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:
- A way to acknowledge an inspiration or influence
- A way of demonstrating openness about the origin of a particular line
- Showing the reader some of the thinking process behind the poem
- 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:
For Jan Dean
Time, you thief, who love to get
sweets into your book
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
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.