Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Defending the Epigraph in Poetry

The Via Negativa blog features a very civilized and enjoyable discussion of the use of epigraphs in poetry, sparked by an essay by David Orr in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

I, myself, have a love-hate relationship with the use of epigraphs, primarily because of the few years I spent judging a poetry book contest, where I read many authors who overused epigraphs for a variety of the "wrong" reasons pointed out by the linked discussion. The two that peeved me most were the name-droppers and the over-explicators.

What I love about the Via Negativa post -- and the comments that follow it -- are the very well-thought out examples of how epigraphs can be most useful:

"they situate the poem not merely in a tradition but also within a kind of network of shared wonder at similar phenomena, ideas, or linguistic perversities"

"a way of letting other voices in"

"One other point I would raise with Orr is that his categorization is too serious for some epigraphs; he misses the role of irony and sarcasm in epigraphs. Epigraphs not as explication or homage or commentary, but as humor."

I am not anti-epigraph. I have used them in a few of my own poems, including a poem called "Pearls", where I feel the epigraph worked to bring in that sense of "shared wonder" with another poet.

My favorite comment was from the poet who astutely pointed out that many poets mis-use epigraphs because they don't trust the reader to "get it" -- whatever the poem is about. I feel this is probably the most troubling mis-use I've seen, especially when it comes to book manuscripts.

I recall reading manuscripts that used several epigraphs in the front of the book, then an epigraph for each section, as well as epigraphs on many of the poems (Orr's essay cites a poetry collection by Liz Waldner as suffering from this particular condition).

If you don't have enough trust in the reader's ability to understand your poems without these prefaces, then your poems -- and perhaps your manuscript -- is not fulfilling the potential you envision for it.

And if you are using the epigraphs to "limit" your reader's interpretation of the poems, that does a disservice to both the reader and the poetry.


Dave said...

Thanks for liking and linking to my post. The topic of how and to what extent to trust readers could be an entire discussion in its own right, I think. Especially when it comes to knowledge. Most of us, if we use notes, prefer not to alert readers to their existence with asterisks or superscript numerals, or if on the web, are reluctant to mess up the poem with a hyperlink, so that right there might cause some people to prefer epigraphs. And really, how much to annotate? If you footnote a Biblical allusion that almost everyone of Protestant background over a certain age will recognize instantly, you risk insulting their intelligence, but many other readers don't know the first thing about the Bible, so reproducing the verse in an epigraph often sems like the best solution. Just for instance.

Bernadette Geyer said...

Thanks, Dave, for this valuable addition to the discussion! I agree that it's a very tricky divide.

I have a poem that uses an epigraph taken from a newspaper article because it is integral to the poem, but would not work as a "footnote." It was not a very widespread story, and I did not feel it proper to assume everyone had heard about it, so I used the short summary as an epigraph to the poem.

Dave said...

Yeah, that's a perfect example. I know I've written several poems like that.

newzoopoet said...

Great topic! Really gave me something to think on....

Greg said...

Thanks for the reference to Dave Bonta's post! Here's the comment I added to his discussion:

This discussion is fascinating and invaluable (and a very good rejoinder to Orr’s somewhat presumptuous essay—Why not ASK a few poets about their epigraph usage?). However, I don’t see anyone articulating the reason I often use an epigraph: to acknowledge inspiration. I am often struck by a line of phrase in a poem that leads me to create a poem of my own. It’s a combination of source acknowledgment and homage.

Bernadette Geyer said...

Greg --Definitely another good reason. I've done that before as well!

Author Amok said...

Hi, friend. Just found this post! We are designing the MWA poetry anthology and the question of how an epigraph should be laid out is a hot topic. Smaller font than the poem? Indented? Italic? What do you think?

Bernadette Geyer said...

Author Amok -- I usually see it in a smaller font, either italicized or not italicized. Personally, I use an italicized, smaller font, indented two or three tabs. Not sure if there's a typical "standard" unless it's press-by-press.