The Triumph of the EpigraphPrint
By David Lehman
March 14, 2017
The use of an epigraph to trigger a poem has proved its worth time and again, and this week’s results illustrate why.
Courtney Thrash won me over with “A Portrait of the Aging Artist” with its epigraph from the painter Helen Frankenthaler.
A picture is a lie of sorts … it is depicting things that it is not in itself.
His lens mocks her nose, reversing,
exaggerating the reflected curve.
The photographer adjusts his lamp
and quips, “Good lighting is the original
Photoshop.” Her laugh is warm
and damp, like moss growing
on a soul. It surprises his ears—
organs attuned to the titters
of mannequins. It paints the room
with the smell of home before escaping
through the open window.
He snaps the shutter.
I love equally Diana Ferraro’s entry, with this epigraph from Henry James:
“Christopher Newman.” Then she tried to repeat it aloud, and laughed at her bad accent. “Your English names are so droll!”
“Droll?” said Mr. Newman, laughing too. “Did you ever hear of Christopher Columbus?”
“Bien sûr! He invented America; a very great man. And is he your patron?”
“Your patron-saint, in the calendar.”
“Oh, exactly; my parents named me for him.”
“Monsieur is American?”
“Don’t you see it?” monsieur inquired.
—Henry James, The American
Forget the pink pinafore, Corneille and Racine,
Should I replace them with the first English rhyme?
Erase alexandrines, your old fables, La Fontaine!
Speak like Shakespeare, any of the queens, Ann Boleyn!
For God’s sake, send Quixote and his language away,
Why settle for the second when you may own the first?
Enough with Borges, Puig, and the rest of your crew,
Which is your tongue if your mother never talked to you?
Ride the Saxon horse, learn his short breath,
Clap and dance, smash the long Latin words!
Could I? Isn’t it too late? Why should I dare?
Think of the infinite American space! That next line you can draw!
Here is bronze-medal winner Millicent Caliban’s untitled entry:
Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you
elsewhere, often to places far away … —Mohsin Hamid
(Dedicated to Hilary Mantel)
Immersed in the time of the Tudors,
With Henry and Thomas at court,
Scanning the seas with Columbus,
Or trekking with Lewis and Clark,
To pierce the impenetrable
Border that bars us from reaching
The Past, there must be a secret.
My history books and novels
Still beckon me on to the search,
But experience thwarts my journey.
I’m trapped in the nowness of now,
Half convinced I’ll never find how.
I would propose as this poem’s title “The Secret.” Saying that, however, I begin to wonder: Good as the last five lines are, is it possible that the poem would be even better if it ended with “there must be a secret,” with the reader on the edge of the cliff?
The Willa Cather quote and the wonderful simile (“than a swallow consummates a destiny”) distinguish this poem by Ricky Ray:
There are only two or three human stories,
and they go on repeating themselves
as fiercely as if they had never happened before.
I’m merely human. That’s such bullshit
I shed it in kindergarten, or before:
under the crib with two white hounds;
in the backyard, we circled the bowl
of kibble and ate, eyeing the cats
in case. A form—flame at the tip of a wick—
no more encapsulates the being it is
than a swallow consummates a destiny:
quick stop along the way: lovers knock
the candle aside to put out their own fire,
and by the time the smell of the drapes
joins in, the timbers are already crackling.
Elizabeth Solsburg’s “Teresa of Kolkata” lives up to its Henry James epigraph and has the week’s best closing couplet:
“Deep experience is never peaceful.” — Henry James
Agnes of God put on serenity every day,
composed her face the way
she arranged the folds of a blue-edged sari
to veil her private Gethsemani,
her garden overgrown with choking fear,
sown in salted ground year after year —
its seeds blown in on the winds of ambivalence
and thriving in the icy, vaulted silence
that was the eternal answer she received
when she asked herself in whom she believed.
I can’t cite all the worthy poems, but I can’t leave unmentioned Bryan Johnson’s “William James” with its marvelous ending:
There’s not much left to argue. Countable stars,
whole flights of auguring swans shot through
some transit. It’s sacrilege all the time.
I’m still waiting for the feet to move, a drifting thing
hugely ruined, figured to follow
this word so late to be coming here
comes to nothing. Antinomian headlong
smaller than sacred a new dream-mark
pinned to an oak. Said but thought of thing.
Argue if you’d like, I’m waiting on you
to save us from the tongue-stone, mazing
beautiful August blind to the new fence.
Thank you, all.
For next week, I thought we’d build on the success of the epigraph theory of generating poetry. I have chosen two lines from Charles Bukowski. Either of which, it seems to me, could serve as the springboard for a poem:
“what matters most is how well you walk through the fire”
“Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think, I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside—remembering all the times you’ve felt that way.”
“Brevity is the soul of wit,” Polonius says, and though his own practice seems to belie the assertion, it holds nevertheless. I therefore specify an eight-line poem.
Deadline: Midnight, Saturday, March 18, 2017.
David Lehman is a poet and the general editor of The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City.
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