Epigrams: Post-Modern and Regressive

The routine of housecleaning yesterday (I prefer the chores of washing dishes, vacuuming, laundry, and washing the tub, in that order) sometimes helps distract one from the usual internal grousing and opens up a countervailing perspective. In thinking about the variety of writing presented at the Poetic Research Bureau on Saturday, I began wondering about whether there is such a thing as a post-modern epigram. Charles Bernstein’s presentation included an obligatory sideswipe attack on traditional prosody, but it came across as a rare miss in an otherwise superb set. Part of the reason for the failure of this punch to hit anything but stale air is the lack of a meaningful target, especially if we’re thinking of epigrams written in verse. For the most part, the satirical acidity of an epigram increases with the use of meter and especially with rhyme. To jettison those structural underpinnings as if they no longer possessed any lingering resourcefulness could only mean that an undue haste has taken hold and begun to demolish one of the most enduring citadels of social critique.

First, though, let’s look at the question raised about the evolution of wit: is there such a thing as a post-modern epigram? If there is, then there must be an antecedent: the modernist epigram. My first inclination is to say that I can’t think of an epigram by a modernist writer that is somehow, in its very enactment of language, an example of modernist consciousness. In issue number eight of OR magazine, for instance, Dennis Phillips uses as an epigraph for his poem, “On Sentimentality,” an epigram in ULYSSES: “The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done.” After the em-dash, Phillips notes: “—Dedalus via Joyce via Meredith.” There’s a lovely balance to Joyce’s sentence: it bites down on the Latinate strand (“incurring”) and the trip-hammer jolt of monosyllabic etymology (“thing done”) with a seductive oscillation. Is there, however, something specifically modernist about it? If modernism flaunts its sensibility as difficult, then I find myself asking how much difference is there between Dedalus’s definition and the lines by Swift that Dedalus might quote if someone were to ask, “Are you talking about me?”

But malice never was his aim.

He flayed the vice, yet spared the name.

No individual could resent,

Where thousands equally were meant.


For a split to be visible between the past and modernism’s heave-ho, one needs more of a bifurcation than this. If there is such a thing as a modernist epigram, I’d like to suggest that it might be most prominently found in the writing of Gertrude Stein. It’s possible, in fact, that her work needs to be reframed within that kind of point and counterpoint. If HOW TO WRITE is read as a meditation always already on the verge of becoming a concatenation of skewed epigrams, then perhaps we have the gauge for determining what it might mean to undertake the writing of post-modern epigrams. Within that context, the writing presented at PRB’s event reverberated with a sense of resuscitation of debt acknowledged. Everybody I heard on Saturday left unspoken a basic postulate: Stein broke down the expectations of normative logic in a way that makes our contemporary efforts pliable and adhesive. We don’t have to strain to make our fragmentary conclusions celebrate their partial grasp: we feel their palpable desperation at our inability to measure facts and have those calculations account for all our contingencies.

At the same time that I thoroughly enjoyed all the work I heard at PRB, I have found myself wondering if the epigram is a device that can accommodate both those who wish to follow Nietzsche’s and Valery’s sustained practice of that form and those whose episodic use of the epigrammatic enables them to make memorable forays that deserve our nurture, too. One such poet is J.V. Cunningham, whose epigrams are often tinged with the melancholy of a misogynist who not only was not the first to draw blood, but who suffers from wounds that are only capable of being staunched by his satire.

Perhaps epigrams must be utterly aligned with their milieu and traditional arrangements can no longer possibly suffice. Nevertheless, I would have welcomed this past Saturday a poem as good as Cunningham’s “I, too, have been to the Huntington” about the general locale in which we are working as poets:


A railroad baron in the West

Built this nest,


With someone else’s pick and shovel

Built this hovel,


And bought these statues semi-nude,



Where ladies’ bosoms are revealed,

And concealed,


And David equally with Venus

Has no penis.


If you know of a post-modern poem or epigram that has mocked a sentimentalist with equally witty dexterity, please send your nominations and I’ll be glad to post them: William.BillMohr@gmail.com.

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