A Brief for the Epigram

David Barber

Vol. 24, Issue 1, 1999

 

The Greek Anthology. Edited by Peter Jay. Penguin 1981. 442 pp. Out of print.

Martial in English. Edited by J. P. Sullivan and A. J. Boyle. Penguin 1996. 436 pp. $14.95 (paper)

The Mortal City: 100 Epigrams of Martial. Translated by William Matthews. Ohio University Press 1995.107 pp. $15.00 (paper)

David R. Slavitt, Epic and Epigram: Two Elizabethan Entertainments. LSU Press 1995. 63 pp. $11.95 (paper)

The Poems of J. V. Cunningham. Edited by Timothy Steele. Swallow Press/Ohio University Press 1997. 215 pp. $16.95 (paper)

 

I.

What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

There is, first off, the niggling problem of nomenclature. Epitaph, epigraph, epigram—you own a nimble tongue indeed if you’ve never once caught yourself in mid-malaprop. But the real vexation sets in when you try to classify the thing with any sort of modest accuracy. What is an epigram, anyway? That was once a question of no small import for the best and brightest literary minds, and if Coleridge’s riposte is suitably brisk, there is something curiously poignant about it as well. For who gets exercised anymore over the enigma of the epigram? And who but a few confirmed contrarians and inveterate antiquarians ever go so far as actually to try to pull one off?

Part of the story here of course is that, so far as the natural selection of poetry is concerned, the epigram has for some time been carried by a recessive gene. The first definition in most contemporary dictionaries refers us to mordant witticisms of the prose variety, and it’s hard to quarrel with the lexicographers over that. When one thinks of the art of the epigram, what immediately comes to mind are tersely ingenious quotations hatched in justified margins, legendary table-talk, and above all else that flair for the lapidary quip as practiced by such rebarbative souls as La Rochefoucauld (“Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue”), Voltaire (“Love truth, but pardon error”), Twain (“Heaven for climate; Hell for company”), and Wilde (“Experience is the name everyone gives to his mistakes”). This is the branch of the epigrammatic family that has flourished over the last few centuries—the aphorism and the maxim, the proverbial saw and the Bartlett’s chestnut, the crack and the jibe, the comeback and the put-down. “Either this wallpaper goes or I do,” Wilde is said to have said on his deathbed, and whether he did or not is almost immaterial. Like all masterful epigrammatists, his great achievement was to have fashioned a persona to which any deathless turn of phrase can be plausibly attributed.

But what of the artful epigram in verse? The melancholy fact appears to be that age has withered and custom staled its infinite variety. The form was already well into its twilight in Coleridge’s day, due in part to the vagaries of taste and fashion but also, one is tempted to infer, because it had become a casualty of its own crisis of identity. Despite attempts to codify its distinguishing features and attributes (Aristotle, Quintillian, Scaliger, and Jonson, among others, weighed in on the subject), no universal consensus and certainly no hard-and-fast formula for what makes a poem an epigram ever got hammered out—no set length, designated measure, decisively limiting content or tenor. Yes, epigrams are often pointed and jocular, but not always. Yes, couplets and quatrains are the favored stanzaic forms, but there have always been notable exceptions. Yes, at a certain number of lines, or at a certain emotional temperature, a short poem ceases to function as an epigram and assumes the molecular structure of a lyric, but when exactly is that? You’d think that such elasticity would prove a resourceful mechanism of survival, but the truth appears to be otherwise. That this shortest of poetic forms was never as highly specialized as its economies of scale might lead us to believe appears to have been a distinct factor in its eventual demise, and perhaps explains why the epigram was so successfully appropriated by the brute force of prose and the spontaneous generation of badinage.

We catch a tacit acknowledgment of a transfer of power already afoot in Coleridge’s puckish couplet, which, you will notice, does not explicitly stipulate a versified construction. Just as telling, it also hints at the condescension with which the verse epigram has been generally viewed ever since. Here we have it, fittingly encapsulated by the arch-Romantic himself: the epigram’s concision equated with dwarfishness and, by invidious implication, arrested development, demoted once and for all to the sideshow status of a jest. Here we have, you might even say, an epitaph for the verse epigram, or at least for its former stature: Whatever it was or might have been to poets of ages past, it was henceforth to be regarded as a trivial pursuit, well and good as a diversion for aspish wags or an exercise for grubby schoolboys, but a genre beneath the station of the serious, questing imagination.

And here the ironies multiply. In the beginning an epigram was an epitaph—literally, an inscription, an elegiac couplet engraved on the base of a Hellenic tomb. The earliest Greek metrical inscriptions are said to date to the 8th century BCE, and there is evidence that as early as the Homeric era this form of commemorative verse had come to be governed by highly stylized conventions. If you were a traveller on the roads of ancient Greece, such votive captions might well have been as familiar a sight as franchise neon on today’s interstates, for many were commissioned specifically for wayside tombstones, and clearly intended for public consumption. It was customary for these archaic epigrams to employ the artifice of the dead man directly addressing passersby with a laconic utterance of the utmost gravity and restraint, a terse reflection on life’s brevity and man’s fate. Austerity was naturally a practical imperative as well. Space on a pedestal being at a premium, and stone being by nature unforgiving, this was no medium for those who lacked the courage of their concision. Expressive skill was thus in the purest sense an exercise in technical discipline, and those of us without a scrap of Greek must take the classicists’ word for it that the metrical sophistication of the elegiac couplet as it emerged in the chiseled scansion of this pre-Hellenistic period represents a triumph of poetic economy and measured pathos such as has never been improved upon. Even the devoutly hedonistic lyric poet Anakreon (whose name would become proverbially associated with a whole class of sybaritic love poems and drinking songs) took up the somber genre on occasion, albeit with an editorial slant that points towards the future employment of elegiacs in the more dangerous trades of polemic and invective:

Timokritos was bold in war. This is his grave.
Arês the war-god spares the coward, not the brave.

(translated by Peter Jay)

It is not too difficult, in any event, to imagine how the command of so circumscribed a form would gradually acquire an aesthetic cachet in its own right. The foremost composer of epitaphs in the classical era, by common consent, was the Athenian court poet Simonides of Keos (ca. 556-468), like Anakreon principally a lyric bard, but who earned what we would now call a national reputation on the strength of his lines honoring the casualties of the Persian Wars:

We did not flinch but gave our lives to save
Greece when her fate hung on a razor’s edge.

(“Cenotaph at the Isthmos”—translated by Peter Jay)

 

Take this news to the Lakedaimonians, friend,
That here we lie, who followed their command.

(“For the Spartan Dead at Thermopylai”—translated by Peter Jay)

Simonides, many sources assure us, had no peer when it came to this sort of thing; and so much in demand were his cenotaph-worthy sentiments that he could get away with writing memorial inscriptions for both the Athenians and the Spartans, who died at one another’s throats in the siege of Plataia in 479 BCE. It also appears that his fame did much to usher in a new era in which dedicatory inscriptions of various kinds began to take on a life of their own—beyond the grave, as it were. Simonides himself seems to have written nothing down (his gift for memorization was legendary), but within fifty years after his death, edited collections of Attic inscriptions are known to have circulated, a clear indication that the genre had acquired a following. In the ensuing generations, epitaphs and epigrams would go their separate ways, still kindred in spirit and form but now distinctive avenues of poetic practice. By Plato’s day, the elegiac couplet (a line of dactylic hexameter followed by a shorter dactylic line with a strong medial caesura) had ceased to be a meter that automatically presupposed stately reflection or dignified public utterance, as the achingly bittersweet love poems traditionally ascribed to the philosopher in his youth make clear:

I am an apple thrown to you for love. Nod yes,
Xanthippe. You and I, though sweet, are not to last.

(translated by Brooks Haxton)

No matter that this is the same Plato who would grow up to denounce lyric poets as bad apples unfit for his well-regulated republic: The epigrams of his salad days survived as models of exquisitely distilled yearning, anticipating the transition whereby the form became more a barometer of the heart’s tribulations than a tangible marker of high-minded tribute. While elegiac couplets would continue to eulogize those souls who perished by enemy spears, henceforth they would minister to those fatally wounded by Eros’s darts as well. And so it was that by the Alexandrian era the Greek epigram had passed from its stone age to its golden, no longer confined to graven tombs and votive rites but fully vested in the enterprise of literature. The restrained formal style of the sepulchral couplet gave way to hard, gemlike flames of lyric feeling, poems intimate in tone, subjective in attitude, and eclectic in theme. Epigrammatists now went about their business in a manner similar to lyric poets in the modern sense, and the acute brevity of the epigram came to be associated with an abiding sensitivity to all things ineffable and ephemeral. Schools emerged, and subgenres sprang up: a contemplative pastoral mode, treating of the halcyon pleasures of country life; a disabused cosmopolitan strain, which ran to satire, titillation, and captious commentary; a branch that favored gnomic reflection and oracular utterance. The growing popularity and professionalism of epigram writing is attested to by the emergence of the so-called “epideitic” epigram, meaning “for display”: pieces in which the poet deliberately sought to infuse the form with surprising new material, beguile the reader with ingenious phrasemaking and erudite allusions, and generally demonstrate how the lyric mindset could be concentrated wonderfully.

No schematic breakdown, however, can do complete justice to the scope and energy of epigrammatic activity in the late pre-Christian age. The epigram, it seems, excluded no artistic temperament or demographic, attracting both foxes and hedgehogs, aesthetes and misfits. How else to account for the fact that two of its most prolific and influential exponents were Leonidas of Tarentum and Philodemos of Garada? Of the former we know practically nothing other than the fact that he was a wanderer who wrote epigrams for small fees, many of them sympathetic portraits of common folk such as fishermen and farmers; the latter was a Syrian-born scholar and Athenian-trained Epicurean who wrote learned treatises on poetic technique that later exerted considerable sway over the likes of Ovid and Virgil. An odd couple, to be sure, and yet each in his own way completely in his element when it came to making the form speak volumes:

Here is Klito’s little shack.
Here is his cornpatch.
Here is his tiny vineyard.
Here is his little woodlot.
Here Klito spent eighty years.

(translated by Kenneth Rexroth)

A voice said, No: forget her touch, and keep in mind
those nights of jealousy and tears. Be strong, the voice
reminded me, as she was strong when she said, Yes,
and crowed, and grappled you for joy between her thighs.

(translated by Brooks Haxton)

The esteem in which the epigram was held in the ancient Greek provinces is confirmed by the palmy status accorded to the famous Garland of Philodemos’s coeval and fellow Syrian Meleagros, which he produced sometime around 80 BCE. It may not have been the earliest such collection of epigrams, but it seems to have been the first landmark edition, a retrospective anthology that covered six centuries of what the editor called in his proem “these varied fruits of song.” Like many an opportunistic anthologist ever since, Meleagros didn’t blush to include a generous helping of his own plums. But no harm there: He was a stylish and inventive practitioner of the genre, his manner flowing, supple, and, at times, almost Donne-like in its antic flair and erotic crackle:

 

Squealshrilling Mosquitoes, fraternity lost to shame,
Obscene vampires, chittering riders of the night:
Let her sleep, I beg you!, and come
(If you must come) feed on this flesh of mine.
(Oh useless prayer! Must not her body charm
The wildest, most heartless, most insensate beasts?)
Yet hear me, devils, I have warned you:
No more of your daring,
Or you shall smart from the strength of my jealous hands!

(translated by Dudley Fitts)

Meleagros’s original text does not survive, but it and several subsequent anthologies of Greek and Greco-Roman epigrams were absorbed into that bulging compendium known as the Palatine Anthology (so labelled when the manuscript was rediscovered in Count Palatine’s library at Heidelberg, in 1606) or rather more romantically as The Greek Anthology. Containing some four thousand poems thematically arranged into fifteen books, this anthology of anthologies was the work of anonymous Byzantine scholars who clearly had time on their hands and few editorial axes to grind. Their dogged industry resulted in a panoramic survey of roughly seventeen hundred years of epigrammatic verse, a treasury whose greatest virtue is not its uniform excellence but its ungrudging inclusiveness.” A mine of jewels choked with masses of lumber,” is how the Oxford Classical Dictionary donnishly puts it, yet if nothing else what all the clutter tells us is how deeply the intimacy and brevity of the epigram seems to have permeated Hellenic literary culture. There is even a gathering of Christian epigrams in the Anthology, further proof that this short form’s resilient appeal had everything to do with the light-years of temperament it could accommodate.

One’s first encounter with the poems in The Greek Anthology can be a strange and startling experience. It is not just that they are utterly alien from us in time and space; they are utterly alien from the burnished classical world we may think we know from the Homeric epics and Attic tragedies. If one’s exposure to Greek lyric poetry has been confined to shards of Sappho and a Pindaric ode or two, the spectrum of subjects, tones, and dispositions contained in the Anthology is liable to bring one up short. Many of these lyric attitudes and conceits we assume to be of far more modern vintage. Eight hundred years or so before Marvell penned his suave entreaty to his coy mistress, the Anthology reveals, a certain Asklepiades was employing precisely that stratagem of seduction with comparable elegance and far greater concision:

You deny me: and to what end?
There are no lovers, dear, in the under world,
No love but here: only the living know
The sweetness of Aphrodite—
but below,
But in Acheron, careful virgin, dust and ashes
Will be our only lying down together.

(translated by Dudley Fitts)

Another cause for bewilderment is that our general notion of what an epigram sounds and feels like derives more directly from the Latin tradition. We expect, even if only half-consciously, snappy phrasing, a certain impertinent sting, switchblade wit, rimshot humor. Such notes are not lacking in the Anthology, but they are only intervals along its spacious chromatic scale. The range and variety is a constant source of surprise, and so are the shocks of recognition delivered by the most acutely subjective of the epigrammatists, who could compose in a more introspective and confiding strain of feeling than one may have been prepared to concede to either their distant age or their confining genre. Why, the newly initiated reader may begin to wonder with a puzzlement verging on peevishness, aren’t these poems better known? How is it that there was no niche for a Meleagros or a Philodemos or a Leonidas of Tarentum on the syllabi of those classical survey courses of one’s impressionable youth?

To this a crabby classicist might retort that those who read epigrams in anything but Greek aren’t reading them at all. And even the less imperious might gently suggest that we’d best not place too great a faith in the heat and light we might feel the Englished versions giving off. It seems to be a ritual custom for modern translators of poems from the Anthology to express varying degrees of despair at the impossibility of transmitting even a muffled sense of the grace and precision of the originals into English. “In making this collection from the Anthology,” wrote Dudley Fitts in the preface to his trim New Directions edition (1941), “I have been restrained by a most angelic fear of treading. In the first place, I have not presumed to touch the greatest of the epigrams: they are not within my range.” Others shrink altogether from the imposture of the facsimile: J. W. Mackail’s 1911 Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, the standard text for several generations of lay readers, rendered them in prose paraphrase. Peter Jay, introducing his 1973 Penguin edition of the Anthology (revised in 1981), gives us perhaps the clearest idea of how deep this chariness runs when he notes that “not since 1833…has there been anything like a representative sampling in verse translation of the epigrammatists.”

One may concede the purist position and nonetheless harbor suspicions that the relative obscurity of The Greek Anthology in our times has less to do with the language barrier than with knowing what to make of that diminished thing, the epigram. How to advance the case for degrees of finesse, refinement, and nuance when the very genre has become a synonym for insignificance? There is major poetry and there is minor poetry, so the modern critical temper sternly insists, and under the iron rule of that dichotomy there is no question but that the epigram will come out with the short end of the stick. Minor: Is there a more damning epithet in our literary lexicon? Poems are left unfinished, poems falter, poems fail—but those poems the demigods of posterity wish to rub out most remorselessly they need only brand as insufficient in dimension or deficient in ambition.

Epigrams, ancient Greek or otherwise, labor under another debilitating latter-day stigma: They are inclined by nature to be occasional poems, written to mark specific events or to serve some practical social function, public or private. The epigram means to be “gotten”—it is direct and to the point, and if it’s not, well, then it turns into something else, a riddle or rune or spell. Hence the shortcomings of littleness are compounded by the vices of purposefulness, and to the charge of exceeding modesty is added the more serious offense of excessive topicality. Despite fitful attempts to rehabilitate occasional verse as an honorable impulse, or at the very least a harmless avocation, we tend to remain dutiful children of the Romantics in our prejudice against poems that come too swiftly to the point or jettison subtext in favor of airtight conclusiveness. It’s easy to be charmed by a verse epigram, but to be more than charmed means curbing the conditioned reflex to take a patronizing attitude toward poetry where the pleasures are virtually all on the surface. One ironic upshot of these ingrained biases is that they can turn the humble epigram on its head, thrusting upon it a bluntness that, to our ears, can sound anything but humble. “Her whole Life is an Epigram, smart, smooth, & neatly pen’d, / Platted quite neat to catch applause with a sliding noose at the end,” wrote Blake in what John Hollander has called one of his “anti-epigrams.” Blake was of course taking up arms against the whole Augustan infatuation with heroic-couplet tautologies, but in many ways his animus has persisted.

How then to take the proper measure of the epigram? The partisan must refrain from making too grand a claim on its behalf, since to inflate the form’s importance is to risk traducing it in spirit and letter. And there is a sense in which having to make any claims at all borders on bootless folly. The truth of the matter is, epigrams aren’t for everyone, and if they aren’t your thing, it’s rather tough to fathom how the taste might be acquired. Indeed, the onus would appear to fall on the other side—a serious aficionado may well feel obliged to apologize sheepishly for that peculiar indulgence, the way one does when owning up to a guilty pleasure. However liberally one cares to define them, however lavishly one might cite their sterling pedigree and fertile diversity, the pronounced limitations of these poems are so self-evident as to be their dominant features. Epigrams are short. They are skimpy. They are slight. They do not soar and neither do they swing. If they profess love, they admit impediment; if they assail fate, they keep it snappy. The most exemplary epigrams are often supremely sour or bitter, holding a special appeal to the disillusioned and the disgruntled. Epigrams are short. They are spare. They are astringent. Not uncommonly, they are snide. As a rule, they are glancing and knowing. They like to catch the reader out. They can be touching, but they prefer to break the skin before we know it, like mosquito bites and paper cuts. Epigrams are stripped-down. They are sawed-off. They are stingy. They are short.

Is it sufficient to answer such reductive typecasting with the shopworn commonplace that less can be more? To reply that the epigram remains a surefire corrective to the verbose and grandiose and histrionic, the best ammunition going to keep the population of loose and baggy monsters in check? That, more or less, seems to have been the position taken by one of the most obstreperous defenders of the epigrammatic faith, the third-century BCE Alexandrian scholar Kallimachos. Although by all accounts a man of parts—royal tutor, official cataloguer at the great library of Alexandria, incisive literary historian, accomplished writer of hymns and elegies—Kallimachos’s heart (not to mention his spleen) belonged to the epigram, and he is probably best remembered as a thorn in the side of contemporaries working in the tradition of the epic. “Big book, big bore,” is purported to have been his all-purpose putdown, and it was this sworn aversion to poetry cast on a grand scale that seems to have incited a nasty spat with his former pupil and head librarian Apollonios of Rhodes upon that worthy’s publication of a 6000-line poem, The Argonautika.

Petty squabbles were hardly unknown among the pecking orders of the Alexandrian library (not for nothing was that sanctum of scholarship dubbed “the birdcage of the muses” by a cheeky satiric poet of the day), but this dust-up evidently went beyond personal rivalry and disclosed deeper rifts in the literary culture of the period. Were long poems in the solemn Homeric manner hopelessly obsolete? Were sprawling mythological sagas egregiously old hat? Was the artful epigram, once simply confined to elegiac inscription, the ticket to making it new, the reconstituted idiom that could liberate poets from a servile reliance on heroic material and a tedious insistence on epic proportions? So Kallimachos contended, and if it meant heaping scorn on his erstwhile star pupil to make his point, so be it.

It has been speculated that Kallimachos’ bilious hostility towards long poems stemmed from his lifelong failure to complete one himself, but when did one’s passionately held aesthetic convictions not in some way or another reflect what one does well or ill? What is certain is that he practiced what he polemicized, and given the parlous climate of the birdcage it’s safe to say that had his own epigrams not been so suavely artful and wickedly on the mark, he wouldn’t have been able to ruffle many feathers with his fulminations. So in pondering what the epigram has come to, lo these many epochs later, there is something tantalizing about trying to imagine how the old waspish advocate himself would come down on its subsequent history. No doubt he would have been pleased at how avidly the poets of the Roman Republic took to the form in their native tongue, and flattered by how his own elegant animadversions were held up as models by the likes of Catullus and Propertius, but would he view the ensuing ages as one long decline and fall? Is it conceivable that he might take a measure of tight-lipped satisfaction in discovering that the short personal lyric is the staple product of our contemporary literary journals and poetry anthologies, albeit irked by the scarcity of Alexandrian irony amid the flood of American sincerity? Or might he, in the words of that noted neo-epigrammatist Yogi Berra, be struck by the sensation that it’s déjà-vu all over again—that just as the Alexandrian epigram was a reaction to the acute sense of exhaustion his school of poets felt when contemplating the glories and grandeurs of their predecessors, so too might a poetics of laconic utterance and distilled urbanity be the cure for what current fashion likes to diagnose as “belatedness”?

More than likely, none of the above. Any epigrammatic temperament of the first order can’t be second-guessed: To say the unexpected thing as if it were the only thing to be said on the subject is the whole name of the game. Which may be equivalent to saying that an epigram is successful in proportion to its magisterial air of irrefutability, the extent to which it renders both explanation and classification moot. What is an epigram? A trick question, ultimately, and I have a hunch that Kallimachos would fend it off in the same Sphinxlike manner as Louis Armstrong did when pressed for a definition of jazz: “If you have to ask, I can’t tell you.”

Even Homer nods, the old saw goes, but the epigrammatist has no such luxury. Every syllable counts; absolute concentration is all. And even perfect touch and timing may not be enough at the end of the day, for the most consummate epigrams have a way of turning into maxims and adages and warmed-over truisms through wide circulation and overexposure. “I do not drink from the mains, / Can’t stomach anything public,” sniffed Kallimachos, and if one takes him at his word, one has to believe that it would suit him just fine that in our day and age a good epigram is hard to find. I can almost hear his shade snort derisively at the vain thought that it could ever be otherwise.

 

II.

A drop of venom, a little bit of gall.
Lacking these, my friend, your epigrams lack all. —

Martial, Epigram 7.25 (trans: Richard O’Connell)

It is tempting to think of him as the Homer of epigrams. Marcus Valerius Martialis might have fancied the arrant impertinence of that, and since we are told that he grumbled incessantly about not receiving his fair due of fame and fortune, it’s unlikely he would object on the grounds of modesty. Classicists seem to agree, at any rate, that the development of the epigram reaches its climax with the poet more succinctly known as Martial, its greatest innovator and most singleminded practitioner. Although apparently not a scrap of his work written before the age of forty survives, his extant oeuvre is enormous: From 80 to 98 CE, he produced fifteen volumes of verse, most of which were published as annual compendia that ran to around one hundred individual pieces. By the time he retired from Rome to his native Spain in the reign of Trajan, his output totalled somewhere in the vicinity of sixteen hundred poems. Those prolific figures reflect not only feverish industry but the consummate brevity that from start to finish was Martial’s trademark. The longest of his poems clocks in at forty-two lines; most are shorter than a dozen, and many consist of a single crisp couplet. Every blessed one of them an epigram.

The form, as we have seen, was already ancient by the time Martial got his hands on it. He could not of course dip into the Palatine Anthology for inspiration (that golden treasury of Greek epigrams would not be compiled for another several hundred years), but he would have been well aware of the epigram’s deep Hellenic roots, its origins as sepulchral inscription, and its variegated literary uses in commemorative and amorous versifying. A great number of his poems are in fact composed in elegiac couplets, the staple measure of the Greek epigrammatic poets. Closer to home, there was the irrepressible Catullus, the most combustibly original of a generation of Roman poets who, around a century earlier, had infused the old Greek measures with a rough-and-tumble colloquial energy and topical verve, recharging the epigram with jolts of Latin irony, irreverence, and invective. The Oxford Classical Dictionary informs us that epigram-writing became something of an erudite fad in the decades between Catullus and Martial: Julius Caesar and Brutus are said to have written them as a diversion from the snakepits of politics, Virgil and Ovid took breaks from their epic projects to toss some off, and even the grudging Cicero, who had initially dissed Catullus and his crowd as rabblerousing “new Turks” (neoteroi), came around and tried his hand at them.

Of all the classical epigrammists whose work has survived, however, Martial is unsurpassed as a specialist and a stylist. By the time he was finished with it, the Latin epigram had once and for all been stamped with its characteristic spontaneity and bite—and transformed into a full-fledged literary idiom. As the innovator who appeared at just the right moment, blessed with just the right combination of skill and bile and swagger, Martial is the father of the epigram as we know it, the one who put the proverbial sting in its tail. It was his peculiar achievement to elevate the genre by bringing it down to earth (and, often enough, right into the gutter), putting the short verse form to exhilaratingly versatile use while keeping it firmly in the service of an unmistakable sensibility. To the extent that we can pin down the essential spirit and character of the verse epigram as it has come down to us—a poem of pointed commentary, a quick hit of wit, an astringent dose of disabused wisdom, a satirical needle puncturing sanctimony and hypocrisy, a form of elegant malediction—it is Martial’s temper and posture we are implicitly calling to mind. All of which he’d be the first to tell us—as in fact he did, in this boast that he used to preface one of his earliest published collections:

Here he is whom you read and clamor for,
tasteful reader, the very Martial world—
renowned for pithy books of epigrams
and not even dead yet. So seize your chance:
better to praise him when he can hear
than later, when he’ll be literature.

(translated by William Matthews)

How he came to his vocation seems to have been an accident of fortune. He would have been twentysomething when he settled in Rome around 64 CE, just one of countless provincial upstarts that the imperial capital was crawling with in those days. This upstart, however, had connections. His fellow Spaniards Seneca and Lucan ran with the smart set circulating at the court of Nero: writers of talent and stature, practiced in the arts of currying favor in the marble corridors of power and inveigling patronage from the equestrian orders. But whatever fine points Martial may have hoped to pick up on making the scene and mixing with the glitterati were soon rendered academic. Within a year of his arrival, Nero embarked on one of his wanton palace purges; Seneca and Lucan were among those put to death for conspiracy. There is no knowing what sort of career track the young Martial was on prior to the rubbing out of his cronies, but we can be reasonably certain that their demise brought an abrupt halt to his immediate prospects. Learned conjecture has it that his next fifteen years were spent in ignoble hackdom, composing occasional verses for dissolute patricians, sucking up to bureaucrats and bigwigs who were susceptible to toadying squibs, and generally scrounging about at the mucky intersection of Grub Street and Appian Way.

A poet dealt such a hand by the Fates was unlikely to find many takers for contemplative odes and grandiloquent epics. But the epigram slyly contrived to tickle or to titillate, the slick couplet whipped up to grease a patron’s palm, the drop of venom, the little bit of gall—one might traffic in such trifles and eke out an existence. Martial may have had a natural flair for such stuff, or he may simply have discovered through bruising experience that, as a practical matter, there was nothing for it but to keep his compositions short and sweet. Or, when the right opportunity presented itself, short and seamy. This was the formula he hit on for the project that brought him his big break at long last in 80 CE, the year when the Emperor Titus formally inaugurated the just-completed Colosseum by treating the Roman citizenry to an extravaganza of orchestrated mayhem that featured more inventive forms of carnage than the entire slate of blockbusters at your local multiplex. We know this because Martial tells us so. The earliest group of his extant poems derives from a collection of celebratory verses composed to mark the grand and gory occasion, commonly known as the liber spectaculorum or “Book of Spectacles.” These are brisk, lurid vignettes that capture scenes from the “games” of the Flavian amphitheater with an avid and rather too obvious relish: a rhinoceros goaded into bloodbaths with bullocks and lions, a full-scale boar hunt staged on the arena floor, an elephant commanded to kneel submissively in front of the Emperor’s box after crushing a bull, a criminal sentenced to reenact the myth of Orpheus dropping through a trap door and finding himself in the embraces of an enraged bear instead of a luscious Eurydice. When the poems are not gruesomely blood-splattered, they are gratuitously butt-licking, the unctuous adulation for Emperor and Empire laid on so thick that the modern reader may be hard-pressed to decide which is the more grotesque, the barbarities in the ring or the poet’s savage servility.

Be that as it may, the liber spectaculorum (or De Spectaculis, as it is sometimes referred to) is clearly the calculated performance of a wordsmith who had become a shrewd judge of the prevailing appetites of the Roman reading public. The volume was a popular success, and with the ascension of the Emperor Domitian the following year, Martial’s career finally turned the corner. The erstwhile inkstained wretch was now a figure of a certain repute, and with the seasoned instincts of a longtime poet-for-hire he sought to leverage that reputation by ingratiating himself to those with spare sesterces in their purses. His next published opuses were two collections of distichs written to accompany the gifts affluent citizens exchanged during the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, perhaps the most cunning greeting-card sentiments ever inscribed. (Only the most hopeless sourpuss could fail to be beguiled by this light-fingered two-liner, nestled coyly alongside the gift of a bedroom lantern: “A lamp am I, aware of your joy in bed: / Do what you will / not one word will be said.” Epigram 3.39, Palmer Bovie, trans.) Then, beginning in 85 CE, came in rapid succession the twelve canonical books of epigrams, annual verse miscellanies containing most of the defiantly terse, blithely indecent, patently outrageous poetry for which he is best remembered. Although Martial was never shy about strutting his stuff, one gathers that the following bit of braggadocio from his sixth collection is not an entirely cooked-up portrait of the artist in thriving mid-career:

My Rome praises, loves and quotes my books,
which fill all pockets and all hands.
Readers blush, then pale, look dazed, curse, swear.
Yes! Yes! This is what I’d always planned.

(translated by William Matthews)

What were dazed and blushing readers in for when they cracked their latest volume of Martial? Try to imagine tabloid sleaze corsetted in strictly observed meters. Try to imagine the diary entries of a crank-about-town distilled to a quintessence of vitriol. Try to imagine an album of the naked city’s most feckless denizens: the spongers and climbers, leeches and louses, trollops and goons. Try to imagine X-rated exposés, scabrous wisecracks, churlish kiss-offs, spicy scuttlebutt, captious comments on trendy togas and modish coiffures, interlarded with puff pieces on the new public works project, eulogies for broken-down gladiators, and the occasional dripping valentine to a free-spending party host. Try to imagine some chimerical hybrid of Lenny Bruce, Walter Winchell, Truman Capote, and Howard Stern. Try to—but let us hear a few:

Lewd dinner guests keep asking you back.
Are you the entree, or the midnight snack?

(translated by Philip Murray)

The rich know anger helps the cost of living.
Hating’s more economical than giving.

(translated by James Michie)

“The skies are empty
and the gods are dead,”
said Segius, the proof of which
is that he sees himself made rich.

(translated by Peter Porter)

You said he was a well-hung idiot.
I want my money back—he’s literate.

(translated by Richard O’Connell)

These versions can be found in the stimulating Penguin omnibus, Martial in English, which proposes not merely to offer us a Martial for our times but to demonstrate the considerable influence of the Martialian epigram on the framers and defenders of English versification. The evidence is ample, and editors J. P. Sullivan and A. J. Boyle have marshalled it energetically, assembling a hefty selection of translations and imitations by many hands, both eminent and obscure, that together make for a sort of jaunty bucket brigade stretching across the centuries. It is a more extensive inheritance than one might have supposed, given what a hot potato this poet can be, but as the editors persuasively contend, the sheer scale of Martial’s oeuvre and his rich array of subject matter gave his translators wide latitude to pick their spots. For the Elizabethans especially he was an indispensable model, an ancient to emulate with no apologies. Tiptoeing around the raunchiest bawdy (“Martial is touche mislikt and lothde / of modest mynded men: / For leude, lascivious wanton woorkes / and woords whiche he doeth pen,” warns Timothe Kendall in his 1577 anthology, Flowers of Epigrammes), his champions looked to him as a fount of brilliant imaginative conceits, a paragon of expressive economy, and a prototype for suave and subversive wit. “Martial became to epigram what Ovid was to love poetry, Seneca to drama and Virgil to epic,” claim Sullivan and Boyle, and quote this fulsome apostrophe by the Reverend Thomas Bastard as typical of the star treatment Martial came in for during the late Tudor period: “Martial, in sooth none should presume to write, / Since time hath brought thy Epigrammes to light . . . / Yet to our selves although we winne no fame, / Wee please, which get our maister a good name.”

Poets made of sterner stuff assimilated Martial’s influence less slavishly and more cannily. In the shorter poems of Jonson, Donne, and Herrick one sees the debt to Martial repaid in full and then some: Domesticating Martial’s formal neatness, dextrous control, and darting turns of thought, they helped naturalize the classical epigram as a mode eminently suitable to both the polished textures and punchier tempos the English ear yearned after. Martial was the acknowledged grandmaster, but the cagiest poets of the period brought their own native vigor to the epigrammatic enterprise and could soon boast of their own accomplishments in aesthetically pleasing compression. The poet William Camden, who defined epigrams as “short and sweet poems, framed to praise and dispraise,” stoutly declared that no nation was more adept at them; Jonson, Camden’s pupil, stated for the record that epigram-writing was “the ripest of my studies.” Timothe Kendall’s admonition notwithstanding, Martial’s nasty streak also seems to have left its mark, as this scathing epigram by the usually convivial Herrick demonstrates:

Scobble for Whoredom whips his wife; and cryes,
He’ll slit her nose; But blubb’ring, she replyes
Good sir, make no more cuts i’th’ outward skin,
One slit’s enough to let Adultry in.

Later generations took even more readily to Martial’s satirical thrust and unquenchable spleen, and it comes as no surprise that Martial was considered required reading in a literary culture that styled itself as “Augustan.” Readers of the Spectator and Tatler were routinely served up Martialian imitations for guidance in gentlemanly urbanity; Dr. Johnson, who didn’t have much truck with Martial’s pissy side, translated several epigrams that suggest his attachment to the poet’s aphoristic pithiness, occasionally paring down his verses into one-sentence maxims that sound as if they were penned by someone who should be called Dr. Martial (“Who buys without discretion, buys to sell”; “The more I honour thee, the less I love”). By this time, suffice to say, Rome’s former island outpost had a homegrown epigrammatic tradition of its own, a predilection for concentrated comment that found epochal expression in pungent Johnsonian repartee, the fine-tuned vehemence of Swiftian satire, and the reptilian sheen of Pope’s heroic couplets. The eclectic format of Martial in English is in this respect particularly salutary, since it gives the editors an apt pretext to sprinkle plenty of original epigrams in with the straight translations and faithful imitations. It is edifying, for example, to be reminded that the eighteenth century’s esteem for the verse epigram reflected not just a veneration for classical models of literary conduct but the hardbitten conviction that it was an arrow every well-armed poet should carry in his quiver. Pope’s longer poems and epistles abound in epigrammatic bull’s-eyes that long ago assumed a life of their own as apothegms and catchphrases (“What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”), yet when he confined himself to the epigram proper, he could let fly a poisoned dart or feathered shaft very much in the expertly opportune manner of Martial:

What’s Fame with Men, by custom of the Nation,
Is call’d in Women only reputation:
About them both why keep we such a potter?
Part you with one, and I’ll renounce the other.

(“On Fame”)

Martial’s coarseness (and the other side of that grimy coin, his sycophancy) brought him into predictable disrepute in the nineteenth century, his epigrams clapped into sanitized editions that perhaps more damaged his name than did the stigma of degeneracy. Lord Byron was twitting genteel opinion when, in his inventory of the classical reading list of the young Don Juan, he affects mock disdain for the Imperial epigrammatist (“And then what proper person can be partial / To all those nauseous epigrams of Martial?”), yet the sentiment sums up all too neatly the going attitude of his age. Excepting a few prominent sympathizers—Robert Louis Stevenson, for one, who saw the censorious treatment of Martial as symptomatic of his contemporaries’ “distorted and hysterical conception of the great Roman Empire”—eminent Victorians also were united in their contempt for Martial’s serial indecencies and quick to shade themselves from any harsh light his verses might have cast on their own imperial orders.

And what of our own age? Martial would seem to be an ideal mascot for a post-everything epoch that fancies itself unshockable and relishes nothing so much as rolling back bowdlerization. To a certain degree that has proven the case. The final section of Martial in English is given over to what the editors refer to as a “reanimated” Martial, eclectic renditions by twentieth-century poets and translators that tend to revel in the salacious element the Victorians reviled. “Martial now comes out of the closet,” Sullivan and Boyle say of this postwar output, and indeed he does—more than anything else, what seems to have sparked the renewed interest in the epigrams is their ready availability as a trove of naughty bits. Graphic detail abounds in these merrily risqué contemporary versions, and X-rated licentiousness often seems to be the main draw:

Galla’ll be fucked for two pieces of gold.
She’ll do something more, for two more I am told.
Aeschylus, why does she have ten from you?
Her blow jobs come cheaper. What then? Silence too?

(translated by Fiona Pitt-Kethley)

Does this mean we are at long last getting Martial complete and unadulterated? One has to wonder. If there has been a Martial revival of sorts, it seems to have been chiefly a British phenomenon, which may be a reflection of an ongoing Oxbridge affinity for the classics, or, less charitably, a byproduct of selective editing. (Curiously left out of the mix in the Penguin volume are both Palmer Bovie, whose 1970 Epigrams of Martial still holds its own as an introduction for the general reader, and William Matthews, whose lively selection of Martial epigrams, The Mortal City, roughly emulates the size and format in which Martial’s own reading public would have experienced him.) One also comes away with the creeping feeling that this “reanimated” Martial—slagging a citizen as “Mr. REDNECK” in a loose Tony Harrison translation, foaming at the mouth in one of editor Sullivan’s own outré offerings that ends “Niggers and Ruskis all go in your stew— / But my prick’s a Wop—Caelia, fuck you!”—may be as much of an overdetermined caricature as the spruced-up Martial of yesteryear, enlisted a bit too freely and easily in every given arena of class warfare and sexual combat. There are occasions here when what really appears to have animated a translation is animus itself, with “Martial” being little more than a convenient mouthpiece for corrosive attitudes and equal-opportunity ire that would otherwise get a contemporary poet pilloried. In this sense Martial’s chosen genre might be said to work against him, giving both translator and reader free license to rove and ransack at will, wholly unconstrained by cultural difference or historical context.

Still and all, the Sullivan-and-Boyle volume more than adequately serves its purpose as a sympathetic introduction to this inexhaustibly provocative figure who remains probably the least read of the major Roman poets. They maintain that their palimpsest supports the case that Martial “helped shape the English literary tradition and the Anglo-American literary sensibility,” and though not every classicist would be prepared to go that far (the estimable Bernard Knox, for example, makes no mention of Martial in The Norton Book of Classical Literature), this hardly seems an overreaching assessment. The breadth and heft of the material that was there for the gathering speaks for itself. The question that hovers over their book is, how much of that tradition and sensibility is still an active ingredient in the alembic of influence? Sullivan and Boyle’s composite portrait elicits mixed feelings on this score, and if the reader finally lays aside their volume feeling a touch queasy, it is through no fault of their own. Martial, in whatever guise and vintage, is very much an acquired taste, and does not go down well if taken in great draughts. He is a roaring misogynist and an inveterate bellyacher, and his penchant for scatological innuendo often verges on the puerile, redolent of the junior-high locker-room or the honkytonk toilet stall. A little of him goes a long way, though to his credit he seems to have known it. The ruefulness of his Epigram 1.16, one gathers, is not entirely a put-on: “Some lines in here are good, some fair, / And most are frankly rotten. / No other kind of book, Avitus, / Can ever be begotten.” Nor does he seem to be just copping a plea when he voices this rather more aesthetic qualm in his eighth collection: “Brevity’s sweet, the couplet-maker hopes. But look: / what good is brevity if it fills up a book?”

That he was also a bundle of contradictions comes through pretty clearly as well. He did not always have his back up or his claws out, and in the later books of epigrams, written after his labors had secured for him a small parcel of land in the Roman suburbs, there are mellow and even tender verses that belie his image as a beastly gadabout. It is in his tenth collection that we find two of his most oft-translated poems: the famously temperate Epigram 10.47, which outlines his Epicurean formula for “the happy life” (“unstinting fields, a steady fire; / no lawsuits, no togas, a restful mind . . . / a bed not guilty nor a prude’s . . .”) and the plaintive Epigram 10.61, an elegy for a slave girl:

Here in premature gloom Erotion rests
whose sixth winter now will last forever.
Whoever tends this small field after me,
pay each year homage to her slender ghost:
then you will prosper here and never
weep, except this stone bring her to memory.

(translated by William Matthews)

Put it all together and what do you have? A Rorschach blotter, to some extent, and for that reason a suggestively modern type of moral sensibility, forever seesawing between disgust and fascination at the spectacle of human frailty and vanity. William Matthews, in his brief introduction to The Mortal City, nominates Martial as “the first thoroughly urban poet in the European literary tradition,” and this may get to the nub of why he seems much more our contemporary than a Horace or an Ovid. “My page tastes of man,” he declares in Epigram 10.4, and if it’s true that he’s way too gamy and gristly for anyone with a weak stomach, he can’t be accused of being anything less than true to life. While it’s tempting to conclude that in his case the bile is the man, it must also be said (as he said in his own defense) that his sordidness is an unflinching reflection of the seamy milieu in which he found himself. And can we moderns honestly claim that we’re so much more grown up than the contemporaries Martial caught in such compromising positions? In his hands the epigram becomes a weapon like never before, but a weapon more in the way that a camera can be one; and before we look down our nose at how he went about his work, it is well to ask ourselves whether we are not also flunking a certain kind of gut-check by writing him off as a worm or lout.

But there is another story that runs under the surface of Martial in English: the decline of the epigram itself, the ebbing of the epigrammatic spirit in English verse, and the genre’s failure to make any pronounced impress on the American mind. It is not just that no subsequent writer rivals Martial’s range and fanatical devotion to the form; somewhere along the line the well of inspiration begins to run dry, and his entire field of endeavor seems to have been foreclosed upon with scarcely a tear. Thumbing through this chronicle of epigrammatic imitation and permutation inclines one to the view that the desuetude may have been latent in the organic life of language itself—English being no match for Latin’s lexical succinctness, when all is said and done, and the American vernacular arguably even less so.

One senses that there may have been an inevitable backlash involved here too. As Sullivan and Boyle point out in their general introduction, Martial’s popularity among the sixteenth-century English intelligentsia is a direct reflection of the cachet accorded to Latin inscription as one of the hallmarks of Humanist erudition. The ability to compose a witty and timely epigram at the right occasion was a test of scholarly mettle-the rough equivalent, it would seem, of the painters of the Italian quattrocento drawing a perfect circle in freehand to vouch for their artistic prowess. Sir Thomas More and Erasmus were both avid epigrammatists, and More especially was renowned for turning out Latin epigrams that were thought to rank with the finest verbal pearls of the Roman worthies. More got his start in epigram writing at a tender age, though in this he was anything but unique. Like legions of less gifted English schoolboys before and after him, the future author of Utopia was obliged to parse and produce epigrammata as a staple exercise in the instruction of grammar and rhetoric, a custom that endured into the nineteenth century.

The extent to which the modern history of the epigram is bound up with the mixed blessings of pedagogy is nowhere better personified than in the odd figure of one John Owen (ca. 1593-1622), the Welsh-born headmaster of King Henry VIII’s school at Warwick whom Ben Jonson unkindly memorialized as “a pure pedantique schoolmaster sweeping his living from the posteriors of little children.” There may be more than a dram of professional jealousy in that remark, for Owen’s own waspish epigrams—written exclusively in Latin—were wildly popular in his day and won him considerable fame in learned circles as an “English Martial.” Yet as David R. Slavitt suggests in his introduction to a selection of Owen translations in his recent book Epic and Epigrams, for a Stuart poet to specialize in original Latin epigrams already smacked of “a deliberately elitist gesture.” Slavitt’s supposition is certainly lent credence by the tenor and tilt of the poems themselves, shot through as they are with a spiky irony and suave disdain that one can imagine Martial smirking over approvingly:

You, who call good poems splendid and bad ones fair,
have taste and wit.
And you, who call poor poems wretched, and fair ones bad …
You’re a shit.

(“The Kind Reader and the Wicked Reader”)

Martial is obviously the model for Owen’s curt and cutting verses, and he could count on his readers to savor them in that light. Even so, Slavitt’s notion that he was also “playing a game, undertaking as a grown man what was a traditional schoolboy’s exercise” may better help explain the verse epigram’s eventual devaluation as intellectual currency. Could it be that the English esteem for epigrammatic ingenuity was ruined through force-feeding in countless classroom forms? Is it not plausible that the epigram became so duly associated with the curriculum of rhetorical and moral instruction that the best defense against its stultifying regimen was the offense of comedy and parody? Those pure pedantic schoolmasters were playing with fire when they assigned Martial to their charges—that much at least seems clear. John Owen, one gathers, adeptly exploited the scholastic tradition to his own career advantage, but poor Dr. John Fell, a Restoration-period classics scholar and the Bishop of Oxford, was not nearly so lucky. Fell is now best remembered as the butt of a jibe penned by one of his pupils, Thomas Brown, who exacted a lasting revenge on his former dean by turning Martial’s Epigram 1.32, a two-line smear of a Roman citizen named Sabinus, into a sniggering taunt that most every English collegian afterwards gleefully learned by heart:

I do not love thee, Dr. Fell;
The reason why I cannot tell.
But this I’m sure I know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr. Fell.

It is hard not to feel a little for old Dr. Fell, even though he may have had it coming to him. Brown’s punkish quatrain is the sort of thing that one can imagine being scrawled on the inside of a desk—and as far as the future of the English verse epigram is concerned, it might as well have been the writing on the wall. While the form would continue for some time to epitomize sophistication and eloquence, here we spot it well on its way to assuming its down-market modern role as a stylized wisecrack, cousin to the slur and next of kin to the impertinent aperçu. “We take but three steps from feathers to iron,” Keats writes in one of his breathless letters expatiating on the poetic imagination, and it would appear that the metamorphosis of the epigram proves that the reverse can be equally true—we can regress from irony to horsefeathers with a quick shuffle of metrical feet. By Keats’s day, at any rate, the fate of the verse epigram had been sealed, its fall from grace neatly summed up by the critic and classical scholar Richard Porson’s remark that, “[C]ertainly the dignity of a great poet is thought to be lowered by the writing of epigrams.”

What makes Porson’s snippy dismissal all the more damning is that its source is one of the “Imaginary Conversations” of Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), the pre-eminent epigrammatist of his generation. Yet despite that natural affinity and aptitude—and perhaps because of it—Landor was evidently prepared to concede Porson’s point without even token protest. Much of his life was spent abroad, chiefly in Italy, almost as if to anticipate how far posterity would place him from the epochal orbit of the English Romantic movement, and as the following apologia wanly shows, he was not one to make more of the epigram than the taste of his age would allow:

Idle and light are many things you see
In these my closing pages: blame not me.
However rich and plenteous the repast,
Nuts, almonds, biscuits, wafers come at last.

(from Interlude)

Verse epigrams as finger food? Quick treats to pop into the mouth between meals, mind-candy instead of food for thought? Yes, that seems just about right—yet just try and stop nibbling once you start. Like many an epigram worth its salt, this one has the distinct flavor of a motto, meekly asking for the reader’s indulgence while cagily banking on the cultivated intellect’s appetite for the bon-bon of the bon mot. So in taking leave of the ever-tangy Martial, it seems only fitting to let him have the last word. Here is a personal favorite, as rendered by the Stuart poet Thomas May, which seems to me a matchless epitaph for any devoted epigrammatist:

Here shines a Bee clos’d in an Amber tombe
As if interred in her own honey-combe.
A fit reward to her labours gave;
No other death would she have wished to have.

 

III.

Mankind perishes. The world goes dark. He racks his brain for a tart remark.

—Fred Chappell, “The Epigrammatist”

Epigram, n. A short, sharp saying in prose or verse, frequently characterized by acidity or acerbity and sometimes by wisdom.” So runs the poker-faced citation in Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, which, as disciples of that sulfurously sardonic volume can attest, may be the only entry in all its pages that conceivably could have been set down by Noah Webster. Why the lapse into lexicographical rectitude? No mystery, really: For so corrosive a satirist as Bierce, a veritable prince in the dark arts of the forked tongue, it figures that the only thing sacred would be the soul of wit itself.

No cult follower of Bierce’s diabolical lexicon needs reminding that it’s an underground classic in the annals of the short, sharp saying—an essential text, as the author purrs in his preface, for “enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and dean English to slang.” Often overlooked, nonetheless, is that Bierce’s epigrammatic malice exercised itself in cutting verse as well as in biting prose, the former taking the form of a running gag in the Dictionary whereby citations are frequently garnished with mock-poetic embellishments. If we are to give the devil his due, it will not do to sell short the obvious pleasure he took in punching out these roguishly subversive rhymes—this at a time when popular literary taste had turned away the verse epigram as a leading brand of satirical imposture. Bierce, as the concluding paragraph of his preface suffices to show, was not one to give up the ghost without a good stiff fight: “A conspicuous, and it is hoped not unpleasing, feature of the book is its abundant illustrative quotations from eminent poets, chief of whom is that learned and ingenious cleric, Father Gassalasca Jape, S. J., whose lines bear his initials. To Father Jape’s kindly encouragement and assistance the author of the prose text is greatly indebted.”

How talented a bard was Father Jape? Good enough to provoke a reliable smirk, and when Bierce turns to him to leaven the proceedings with a timely jest, as in the following quatrain rounding out the one-line citation for “Aim” (“The task we set our wishes to”), the resulting dose of black humor is a bracing antidote to the gentler strain of American persiflage later embodied by the likes of Ogden Nash:

“Cheer up! Have you no aim in life?”
She tenderly inquired.
“An aim? Well, no, I haven’t, wife:
The fact is—I have fired.”

A mite broad, perhaps, and plainly no peer of Dean Swift, at least Father Jape saw fit to work in the grand old tradition of the accentual-syllabic jibe, ridicule that scans. A large part of what tickles the fancy here, it should also be said in the saucy priest’s defense, is the satisfaction of witnessing a happy collaboration between the different orders of satirical intelligence, the kind of comic relief that ensues when a savage ironist calls upon meter and rhyme to temper the vehement flow of bile and vitriol. Published serially over some twenty years after its 1881 debut in a California journal aptly called The Wasp, Bierce’s iconoclastic Gilded Age masterwork in this respect looks back to a golden age of English epigrammatic wit, when custom held that any satirist worth his sting had better be able to turn a verse as well as a phrase.

When Bierce struck out for the wilds of Mexico in 1913, famously never to be heard from again, the epigram thus lost its wiliest American switch-hitter, the irascible spirit of old Father Jape pretty much vanishing into the saguaros alongside him. And with them went arguably the last best chance our vernacular had for giving epigrammatic prose and verse equal standing in native wit and venom. The modern American satirist, generally speaking, has tended to be on much better speaking terms with paragraphs than with stanzas; among those who have had a natural flair for comic verse, precious few can be said to have achieved genuine fluency in the shorthand of the epigram. Even Don Marquis’s Archy the Cockroach, whose pronounced physical limitations vis-à-vis the typewriter keys might seem to dictate an expedient preference for brevity, was inclined to natter on a bit—and in skittery vers libre, besides.

The verse epigram also appears to have been a victim of a kind of overcompensating snobbishness in American letters when it comes to smiling on humor and fancy. Compared to our British counterparts, we have tended to insist on an even harsher divide between serious poetry and light verse, and are quicker to dismiss any blithe or puckish poem as a brand of mongrelized doggerel. (“For a ‘serious’ poet to write light verse is frowned on in America,” noted Auden the attentive expatriate, “and if, when he is asked why he writes poetry, he replies, as any European poet would, ‘For fun,’ his audience will be shocked.”) Depending on how willing one is to see artistic disposition as culturally determined, one could go on to cite a battery of latent prejudices that might lead the American poet reflexively to shun the epigram: a Puritanical aversion to satirical mischief, particularly of the ribald and irreverent variety; a provincial hostility toward English wit, with its ancestral ties to aristocratic refinement and courtly raillery; an Emersonian hunger for uplift and exhortation; a populist suspicion of writing that aspires to polished suavity and rhetorical artifice. That these biases had already congealed into something like a prevailing gospel when Ambrose Bierce was inking his devilishly acerbic verses can be detected in the Dictionary’s tart citation for poetry: “A form of expression peculiar to the Land beyond the Magazines.”

Unbridled ambition, that archetypal American vice (in cahoots with its trusty sidekick, unfettered optimism) probably has much to do as well with this ingrained disdain for the epigram. However dexterously turned or ingeniously devised, an epigrammatic verse is never a showboating display of virtuosity and won’t carry much weight with the juries who mete out grants and fellowships; for all the stringent demands the form imposes, it offers little in the way of sweet desserts. “Wit ought to be a glorious treat, like caviar. Never spread it about like marmalade,” advised that debonair Englishman Noël Coward, but here in the States we usually like to lay it on thick.

A less cynical though kindred conjecture is that the verse epigram never managed to take root here because it failed to strike any resonant chord of the American imagination. There may be a certain superficial logic to that supposition—our native literary aspirations have always been too grand and panoramic to countenance the epigram’s cramped quarters, the reasoning might run—yet by the same token we should have no homegrown tradition of sonneteering either. The American vernacular is large, it contains multitudes, and is nothing if not acquisitive. It has effectively naturalized the rarefied villanelle and recondite sestina, and seems well on the way to doing the same for even more opulently exotic forms like the pantoum and the ghazal. So why can’t the epigram crash the party? Laconic compactness in and of itself can’t be the sticking point, or else we would have no grassroots haiku societies and naughty limerick contests, or, for that matter, the iconic red wheelbarrow and talismanic cold plums of the redoubtable Dr. Williams. Perhaps this is only to say that the genre has yet to find its patron saint, the charismatic figure who could lead it into the promised land. The epigrammatic aesthetic obviously stands at the opposite end of the cosmos from Whitman’s barbaric yawp; less obviously, though maybe more tellingly, it’s also worlds apart from the glyphic intimation and runic ellipticism that give Dickinson’s impacted verses their spectral, scarifying power. (“Tell all the Truth, / But tell it Slant / Success in Circuit lies,” may be a sage dictum for a hermetic poet intent on breaking the psyche’s code of silence, but it is no recipe for a cracking good epigram.)

Yet another hypothesis that could explain the epigram’s second-class status has been hinted at by Slavitt, much of whose own able verse displays a decidedly epigrammatic bent. In his contribution to a festschrift for fellow votary Fred Chappell, Slavitt mischievously suggests that the “giddy egalitarianism of epigrams” flouts the academic clerisy: The more adroit the epigram, the more pointless it renders explication. “An epigram,” he remarks, “is like a joke—frequently it is a joke—and, either you get it or you don’t. Exegesis is, in the former case, otiose and in the latter, hopeless.” There is surely some truth to this zinger, but I suspect Slavitt is even more on the mark when he goes on to suggest that the epigram poses a clear and present danger to the makers of poems themselves. Epigrams, he submits, “are not easy to do: They are, like jokes, most demanding, take talent and training and an instinct for timing, and a sense of the absurd—a whole range of craftsmanly and human qualities that are rarely found together…Because of the very tight focal length and the close scrutiny that invites, fakery is even harder here, I rather think, than in an ode or an epic.”

All this being so, it may be wishful thinking to suppose that the verse epigram might have been assimilated more readily into American poetry’s fold if only Father Jape had managed to win a few more stalwart converts. Or it might be that his potential disciples were only too willing to surrender the form’s aesthetic cachet to the merrier amenities of the ringing cash register, redirecting its energies into such ebullient Americana as Tin Pan Alley ditties and Burma Shave signs. The jaundiced notion occurs that the idiom of the short and snappy has been so thoroughly expropriated by the mercenary hucksterism of pop culture since Bierce’s day that its subversive fizz can’t be put back in the bottle, to the point where pundits, spin doctors, and pitchmen now have cornered the market on contemporary pith and gist. The soundbite, the billboard, the slogan and the jingle, the stand-up comic’s smart-ass crack and the urban tagger’s flagrant aerosol-can scrawl—do these not, in their own irrepressible way, constitute the epigrams of our times?

Whether due to obstinate animus or benign neglect, it is safe to say that the prospectus for a Norton Anthology of American Verse Epigrams would make for a very slim volume indeed—far leaner, one suspects, than the collected Martial. All the same, the conspicuous absence of anything like a robust epigrammatic tradition in American poetry shouldn’t necessarily be taken as an incurable condition. And it is not as if the cupboard were bare: As with Poe’s purloined letter, it may be that there are more epigrams hiding in plain sight than one has been led to believe:

The old dog barks backward without getting up.

I can remember when he was a pup.

(“The Span of Life”)

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

(“First Fig”)

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one dis-
covers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

(“Poetry”)

I ask you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is this not our old friend the epigram in fine fighting trim? Do we not observe here an enterprising immigrant with its foot in the door? Frost, Millay, Moore: just about as disparate a delegation of temperaments as the big tent of modern American poetics can offer, and all of them after their own fashion giving the genre a distinctive New World twist. Yet it is revealing, I think, that they share a prickly Weltschmerz, a bite of contrariness, a tincture of casuistical qualification—all qualities that put them in league with established epigrammatic tradition. (That Moore’s testy ars poetica was the outcome of a radical revision—the original incarnation of “Poetry” being determinedly essayistic and digressive—might also support the inference that an epigram can prise open the armor of ambivalence and subject an elaborate sensibility to severe moral and intellectual probity.) To see the epigram given wily play like this—gamely adapting itself to the crackerbarrel quip, the catty salvo, the iconoclastic credo—is to sense how sorely it has been underestimated by American poets of all stripes, and to wonder anew why an appreciation for its few adepts has tended to be so grudging.

As is often the case when retracing the course of modern poetry, all roads seem to lead through Pound, and that holds true as well for this path not taken. That Pound’s Lustra (1916) fairly abounds with epigrams—boobytrapped may be a better way to put it—is acutely instructive, casting us back to a fleeting moment when the form seemed poised to play a militant role in the ranks of the avant-garde. Apart from their bristling profusion, what makes these Lustra poems so arresting is how intent they seem on making the epigram lean and mean again, a pretext for pointed impertinence instead of epicene wit. All thrust and parry and rising gorge, Pound’s epigrams batter genteel sentiment with goatish abandon, fighting words hurled against polite society and the decorous facades of English verse. They are epigrammatic in tone and stance rather than in touch or technique, composed in coarse strokes of sardonic vers libre, and deliberately harking back, in their rude vigor and pugnacious delivery, to the patented combativeness of Catullus and Martial:

The gew-gaws of false amber and false turquoise attract them.
Like to nature: these agglutinous yellows!

(“Women Before a Shop”)

As a bathtub lined with white porcelain
When the hot water gives out or goes tepid,
So is the cooling of our chivalrous passion,
O my much praised but not-altogether-satisfactory lady.

(“The Bath Tub”)

Pound’s champions seem to have little use for the Lustra epigrams, and if one goes solely by the anthologies one would never guess he had quite so many cherrybombs up his sleeve. That is hardly surprising, since it would be a stretch to claim that they constitute an important phase of development and a kindness to praise more than a handful as altogether satisfactory. A prominent exception to this general indifference is Eliot, who made room for a substantial number of them in his 1928 Faber edition of il miglior fabbro’s early poems and, in his introduction, took stock of them in a curiously jesuitical passage of hedged commendation and testy digression:

The reader must not be hasty in deciding whether Pound’s epigrams ‘come off’ for he should first examine his own soul to find out whether he is capable of enjoying the very best epigram as poetry…The reader who does not like Pound’s epigrams should make very sure that he is not comparing them with the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ before he condemns them. He would do best to try to accept them as a peculiar genre, and compare them with each other…One cannot write poetry all the time; and when one cannot write poetry, it is better to write what one knows is verse and make it good verse, than to write bad verse and persuade oneself that it is good poetry.

Never mind that old Possum did not exactly live by this fiat himself. (As the faux-barracks crudities of the long-suppressed Inventions of the March Hare all too wearily confirm, Eliot could pen bad verse in bad faith like nobody’s business.) And never mind that Pound’s dalliance with the “peculiar genre” was perhaps too fitful and short-lived to be dignified on such grounds in the first place. As an attempt to rehabilitate the epigram, Eliot’s strained little decree has an odd, plaintive novelty all by itself. I say strained because, despite his pontifical manner, Eliot scarcely seems sold on the idea that fashioning epigrams is a defensible pastime for the serious modernist. His guarded endorsement is in the nature of a prescription (an epigram a day keeps the muse in play?), but it smacks a bit of the devil quoting scripture. While Pound is given the benefit of the doubt, it’s hard not to pick up an acrid whiff of faint praise in the air, and the true fan of the form will hunt in vain for the barest acknowledgment of the pleasure principle that’s arguably the surest measure of the “very best epigram.” With apologists like this, epigrams don’t need enemies—which Eliot, to his credit, as much as concedes: “I am not prepared to say that I appreciate epigrams: my taste is possibly too romantic. All that I am sure of is that Pound’s epigrams, if compared with anything contemporary of similar genre, are definitely better.”

Exactly how much appreciation the Lustra epigrams warrant is tough to figure. Pound essentially abandoned the peculiar genre for good thereafter, and the chief interest in them lies in noting how they are far afield from the temper and impulse of another very short poem in Lustra that marks a profound shift in Pound’s make-it-new poetic. Whatever else may be said about that epochal distich, “In a Station of the Metro,” it is no epigram. Its brevity—famously, imperiously—has nothing to do with the radical compression of thought but rather with the radical transfiguration of perception, the mind’s quicksilver leap out of idea and into an image that speaks for itself. Its immediacy of feeling likewise diverges on every level from the standard coordinates of epigrammatic emotion, favoring sensation over realization, the inference over the statement, and rapt attention over encapsulated commentary. We have left Greece and Rome by way of the Orient Express; here among the baited snares of Pound’s Lustra epigrams we arrive at the threshold of something completely different, the Anglicized haiku, the poem as swift, glistening brushstroke. “Ideogrammic,” Pound came to call it, with his inspired misapprehension of the pictorial basis for the Chinese written character; but the imported rubric begins to feel rather more incisive when contrasted with all that’s meant by “epigrammatic.” And so the die was cast: The modern American short poem would be remade, as it were, in the image of the image, the natural object (Pound again) that is always the adequate symbol. It would not revolve around concept and conceit but align itself instead with the empirical protocols of the mind in action, disavowing the topical comment and the abstract declaration out of fealty to the luminous particular and the sensuous intuition. The train had left the station and the epigram was not on board.

I oversimplify. Epigrams also partake of the banquet of images, and many an emblematic Williams lyric turns on abstract formulations and rhetorical torques. The aesthetic economy of “Orientalism” (inwardness, quietude, obliquity) and that of “Classicism” (pithiness, mordancy, irony) need not be mutually exclusive habits of mind or inherently refractory elements of style. And it would be obtuse to contend that the imagistic poem drove the epigrammatic poem out of business, as if it were some sort of better mousetrap Ezra Pound registered at the Paris patent office one auspicious afternoon in 1912. Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine how quaintly passé the epigram’s tidy self-sufficiency and transparent occasionality must have appeared to any poet intent on embracing the modernist covenant. What with received forms toppling left and right, like the statues and monuments of an old regime, what chance was there for the crystalline quatrain or the cut-glass couplet to emerge unscathed? Born into another zeitgeist, an artful epigrammatist like Gertrude (“Remarks are not literature”) Stein might have found a fair measure of aesthetic fulfillment in pointed and polished verses; instead, in those inscrutable little “Cubist” paragraphs she published in 1914 under the title Tender Buttons, she produced what is very possibly the period’s landmark undertaking in epigrammatic distillation, encrypted dispatches from the sub rosa latitudes of domesticity that read like nothing so much as epigrams tripping on magic mushrooms:

A PAPER

A courteous occasion makes a paper show no such occasion and this makes readiness and eyesight and likeness and a stool.

“An explosion in a shingle factory,” scoffed a wag at the notorious 1913 Armory Show, sizing up Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” and after sifting through Stein’s likeminded provocations one might suppose that the old-school verse epigram was one of the collateral casualties of that eruption. Or was it? We need look no farther than the suave satires of Witter Bynner, the astringent concisions of Louise Bogan, and the waspish derisions of Dorothy Parker—each of whom made their own common cause with the epigrammatic tradition, and precisely at the moment when insurgent modernism was on the march—to satisfy ourselves that the genre was never really at death’s door. Consider, for example, Parker’s “Sanctuary,” in which the epigram form itself becomes a kind of stronghold of armed authorial resistance:

My land is bare of chattering folk;
The clouds are low along the ridges,
And sweet’s the air with curly smoke
From all my burning bridges.

Or, to up the ante slightly, consider this early little poem of Bogan’s, entitled “Knowledge”:

Now that I know
How passion warms little
Of flesh in the mould,
And treasure is brittle,—

 

I’ll lie here and learn
How, over their ground,
Trees make a long shadow
And a light sound.

Can adherents of the epigram claim this as one for their side? Reasonable minds might disagree, and in the grand scheme of things such formal rulings may not count for much. Yet for those of us hoping to turn up evidence for the persistence of epigrammatic utterance, it’s the sort of vivid instance that might be seen as a paradigm of adaptive survival. Terse, stark, lucidly stated yet delicately syncopated, one tensile sentence spun into a glistening web of figurative and rhetorical tropes what “Knowledge” teaches us, if you will, is that the epigram’s contract with precision and concision need not rule out the lyric gesture or the tingling epiphany. Students of the epigram at this late date in its history may also wish to draw another lesson here: to wit, that epigrammatic intent and effect are best understood as functions of tone and stance. It is not just a matter of using words sparingly or training lines on a single focal point: One has to feel the guiding presence and clinching pressure of a temperament that will brook not the slightest lapse into second thoughts. For if Bogan’s verse is a descant on romantic disillusionment, it is also a defiant refusal to launch into a full-blown lament. And this may be the character trait that marks every true epigram, regardless of subject and occasion: to stay within itself at all costs, to be so resolute in curbing verbal inflation that one feels it’s the last refuge this side of silence. In that respect, the epigrammatic angel is always with us, however latent or repressed, pursing its lips in reproach whenever we grow too voluble or vehement or full of ourselves, there to remind us that the pithiest phrase and sparest measure might be the best of all possible ways to put the best words in the best order.

Some semblance of this notion is possibly what the contributors of the “Epigram” entry in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics were trying to get at in salaaming the form as “one of the most persistent types of literary expression, as it embodies certain permanent qualities of the human spirit.” A stirring vote of confidence, but rather maddeningly amorphous on the face of it. To see whether it passes muster as far as American poetry is concerned, we had better turn to the foremost exemplar of the genre that the American Century managed to produce. Here then is J. V. Cunningham (have abstemious authorial initials ever been so apposite?), taking the stand in his own defense in “For My Contemporaries”:

How time reverses
The proud in heart!
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.

 

But I sleep well.
Ambitious boys
Whose big lines swell
With spiritual noise,

 

Despise me not,
And be not queasy
To praise somewhat;
Verse is not easy.

 

But rage who will.
Time that procured me
Good sense and skill
Of madness cured me.

Cunningham was still a tender young thing as poets go when he set down this flinty ars poetica, but such is the poem’s saturnine conviction and rock-ribbed self-possession that it could easily pass for a last will and testament. Precocious world-weariness is a familiar pose for a certain kind of unformed poet, true, but in Cunningham’s case the posture struck was the promise kept. Verse, not art; good sense and skill purchased at the price of grandeur and reach; the repudiation of orphic intoxication or Romanticism’s spilled religion—the terms and conditions hammered out in these four compact quatrains of tightfisted dimeter have the fastidious elegance of a mathematical proof, and proved to be the unyielding laws of this poet’s Euclidean universe of reticent utterance. “For My Contemporaries” appeared in Cunningham’s first collection of poems, The Helmsman (1942), and though the poem implies a conversion experience, the private trials that may have precipitated his deliverance must be taken on faith. From the outset, then, Cunningham was almost monastically devoted to the plain style, the abstract statement, the spare stanza, the strict metric and the clipped measure, the bone-dry persona scoured of mere personality. And as time went on, that practice grew ever more ascetic, so penitentially austere in its prosody and rhetoric that what Cunningham produced was less a body of work than a skeleton, poems as unnervingly bleak and picked-clean as bleached skulls on the Montana prairie where he spent his adolescent years.

“I am, so to speak, a short-breathed man,” Cunningham volunteered in an interview late in life, “and simply found that I had an almost un-thought-out preference for brief definitiveness of statement, so that there was a traditional form just waiting for me to find it.” The form he refers to is of course the epigram, and once he fastened onto the genre, he all but abandoned himself to it. Every collection of Cunningham’s contained epigrams, so labelled; the later books, from 1950 on, consisted of little else or nothing but. Timothy Steele, who has edited and annotated The Poems of J. V. Cunningham with an attention that alternates between evangelical zeal and hyperactive pedantry (of the book’s two hundred and fifty or so pages, slightly more than half are occupied by exhaustive notes and commentary), takes pains to show that Cunningham’s affinity for the epigram evinced a strong scholarly bent, resting on firm Doric columns of classical erudition. He possessed, as Steele usefully if rather dogmatically demonstrates, a comprehensive understanding of the epigrammatic tradition as a repertoire of tonal registers and rhetorical devices, and drew on the full spectrum of classically sanctioned antecedents that ran from the satirical and the ribald to the gnomic and the elegiac. On this point, there can hardly be any argument: Lung capacity notwithstanding, Cunningham’s fixation on the epigram clearly involved much more than the conservation of energy. Although he wrote his doctoral dissertation at Stanford on Shakespeare, Cunningham seems to have been by temperament and by force of will an unregenerate Latinist, so much so that not a few of his epigrams feel as if they were cribbed from the old dead tongue in necrophilic defiance of vernacular English:

All hastens to its end. If life and love
Seem slow it is their ends we’re ignorant of.

***

Deep summer, and time passes. Sorrow wastes
To a new sorrow. While time heals time hastes.

These sententious distichs are not exactly the cream of Cunningham’s epigrams, but they do reveal his curious knack for archaic pastiche and the lengths to which he was prepared to go to cloak himself in classical gravitas. As with much of his verse, the syntax here yearns almost palpably for the weighty solidity of Latin locutions, the phrasing parsed out in marble-like blocks of chiseled grammar and the English accentual-syllabic foot striving to match the stately, even stride of the Greco-Roman elegiac couplet. The prosodic compression and the studied fatalism is of a piece, and the anachronistic impersonation complete: Plant these lines in a volume of translated Latin inscriptions culled from the Stoics, and no one would be the wiser.

It was Philip Larkin who grumped memorably that “deprivation is to me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” but in signature numbers of this sort—so parched and gaunt as to suggest the poetic equivalent of a hunger strike Cunningham makes the glum librarian of Hull seem like a sultan of sensuality by comparison. Was this the only way Cunningham could contrive to sleep well—by swallowing his bitter pills and turning back the clock? What led him to take such a dire cure? Steele, despite his proprietary concern for Cunningham’s reputation, tends to be circumspect in examining this compulsion, almost as if he fears he might scare readers off by calling attention to how obsessively attached this poet became to the epigram as both a medium and a message. There is something slightly patronizing about such hedging as well, a curious refusal to meet this uncompromising contrarian on his own hardbitten terms. Cunningham took to the epigram like a fish to water—or, to scrounge a fitter simile, like a scorpion to scorched earth. He knew well how far beyond the pale he was, and there is every reason to surmise that it was a pariah status he embraced with grim satisfaction. When it came to his backwardness, he never backed down. “Yet in this paucity, this drouth of phrases, / There are as many as in children phases,” he wrote in his mordant salvo “On Doctor Drink,” a riposte to a carping reader of one of his collections. “The trivial, vulgar, and exalted jostle / Each other in a way to make the apostle / Of culture and right feeling shudder faintly.”

We would do well to set store by that faint shudder as we try to take stock of Cunningham; to brush over the perverse pleasure he took in cultivating a poetics of antipathy is to take too lightly the conviction he found in misanthropy. He is nothing if not a connoisseur of disconsolation, a true believer in the holiness of the heart’s disaffections. And surely this is one of the main reasons why the epigram form suited him so well: Not only was it a perfect foil for his lapidary manner and his circumscribed habits of mind, but it provided an ideal template with which to stamp his non-negotiable renunciations and disavowals:

In the thirtieth year of life
I took my heart to be my wife,

 

And as I turn in bed by night
I have my heart for my delight.

 

No other heart may mine estrange
For my heart changes as I change,

 

And it is bound, and I am free,
And with my death it dies with me.

(“In the Thirtieth Year”)

“Verse is a professional activity, social and objective, and its methods and standards are those of craftsmanship,” Cunningham once asserted in an essay. “…Its virtues are the civic virtues.” Yet if Cunningham equated scrupulous rectitude with meticulous versification, this is hardly the whole story. As his “almost unthoughtout preference” for the epigram graduated into an idée fixe, his pursuit of unstinting technical control boxed him into an extreme position, a rage for order that could only be placated by claustrophobic encapsulation and miserly measures. Such “civic virtues” as there are in Cunningham’s epigrams are fenced all around by the razor wire of his fiercely anti-transcendent aversions, a perfect horror of associative tropes, oracular postures, and sonorous pitches that outstripped even that of his more ostensibly retrograde Stanford colleague and sometime mentor Yvor Winters. One cannot read far into his collected works without getting caught up in the engrossing spectacle of a poet arming himself to the teeth against the going idioms and multiplying -isms of the age in which he found himself, a mind sealing itself up in a self-imposed solitary confinement of versified discourse.

Cunningham himself, at least, seemed inured to such verdicts. “Some good, some middling, some bad / You’ll find here. They are what I had.” This is Martial, Englished by Cunningham late in his career, yet surely it is also the envoi to his own parsimonious legacy of epigrams. You arguably have to go all the way back to Martial to find another poet who indentured himself to the form so completely, and in like manner, Cunningham seems to have harbored ambitions early on for exploiting the broadest possible range of epigrammatic occasion. That entrepreneurial streak is most plainly evident in his sequence “Epigrams: A Journal,” a constellation of some forty-three (mostly untitled) short takes that rounds out his 1947 collection, The Judge Is Fury. By Cunningham’s later standards, the number and variety of pieces on display here qualifies as an extravagant outpouring: verse epigrams cerebral and satirical, decorous and salacious, moral and metaphysical, crowded together in all their minimalist ingenuity like the jumbled novelties in an Age of Reason wonder cabinet. Cunningham’s project, for all that, calls Martial to mind only in the cumulative heft of its collective brevities: Conspicuously missing is the roving curiosity and mercurial energy that makes the Roman poet’s books of epigrams antic depositions on lived experience. Cunningham’s epigrams are all attitude, reductive and received rather than probing or responsive. Impregnably ex post facto, they are as impervious to visceral jolts as to visionary leaps, hostile in equal measures to claims of the spirit and the flesh. A typical Cunningham utterance presents itself as a stylized artifact, a relic of self-reflection purged of any introspective grit or organic ferment:

Give not yourself to apology.
Yourself know, and slyly surprise
Passion, rework it, and let be.
Who is as he is is most wise.

“Some good, some middling, and some bad”—sure enough, once you have picked through the cairns of epigram that constitute the bulk of Cunningham’s poetic output, that co-opted assessment seems right on the mark. In the latter category I would place mannerly cogitations like the one above, its steely ceremoniousness undercut by the clunky inversions of its reflexive pronouns, the theatrical about-face of its enjambment, and the preening cleverness of its terminal copula coming to rest in that final noun, the mechanics of the thing too archly premeditated to embody either slyness or surprise. The defect is a general one, and most glaring when Cunningham is at his most owlish: Waxing philosophical, he more often than not embalms ideas in conceits and comes off sounding like a stuffed old coot. Another reason that Cunningham’s gnomic epigrams often feel rigged is that, no matter how true they might ring as precepts and premises, their tick-tock cadences and lock-step end-rhymes make them feel like verbal contraptions, an effect magnified by their over-reliance on devices such as syllogism and chiasmus, homonyms and personifications, ironic inversions and punning reversals. The truth is, Cunningham is no deep thinker. His epigrams almost always work on the level of surface articulation, and even when elegantly turned, rarely register the subtler complications of mindful perception. In his hands the dress of thought gets refitted into a linguistic hair shirt—a few quick scissor snips and a distich in time, and the deed is done. Would that he had taken to heart the stratagem he foxily advocated in Epigram #33 of the “Journal,” itself a lithe flexing of inflected wit that suggests he was up to the task:

Silence is noisome, but the loud logician
Raises more problems by their definition.
Then let your discourse be a murmured charm
And so ambiguous none hears its harm.

It may have given Cunningham a vicarious thrill to entertain the thought of cultivating a murmurous ambiguity, but he did not really have it in him to play the sphinx. Fortunately, he at least had the wherewithal by and large to wean himself off the sterilized solemnity that characterizes much of his early work. Once he found his calling as a confirmed epigrammatist, he seems to have given himself permission to loosen up a bit, and in a neatly ironic twist, his crabbed and costive style grew noticeably more fluent the more caustic and sardonic a persona he came to inhabit. As a general rule, Cunningham is a good deal more persuasive when dipping his nib in acid—particularly where it’s blended with a tincture of acerbic self-mockery:

I had gone broke, and got set to come back,
And lost, on a hot day and a fast track,
On a long shot at long odds, a black mare
By Hatred out of Envy by Despair.

 

***

Good Fortune, when I hailed her recently,
Passed me by with the intimacy of shame
As one that in the dark had handled me
And could no longer recollect my name.

Cunningham’s forte as a crusty and conniving satirist shines through when his humor is at its blackest, and why not? A little legerdemain is a dangerous thing in an epigram that aims to be gravely profound, but dextrous artifice is the very soul of comic indiscretion. All the stylized contrivances that knit the reader’s brow when Cunningham is trying to winkle out an ontological axiom are turned to wickedly mordant advantage when he’s putting the moves on a double entendre, and instead induce a spontaneous crinkling about the eyes: the little verbal swerves and pivots playing across the staves of the pentameter, the needlework of tight-knit syntax, the tumbler-clicks of the end-rhymes, dead-on prosody that seems a natural extension of diehard cynicism. And to those inclined to sniff that these numbers are at bottom nothing more than piddling squibs, I say, hold your horses. Examined closely, they reveal themselves as jeweled marvels of miniaturist intricacy and split-second timing, rife with crafty allusion and crackling implication. To cop on to the punchline of the first entry above, for example, you need to know that in the betting man’s Racing Form a thoroughbred’s bloodlines are customarily transcribed in exactly the syntax employed in the clinching phrase, and that the names of racehorses conventionally pay homage to the creature’s patrilineage. And lurking within these parodic parallels are additional embedded ironies: that the “black mare” is literally the “dark horse” that has long been stabled in English vernacular parlance, and that the luckless schmuck with the losing ticket has been crushed beneath the heel of the so-called Sport of Kings. Notice too that the verse strings itself out in a succession of clipped monosyllables (drumming along like the clipclop of hoofbeats, if you will) until the hammer blows of those three doleful trochees, driving home the gloomy upshot of placing one’s bets on venial and mortal sins.

As for the latter epigram on misfortune (Miss Fortune!), similar ploys are at work, lewdness and deftness joining hands in a nimble pas de deux. In like fashion as the former, the striking thing in this instance is how Cunningham contrives to send up his metaphysical conceit by casting the old ghostly shade of allegory in a patently contemporary setting: The opening pair of clauses would be at home in a Restoration poem, but by the time we hit that grimy transitive verb in the third line, we have fast-forwarded to the age of Freudian neurosis and pulp-fiction euphemism. “Handled”—this is the soiled diction of the turned trick, the furtive blow job on the side. Cunningham, student of Shakespeare that he was, may well be deriving a certain donnish pleasure here in one-upping Hamlet’s dressing-down of fortune personified (“Oh, most true! She is a strumpet”), but there is no need to catch that reference or any other to divine that he’s intent on stripping the entire trope bare. No hearts have been broken here, no courtship gone sour, and the hard-core pessimism that stalks the scabrous burlesque—Fortune doesn’t have any darlings anymore, only, ahem, johns—makes it more than simply a dirty joke. And while I grant you that it comes off as the sort of thing one can imagine hearing croaked over bumpers of sherry in the faculty club, why hold that against it? Wit needs its wanton outlets and its cozening lubricants and its small indulgences; it cannot always be expected to be out for big game.

To catch oneself tugging a forelock over a Cunningham quatrain or couplet, however, is to be sheepishly reminded of Slavitt’s observation that exegesis is either otiose or hopeless where a well-turned epigram is afoot. Their gists are largely self-evident, and so is their poise. And even evaluating one against another begins to feel superfluous; one might note subtle distinctions of intonation and bearing, but it’s a little like rubbing one’s thumb over different grades of sandpaper. The most productive way to appreciate the tonal and technical assurance of Cunningham’s satirical epigrams, I think, is to compare them to those poems where he is consciously attempting to break out of the mold, notably the sequence of short lyrics comprising his 1964 volume To What Strangers, What Welcome. Interesting as some of this writing can be, the strain is evident and the results almost always uneven, clotted by frowzy diction such as “In the mute exile of time” and “eroded canyons of concern” and never quite committing itself to either narrative or imagistic development. No, apart from a very few exceptions (the limpid free-verse lyric “Montana Fifty Years Ago” stands out as a late high point), Cunningham fares poorly whenever he strays from the embraces of traditional epigram, his voice cracking as it reaches for a lyric pitch and his dry wit all but deserting him. In the last analysis, a phrase lifted from the British critic Edward Bensley, appraising the chief attribute of John Owen’s Latin epigrams—”all point with no room for poetry”—sums up Cunningham’s talents as well.

Does this tell us more about Cunningham’s shortcomings or the inherent limits of the form itself? How one finally answers that question probably depends on whether one views this dean of the American epigram as a tutelary spirit or a cautionary tale. Either way, for anyone who would so much as dabble in the peculiar genre, there is much to be learned from his “drouth of phrases.” Stay within yourself. Don’t press your luck or push the envelope. Think small, and then think smaller. Be naughty rather than nice; go in fear of the noble sentiment; stick to your knitting and tie up those loose ends.

Perhaps this only confirms the old party line that the epigram is best employed as a vehicle for satire, be it savage or gentle, and is well advised not to wander too far from the good offices of wit, be it the elegantly sophisticated or raffishly wise-ass variety. It also had better resign itself to the fact of life that “wit” is literally not all it used to be: Where once it could lay claim to the whole fertile demesne of intelligence and discernment, its estate now ends at the outskirts of cleverness and charm. And it ought to do all it can to ward off any nostalgia for its glory days in Alexandria, Rome, and London, where members of its guild dispensed moral rebuke and social censure; the intelligentsia has become effectively illiterate in the lexicon of verse invective, and hence completely inoculated. If that means relegating the epigrams of our times to the low-rent precincts of light verse, where they can mingle freely with muses of easy virtue, so be it—there, at least, fancy may get some ruddy vigor back in its cheeks, and those determined to keep an uncivil tongue in their heads can make hay while the sun shines.

Must we then write off the epigram as a pale shadow of its former self? Not if we can take a leaf from Auden’s Oxford Book of Light Verse, in whose introduction we can find an enlightening argument for the serious side of capering farce and glancing frivolity. Light verse, Auden harrumphs, “has only come to mean vers de société, triolets, smokeroom limericks, because, under the social conditions that produced the Romantic Revival, and which have persisted, more or less, ever since, it is only in trivial matters that poets have felt in sufficient intimacy with their audience to be able to forget themselves and their singing robes.” Here, I think, we inch closer to a sturdier explanation of how, in the parlance of the Princeton encyclopedists, the epigram can be said to embody “certain permanent qualities of the human spirit.” For who does not weary every now and again of transporting sonority? Who does not, however temporarily or surreptitiously, need a break from all that heavy breathing? What lover of language really wishes to live on a steady diet of intoxication and effusion, immensities and profundities? Is it not entirely human to crave other sensations on the tongue—the dry, the tart, the bitter, the sour?

Such qualities are not merely the epigram’s calling cards; they are its saving graces. And this may be why it’s not such a bad thing that ours is a literary culture largely immune to its charms: In many respects, it is in the nature of the form to press its advantage wherever solipsism and self-importance show signs of running amok, and one has to wonder if the true-blue epigrammatist would really have it any other way. That maverick mentality, in fact, may be the only common bond between American poets who have acquitted themselves honorably, albeit intermittently, in the service of the verse epigram—scattered and heterodox lot that they are, the one trait they appear to share is a defiant minority view that putting those singing robes into mothballs on occasion does wonders for the muscle tone and general fitness of the body poetic. Donald Justice’s “The Thin Man,” with its sly wink at Dashiell Hammet’s dapper private eye, and perhaps a wryly arched eyebrow towards Eliot’s wasted Hollow Men and Stevens’s thin men of Haddam as well, stands out in this regard as both an archetypal epigrammatic figure and a convincing American character type:

I indulge myself
In rich refusals.
Nothing suffices.

 

I hone myself to
This edge. Asleep, I
Am a horizon.

As a précis of the sensibility that means to dispel all dreams of grandeur, this is hard to top, for is it not this honed edge, this sumptuous refusal to hold forth or wax lyrical, that above all else makes the whole epigrammatic world kin? Justice’s meticulously circumspect syllabics help remind us that the epigram is a test of craftsmanly resolve like no other: The slightest misstep, the merest wobble, the tiniest hairline crack in the facade, and the ground gives way beneath your feet. Yet the real clincher here is the implicit message that penny-pinching verbal economy alone does not a worthy thin man make. One must also be able to tap a rare mix of humors: boldness and restraint, equanimity and daring, self-confidence and self-effacement. One has to forswear, if only for the nonce, the creation myths that most poets hold dear: the seductions of shapeshifting, the raptures of the Egotistical Sublime, the lightning strikes of divinely inspired utterance. One must, as that spry epigrammatist X. J. Kennedy would have it, possess the wherewithal to defy “The Devil’s Advice to Poets”:

Molt that skin! Lift that face!—you’ll go far.
Grow like Proteus still more bizarre.
In perpetual throes
Majors metamorphose—
Only minors remain who they are.

Kennedy himself belongs on anyone’s short list of American thin men (and yes, trim women) to be reckoned with: His particular specialty, as this lampoon neatly demonstrates, is the quick-on-the-draw verse satire, delivered with a lashing zing and fiendish panache that would do Ambrose Bierce’s Father Jape proud. So too the unclassifiable Fred Chappell, among whose diverse works is a collection of one hundred epigrams under the Cheshire-cat title of C. From here one could go on to swell the ranks with the likes of Richard Wilbur, Thom Gunn, John Frederick Nims, Brad Leithauser, George Garrett, Timothy Steele, John Hollander, David Slavitt, Tom Disch, the late Howard Nemerov and L. E. Sissman….but to rattle off names threatens to beg more questions than one bargained for. How many epigrams must one have produced to be granted entrance into the club? Does gracefulness of expression count for more than ingenuity of thought? Versatility as much as vim and vigor? Should poets get bonus points for testing the limits of epigrammatic form or technique—or get knocked down a peg for playing loose and fast with the letter of the law? Should we hold the contemporary American epigrammatist to the classic standards of a Martial and a Kallimachos, a Herrick and a Landor, or does it make more sense to use the arsenic-laced Dorothy Parker and the addertoothed J. V. Cunningham as the yardsticks of our domestic product?

A harmless parlor game, this, and yet one that requires players to sharpen their debating points, since it might conceivably be argued that the signal contribution American poetry has made to the genre is the enterprising free-verse epigram, a hybrid of Western and Eastern variants of concentrated expression. Quick, now: Which foxy epigrammatist was it who defended his poetics of profound compression by asking his students: “Is there any good in saying everything?” The answer—yes, this is a set-up in more ways than one—in the Japanese haiku master Basho, and at the risk of getting entangled in semantics, do we really want to insist on categorical imperatives that confine the epigram within the bounds of traditional English prosody? “Three things must epigrams, like bees, have all: / A sting, and honey, and a body small,” declares an anonymous medieval Latin inscription, and it may be that the real story of the epigram in the New World is how it has improved on this beguiling analogy by showing that it shares with the honeybees an industrious capacity for cross-fertilization as well.

Seen in this light, the family tree of the epigram all of a sudden sends off a host of new shoots, inviting us to take a sufficiently generous view of the genre’s spreading influence so as to accommodate what Kenneth Rexroth, taking stock of “The Influence of Classical Japanese Poetry on Modern American Poetry” in a 1972 lecture, identified as “the metaphorical epigram of a moment of sensibility.” And if the reader can even guardedly accept this premise (the litmus test may be whether one concurs with Rexroth’s assertion that William Carlos Williams was “a master of the epigram of the sensibility”), then it is difficult to cling to the notion that the American epigram has withered on the vine. Give cross-cultural fusion its due, and the form might be said to have attracted a goodly number of able caretakers: the A. R. Ammons of Briefings (his 1971 volume, subtitled “Poems Small and Easy”) and such miniaturist gems as “Small Song” (“The reeds give / way to the / / wind and give / the wind away”); Robert Creeley and W. S. Merwin in their sparest veins of koan-like brevity and Palatine Anthology fugitive feeling (Creeley’s “Time,” for example: “What happened to her / and what happened to her / and what happened to her?”; and Merwin’s “How We Are Spared”: “At midsummer before dawn an orange light returns to the mountains / Like a great weight and the small birds cry out / And bear it up”); and even perhaps (or are now we stretching definitions to the breaking point?) such utterly incongruous exponents of the short take as William Bronk and Frank O’Hara.

The wisest policy, it would appear, is not to get too terribly persnickety when it comes to authenticating epigrams—American or otherwise. Indeed, it is tempting to think of the term itself as more of a code word than an official label, a tacit frame of mind rather than an explicit set of bylaws. The English poet and translator Dick Davis, introducing his excellent book of medieval Persian epigrams Borrowed Ware, tells us that practically all the masters of the form in that tradition were court poets, denizens of a “claustrophobic, rather hot-house world in which refinement of emotional response is a consciously indulged pleasure, and in which power struggles, be they erotic or political, are never far from the surface.” Could it be that herein lies the ultimate secret of the verse epigram, whatever its provenance—that all its true initiates are mandarins at heart, for whom the essential fixation is the elaborate ritual of wing for the final unanswerable word in the court of last resort? To rummage about for any length of time in the historical archives of the epigram is to encounter just about every subject under the sun, every band on the emotional spectrum, practically every tone and every grace note on the scale of the human voice. And yet the more of them one savors, the more they all seem to be partaking of the same universal argot, an instinctive dialect spoken wherever the loyal and ancient brotherhood of definitive succinctness can claim members in good standing. And if these freemasons of the epigram now seem increasingly few and far between, what of it? Call it what you will, there is something imperishable about the epigrammatic impulse, and as Fred Chappell’s droll couplet vouches, even the onslaught of the Apocalypse may not be enough to deter the uncivil tongue from the pursuit of the tart remark. Shed no tears, then, for the epigram; for those who know where and how to seek them out, there will surely be enough to go around. Now as ever, the soul of wit selects its own society.

 

 

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