are so common now. I like the Latin as well, but it’s not as evocative as the poetry.

  4. E.C.

    I personally love the poem line titles, but then I tend to gravitate toward books or short stories with poem-like titles anyway, like “I Shall Wear Midnight”, or “The Sound of Broken Absolutes”, or “The Slow Regard of Silent Things”.
    I also have a soft spot for Latin, but I think Latin titles might be better for parts in a book than the actual book itself. “Lux Aeterna” makes me think of an eponymous choral cycle by Morten Lauridsen,which I had the opportunity to hear live a few years back.

  5. Pete Mack

    Lines from Shakespeare are surely popular. And I think 19th century poetry lends itself better to titles–you could get a whole series of naval books from Coleridge. “Furrow Followed Free”, “9 Fathoms Deep”, etc

  6. Kristi

    Latin titles sound good to my ear, as long as you aren’t worried about unfamiliar spelling making your books harder to search for. I love the poetry titles – Seanan McGuire uses lines from Shakespeare, which seems to be working well for her. A bit dubious about “The Memory of Finished Years” as that sounds to me like a slow and lugubrious story about someone reminiscing on their deathbed, probably about how much better life was before the zombie apocalypse… (err, no offense if that’s your story…)

  7. Hanneke

    I too like the poetry titles better than the Latin ones; as others have said, I like those kinds of evocative titles in general.
    One point: you may need permission from the owners of the copyright (maybe the executors of the estate of those writers?).
    That’s not necessary if the poem is old enough, like lines from Shakespeare :)

    I haven’t read book 2 and 3 yet, but those lines sound fine to me.
    Of the suggestions for book 1, I prefer line 3 Last Year’s Leaves are Smoke, or maybe a shortened version of line 2 Too Long for Those Who Grieve — it’s apt, but I wanted to read that as “To long for” rather than “Too long”.

    I know there are Shakespeare concordances, and in this digital world it should be possible to search historical (out of copyright) poets like Chaucer, Shakespeare, AE Housman, John Donne and Walt Whitman for possibly significant words (grief, grieve, memory, history, war, fighting ends, smoke, pain, rebirth, and anything that might seem applicable) to see if you can find out-of-copyright lines that would work. A poet who has been dead for more than 70 years is out of copyright everywhere, as far as I know, and mentioning the poet and the poem/work in the acknowledgements should be enough.

  8. Kim Aippersbach

    I’m normally very in favour of poetry titles, but I’ll be a lone voice saying I like those Latin titles best. Perhaps because in a trilogy it’s nice to have snappier titles?

    But “Last Year’s Leaves are Smoke” is quite awesome.
    Agree with Kristi about “The Memory of Finished Years.” “How Dark and Bright” isn’t bad, but sounds too similar to other titles I’ve heard; it lacks specificity. (I suppose the Latin titles lack specificity, too.)

    You know what would be cool? To find a poem (you might have to write it yourself!) that you can use successive lines of the poem for each book. Like Italo Calvino did with his chapter titles in “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler.” Or not even successive lines, just from the same poem. For example, Shakespeare’s “That time of year thou mayst in me behold”: Prelude: “Must leave ere long”, Book 1: “That time of year”, Book 2: “To love that well.”

    Just throwing out ideas!

  9. Mary Catelli

    Apt quotations can work very well.

    Though I’ve had a soft spot for title generators ever since one — one generating cliche titles for comic purposes — spat Jewel of the Tiger at me.

  10. mona

    Poetry as a title is wonderfully evocative. I’m with the majority on this one, and agree with Kim about the specificity of the last one.

    Fwiw, I picked up “The Slow Regard of Silent Things” solely for the title; I can’t imagine doing so with a Latin title.

  11. Kathryn McConaughy

    Is it bad that my first reaction to Lux Aeterna was to go get a Latin dictionary to see if lux was masculine or feminine? (It is feminine… which you clearly knew…)
    I like titles from poems – especially if a series can draw them all from the same poem – but I feel a little uneasy about it when they are used as titles for books set in a universe where those poems never existed. Of course, if I don’t recognize the poem I don’t get the same sense of incongruity.

  12. Mary Beth

    “Last Year’s Leaves Are Smoke” is an AWESOME title. Agreed with other commenters who mention enjoying evocative, poetic titles; I’ll also add that titles of that sort are certainly trending now in adult SFF, though perhaps more for novellas and shorter works than for novels. (See, e.g., Nerds of a Feather’s Hugo recommendations from this year: http://www.nerds-feather.com/2021/01/2021-nerds-of-feather-hugo-awards.html )

    I think longer titles would also be a good contrast to the one-word title system you have for TUYO, or the two-word system for the Black Dog books.

  13. Rachel

    I SO appreciate all your comments! Thank you so much. I believe that is the way I will go with this series — I mean, with lines from poetry. Kathryn, yes, that is one reason I hesitate to look at real poetry for titles, but in this particular case, the pov character is actually from our world, so using real poetry is actually more justifiable than for a purely secondary world fantasy setting.

    I hadn’t thought about copyright issues, so thanks again for that warning, Hanneke, I will look at that issue and if necessary make sure to use out-of-copyright poetry. I really like “Last Year’s Leaves Are Smoke” as a title, as you all do, so I hope that is available. I also do like the idea of using lines from one poem, but, well, we’ll see.

    Thanks again for all your feedback!

  14. Allan Lawrence Shampine

    One important caution – the title has to work as a title if the reader is completely unaware it comes from a poem, because I guarantee you 99% of readers are not going to have any idea where it comes from. That is, if the context of the poem itself is important to understanding the title, it is not a good title. For example, seeing the title of the poem that “Last Year’s Leaves Are Smoke” comes from, I can see why you might pick it, but absent knowing the poem it comes from, I’m not so sure.

  15. Allan Lawrence Shampine

    I’m afraid I’m not crazy about the leaves are smoke title. It’s an interesting phrase, but I would have no idea what a book attached to that phrase would be about, and if I were just browsing, most likely I would just shake my head in confusion and move on. Something more descriptive, like “Memories of Another World”, might be worth considering.

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