Let’s All Write Epigrams!

by Paul Mathers

The epigram is another poetic form with a great deal of confusing variety over what it might be. The essence that seems to be universally agreed upon is that it is a witty saying or bit of rhyme. In the sayings category, Oscar Wilde has epigram upon epigram liberally shared, some of which he actually said. Sometimes they are witty bits of poetry, without meaning to draw a crass comparison, the Burma Shave signs spring to mind. Padgett muddies the waters a bit (in light of Epitaph being two forms away) by bringing an example of an epitaph epigram.

I decided to do some of each for my own contributions. But before I get to them, I would like to share the closing words on this form from The Handbook of Poetic Forms, because I think it summed it up nicely.

“Epigrams are similar to what we might say to each other in witty conversation about events of the day, with the difference that the epigram is written on paper or cut in stone to last forever.”

The control appeals to me. It’s a way of redeeming esprit d’escalier. When you’re in the midst of a conversation about a topic, and people are likely only waiting until you stop talking so that they can say what they want to say, it is unlikely that you will be able to relax enough to produce your best bon mots. Now you can do it in the comfort of total seclusion.

As an aside and in related news, my epic poem about Glenn Gould has caused me to take an honest look at my desire to have a permission slip from an authoritative source for my natural inclinations towards reclusiveness.

First, the clever saying. A sort of modern proverb:

What you attempt to save on in cat food, you will only end up spending on kitty litter.

Now, the humorous epitaph:

Beneath your feet there lie the bones

of the dreadful Ernest Crane

who paid for a crooked deck of cards

with a bullet to his brain.

Which disturbed me at how easy something resembling cowboy poetry comes to me. I plan to shut that right back up into Pandora’s box. And, finally, commentary on a topical pieces, suitable to etching in stone:

Once loose lips sinking ships was the wisdom of the day,

but when the boat’s already sunk, baggy lips can flap away!


Applauding from a distance when a tyrant’s overthrown

misdirects us from the sacrifices of dealing with our own.

Or how about:

I clearly am, by all accounts, righteous, ethical, and sage.

Just look at how much I agree with those who are outraged!

You could go on like this all afternoon. Just go to Google News and respond to every headline in couplet form.

This wasn’t my favorite form. It seemed like the sort of writing exercise one would do in a junior high English class. But now it’s done and hopefully we can move on to more challenging forms again.