I confess. It began early in my life as a poet-apprentice, my love affair with epigraphs. As soon as I learned this name for a quote usually in italics beneath a poem’s title and before its first line, I found them seductive. True, as a reader, I sometimes skipped over them, but as a poet, I could hardly resist the urge to epigraph.
Why the attitude reversal when I shifted roles from writer to reader? It took years for me to notice that I did so. Only recently did I test my love by pursuing this question. And, alas, the love faltered.
Writing the poems in my latest book, Pestiferous Questions: A Life in Poems, I was almost giddy in my embrace of epigraphs. Writing these poems about Jessie Benton Frémont who was born almost 200 years ago required extensive research not only into her life but also into the public issues of her time: western expansion, slavery, Civil War, women’s roles. She and her family helped to shape the nation’s response, and in turn were shaped by these issues.
I acquired abundant information that gave me an altered view of our country’s history, but then struggled with ways to convey to readers the necessary background information without interrupting the emotional flow of a poem. Epigraphs seemed to work well for quotes from Jessie’s own writing. Maybe, I thought, pithy quotes from other public figures could fit in as epigraphs as well. But pithy was not a nineteenth century oratorical strong suit. Politicians of the time preferred length and rhetorical flourish. I struggled to snatch out phrases that would do the job of orienting the reader without unnecessary distraction.
“This epigraph isn’t helping the poem,” said Martha Collins, kind enough to read a pre-publication draft of the book. “It isn’t helping in this one, either.”
The book was not ready for publication. I had to rethink some of my poetic strategies. I held on to only a few epigraphs, and those I held on to tenaciously. Most of these quoted Jessie who knew how to be concise, and they were in poems well-focused on the subject matter of the quote.
Epigraph caution partially learned, let’s fast forward to Sharon Dolin’s 2017 ekphrastic poetry workshop in Barcelona. Several of the workshop poets defaulted to the epigraph as a way of acknowledging the artist whose work inspired the poem. Sharon sometimes focused her comments on other aspects of the poem, but often she questioned the epigraph. “What does this add to your poem?” she asked. She also said poems inspired by a painting or sculpture but developed in ways that took them far from the original piece did not need to acknowledge the starting point, not in an epigraph or in any other means. Most of the time, she found the epigraph to be clutter that got between the reader and the poem. Clutter.
I began to see. An epigraph could serve as a greeter or butler, showing a guest into the parlor, but it might also be a bulldog leashed near the front door who’d give the guest pause about approaching the home altogether.
Recently I judged a state-wide poetry contest. About ten percent of the entries had epigraphs. Some of these poems had, to my thinking, considerable merit, but there were at least twice as many potential prize winners as there were prizes, so the judging came down to fine points. In the case of at least one poem that fine point was the epigraph. It related somewhat to the situation the poem described, but the relation seemed uncertain. After several re-readings, my favorable impression of the poem’s imagery faded as I was still wrestling with the question of whether the epigraph helped the poem.
I understood finally why some of the epigraphs in my Jessie poems had to go. I had my heart set on them, but it was an unrequited love. Nothing could make the match work. They didn’t really suit one another. In the puzzle the misfit created, the strengths of the poem were overshadowed. Some readers may be smart or practical or careless enough to overlook a mismatch. Sometimes I am that reader. But as a poet I don’t want to have to rely on a reader’s pity or shoulder shrug. Epigraph as greeter, as butler, yes. Let that epigraph usher your reader in. Epigraph as bulldog, no.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Margaret Rozga has published four books of poetry, including Pestiferous Questions: A Life in Poems (2017). Her work has been included in seven collaborative exhibits with visual artists. Her prose and poetry have appeared recently in the Whale Road Review, Peacock Journal, and Mom Egg Review. She writes a monthly column for the Los Angeles Art News.