Today we welcome back to Writer Working Poet Laureate (Ukiah CA) Dan Barth, who recently contributed an enlightening and entertaining piece on the new world of Haiku. Today, his subject is the epigram, a form different, but not unrelated to Haiku, as Dan (and sister Karen) explain nicely in the piece below:
I was talking with my sister Karen on the phone the other night and she said, “I have this new little short poem, but it’s not exactly a haiku.”I said, “Oh yeah? Let’s hear it.”
Our Lady of Fatima Retreat Center–
The fattest squirrels you’ve ever seen.
They chase each other slowly through the snow.
“That sounds more like an epigram,” I said.
“What is an epigram?” she said
I recited Coleridge’s poem, “What Is an Epigram?”
What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
She said, “Oh, okay, I think I have a couple more of those.”
The next day she sent them to me.
One Night at Tewligan’s Tavern
Bleached blonde baby
With your bright white smile
Reality will have to wait a while
One Night Outside of Tewligan’s Tavern
Unarmed forces seem to me
To have more varied possibilities.
Yes, those are definitely epigrams.
Basically, an epigram is any very short poem, titled or untitled, rhymed or unrhymed, that is witty, clever or funny. The form goes back quite a ways, taking its name from a Greek word meaning “inscription.” It’s most famous early practitioner was the Roman poet, Martial (AD 40-104). Here are a couple of his, translated by Rolfe Humphries.
You say, to start with, you have laryngitis;
Stop right there, Maximus, and you’ll delight us.
Why don’t I send my books to you
When you’ve asked me so many times?
Good enough reason, Ted; you might
Reciprocate with your own rhymes.
Good old, Martial, hanging out at the Forum in the old days with Maximus and Ted.
As the Coleridge epigram cited above attests, the form became popular with British poets of the 17th through 19th centuries. Here’s another by Coleridge.
On a Volunteer Singer
Swans sing before they die–’twere no bad thing
Should certain people die before they sing!
Subject matter of epigrams is not limited or proscribed, but they are often ribald, satirical or cutting. Here’s one by Matthew Prior.
A True Maid
No, no, for my virginity,
When I lose that, says Rose, I’ll die:
Behind the elms, last night, cried Dick,
Rose, were you not extremely sick?
The term epigram is also used for any witty or cutting remark, the kind Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker were famous for, e. g., the latter’s “I’d rather have a free bottle in front of me than a prefrontal lobotomy.” If you make a witty comment, feel free to call it an epigram, but my purpose here is to consider the epigram as a poetic form, something that involves at least a minimum of care and craft.
My friend Clyde Klingenberg is a visual artist, a painter. He’s also dyslexic, and so not especially a word man. A short form like epigram appeals to him, and every once in a while he comes up with a good one, like:
Welcome to lizard heaven,
where the sun is hot,
the rocks are flat,
and the flies move real slow.
Dog heaven where
Every time a human takes a bite
My writer friend Rob Zoschke says, “Haiku shmaiku. Epigram shmepigram. Just call ’em all short poems.” He has a point, but we literary types like to carp and cavil. Helps keep the university English departments in business. Here’s one of Rob’s short poems. Looks like an epigram to me.
she asked for
cell phone minutes
and cherry Rolaids
and that is just what
her mother bought her
Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and Robert Frost all wrote a lot of short poems. Some of these I think of as epigrams, others not. It’s a matter of the spirit of the poem. Here’s one by Hughes.
As the wind
On the Lincoln
As a bottle of likker
On a table
All by itself.
To me that’s a little too wistful to be thought of as an epigram, but others might disagree.
Here’s another by Hughes.
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.
That one could almost be a haiku, but I’d call it an epigram. For one thing it has a title, which is often half the fun of an epigram, and is considered all but taboo for haiku.
One more by Hughes:
A wonderful time-the War:
when money rolled in
and blood rolled out
was far away
Money was near.
Yes, that one is definitely an epigram.
Ogden Nash and Hillaire Belloc are two more poets who wrote lots of humorous verse, including epigrams. Here’s one by Nash.
A Word to Husbands
To keep your marriage brimming,
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.
Dorothy Parker also wrote some of the poetic type. Here’s one of hers I like.
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
What about length? Martial, and Ben Jonson, who also wrote many, inclined to rather lengthy ones at times-twenty lines or more. Nowadays, with our media-shortened attention spans, anything over eight seems a bit too long for an epigram. But readers and poets can decide for themselves.
Okay, Karen. Now do you know what an epigram is?
For more information, have a look at http://www.english.emory.edu/classes/Handbook/epigram.html and http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/epigram.html.
For some of mine, check http://www.jackmagazine.com/issue4/danbarth.html.
In closing, here’s one more by Dorothy Parker:
A Pig’s-Eye View of Literature: Oscar Wilde
If with the literate I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.
You can get a taste of Dan Barth’s own fine poetry in his Fast Women, Beautiful available on Amazon. Just click on the image.