Saturday, August 20, 2011

`They Are What I Had'

A biochemist I interviewed Friday used a phrase new to me – “epigenetic switching.” It refers to changes in gene expression without corresponding changes in the DNA sequence, but put that aside. What struck me was the profusion of English words with the prefix epi-: epitaph, epilogue, epitome, epicenter, epithet, episode, epinephrine, epilepsy, epidermis, epithalamium, epiglottis, epicarp, epidemic, Silas Marner’s adopted daughter and my current favorite, epigram. Language is promiscuous, so a good thing gets around.

The root is the Greek epi meaning “upon, at, close upon (in space or time), on the occasion of, in addition.” “Epigram” is from ἐπίγραμμα (epigramma), “inscription,” from a related verb meaning “to write on, inscribe.” For the Greeks, epigrams started as brief verses written on votive offerings or monuments to the dead. The epigram’s appeal, for this reader, is terseness and wit. It means something and is about something, and those are rare qualities in poetry today. Here is James Michie’s rendering of Martial’s IX.9 (Epigrams of Martial Englished by Divers Hands, edited by J.P. Sullivan and Peter Whigham, 1987):

“Although you’re glad to be asked out,
Whenever you go, you bitch and shout
And bluster. You must stop being rude:
You can’t enjoy free speech and food.”

And this, Martial’s XII.80, translated by Roy F. Butler:

“The worthy not to overpraise
And be misunderstood,
He praises all: if no one’s bad,
Who can he think is good?”

David Sanders recommended to me a book he edited, Steven Kampa’s first collection, Cracks in the Invisible (Ohio University Press, 2011), and it includes an epigram, “Lines for an Inspirational Poster”:

Shoot for the moon, for even if you miss,
You’ll land amongst the stars. Hardly the case.
The more precise conclusion would be this:
You miss, you die, cold and alone in space.”

There’s a young poet to listen to, confirming the hardiness of a good form. In case we need more evidence, Paul Engle, a reader of this blog who lives in the Northeast, writes:

“Inspired by your recent blog post on epigrams, (which you may come to regret presently):

‘Now, now’ said the sinner in earnest to the saint:
‘Belief’ is what the novices and atheists debate.
You and I have seen too much to trot that nag a’mire,
The Miracle is here at hand, no leap of faith required.”

When I asked Paul, who is a research scientist, if I could post his epigram, he agreed and said:

“I have a pen and paper on my nightstand, and as I was drifting off the other night the lines just came to me, so I flipped on the light and scribbled them down. The real shock was in the morning; not only could I read my own handwriting, but the content was decent (at least by my standards)!”

I envy him the ease of composition. That never happens to me. About my stuff Martial writes in I.16 (J.A. Pott’s translation):

“Good work you’ll find, some poor, and much that’s worse;
It takes all sorts to make a book of verse.”

And here is J.V. Cunningham’s go at it (The Poems of J.V. Cunningham, 1997):

“Some good, some middling, and some bad
You’ll find here. They are what I had.”

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