Friday, May 19, 2017

`Often It Is a Versified Sneer'

I wish I had read this a long time ago: “In writing epigrams, most poets gain control over their natural tendency to blab,” which is followed by this sentence: “Besides, an epigram permits them to get a gripe off their chests.” As bloat proliferates, short forms look more attractive as a corrective to congenital logorrhea. The author is X.J. Kennedy in “Gists, Piths, and Poison-Pills: The Art of the Epigram” (An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, 2002).

I’m no epigrammist – no poet at all – but the lesson is useful and has applications in everything we write, prose or verse. Even bloggers, a gassy, sentimental bunch, can learn to be ruthless with words. Concision encourages logic and wit and discourages blather. Here is A.E. Housman (More Poems, 1936) on the Boer War:     

“Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.”

Epigrams often come barbed in their final line. They resemble jokes more than sonnets, and permit no flab. Here is “Avant-garde” by John Frederick Nims (The Powers of Heaven and Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2002), in which the sentiment is admirable but the punch line is at once heavy-handed and diffuse:

“`A dead tradition! Hollow shell!
Outworn, outmoded—time it fell.
Let’s make it new. Rebel! Rebel!’
Said cancer-cell to cancer-cell.”

The master of the epigram in English is J.V. Cunningham. Kennedy elsewhere says of him, “you had to respect a man of his sour integrity,” a quality almost unique to Cunningham, at least since the death of Walter Savage Landor. Here is his “Epigram 23” from the sequence "Epigrams: A Journal" (The Judge is Fury, 1947):  

“Dark thoughts are my companions. I have wined
With lewdness and with crudeness, and I find
Love is my enemy, dispassionate hate
Is my redemption though it come too late,
Though I come to it with a broken head
In the cat-house of the dishevelled dead.”

Ours is an age of euphemism and its demented cousin, obscenity. Both modes lie. No wonder readers find Cunningham inhospitable. The harshness of his truth is corrosive. Let Kennedy defend the epigram and, by implication, Cunningham, its most agile practitioner:

“The epigram is brief, closely packed, and single-minded in making its point. Often it is a versified sneer. From that definition, you might think it a mere nasty little bug, deserving only to be stepped on. In fact, some poetry editors hold that view. They are the kind who prefer godawfully serious poems, and mistake length in poetry for importance. Yet when it clicks, an epigram in verse can be memorable, funny—even beautiful, to anyone who can relish the deft placing of words inside tight space.”

1 comment:

Choderlos Laclos said...

I think you are too hard on the Nims quatrain. It's a perfect apologia for conservatism and for being grateful for what are blessed with.