Writing Poetry: The Epigram

How many of you have written an epigram?  Probably most of you.  Maybe you didn’t realize that is what you were writing.

Many years ago, when I was in college (just after the stone age and well into the stoned age), I took a course in poetry.  My excellent professor, Dr. Drummond,  informed us that there were two ways to teach poetry:  first, to start students out with just writing so they would get comfortable with the doing of poetry and work to define their voices from that, and second, to start students out with the discipline of form and gradually loosen as their voices became better defined.  He preferred the latter approach.  He believed in discipline as a foundation for good art.

Our first assignment was the shortest form of poetry (perhaps next to the Haiku, which has already been covered), the epigram.  There are several definitions of the epigram out there, from any witty, ingenious, or pointed saying tersely expressed to a short, often satirical poem dealing concisely with a single subject and usually ending with a witty or ingenious turn of thought definitions here.  Some define it as “A statement, or any brief saying in prose or poetry, in which there is an apparent contradiction. A very short, satirical and witty poem usually written as a brief couplet or quatrain.” link.  I use the first definition, a short poem with punch or irony to it.  To me, an epigram is like a leather glove to the face.  Some examples of epigrams include (from here):

Discontent is the first necessity of progress.—Thomas Alva Edison

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.
—Dorothy Parker

If you can’t be a good example,
then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.—Catherine the Great

There is no glory in outstripping donkeys.—Marcus Valerius Martial

As blushing may make a whore seem virtuous,
so modesty may make a fool seem sensible.—Jonathan Swift

Questions are never indiscreet, answers sometimes are. —Oscar Wilde

Epigrams are not always harsh, they can be tender:

The births of all things are weak and tender,
therefore we should have our eyes intent on beginnings.
—Michel de Montaigne

Or wise

The births of all things are weak and tender,
therefore we should have our eyes intent on beginnings.
—Michel de Montaigne

Some are puns.  Some take known phrases and twist them.

Epigrams today can be found on bumper stickers, advertisements and grave stones.  Whatever they are, they look easy but require much discipline.  This is how you write an epigram:

1)  Put the idea down on paper (or on CRT)
2)  Apply a tourniquet

So how do you apply a tourniquet?  (I do this with all my writing.  Perhaps it is because my professor started with the epigram, but it seems to work.)
1)  Find and replace all the weak words.   Weak words are auxilliary words, passive voice (unless the point of the poem is to be passive), adjectives, adverbs, etc.  Never use a noun and an adjective when a more colorful noun can work alone.  Same with verb and adverb.  I try to eschew both adverbs and adjectives unless forced to use them.  To me they are second class words.  I also write in present active voice whenever possible.
2)  Find and replace unnecessarily complicated words.  My pet peeve is “utilize.”  I find that in almost any situation where utilize shows up, use would have worked just as well, without the pomp.  Another word I hate is “provide,”  unless I am talking about food on the table or clothes on the back.  It is a word that has been so overused it no longer has a firm meaning.  There is almost always a more concise word.  See what words you can replace with simple, precise words.
3)  Remove any word or even syllable that is not absolutely required.  In multisyllabic words, see if there is a word that serves with fewer syllables.
4)  Listen to the mood your words create.  If a word does not create the mood by its very sound, replace it with one that does.  Sibilants suggest wind, snakes, whispering.  Short a’s suggest flatness.  P’s and t’s pop, k’s smack. Long e’s make you smile or grimace.  And so on.  The sound of the words goes a long way to create the picture.
5.  Listen to the rhythm.  Rearrange the words or lines to evoke the cadence you seek.
6.  Put it away and return a few days later.  Something will stand out to you when you are not in the throes of writing.

Here are a few of my own epigrams:

I do not tell you our love is gone
Not because I’m afraid it will hurt you
But because I’m afraid it will not.

© Julia Varnell-Sarjeant 2011

To my kinsman the mallard
Because it is our lot to choose
Between being the game and the prey

© Julia Varnell-Sarjeant 2011

New Beatitude
Blessed are the rebellious spirits
For they shall be agents of change

© Julia Varnell-Sarjeant 2011