The epigram is one of the briefest of poetic forms, but, as the derivation of the name might suggest, it is also one of the most enduring. Originally a Greek stone inscription, the form found its feet in Rome, especially in the frequently risqué works of Martial. In common with many short forms, the epigram looks easier to do than it is. A good epigram demands that the poet masters two of the most difficult things to achieve in verse, brevity and wit. A successful epigram will both encapsulate its subject in a few short lines and add a witty twist that makes us see it in a new light.
Given its origins, it’s hardly surprising that the epigram has appealed to English poets of an Augustan bent. Alexander Pope’s “You know where you did despise” meets both of the main criteria for a good epigram while simultaneously being as scabrous as anything that Martial managed. Walter Savage Landor’s Dirce is more explicitly classical in imagery than Pope’s poem, but more Victorian in its handling of the theme of lust. Fine as these poems are, I feel the need to place beside them a more tender, romantic epigram of love, Sara Teasdale’s Faults.
During the century or so before Pope, the Metaphysicals and the 17th-century songwriters were also fond of epigram writing. Donne’s distich, “A Lame Beggar” operates almost at the level of a riddle or puzzle poem while “But Men Loved Darkness” by Richard Crashaw is a fine example of that all-too-rare genre, the witty religious poem.
It may seem an odd conjunction, but I can’t but hear an echo of Crashaw in Hemingway’s “Chapter Heading”; it’s a shame that Ernest didn’t write more epigrams as the form seems ideally suited to his terse style.
In fact, it is interesting to see how writers have made this short poem their own: “Resumé” could only have been written by Dorothy Parker, “‘Faith’ is a fine invention” is unmistakeably an Emily Dickinson poem and “Fire and Ice” has Robert Frost written all over it. These poems are all excellent examples of the epigram, but equally they serve to show how even the slightest and most conventional poetic form can be moulded by an individual voice.
And so, this National Poetry Day, I invite you to share your own brief and witty epigrams. As with satire, the range of subjects the world around us offers up for epigrammatic treatment is broad indeed, so go on, have a go. It’s only a few words, after all, just a couple of lines. Well, maybe four. Or so.
And especially to mark the day, I’d like to finish up with a particularly apt epigram by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/oct/07/poster-poems-epigrams