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Contemporary Haibun Online: January 2015, vol 10 no 4

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Ray Rasmussen

Epigraphs in Haibun: Quick Fixes or Meaningful Links?

Epigraphs are the poetry world's emoticons.
~ Carmine Starnino1

An epigraph is a literary device in the form of a poem or quotation usually placed at the beginning of a text that belongs to another writer. Some of the ways epigraphs are used in mainstream poetry are:

. . . to seed sub rosa themes, to create theoretical contexts, or to nudge readers toward moods around which their collection has been structured.2

A less technical definition of their uses is offered by Andrew Tutt:

People love to call epigraphs a bundle of things, an "apposite quote that sets the mood for a story and to give an idea of what's coming" or "a quote to set the tone like a prelude in music" or as a "foreshadowing mechanism" or "like little appetizers of the great entrée of a story" meant to illuminate "important aspects of the story [and] get us headed in the right direction."3

In mainstream poetry, epigraphs are appearing more regularly. As Canadian poet Starnino puts it:

Lately it seems no book of Canadian poetry can be put to bed without an epigraph to tuck it in, whether by Susan Sontag or Günter Grass or Nietzsche or Freud or Jeanette Winterson or Homer. It's hard to know what to blame for this. Until Eliot and Pound, epigraphs were rarely associated with poetry. . . . Whatever the reason for its popularity, the epigraph's spell has never been stronger.4

Haibun as an Evolving Form: Titles and Epigraphs

Most published haibun consist of title, prose and one or more poems, with the prose and poems linked, and, increasingly, with attention paid to the relationship of title to prose and poems.5

With respect to titles, Modern Haiku Editor Roberta Beary comments:

In haibun, the wrong title is like a wrong number. It makes the reader want to hang up the phone. A haibun's title should be strong enough to draw the reader into the prose and make the reader want more. Let the title be a link to the prose and the haiku, not give away the rest of the piece. After reading the entire haibun, the reader should be able to look at the title and see more than one meaning.6

This relatively recent focus on the importance of titles in haibun is instructive in that English-language haibun is still unfolding its wings. As Jeffrey Woodward put it in a recent essay:

Haibun as a genre is fluid and ill-defined, volatile and subject daily to change … haibun in English has few, if any, hard and fast rules. Well-intentioned journal editors who solicit or reviewers who comment upon the genre may inform the reader that haibun's requirements include any possible combination of the following guidelines: prose plus one or more haiku; use of present tense; use of first person; a subject chosen from one's common everyday existence; a revelatory or ‘aha' moment … Unfortunately, the curious reader who conducts even a cursory review of the literature will soon discover that exceptions outnumber cases of conformity to every guideline cited and that, moreover, the exceptions quite often are not weaker for this lack of adherence.7

Indeed, the epigraph is one of the most recent unfoldings occurring in the genre. A survey of the latest issues of A Hundred Gourds, Contemporary Haibun Online, Haibun Today and Simply Haiku, shows that roughly 6 percent contain epigraphs, whereas an examination of haibun published earlier in these same journals shows a rate of less than 1 percent.8 It's noteworthy that some of the early users of epigraphs in haibun are three of our most admired writers: William Ramsey, Judson Evans, and Ken Jones.9

While these numbers can't be considered to represent a huge surge in the practice, if there's a trend, I think we should examine their use more thoroughly. Given that haibun is already a complex linking form with title, prose and poems all linked, and with the haiku itself containing an internal link, do we need yet another linkage complexity?

An Example

As a writer, I use epigraphs on occasion, and, in part, this essay is meant to be an exploration, if not justification, of my motives and the practice of using them. I employ them because they serve as the same sort of spark that a bird song might while on a ginko walk. Something unusual or important has moved into my consciousness and that leads to a decision to write about it. Could I write about the ginko experience without mentioning the bird?

My haibun "Unsaddled" employs two quotes, one as an epigraph and one directly in the text.


Unsaddled10

Breakfast without a newspaper is a horse without a saddle.
~Edward R. Murrow

I am six months into my experiment of not reading the daily newspaper at breakfast. Instead I read essays, including one by E.B. White, who, in response to Murrow's metaphor, called breakfast "the hour when we sit munching stale discouragement along with fresh toast."

Breakfast is now more enjoyable, but I sometimes feel I've missed something important – something others know that I don't, but should. Stretching Murrow's metaphor, it's me that's unsaddled – riderless.

This morning, as I walk the dog on the berm overlooking the Whitemud Freeway, there's the usual tangle of commuters, all hurrying somewhere.

winter morning –
the cat mews
over her empty bowl


Note: Both the Murrow and White quotes are from E.B. White, "Newspaper Strike," The New Yorker, December 12, 1953.


As I state in the prose, for various reasons I've stopped reading or viewing the daily news. Thus, when instead I was enjoying one of White's essays over my morning coffee, I came across his breakfast quip. This led me to a search for more comments about reading the news and to the Murrow quote. The two comments led me to reflect on my own discomfort with having discarded the news and produced an urge to write about it. In particular, I was struck by the two seemingly opposite views about the news. Which quip holds true – a horse without a saddle or stale discouragement?

I also enjoy linking my work to writing by others whom I admire. In a sense, I feel as if I am engaging in a dialogue with these writers and that I am honoring their brilliance by bringing their writing to a new generation of readers.

Epigraphs in Haibun: Pro and Con

Even more than the title, an epigraph tends to be insistent, demanding that the reader grasp something important that will be related to the following prose and poems. Throughout the piece, a reader is tempted to constantly ask, what has the epigraph to do with prose and poem? Because epigraphs tend to be short and pithy, grasping them and, in particular, getting a sense of what might be coming in the prose related to them, is often difficult. In too many cases, that difficulty remains even during and after reading the piece. As an editor, I often scratch my head over the meaning of the epigraph in the first place, and how it relates to the writer's prose and poem. My advice to writers employing them often is: drop the epigraph.

The haibun writer's text (title, prose and poem) is immediately in competition with that of the gifted writers whose words are used in the epigraph. And, in my piece "Unsaddled," who can write better than E.B. White or observe and comment more aptly than the famed newscaster Edward R. Murrow?

Speaking from her experience, Tamara Higgins puts the issue this way:

I once took one of my poems with an epigraph to a poetry workshop. I had used a line from one of Walt Whitman's poem's to open my own work. The professor's response to it was that the poem must live up to the epigraph. I got the message: if I am using a quote from someone like Whitman, what follows better be pretty darn good.11

Poet Carmine Starnio's concerns with the use of epigraphs focus on the egotistical and attention-begging aspects:

Epigraphs are the poetry world's emoticons: quick-fix inflections. Poets overestimate their necessity and significance. What they think is a tiny profundity engine is nothing more than a curio, a found object charged with private associations. This is why so many epigraphs appear undigested and attention-begging. "Names are only the guests of reality." This thought, (an epigraph) lifted from Hsü Yu, would seem to channel some shaman spirit into Don Domanski's All Our Wonder Unavenged. To me, it sits right on the edge of flimflam.12

As for Starnio's point about epigraphs being "charged with (the writer's) private associations," I'd put it this way: Even if the writer has correctly understood a complex quote (like Hsü Yu's), perhaps the readers won't have the same understanding.

Finally, an important ‘why not' for those of us who aspire to have our work selected for publication, the preferences (or biases) of editors comes into play. Just, as an example, some editors feel that the haiku must be able to stand alone, without the prose, others believe that while there must be an apt connection of haiku and prose, the haiku need not stand alone. In the case of epigraphs, I've penned a haibun (as yet unpublished) that starts with a part of a poem by Emily Dickson: "hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul." A response from one editor that I respect was "I like the idea of the Emily Dickenson quote with the caveat that it is overused and its use may seem forced." I sensed a hint that I should follow my sometimes advice to other writers: "Drop the epigraph!"

As a final point, Starnino in his role as editor states:

I've seen poets drive themselves crazy in their search for the "perfect" epigraph.13

It's true that I sometimes write a piece and then think it might be nice to ornament it with an epigraph. Perhaps I should rethink that approach. But in the case of both "Unsaddled" and the piece with the Dickenson passage, the sparks for both haibun were the passages from the quoted writers. Obviously, I've not let cons dampen my practice of occasionally using a epigraph. I leave it to you, the reader, to judge the merits of the practice with respect to "Unsaddled."

As a final point, just a haiku works best when it takes the piece beyond the prose, an epigraph needs to do the same. Otherwise, as has been said of haiku, why not just offer the epigraph and leave it at that?

Conclusion:

I am not suggesting that epigraphs should not be used, nor that we should see more frequent usage. But if they are to be used, writers would do well to consider the pros and cons and particularly resist the temptation to find a good quote in an attempt to enliven their prose. If the prose isn't already lively, an epigraph won't solve the problem.

I deliberately used an epigraph at the start of this essay. I did this to insert a pejorative at the beginning and thus attempt to engage the reader. Whether that was useful or merely a nuisance or unnecessary distraction is up to each reader. I used the quote which was taken out of context to now provide a tie in to Starnino's pentultimate paragraph:

I'm not calling for an outright ban, just a little more judiciousness. Like any choice quote, a good epigraph whets a reader's appetite by sharpening their curiosity. Simple and unpreening, it brandishes a let's-cut-through-the-cant suavity. Toronto's Kevin Connolly understands this. He opens his recent collection Revolver with these lines by Bill Knott: "I wish to be misunderstood; / that is, / to be understood from your perspective." Snap!14

Snap, indeed! His summary is much snappier than mine. Should I have used his epigraph at the start? Did the opening quote sharpen your interest in the article? Did it seem simple and unpreening or forced and pretentious? Did his writing style swamp mine?

Those are questions writers will have to ask themselves if and when they venture into the realm of the epigraph.

Footnotes:

1. Carmine Starnino, “Lazy Bastardism: A Notebook,” taken from the Poetry Foundation Website on December 5, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/238414

2. “Epigraph Definition,” taken from Literary Devices Website on Dec. 5, 2014. http://literarydevices.net/epigraph/

3. Andrew Tutt, “On Epigraphs,” taken from The Millions Website on Dec. 5, 2014.

4. Starnino, Ibid.

5 Ray Rasmussen, “A Title Is A Title Is A Title, or Is It? — The Unexplored Role in Haibun,” Frogpond, 33.3 2010; Joan Zimmerman, “What Haibun Poets Can Learn From Non-haikai Western Poetry Practices: The Valentine's Day Skywriter Spells Out His Own Name,” CHO 9:3 October 2013 and What English-Language Haibun Poets Can Learn From Japanese Practices: the Mysteries of an Almost-Heard Birdsong First Autumn Abroad,” CHO 9:4 January 2014.

6. Roberta Beary, "The Lost Weekend," Frogpond 34:3, 2011.

7. Jeffrey Woodward, “Editorial: Haibun Today? And Your Point Would Be?,” Haibun Today, Thursday, November 22, 2007.

8. The sample was from the first year of the four named journals and the most recent issues of the same journals.

9. Links to haibun with epigraphs by Judson Evans, William Ramsey and Ken Jones:

10. Ray Rasmussen, “Unsaddled,” Haibun Today, January 6, 2008; republished in CHO 8:3 October 2013.

11. Tamara Higgins, “The Epigraph,” Taken from The Quality of Light website on Dec. 5, 2014.

12. Starnino, Ibid.

13. Starnino, Ibid.

14. Starnino, Ibid.


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