JUST RHYME PLATO WITH POTATO: THE EPIGRAM

Lyric poetry was born from graffiti of Classical Greece.

Lyric poetry was spawned by the epigram, and concision, the memorable, the august, the mournful, inhabited the lyric soul by necessity, due in large part to the physical atmosphere surrounding the funerary monuments upon which epigrams were inscribed.

Ekphrasis lives in the epigram: its meaning, ‘to write on,’ to physically inscribe, chimes with ‘to write on (about) someone or something.  The surface, as much as the subject, determines its source.

A rhyme, a couplet, is a great way to be brief and memorable:

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Inscribed on a monument to the Greco-Persian wars by Simonides (b. 556 BC), this is a war poem, just as much as the Iliad is.

Let’s face it: everyone wants to write something that is remembered.  You might write an epic, and one line of it is recalled; or you might write one memorable epigram among thousands; in either case it’s an epic task.

But it doesn’t have to rhyme; brevity is all.

Pound’s “make it new,” (1934) a stupid phrase, but one, nonetheless, that became famous, is a mere 9 letters in length, and is beaten out only by the famous, “Odi et amo,” (I hate and love) by Catullus, which is only 8 letters.

Since life is short, a short poem can be successful for that very reason; think of the popular elegiac trope, ‘oh life is short! drink today!’ as symposium and mournfulness mingles.

The Romans brought satire and obscenity to the august Greek epigram, and the Roman poet Martial (40 AD) is known as the “original insult comic:”

Long poems can have unified strength,
But shit, your couplet, Cosconi, has too much length.

This critical spirit, alive to measurement and unity, lived in all eras of poetry, from Ancient to Romantic, until it died in the looseness of the modern era.

Shakespeare’s works are bursting with epigrams:

For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

One of our favorite epigrams is Pope’s

I am His Highness’ dog at Kew.
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?

And William Blake has many wonderful ones:

A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent

The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They’d immediately go out

Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night

We are led to believe a lie,
When we see not thro’ the eye

One simply cannot imagine any of these coming from the pen of a Jorie Graham or a John Ashbery.

Coleridge called the epigram a “dwarfish whole.”  The idea of the “whole” seems to be what irks the loose and open moderns.

The early 20th century had its wits—Dorothy Parker, J.V. Cunningham, Ogden Nash—but as we move closer to our era, compressed wit and wisdom seems to have eluded our poets.

John Crowe Ransom, another early 20th century writer who attempted to be witty,  wrote:

In all the good Greek of Plato
I lack my roast beef and potato.

But like “Make it new” and Williams’ silly wheel barrow, this has no wit whatsoever: Plato was the most lifestyle-conscious, political science, ‘meat-and-potatoes’ philosopher ever, a superficial view of his ‘forms,’ notwithstanding.

Just give us, “Little strokes fell great oaks” by Benjamin Franklin.  And writing epigrams of an afternoon, we believe even Scarriet can do better:

Hart Crane was totally insane.

Robert Lowell was a broken bowl.

Sylvia Plath fell victim to wrath.

Delmore Schwartz never wore shorts.

Appearance is all, even in the depths.

Just enough hunger prevents insanity.

Beautiful women are wrong in love and right in everything else.

Boredom is the devil’s only weapon.

Feminism wants one thing: freedom from love.

A woman is pretty until she is loved; then she is beautiful.

A woman is ambitious in love; when she is loved, cautious.

A man is cautious until he is loved; then he’s ambitious.

A man is beautiful when loving; when he is loved, pretty.

We have two choices in life: sleep or poetry.

Death has this advantage: it is the only thing that’s not complex.

There are 3 types of poets: One puts emotion in poems, one leaves it out; the genius does both.

Parent to child, lover to beloved want to be friends—but cannot.

Music exists for one reason: to add body to poetry.

The right context is just a way of saying the wrong context is no context at all.

Public speaking is the art of joking while serious.

Good sex for couples is based on one thing: whether it is before or after dinner.

Desire hopes; love knows.

Love can cool desire as it increases it.

Friendship is love’s runway: smooth on takeoff, rough on landing.

Nature’s not right just because the ingredients on the box are wrong.

Nature wishes to create us and kill us: people tend to do this, too.

Why is life tragic?  Nature wants more, humanity, less.

The endless dilemma: guilty for caring too much, guilty for caring too little.

All successful endeavors—moral or not—have one thing in common: the future.

Literature is politics with the politics put tastefully out of sight.

The greatest error the mind makes is thinking truth is for it—and not the heart.

Betrayal wounds hearts, but sensation kills more.

Depth is all, even on surfaces.

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25 Comments

  1. powersjq said,

    October 17, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    Another quality enhanced by brevity: quotability. Which may just be the most socially useful form of memorability.

    Unsurprisingly, the best ones above concern poetry and/or literature. Some of these above have real promise. Like this one: “We have two choices in life: sleep or poetry.” With meter and rhyme, this could offer a comment on poetry (and perhaps on sleep) worth remembering.

    Granted that one risks and dares sententiousness with epigrams. I suppose one also risks boorishness. This one just seems like leading with one’s chin: “Feminism wants one thing: freedom from love.” I feel confident I could adduce persuasive evidence that feminism wants (or has wanted) several things not covered by “freedom from love”–participation in primogeniture, the suffrage, and wage equality come to mind. If I grant that boorish wit is still wit, will you grant that it is also still boorish?

  2. Gary B. Fitzgerald said,

    October 18, 2013 at 1:13 am

    The Poems Speak

    Simple, plain and simple, we,
    for life is plain and simple.
    Picture an ocean, for example, wild and deep,
    filled with millions, even billions more
    of shapes that thrive and grow beneath.
    Fish and squid and spreading fans,
    algae and anemone pressed tight in the liquid
    static of time with the sharks and whales
    and starfish; the pantheon of phylogeny.
    But stand on a beach one day and see
    the always roll and constant blue
    on the surface of the sea,
    the uneventful ever same
    of pure simplicity.

    We just clear and modest are
    and brief, because life is brief.
    Imagine a forest, rich and full, branch and leaf,
    the countless, colored forms that live and climb
    and crawl within. Birds and beasts and butterflies,
    snakes and snails and many-legged things,
    compressed in the dynamic
    solid of time with the tigers and bears
    and men; the evolutionary mystery.
    But stand and look someday at trees,
    a canopy old but always new,
    the surface of a sea of green,
    the spreading constant always plain
    of still simplicity.

    That complicated seems so often simple
    and that simple so complex,
    so find the purpose in the fluid rhyme
    of what we do not see.

    Copyright 2008 – Softwood: Seventy-eight Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

    • thomasbrady said,

      October 18, 2013 at 12:22 pm

      Gary,
      I love this poem. I don’t know if you need stanza 3. But the first two stanzas are especially lovely, a profound idea perfectly expressed by the imagery.

      • Gary B. Fitzgerald said,

        October 18, 2013 at 11:23 pm

        Tom:

        Stanza three is the point of the poem.

        Shit! It’s that Japanese/Chinese thing again.

        Gary

        • Gary B. Fitzgerald said,

          October 19, 2013 at 12:26 am

          Please let me revise my comment:

          “Stanza three is the point of the poem.”

          That’s all I meant to say. This has nothing to do with the Japanese or the Chinese. I don’t even know why I said that except that maybe I’m still pissed off with Tom’s earlier (mistaken) comments.

          There…all better.

          GBF

    • October 19, 2013 at 10:50 am

      “Sea animals are a greater enigma than the glens of the moon. Pelagic vegetation will be a wonder to the heart and the cause of awe long after Behemoth has been forgotten. Herman Melville composed odes to ambergris and sea-brit, and in such oceanic flora lie the parables of the future which men will chant long after they have lost the sayings about the mustard and the cumin-seed of which Christ spoke.” — Edward Dahlberg from Reasons of the Heart

  3. thomasbrady said,

    October 18, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    Powers,
    Yes, the feminism one was a risk, and perhaps at first blush it sounds boorish; emotionally for me it rings true. If one is a romantic, freedom from love is quite a bit of freedom. Sure, perhaps it’s a guy speaking, and we hear it so often said that x cannot speak for y. Well, why not? As always, thanks for the feedback.
    Tom

    • powersjq said,

      October 21, 2013 at 7:24 pm

      I’m charitable enough to admit that I agree at some level with what I take to be the basic sentiment: the political agenda of women’s equality has the potential to get in the way of human affection. I also admit that there may be no brief way to express this except more or less the way you did. I cannot grant, though, that this rather refined sentiment is the most salient aspect of the epigram in question. Brevity needs words to be loaded, so that a mere fistful of them have gravity. No reasonably sensitive reader can ignore how the epigram basically sets feminism at odds with love. That’s how it reads, and that’s boorish.

      But as I said, I liked many of the others. There is no experimentation without failure.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    October 19, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Gary,
    Don’t know what “Shit! It’s that Japanese/Chinese thing again” means, either, but it’s brilliant. As to our controversy, perhaps we should ask a Japanese poet. Not a Chinese poet, what do they know?
    Tom

  5. thomasbrady said,

    October 19, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Powers,
    How’s this?

    Two choices in life, don’t know which is worse:
    Dreaming but asleep, or awake, making verse.

    • powersjq said,

      October 21, 2013 at 7:43 pm

      I like this much more. The “verse” as synecdoche for “poetry” is just right. But we do know which is worse, yes?

      As verse is born In every breast asleep,
      It either wakes and sings, or settles deep.

      (Ach. I rather think I made it worse. Your turn?)

      • thomasbrady said,

        October 21, 2013 at 10:50 pm

        Powers,

        I don’t know which is worse. “Making verse” means anything we might be doing while awake. Dreaming is the never realized ideal.

        Yours is nice, but I’m not sure what “settles deep” refers to, exactly.

        Tom

        • powersjq said,

          October 22, 2013 at 12:58 am

          OK, I see now. You meant the dreaming as something optimistic and pleasant. Makes more sense now.

          Yeah, I don’t know what “settles deep” refers to either. It was supposed to be the opposite of “wakes and sings,” but it isn’t. Painted myself into a corner with “asleep.”

  6. thomasbrady said,

    October 19, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Embarrassment loiters
    Unless picked up by Reuters.

    • noochinator said,

      October 19, 2013 at 1:31 pm

      And it’s “wink wink nudge nudge”
      If it’s picked up by Drudge —
      And a cautionary moral tale
      If it’s in the Daily Mail.

  7. thomasbrady said,

    October 19, 2013 at 11:53 am

    I wrote her an epic, that one line she might recall–
    Then wrote her one line, remembering brevity is all.

  8. drew said,

    October 23, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    Yo Homie I agree – now Ima throw down lyrics:

    “To a Progressive Poet”

    Your poems read as staggered prose;
    the rhythm of the words escapes you.
    One assumes, un-mused, you chose
    A free-verse prison to run into.

    You are modern. And it shows
    in lack of structure, meter, beat.
    Your emperor, set free of clothes
    meanders on unsteady feet

    exposed as naked, fending blows
    from anarch subjects bored to tears
    by cryptic, existential woes
    and maudlin imagery. One hears

    within the verbiage you compose
    a load of godless free-form tripe.
    The lyrical ebb achieves new lows;
    the scent is somewhat over-ripe…

    • noochinator said,

      October 24, 2013 at 10:45 am

      Love it!

    • thomasbrady said,

      October 24, 2013 at 12:10 pm

      Is this a new Alexander Pope??

    • powersjq said,

      February 11, 2014 at 1:34 am

      Wow. Your verse has been hit or miss for me, but this… is impressive. Any other thinly veiled vituperations in iambic tetrameter for our delectation?

  9. drew said,

    October 24, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    We (that’s the collective “me”) tolerate neither kings, nor Popery…
    Come visit ConnectHook and see what you find.

  10. October 17, 2016 at 11:18 am

    I like the one about “3 types of poets”, though I’d have preferred it if you’d written “3 types of poet”.

    • thomasbrady said,

      October 18, 2016 at 2:57 pm

      Is “poet” correct? To my ears, “poets” sounds better. Let’s write it another way: 1. “Of the group poets, there are three types.” 2.”The poet can be divided into three types.” I must confess the first one sounds more correct, even though perhaps in a strict grammatical sense, you are correct.


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