The reason for using epigraphs

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An epigraph is a short quotation which is placed between the poem and its title. I have heard people wonder aloud about why poets do this, and some people even think it is there to show off how erudite the poet is.

In fact, the reason most of them are there is because of the following reasons:

  1. A way to acknowledge an inspiration or influence
  2. A way of demonstrating openness about the origin of a particular line
  3. Showing the reader some of the thinking process behind the poem
  4. Sharing a pithy quotation which sums up the poem – or in some cases, the whole collection

I’d be interested to hear from other poets their reasons for using epigraphs too, so drop a comment if you can add to my list.

I want to share one of my own poems which has an epigraph, to demonstrate what I mean:

Pomegranate

For Jan Dean

Time, you thief, who love to get
sweets into your book
Leigh Hunt
Five pointed star, my pentacle,
how I would lift your jewels
from their case, one by one
on the pin’s point, before
I found a better way.

Now I bite into your leather
with greedy teeth, devouring
your ruby firmaments.
Time’s a thief and so am I,
seizing everything I can.

Time enough for picking out
your treasures one by one
when days begin to bleed
into each other like washed
watercolour sunsets.

Even Persephone could not resist
your glowing fairy-lights.
I garner your seeds for my journey,
on clean parchment draw
my magical five pointed star.

from Paper Patterns (Lapwing 2012)

I wrote this poem and then during the redrafting, realised I’d unconsciously echoed a line from the wonderful Leigh Hunt poem ‘Jenny Kissed Me’. I did not want to change my line, so I added the epigraph to show my debt to this poet from the past. The lines I chose not only acknowledge my debt but pithily summarise one of the themes of my poem, carpe diem.

Copies of Paper Patterns are available from me, or from the publisher’s website.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The reason for using epigraphs

  1. Tried to comment on this but it wouldn’t let me. I tried to say: Thanks for all your great blogs. I like to put an epigraph at start of longer pieces or collections for just those reasons and it’s always interesting to read other people’s, provided not too many!

    Sent from my iPad

  2. I agree with your reasons for using epigraphs and the poem you use to illustrate is beautiful. I’ve used them for mainly for the first reason but occasionally to expand a short poem, trying to broaden its appeal.

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