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The Art of the Epigraph, or What Are Poets Really After?

PHOTO2-2022-02-14-23-11-22

I often confuse 'epigraph' and 'epigram'. These two Greek words seem uncomfortably similar to me.          

There's good reason for this: Merriam Webster reveals that 'epigramma' actually derives from the Greek 'epigraphein', meaning 'to write on'. The Roman poet Martial was famed for his 'epigrammata' (epigrams, not epigraphs): witty, terse little poems.

But forget epigrams. I intend to write about the epigraph, by which I mean the little bit of text, often in italics, that sits snugly between the title of a poem and its first line. This is described by MW as 'a quotation set at the beginning of a literary work […] to suggest its theme', which is at best only a partial description of the thing I have in mind.

Has anyone ever been publicly praised for their epigraphs, I wonder? Because currently poets do seem to like them. They're especially fond of prefacing their creations with that troubling wee beast, the 'after' statement. I'm not sure when this started: I've just flicked through The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse and I can't see any 'after' poems. They all seem to be befores.

Nonetheless, it's not unusual these days to find you're reading something 'After Wendy Cope' or 'After W H Auden'. If there's no mention of a specific poem, we nervously take the 'afters' to be a general allusion to style. Nervously because maybe there's a resemblance between the poem we're about to read and another we ought to know. A resemblance self-evident to everybody except us.

Still, the 'after' statement may be there as a point of honour. Perhaps the poet was inspired by somebody else's poem and wants to acknowledge that fact, whether or not the new poem resembles its 'before' source. (It occurs to me that poets grew keener to acknowledge such influences after poetry plagiarism became a hot topic.)

There are certain risks, though. An 'after' epigraph can make the poet look pompous. I would suggest 'After Seamus Heaney' and 'After William Shakespeare' are best avoided. The same applies to 'For Seamus Heaney' or 'For Philip Larkin'. Besides, writing a poem 'for' a dead poet (as opposed to a living friend) tends to work against the hope that it might have been written for the common reader.

If there is an art involved in the epigraph, shouldn't it be to give the reader a skilful tip-off, something that will make the poem better understood, or more accessible? There might be a painting, for example, that the reader needs to see in order to make sense of the imagery. In today's digital world, the epigraph can be helpfully hyperlinked to a relevant image, recording or film. Or there might be an essential place setting, a location, that the reader needs to know. In such cases, the epigraph is perfectly justified.

When it comes to an 'I. M.' statement, the decision is also straightforward. If a poem's written with a particular person in mind, someone who has perhaps died recently, it can be most helpful, and in some cases essential, to know the piece is 'in memoriam'.

There are even epigraphs consisting simply of a date. An obvious example is 9/11/2001: a historic allusion easily recognised by most adults. Such detail could be vital to making sense of what follows.

And that's the key. If unsure whether to include an epigraph or not, ask yourself whether it offers information the reader can't do without. Are you sure it isn't already in the title? Or the poem itself? You are sure. OK. Then let it stay.

But if the detail is enriching rather than essential, a useful alternative to consider may be a note. For the reader, notes are nicely optional, and can be placed in an obvious position at the foot of the poem-page, or more subtly at the back of the book.

Of course, in certain circumstances you could have an epigram as your epigraph. An epigram might have inspired the whole poem: 'I can resist everything except temptation' (Oscar Wilde). But that would be really confusing. 

Photo credit: Martin Lloyd
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When the story gets too heavy ...

cake

 One thing about the festive season is that there is sometimes a little more time for sitting and reading, reading and sitting.

For me, the reading included Stephen King's Billy Summers, and this quotation leapt out at me. How did he know about the unfinished thing that lurks on my i-Cloud drive. I know it's there. Will I ever finish it? And how many of us are the same?


The central character has started to write a book, for the first time. He is really a paid assassin, and living as a writer is his 'cover', but it quickly draws him in.


"He looks at the first line – The man my ma lived with came home with a broke arm – and feels a kind of despair. This is good work, he feels sure of it, but what felt light when he started now feels heavy, because he has a responsibility to make the rest just as good and he's not sure he can do it.

He goes to the periscope window and looks out at more nothing, wondering if he's just discovered why so many would-be writers are unable to finish what they have started. The thinks of The Things They Carried, surely one of the best books about war ever written, maybe thebest. He thinks writing is also a kind of war, one you fight with yourself. The story is what you carry and every time you add to it, it gets heavier.

All over the world there are half-finished books – memoirs, poetry, novels, surefire plans for getting thin or rich – in desk drawers, because the work got too heavy for the people trying to carry it and they put it down.

Some other time, they think. Maybe when the kids are a little older. Or when I retire."


Stephen King, Billy Summers
Hodder & Stoughton, 2021


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On losing a poet and a friend

Heather Trickey, author of Sorry About the Mess, died on 21 July, 2021, aged 50. It feels like yesterday.

It's customary for publishers to put out a notice of regret, some words of praise, when one of their poets dies. It is so hard to do, in this case. Heather had become a friend, and obituaries make death real.

Heather loved being alive. She lived with fierce intensity, whether she was crying, raging, howling with laughter, or splashing in the freezing waves off the Welsh coast. She had a gift for friendship, and for making people smile in dark times. As she slipped further and further into illness, her friends, new and old, drew closer. She gently placed her 'lovely shattered friends' into poems. 'Tell me about your heart,' she said to them as she danced down 'the long red carpet of the hall'.

Those phrases are her own, of course. They are drawn from Sorry About the Mess, just a little book, but it's alive, and it will last.

When a poem works, that's one of the magic things it does: it creates a tiny flicker of life. A bit of the poet is alive inside it for as long as the text is read, like the filament inside an old-fashioned light bulb. 

One of Heather's favourites was the ancient song 'Westron Wynde', a poem that's alive if ever one was. She loved 'the smalle rayne downe can rayne'. She loved the yearning in that poem, the aching loss.

And now Heather Trickey herself is lost. Heather who adored her family with every fibre of her being; who cherished her friends dearly; who loved language, and the traditions of poetry, with every last scrap of her keen intelligence. It was vital to her to articulate the truth with precision and care, whatever it cost. 

And here she is still, illuminating her own lines.

Pobble

After I leaked hot tears onto the radiotherapy bed
and the nurse said she would have liked to give me a hug
but couldn't, I swung by our local patch of water.

This is the Channel. And I am the Pobble,
recklessly dabbling my toes
having already removed my paper mask.

A friend once sat hereabouts and sang a song to the Severn.
Brown/blue, two things can be true. Right now it looks
like sparkling shit. This poem is not about Pobbles
and it will not win prizes.  

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The Prose (sic) and Cons of Zoom Workshops

BUTTERCUPS

Before Covid changed everything, I had run a good many poetry workshops live, and tutored for Arvon residential courses several times. I wasn't as experienced as some, but I'd done my stint. Enough to develop methods and preferences.

Nonetheless, learning to do these things on Zoom has been a new learning opportunity. It's mostly been a joy.

For example, I love the widened access. I like the way people can take part in a tutor-led writing session for a relatively low (or sometimes no) cost, from their own homes. So if they're unwell, or disabled, they can still come. And they can do it from different countries, different time zones — whatever.

I don't like that people without good broadband access and/or computer confidence are excluded. Shy folk and HSPs are also wary. So even though some are as comfortable in this new element as grasshoppers in grass, others are not.

This is something I 'get', not least because I participated as a student/learner/writer in several online workshops last year, enough to sample the highly varied way these things can be managed.

For me, being a poet is as much about reading poems as writing them. So my workshops are structured around a group of poems, and I like participants to see them on screen, not just hear me (or someone else) reading them aloud.

Of course, there are suggested writing tasks, too. I explain these out loud but I like to have the instructions typed up too, on pages that are screen-shared. Why? Because when I'm a participant (as opposed to the organiser), I easily get confused. Things distract me. I forget a) what the task is and b) how long we're supposed to have to do it — unless it's written down.

I like to read the discussion poems aloud to the group. I don't ask participants to take a turn at reading. That's because there are specific aspects I want to bring out.

My writing exercises (all of which are optional) are closely connected by a central theme or idea of some kind. The aim is to sow seeds, not harvest whole plants.

I do like a bit of readback/feedback, but not usually until the end of the workshop. And of course that's optional.

However, I like people to feel they have to work. Work hard and think hard, and have a bit of fun. That's what (to my mind) they've come for.

I like a bit of follow-up after the workshop, too, a chance for people to communicate something individually and privately. I usually send participants copies of the poems used in the workshop, and perhaps some links to follow up ideas.

Generally the Tricks of the Trade workshops have attracted people who look from their Zoom faces as though they're over 40; and many are well over 60 (like me): the magnet effect. I've run some on Saturdays, because that way people who work through the week can come. I haven't, so far as I know, attracted anybody under 24, though not because I didn't want to. Nor have I, so far as I know, attracted anybody who's hearing-impaired, though I do try to share text on screen for all tasks.

For one of my workshops, Giles Turnbull agreed to come along not just as a poet, but as a poet who is blind, so that I could 'see' how it worked for him. I gave him the shared pages in advance, so he could preview with his screen-reader. We thought it worked pretty well. It was certainly great having him there as a participant.

I ask for some evaluation from my groupies each time. That evaluation has changed the way I do things. It's taught me stuff.

Like what?

I've learned that detailed advance communication is important. Clarity about content and timing is appreciated, with reminders near to the event.

Also people like to know at the workshop what's likely to happen, how and when. In business they call this 'managing expectations'. But I feel it is important. I've learned this the hard way when people told me they were disappointed by certain aspects.

Technical things can also go wrong. They sometimes go wrong with broadband connections. They go wrong with local gadgets (my Imac has more than once stopped processing audio-feed, for reasons unknown); luckily I have a laptop too so can always switch from one machine to another. Worse things happen at sea.

For me as organiser, online workshops are intense. I find they demand absolute concentration. In a virtual element, you can't pick up the usual cues.

But that doesn't mean cues aren't there: in the faces, in the gestures, in the chat box. Then suddenly it's the end and it all stops. Everyone has left the meeting. They all left it in precisely the same second. Weird.

I sit at my desk, surrounded by silent bits of paper. I put my head in my hands. The planet spins.


New Tricks of the Trade workshops:

Tuesday 6 July, 10.30–13.00

or

Saturday 17 July, 14.00–16.30

Theme: Serving a sentence (the role of sentence shapes and structures in poems)

Tutor: Helena Nelson

Numbers: Max. 10 participants.

 Cost: £30.00 (there's one free place in each session, so if strapped for cash, say).

Email me to reserve a place. If you don't have the email address already, please use the contact box.

These sessions will involve looking closely at other people's poems, as well as various writing exercises. Any readback is optional. There will be follow-up in the form of optional interaction on one of your own poems.

More detailed information to be shared nearer the time.

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MY LEAST FAVOURITE WORD IN A POEM

image4 Photocredit: Gerry Cambridge

It's very small. Unassuming, you might say. And can be found inside the word 'unassuming' and also inside 'assuming'.         

What a complicated way to reach the word itself! Namely: 'as'.

What has 'as' done to deserve my hostility?

Nothing much. It's not rational. Each of us develops different bees in different bonnets — as it were.

And I don't say I never use it (I just did). But I can't choose it without caution.

For me, the first issue is that although 'as' is so small, it has at least three or four meanings. (Merriam Webster has nine entries!) 

Each possible meaning has a different effect on the line. It can be hard sometimes to see which of them is intended.

The worst of the possible meanings of 'as' (in my book) is 'because'. When it means 'because', it sounds like a phrase book for someone learning to speak English.

For example, 'I ate every scrap of my dinner as I was ravenous'. 

Or 'As the bus was full, I caught the train.' 

'As' used in this way deadens a sentence. Nobody would ever say, 'I ate my dinner as I was hungry.' It's better to split the sentence into two, or use a dash: 'I wolfed my sandwich — I was ravenous.'

(I don't like the sound of 'as' either. The 's' sounds as 'z'. It reminds me of the word 'gristle', and gristle reminds me of cheap sausages.)

When 'as' means 'because', it functions as a connective, or conjunction. But even when 'as' connects two clauses, it can have more than one meaning, the other most likely possibility being 'while'.

'As I combed my hair, I thought of my mother', for example. Or: 'The surf glistened as the moon rose high above the waves.'

The third meaning is the one I least dislike. As fast as lightning. As white as milk. When used in a simile,'as' often pops up twice (once on each side of the adverb) and I don't mind this in the least. However, it means the number of usages quickly multiplies:

As the moon rose into the sky,
the boat slipped over the horizon
as fast as night. It was a slow boat,
a cold boat. As it had no sails,
so no sailors and no oars.
As it vanished, it left no sign.
As if it had never ever been.

'As' is so small — so unassuming — its repetitions slip past the most eagle-ish of eyes.

But it can damage sharpness of phrase. It can smudge clarity and precision.

I hate 'as'.

As I said earlier, it's not rational.

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NOT SEEING THE WOOD FOR THE TREES

FRANKWOOD Frank Wood's 2012 pamphlet collection

Frank Wood died recently at the age of 95. HappenStance published a pamphlet of his work in 2012.    

So that's the 'Wood' in my title.   

We won't be seeing Frank again, though his voice — unapologetically plain-spoken — can still be heard in his poems. And always will be, for as long as such poems are heard.

But the 'trees' are also the poetries. Today, with dozens of poem-texts whirling round the globe every second, there are great forests of poetries, in which one could get lost for all time. Yes, I know that's a horribly mixed metaphor. Forests don't whirl round the globe, unless you think of Wordsworth's Lucy 'Whirled round in earth's diurnal course / With rocks and stones and trees' (I always felt for Lucy).

My point is that the writing trajectory of a poet like Frank might be seen as 'unimportant'. Poetry was a lifelong interest for him, but he didn't start writing it until he was well into his forties. He didn't win the National Poetry Competition. He didn't publish to popular acclaim. He had a modest circle of appreciative readers (and fellow writers).

Frank did succeed in placing poems here and there in the small press over several decades. He co-edited a small magazine for a while, played an active role in Suffolk Poetry Society, had modest wins in competitions, and there was a pamphlet: Racing the Stable Clock. He was a practising poet who kept practising.

His poetry 'career' might look like not much, as these things go. It was more than it seems.

He always sent me poems during the HappenStance reading windows, and latterly I encouraged him to send them whenever he wanted to — which was still about twice a year. It was rare to get a batch in which there wasn't at least one I thought outstanding in some way. He was a wit, with strong opinions. Often, he made me smile. But sometimes his poems opened out into sadness, and I would stare out of the window and think, and think some more.

I believe the writing of poems brought him joy. It wasn't about getting famous, or building a reputation as a 'player'. He found poems joyous things to make, worthwhile creations, like well-made chairs. They made him happy.

I won't forget him. Right to the end of his long life, he was writing self-critically and with acuity.

I'm appending one of the poems from Stable Clock below. It's short. And yet (to me) there's a whole world below the surface. The father who wrote the sermons was the same father who was gassed in the First World War, the same father who once 'killed a German face to face' and who, when it came to questions about that war, 'would never talk about it'. But his son wrote about him, a lifetime later.


Writing the Sermon


My father was known for his sermons.
He used to grade them according
to the number of pipes he smoked.

Three pipes spelt hell
for next day's congregation —
and that was only the notes.

As his neighbor, who kept hens, said,
When you go out to feed them,you don't
have to give them the whole bucketful.




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