Epigrams and Images

ImageEpigram 2
Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound (by Wyndham Lewis),
and Walter Savage Landor’s grave in Florence

     Music has authority. Actual music can immediately make us feel sad or martial, sexy or calm, funereal or playful. The figurative “music” of a poem has a similar authority.
     For this month’s Forum I’ll use that proposition to bring together two drastically different genres, old and newer: the traditional two-line rhymed epigram and the Modernist one-image poem.
     The epigram in English, with Latin models such as Martial, aims to be terse and pointed: fit to be incised in stone. Emily Dickinson’s 1534 is among the most terse of all, (if it is not a fragment):

Society for me my misery
Since Gift of Thee—

     An example I have thought about for years is by Walter Savage Landor:

On love, on grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.

     At first attracted by how the poem refreshes one of the oldest clichés— that time flies— I later noticed that the poem exemplifies physical, bodily patterns: three times at the beginning, teeth on lower lip for the “v” or “f”; three times at the end, pursed lips. The couplet rhyme is only part of the musical authority or coherence.
     An ancient form. Yet I find a similar authority in one of the great, central examples of Modernism, a poem that has survived countless milkings in thousands of classrooms, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

     Any reader’s reflexive groan at this ultra familiar example— Imagism and all of that— may be quelled by thinking about the couplet. (Pound admired Landor, incidentally.) The repeated vowel in “crowd” and “bough” makes a kind of couplet. The consonant that begins “faces” is in distinction from the plosive “b” and “p” sounds in “apparition,” “petals,” “black,” and “bough.” And so forth.
     In technical ways, this conventional instance of Modernism sets an attractive, maybe useful example of making old things new: Pound using knowledge he demonstrates more directly in early poems like his pretty “Ballatetta,” which ends, preposterously yet engagingly:

                      no gossamer is spun
So delicate as she is, when the sun
Drives the clear emeralds from the bended grasses
Lest they should parch too swiftly, where she passes.

Listen to Robert Pinsky read Dickinson, Landor, and Pound.

127 thoughts on “Epigrams and Images

  1. Pingback: “CLASSIC POEM” DISCUSSIONS RETURN TO SLATE.com | Robert Pinsky Poetry Forum

  2. This discussion has been rich. I’m grateful to those who have taken part in it, and to the many others I know have followed it. It joins the previous Poetry Forums as what I consider a permanent resource.

    Somehow, this time around particularly many people have felt overwhelmed or intimidated by the discussion– even while following it with pleasure. I promise to think about that matter, and to pursue the goals of welcoming inclusiveness, high standards, and civility.

    Thank you all!


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