Theme and Variations – Epigraphs and Poems

roybeckemeyerheadshotMany poets are also dedicated readers of poetry. I certainly am; I read with a notebook and pen at hand to jot down intriguing words, lines, stanzas. That notebook is source of writerly inspiration, insight, and, occasionally, epiphany. If a quote inspires a poem, I acknowledge that fact by citing the quote as an epigraph.

The Poetry Foundation defines an epigraph as “A quotation from another literary work that is placed beneath the title at the beginning of a poem or section of a poem.” The use of epigraphs in poetry has a distinguished history. David Orr noted, in his New York Times article “The Age of Citation” (Sunday Book Review, Sept. 17, 2010) that: “Chaucer opened ‘The Knight’s Tale’ with a quotation from the Roman poet Statius; Alexander Pope … with an epigraph from Ovid …”

Epigraphs can be seen as pretentious, as an attempt to endow a poem with a pedigree it might not deserve. Orr alludes to this in his essay. But I prefer the view expressed by poet Aracelis Girmay in an interview by Elizabeth Acevedo (“How do you go about finding the heart?” – The Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress):

I am interested in the epigraph … as a conversation between at least two voices … [it] becomes something pulled from the writer’s history … marks the legacy and influence by which that poem was made … [and] in the way the poem looks or acts like a collage when there’s an epigraph. The work of bringing two things together from different minds, moments, sources – and bringing them into conversation. Re-contextualization! I love that the epigraph and poem, in juxtaposition, offer new ways of seeing relationships between things.

As an example, I offer up a poem of mine that appeared in the 2014 issue of Kansas City Voices. “Ways of the Wind” was inspired by a quote from Xanath Caraza’s lovely poem, “Matilde en la Hamaca.” Here is the epigraph:

There she was
In her yellow dress
And her hair open to adventure …

Those words had me visualizing a girl with wind-blown hair traveling to exotic locales, the wind taking her from India to Spain to Peru to the sands of the Sinai and the Sahara, becoming her companion in adventure and romance.

So, epigraphs – positive or negative? Read the poem and let me know your thoughts.

– Roy Beckemeyer

2 thoughts on “Theme and Variations – Epigraphs and Poems

  1. Diane Wahto

    I seldom use epigraphs, but at times an epigraph seems appropriate. When I wrote “Swimming to Shore,” based on my experience swimming in Lake Huron, I thought of the poem, “Not Waving, but Drowning,” by Stevie Smith. Alluding to that poem gave an ironic edge to my poem that I wanted. The epigraph on your poem is perfect. It does serve as a collage, brining two poems together to add depth to each.

    Reply
    1. Roy Beckemeyer

      Good point about the use of allusion in a poem; if it is recognized by the reader, it accomplishes the same ends as the epigraph. Love your use of “collage” to describe the function of the epigraph.
      Thanks, Diane.

      Reply

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