First of all I constantly mix up epigrams and epitaphs. I have various ‘tricks’ to keep the difference in my mind, but my young young brain still likes to think epiGRAm, like GRAve. But anyway, epigrams (I just wiki-ed to make sure I got it correct) have been on my mind a lot recently. I will give you specific reasons another time. THE POINT IS I’ve questioned how these brief quotes placed like a cherry on top of a collection function.
Or, how should it function?
Without interrogation, I assumed that the epigram a poet chooses is one of those lines they cull to memory. I am a terror for doing that, I have lines of poems that I have carried around for so long that they exist entirely out of their original context in my mind. Some examples:
‘restraint so passionate / implies possession’ — Louise Gluck, Palais des Artes
‘As for me, I am a watercolor. / I wash off’ — Anne Sexton, For My Lover, Returning to his Wife
‘I’m no biologist / But I know what I like / and I know how to follow it home’ — Heather Christle, Today I Saw A Plant
‘and in a sense we’re all winning / we’re alive’ — Frank O’Hara, Steps (actually I’ve culled most of this poem)
The with culling certain lines is that come to have their own significance in your mind, they are no longer tempered or illuminated by the context of the poem. As an epigram, such lines are more a personal talisman of the poet. In this way, the epigram is less of a performative and not indicative of any kind of dialogue between the epigram and the text.
To perform rather than lay on the front page as an amulet, doesn’t the epigram have meaning in itself, and in regard to the following poems, as well as somehow stimulate a path back to its original context, this other poem and for that text to have meaning as a larger epigram?
The epigram is not an icon, it is the compact of a conversation.
What matters is this: void. The world alone. The river’s mouth.
It is a line from one of the poem’s in Federico Garcia Lorca’s Poet in New York/ Poeta en Nueva York. The whole poem could intertwine with Limon’s sequence, ‘Sharks in the Rivers’ and the following shape-shifting leitmotif of water within the collection. Inherent in both (Lorca’s poem and Limon’s collection) is the an occupation with the liminal space, of the edge of things, more subtle that the Romantic standing at the Abyss.
What this poor meditation comes back to is the question of how to choose an epigram. To say outright in some keywords of a culled line ‘this is how I felt writing’ or ‘this is how I want you to feel when you read’, or to create a dialogue with another piece of work, giving the reader paths if they would like to go off in search.
I’ll let you know how it goes.