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:

Dilemma
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

Invocation
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


Writing Poetry – The Villanelle

A villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. It consists of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem’s two concluding lines. Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form is: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2.

What I like about villanelles is how versatile they are.  They can serve for almost any occasion.

Villanelles can be fun:

The Lady Dances To the Violin
“O wad some powr the giftie gie us” … Robert Burns

The lady dances to the violin
She strives to win her gallant paramour
While lightly, lightly bobs her double chin.

Her slippers tripping, marking each refrain
Gently placed, in order, on the floor:
The lady dances to the violin.

She smiles, she laughs, she then pouts on a whim
Her pink chiffon hints of a coups d’amour
While lightly, lightly bobs her double chin.

She swears that they must try that pas again
The dandy hurries to the players, for
His lady dances to the violin.

The hours pass, her corsets start to strain,
She smiles, denying that her feet are sore
While lightly, lightly bobs her double chin.

At last, the other dancers form a train
To exit, yet she looks not to the door.
The lady dances to the violin
While lightly, lightly bobs her double chin

© Julia F. Varnell-Sarjeant 2011

Villanelles can express inspiration:

I heard the Robins Wake the Dawn

As day was coming, dousing dark with grays
And sun rose, nagging night to move along
I heard the robins wake the dawn with praise

The new beginning swept the yesterdays
Into the black abyss where nights belong
As day was coming, dousing dark with grays

The falcons wove in intricate ballets
Beating time to mourning doves’ new song
I heard the robins wake the dawn with praise

The minstrel paused, musing on his lays
Taking pleasure in the growing dawn
As day was coming, dousing dark with grays

High in the weeping birch the homestead sways
As beak to beak the mothers feed their young
I heard the robins wake the day with praise

And thus the mornings pass into the days
Extinguishing the night lights one by one
As day was coming, dousing dark with grays
I heard the robins wake the dawn with praise.

© Julia F. Varnell-Sarjeant 2011

Villanelles can express nostalgia or melancholy:

We know so little

We know so little when we’re young, inspired
The words we’d speak but lack the wit to form,
Before the wisdom comes we’re old, grown tired

The energies and dreams ambitions fired
Are trapped by untaught rhetoric, unborn
We know so little when we’re young, inspired

Disillusioned by what we desired,
Eager striving sours to weary scorn.
Before the wisdom comes we’re old, grown tired.

All plans and all intentions, so soon mired
Into a web of ritual aging storm:
“We know so little when we’re young, inspired.”

In time we mock the ideals we once squired
As Don Quixotes chasing fireflies, born
Before the wisdom comes.  We’re old, grown tired.

And as those visions one by one are pyred
The endless lines of stars turned ashes form.
We know so little when we’re young, inspired:
Before the wisdom comes we’re old, grown tired.

© Julia F. Varnell-Sarjeant 2011

Best of all, villanelles can be political.

Ode to Teabaggers

Their faces disfigure, contort with rage
They’re pining for a past that’s never been
They can’t accept the coming modern age

The hater and the screamer is their sage
Outshouting debate, creating a din
Their faces disfigure, contort with rage

The consequences of the war they wage
Not thought of, caring only that they win
They can’t accept the coming modern age

Fighting on as history turns a page
The fury grows as rationale grows thin
Their faces disfigure, contort with rage

In anger, with violence they engage
Insisting different ideas are a sin
They can’t accept the coming modern age

Growling, like lions in a cage
Not wanting a new era to begin
Their faces disfigure, contort with rage
They can’t accept the coming modern age

© Julia F. Varnell-Sarjeant 2011