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.