Search This Blog

Monday, December 10, 2012

Graphing the Effect of the Epigraph

Rachel Sagner Buurma at The New Republic's Book Review writes about epigraphs. Specifically she reviews Rosemary Ahern's book The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin, which is basically a collection of epigraphs from great works of literature.

In Buurma's review, she says that readers often skip epigraphs because they feel slowed down by them. I was surprised to read this, as I would NEVER skip an epigraph. In fact, I often feel that an epigraph is the best part of what I am reading, and no wonder: the epigraph is a carefully chosen few words or sentences, with all excess material cut away; it's the most choice words minus the setup and the embedding. That can almost never be said of what follows it. Almost nothing written below the epigraph can live up to being as good as the very best writing of well-known author, or one who writes beautifully enough that another writer would want to quote him/her.

Which is why I think writers ought to be wary of using epigraphs.

Which isn't to say I don't like epigraphs. They are often my favorite part of the piece they precede, as I said above. And I use them occasionally, which is pretty arrogant, or pretty self-defeating, depending on how you see it.

There are two ways of using an epigraph that I have observed. The first is to set the tone or atmosphere, as effect noted by Buurma. The second is to introduce a quotation which is directly responded to. I much prefer the first usage. The second, I think, could be relegated to the notes following a piece of literature, rather than stuck there in front, a challenge the writer rarely is able to rise to. But there are times when it works.

I remember one time when it didn't, but can't find the poem I'm thinking of to reference it now. In the epigraph, the poet quoted another poet who had written that one couldn't write a  poem about galoshes, and then the epigraph-quoting poet went on to write one just to show it could be done. But given the quality of the resulting poem, I remember thinking that while it could be done, it shouldn't have been done, or it should have been done better anyway.

Still, I do love an epigraph, and in the past I have once or twice included one in my own work in hopes that it would reward the reader for perservering through a poem I was unsure of. Now I realize that I shouldn't have inflicted the poem on the reader at all.

I have also used epigraphs to set tone or to be responded to directly. I'm guilty guilty guilty, if anyone is thinking of challenging me on the matter.

So keep on using epigraphs, but be wary of the comparison/contrast you are exposing yourself to.

No comments: