On Epigraphs & Cairns

September 18, 2010

A cairn on Cauld Face.

A cairn on Cauld Face.

David Orr had an interesting article in the New York Times this week about the use of epigraphs in contemporary poetry. He cites a number of recent examples and offers some historical context, pinning much of the blame for the prevalence of the practice on the shoulders of T.S. Eliot.

Orr also quotes literary theorist Gérard Genette on the functions for epigraphs in his book “Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation.”

The first two are straightforward — an epigraph can comment on the title of a given work, or it can apply to the work’s body. But after that, matters get a little more “oblique,” as Genette diplomatically puts it. “Very often,” he says of the epigraph, “the main thing is not what it says but who its author is, plus the sense of indirect backing that its presence at the edge of a text gives rise to.”

This caused me to reflect upon my own use of epigraphs in my poetry. Turns out I use them a lot.

In my current manuscript iteration, perhaps a third of the poems have epigraphs. My “Dwelling” sequence, which had its origins in an essay by philosopher Martin Heidegger, even has a full page of quotations from source material for the poem.

In conversation with Julie Johnstone, a librarian at the Scottish Poetry Library, via Twitter this morning, I offered that I’ve used epigraphs as a leaping off point, to set the stage or as commentary on the poem.

In fact, a few recent poems, such as “Risks Are Risky,” and “Healing,” got their start from a line or quotation, the former from a tweet by Paulo Coelho; the latter a line from Gary Snyder.

“Perhaps they show where you’ve travelled while writing the poem,” Julie suggested, “and also where you and the poem are travelling to.”

I like the idea of epigraphs as signposts or, to borrow from the Scots, a cairn on the trail of the poem.

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