I mentioned to Helen Pinkerton my growing interest in the epigram, a poetic form at once concise and extraordinarily difficult to master, and that I was reading Epigrams of Martial Englished by Divers Hands (edited by J.P. Sullivan and Peter Whigham, University of California Press, 1987). Included are “Englished” versions by seventy translators, including R.L. Barth, J.V. Cunningham and James Michie (the version I know best). To Helen I sent Martial's VII.62 as translated by Richard O'Connell, a poem neatly dispensing with much of today’s poetry and first-century Rome’s:
"Because the Muses turn their backsides on Aper
He writes his poems on toilet paper."
“Epigrams are very hard to write well. Cunningham did so, because, I think, he worked so hard at it and wrote a great number. For many poets they are only a sideline. Also, as he notes somewhere, brevity was characteristic of his temperament and style from the beginning. No epics for him. I praised his work once to him when he was visiting us in Palo Alto and he responded quite self-deprecatingly that he hadn't written anything long or `major’ or words to that effect. Some critics (I can't recall who just now) have made an argument that his `To What Strangers What Welcome’ should be regarded as a unified sequence somewhat equivalent to a single poem. I find that hard to do. He really loved the Renaissance epigrammatists, More, George Buchanan, and John Owen, besides the Romans, and learned from them.”
Sullivan and Whigham select two of Cunningham’s translations, including IV.69:
“You serve the best wine always, my dear sir,
And yet they say your wines are not so good.
They say you are four times a widower.
They say…A drink? I don’t believe I would.”
An epigram customarily comes equipped with a barb, a sort of time-released punchline, like a joke but cooler and drier. Take one of R.L. Barth’s own, “Don’t You Know Your Poems Are Hurtful?” (Deeply Dug In, 2003), which epigrammatically defines the epigram:
“Yes, ma’am, like KA-BAR to the gut,
Well-tempered wit should thrust and cut
Before the victim knows what’s what;
But sometimes, lest the point be missed,
I give the bloody blade a twist.”
Martial’s/Cunningham’s above reads like a cross between a syllogism and one of La Rochefoucauld’s maximes. Like the latter, it packs a psychological or ethical insight. In the same vein but more complexly is one of Cunningham’s own epigrams, written in 1960 (according to Timothy Steele, editor of The Poems of J.V. Cunningham, 1997):
“I write you in my need. Please write
As simply, in terms black and white,
And do not fear hyperbole,
I can believe the best of me.”
And this, from 1966, with images perhaps drawn from Cunningham’s youth in Montana:
"There is a ghost town of abandoned love
With tailings of used hope, leavings of risk,
Deserted cherishings masked with new life,
Where the once ugly is now picturesque.”
Finally, from 1965, a mingling of sadness and acid (a Cunningham specialty), titled “On a Letter”:
“Unsigned, almost unsent, and all unsaid
Except the sending, which I take as read.”
For the sake of symmetry – and pleasure, of course – here is one of Helen’s epigrams (Taken in Faith, 2002):
“Poet admires the young man’s poem for this:
`It is your own. All is as you require it.’
But subject, tone, and feeling are all his.
I wrote this in his style. He may admire it.”