[ToC]

 

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT MY EPIGRAPH?

Josh Bell

It is pleasant, when the sea is high and the wind is dashing the waves about,
to sit on shore and watch the struggles of another.

—Lucretius

If you're wondering whether or not to use that epigraph you've been thinking of using, the number for the epigraph hotline is 1-800-It-Sucks.

All epigraphs are a mistake.

Back in cave times, around a campfire, the first poet read out loud the first poem.

This poem was called "I Built a Campfire."

At this original poetry reading, there were some other cavepersons sitting around the campfire, and though most of them were bored, some really loved hearing the poem "I Built a Campfire." So when they went home that night, a few decided to come up with their own poems, poems like "I Own that Tree" or "I Bet You Had Some Help Building that Campfire."

And this kept going on for a very long while, until finally TS Eliot arrived.

What this means is that, even if you haven't read or heard the poem "I Built a Campfire," the poem you and I are in the act of writing, in 2015, is nevertheless locked into a tacit epigraphic relationship with the poem, "I Built a Campfire," since it speaks through, and to, all of the other poems that have come between "I Built a Campfire" and itself.

In other words, the poem "I Built a Campfire" is always your epigraph, whether or not you, in addition,decide to go ahead and use an epigraph.

And so on: if your poem is in couplets or quatrains, if it speaks of love or of tying your shoes, if it reads from left to right or if it reads from right to left, then your poem also consorts (usually behind your back) with every other poem, written ever, that speaks of managing love or footwear in quatrains or couplets.

So I think it conservative to imagine that each poem you or I write, even if it has no pre-meditated epigraph, and in addition to it already being in the conversation started by "I Built a Campfire," also carries—at least—a dozen or so more specific ghost epigraphs.

But there's another problem: the future. Some of the lines in the poem you're writing right now, unfortunately, are epigraphs in waiting. Some poet, born or yet unborn, and thinking it a compliment, will cut a line from your poem to use as an epigraph for a new poem they, themselves, are writing. They can do—and this is the indignity of the future—whatever they want with your body, just as you can do (though I wish you'd relent) whatever you want with the body of Shakespeare or of Sylvia Plath.

So to recap, and to give you a sense of the kinds of questions you'll be asked by our operators when you call the epigraph hotline: do you really want to add an epigraph to your poem, a poem already ghosted by the epigraphs of the past and a poem eventually to be stripped for parts by the epigraph hunters of the future? Do you really want to put an epigraph on top of a poem which is already, in effect, an epigraph? and will, eventually, go on to become more epigraphs?

Can't we agree to leave the body of Sylvia Plath alone? 

I don't think we can agree to leave the body of Sylvia Plath alone. All I can do, here, is state that every epigraph is a redunancy, to urge you to kill off (in your own poems, in the poems of others) as many epigraphs as you can, and to list some of the most abusive instances of epigraph, which follow:

1. Do you love Wallace Stevens? Do you want your name aligned with the name of Ishmael Reed? Is Anne Bradstreet your co-pilot? This is the Epigraph of Lineage, which is for vampires.

2. Is the vampire worried that the vampire's poetry is too much like Wallace Stevens'? Is the vampire concerned that by quoting Anne Bradstreet, Anne Bradstreet will overshadow the vampire or render the vampire superfluous? This is the Epigraph of False Lineage, in which the vampire will quote, instead, Allen Ginsberg.

3. Maybe I just really like Wallace Stevens, and I'm not trying to align myself with him. Maybe I just like Pablo Neruda, and I want to honor his genius. This is the Epigraph of Homage, and it does not exist, because it is still the Epigraph of Lineage, which is for vampires.

4. That Lucretius quote is going to look great beneath your title. But do you use the original Latin? Or do you carefully select the best English translation? Or do you use the original Latin and the carefully selected English translation? And can you read Latin? And do you want us to believe you can read Latin? And is this the pitfall of the Epigraph of Translation? And is anyone still listening?

5. Sometimes I get worried my reader won't understand that my poem is about suicide. So, instead of committing suicide, I select an epigraph that makes it clear what the poem's about. This is an epigraph that could be called the Epigraph of Pedagogy (see below), since it seems to seek to teach the reader what the poem is secretly about. But it is truly the Epigraph of Anxiety, and it seeks to teach the poet what the poem is about, since the whole time I thought I was writing about suicide, I was actually writing a poem about birds.  

6. Every epigraph is a redundancy, a thesis statement to help the reader unlock mystery, a masquerade of depth, and here lies the Epigraph of Pedagogy, which is a sin, and which is obvious. Leave your hidden meaning hidden, and soon you'll forget what your hidden meaning was. Then, at last, both you and your audience will have no idea what you meant to say. At which point, sometimes, a poem.

7. In order to evade charges of the Epigraph of Pedagogy, sometimes the poet, in addition to a learned quote, might also quote a line from a popular song, thereby signaling that the poet likes to go to libraries as much as to rock concerts. Ezra Pound's "His true Penelope was Flaubert" above Courtney Love's "I want to be the girl with the most cake," for example. And this is the Epigraph of Personality, and you know who you are.

8. The Epigraph of Folly: never use a line from Frank O'Hara as an epigraph. People will just go read Frank O'Hara instead.

9. The Epigraph of Acquisition (also known as the "Look what I've been reading" fiasco) occurs when the vampire learns of the work of a "forgotten," or lesser known, poet. The vampire then erroneously supposes that, since the vampire had never heard of Judy Grahn or Laura Jensen, none of the other vampires have, either1.

10. Ekphrasis is a subtle beast, yet prevalent. And it is, essentially, epigraph, or sidelong epigraph, or Epigraph in Hiding. By referencing an artist or a work of art, the poet "quotes" that work of art. And as such, ekphrasis is susceptible to all the same ills as epigraph. Basquiat, Brueghel: we are sorry for what we have done. Georgia O'Keefe: is there some way we can make it up to you? Joseph Cornell: could you lock your boxes away, so that we can no longer get our hands on them?

11. Finally, the poet may wish to use, as epigraph, lines from poets in his or her own poetry cohort. The seeming impulse, here, is to forward the work of friends, to start a conversation between equals, or to begin a school. All of which is bad enough. But the true impulse behind such epigraph is, of course, colonial: to be the poet who first quotes another poet, to plant a flag in uncharted territory. This is the Epigraph of Incest, and it is the worst example of epigraph, since it is exploitative, since its violence is friend on friend, and since it opens up the quoted poem to the epigraph hunters of the future, and therefore brings about—and is—the quoted poem's first death.

 

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1 The Epigraph of Acquisition also falls, somewhat, under the auspices of the Epigraph of Personality, since in its enaction the vampire signals what kind of reader—excellent, unusual, penetrating—the vampire is. But we all know that vampires are illiterate.

 

 

 

 

 


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This essay is part of the forthcoming aesthetics anthology Among Margins, due out from Ricochet Editions in 2016.