In defense of epigraphs in poetry

I like epigraphs in poetry. But when I add them to my own poems or poetry collections, according to an essay by David Orr in the upcoming New York Times Sunday Book Review, I do so for one or more of the following five reasons. (The first he supplies himself, and the latter four are borrowed from Gérard Genette — a work called Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, which I haven’t read.)

  1. I’m taking part in an age-old literary tradition. Orr acknowledges that epigraph-inclusion is in part just “poets doing what poets have always done,” but the premise of his essay is that we live in a uniquely epigraph-prone “Age of Citations.”
  2. I’m explaining or commenting on the title of my piece.
  3. I’m explaining or commenting on the body of the piece.
  4. I need to reference the epigraph’s author for some reason; the substance of the epigraph itself is fairly arbitrary.
  5. I feel a need to demonstrate learning, and am trying to position myself in the pantheon of great writers, and the poem within the literary canon.

“That last function is the most relevant one for contemporary poetry,” Orr maintains. Academic poets might use an epigraph to signal which faction of modern poetry they owe allegiance to, he suggests, and some poets might feel lonely or insecure without the reminder that they are part of some larger tradition. But this creates a bit of a quandary for a poet who might also want to connect with a more general audience, whose members would tend to be more familiar with currently out-of-fashion authors such as Eliot than with the ever-fashionable Wallace Stevens, say.

I don’t deny that these might all be factors influencing the use and choice of epigraphs, and I think Orr is correct that name-dropping is a double-edged sword: anything likely to impress one crowd is guaranteed to be a turn-off for some other crowd. So if name-dropping is one of your main motivations for using epigraphs, it’s probably going to backfire, unless you truly don’t care about reaching a broader audience, and poetry just happens to be the way you win friends and influence people in your pretentious little circle.

But the essay fails to mention what is to my mind the main reason poets use epigraphs. Perhaps it’s so obvious as to need no explication, but I’ve always thought that my most valuable attribute as (ahem!) a thinker is my ability to point out the obvious, so here goes: epigraphs are a convenient shortcut to alterity, a way of letting other voices in. They are sometimes integral to the original inspiration, and at other times simply a by-product of writerly enthusiasm, but in either case, they situate the poem not merely in a tradition but also within a kind of network of shared wonder at similar phenomena, ideas, or linguistic perversities.

What do I mean by “network of shared wonder”? When poets speak of inspiration, that isn’t just a literary affectation; one really does feel that images and ideas are coming from somewhere outside of, and quite different from, one’s own accustomed ways of looking at the world. Trying to write poetry is for me — and I suspect for many others — largely an excuse to open myself to otherness, a legal but powerfully addictive mind-altering experience. Emotions associated with such an encounter include apprehension, puzzlement, confusion, fear and awe: in a word, wonder.

Quite often, the spark for a poem comes from another text, and so one includes an epigraph simply to acknowledge one’s indebtedness, in the same way a blogger might include a “hat-tip” mention (albeit at the end of a post, not at the beginning) to acknowledge their source for a link. But sometimes also other writers’ words pop into one’s head during the course of composition or (more commonly) revision, and the excitement at one’s own creation/discovery is heightened by the recognition of a fellow traveler. Perhaps for some, more ambitious poets, such excitement might be colored by competitiveness or the desire to genuflect, but that’s not my experience.

Of course, concerns about audience should play a role in shaping every piece of writing, though it’s up to the writer and the venue to decide what sort and how much of a role. For the kind of poetry I write, I envision a reasonably well-educated reader who will get some allusions (from the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, etc.) without any need for epigraphs or notes. If the poem depends heavily on a current pop-culture reference that older or less tuned-in readers might not get, that’s more likely to merit an epigraph. In general, I tend to err on the side of caution and add a note or epigraph if I think readers might need it even at the expense of some notion of textual purity. Here online, a comments section can supply additional opportunities for explication, so perhaps epigraphs aren’t quite as necessary as they are in print.

I like epigraphs, as I’ve said, and it annoys me that U.S. copyright law remains murky about whether we need permission to use them, while at the same time being quite clear that quotes in a review or journal article are perfectly permissible. Why should critics and scholars be favored over creative writers? But if this is the era of ever more generous interpretations of intellectual property, it’s also the era of the remix, and I’m following the battle between the private-property zealots and the remixers with great interest. I wonder whether the recent explosion in epigraph use that Orr identifies doesn’t simply reflect the influence of remix culture.

Long-time readers of Via Negativa may remember suffering through the serialization of my epic poem Cibola, which I think represents this new zeitgeist as well as anything. There are many things about it I’d change if I ever decided to seek print publication, but the regular sections of epigraphs would unquestionably remain. I entitled these sections “Reader,” which had a double meaning: on the one hand, they together constituted a reader, i.e. a select anthology of works related to the themes of the poem. On the other hand, they were an attempt to suggest the provisionality of my own understanding of these sources by giving the reader(s) of the text equal status to the characters in the poem, who lent their names to the other section titles. I envisioned future readers of the poem and the people whose quotes I’d harvested for epigraphs as together constituting a kind of Greek chorus.

My primary practical motivation for including so many epigraphs in Cibola corresponded to the third of Orr’s reasons: to comment on the body of the text, which I didn’t want to load down with footnotes. But they were also meant to be read as an integral part of that body. Including them was an act of forced assimilation, which struck me as appropriate in a work about the conquest. “Found poetry” and modernist texts such as William Carlos Williams’ Paterson were my main models.

I’m not enough of a scholar to know if Orr is correct in attributing the modernist fascination with quoting and borrowing the words of others mainly to Eliot’s influence, but it seems to me that whoever might be responsible for starting the trend, it’s important also to understand why it continues. In the pre-modern era, major writers were few in number and came from a narrow cross-section of British and American society. In the 100+ years since, the canon has grown exponentially to include female voices, post-colonial voices, and voices from every class and ethnic background. Bewildering as this state of affairs may be to some critics and literary gatekeepers, I find it exhilarating, and I suspect most other creative writers feel the same way. And I think most of us realize at some level that if we want to remain relevant, and if we want to maintain access to the wellsprings of inspiration, we need to stay open to the influence and energy of all those new voices.

17 Replies to “In defense of epigraphs in poetry”

  1. I like your explanation of epigraphs as being a way of “…letting other voices in” very much, Dave. Also, I would add (also obviously): a way of conversing directly with other writers across time and space. An epigraph can do a lot on the page, too, for the reader: contextualize, mood-set, jar, subvert –

    I do feel like I see overuse of them for less generous reasons (seeking ‘legitimacy’ of some kind, usually – too often, it feels like they’re a marker of having something to prove). But that ain’t all of it.

    In my own stuff, 9 times out of 10 when I start with one I edit it out in revision, because it was serving as scaffold for what the finished poem (eventually) held up fine on its own. And I admit that they annoy me in other people’s work when I feel like they’re doing the work the poem itself is supposed to do. But that 1 time in 10 when they utterly change the work, make it bigger – in those cases there’s no other way to open that door that effectively.

    1. An epigraph can do a lot on the page, too, for the reader: contextualize, mood-set, jar, subvert

      Good point. I hope Genette covered some of these in his essay. If poetry is in part an exercise in empathy, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that poets have these reactions very much in mind.

      I think you’re right about epigraphs tending to drop out in revision — that’s been my experience, too. I also used to fonder of them when I was younger and less sure of myself as a poet. I wouldn’t characterize my reaction to other poets’ overuse of epigraphs as annoyance, exactly — I guess most of the time I see them as readily ignorable. (Which kind of contradicts what I said about epigrams being intrinsic to Cibola, but that represented an extreme rather than a typical example of epigram usage.)

  2. Dave, I agree with Jessamyn: Your explanation for using epigraphs as a way of “…letting other voices in” is wonderful.

    I also agree with her about overuse and as scaffolding. I have often used them only to omit them on the completed poem or in the completed book. I find I’m using them less and less for the reasons stated above.

    I think sometimes we so much want our readers to “get it” that we tell them what the poem is about by using an epigraph, when what we should be doing is trusting our readers’ intelligence and allowing them to bring their own interpretation to the work.

    But, yes, as Jessamyn says, we need to use epigraphs “that 1 time in 10 when they utterly change the work.”

    1. I think that’s an important point, and a tough lesson to learn — that we need to trust our readers. Sometimes I still err in one direction or another, and posting poems here can help clue me into that: for example, if several readers miss what I thought was the point of the poem.

      I do feel more than one epigram or note at the beginning of a poem that’s one page in length or shorter makes it visually and perhaps conceptually top-heavy. I had an interesting (and very congenial) argument with Diane Wakoski over the second poem of hers that we published for your Health issue of qarrtsiluni. She had had a five-line epigraph from Gary Snyder plus a note about Isadore Duncan’s death at the beginning of the poem, in addition to an endnote about William Stafford’s “Travelling Through the Dark” for anyone who was unfamiliar with the poem. Although I was pleased that she agreed to move both notes to the end of the poem, I also admired her populist instinct to err on the side of caution in making sure readers understood the references — which is quite different from telling them how to think about the poem, of course. I’m not sure the Snyder epigraph was completely necessary (here’s the poem again) but I think for her it was a shout-out to a long-time friend and contemporary.

    2. “I think sometimes we so much want our readers to “get it” that we tell them what the poem is about by using an epigraph, when what we should be doing is trusting our readers’ intelligence and allowing them to bring their own interpretation to the work.”

      Yes, exactly this. The points about trusting the readers to ‘get it’ is huge – and also, I think it’s better to leave doors open for readers in general. If they go somewhere entirely other than where we meant them to go, but they go and it’s good, that’s good. My epigraph might make the poem smaller, not larger.

  3. I like your point about “wonder,” too, Dave. One other point I would raise with Orr is that his categorization is too serious for some epigraphs; he misses the role of irony and sarcasm in epigraphs. Epigraphs not as explication or homage or commentary, but as humor.

  4. Along with the rest of these posts, epigraphs are an added layer of voice for my work. And I like them. I like being reminded poetry is an inheritance and epigraphs can be like using the silver on Thanksgiving or the turkey itself. I don’t know who y’all are reading right now but I’m not finding a epigraphs everywhere and under the mushrooms. I actually read some current poets and see how what could be an epigraph is interwoven into a poem only to show off an education.

  5. You’re right on the money with this, Dave, and the commenters have extrapolated really usefully too. I’ll simply repeat approval of and accord with the central point of alterity and its substantiation in that excellent phrase ‘a network of wonder’. Much of my work draws fire from a specific epigrammatic spark and even if the poem doesn’t incorporate the specific alignment of words (‘Cast a cold eye on life, on death…’, ‘I saw Eternity the other night / Like a great ring of pure and endless light…’), they’ll glow in my mind throughout the drafting of the piece and will return when subsequently I read the poem.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Dick. Yesterday I was reading some of the work that Orr quotes, Genette’s Paratexts, and was interested to learn that this practice of applying epigraphs from other authors to the front of books, then chapters, then later still poems, is really only something that’s taken off since the Romantic period. But to me it’s just the latest manifestation of the basic call-and-reponse or epistolary approach to poetry community-building that goes back to ancient times in the West, and flourished in other poetry-centric civilizations as well.

  6. This discussion is fascinating and invaluable (and a very good rejoinder to Orr’s somewhat presumptuous essay—Why not ASK a few poets about their epigraph usage?). However, I don’t see anyone articulating the reason I often use an epigraph: to acknowledge inspiration. I am often struck by a line of phrase in a poem that leads me to create a poem of my own. It’s a combination of source acknowledgment and homage.

    1. Hi Gregory – Thanks for commenting. Yes, I do think this is a primary reason for epigraphs. (That’s kind of what I was getting at in the 6th paragraph when I said “Quite often, the spark for a poem comes from another text, and so one includes an epigraph simply to acknowledge one’s indebtedness.”)

      1. Exactly right. sorry I failed to acknowledge that. Between this blog and Bernadette’s link, this topic has generated some excellent and thought-provoking dialogue. I’ll come back more often now!

  7. Thanks so much for this essay and wonderful discussion. You have indeed created a “network of wonder” right here! And I see in the comment right above, from Gregory Luce, my own most frequent spur for an epigraph (whether it’s part of the drafting or the final poem): “to acknowledge inspiration.” Thank you, all!

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