As a novelist, I live in awe of the mystery of epigraphs for novels. How they are chosen, how they choose themselves.
Once on a Christmas Eve, when my two youngest kids were still in early grade school, they began horsing around, too ramped up by the promise of tomorrow’s hoard of loot and bounty to go to bed. As I folded laundry and tried to be steadying, domestic, and low-key, they bounced around the bedroom with their stuffed animals. They were mostly being themselves — Alex and Helen — but sometimes they were whatever character came to hand. A dominant, goose-stepping fascist Santa (“He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake”), fat stomachs made of clean towels stuffed under pajama tops. Angels, suddenly sweet, (“Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-ria!”) at the manger, settling their favorite stuffed monkey in a nest of unsorted socks. While I finished sorting the grown-up clothes, Helen snatched a white T-shirt and put it on. It came down to her knees. She staggered back and forth from the dresser to the night table, suddenly ghostly, moaning, “I wear the chains I forged in life!” To which Alex replied, “You must never go down to the end of the town if you don’t go down with me!”
I don’t call this memory into play to boast an image of a bookish house. Indeed, my kids have grown up to become Teen-Zombies of the Device, and my recollection of their once being able to use what words they had to hand as a prompt to play is, in some ways, a sad one. But that recollection does serve to illustrate how poetry, in shreds and bits, can float even in the lives of the young. Scraps of broken poetic DNA, snapped from their context and their original intentions, can still fizz and provoke. Perhaps the more broken, the more available.
Writing my novels has involved play of a sort similar to what my children were doing that Christmas Eve. Indeed, my impetus and their strategies are similar.
To start with, I find myself in a state of heightened concern — usually it’s a moral perplexité rather than a rush of holiday good feeling. The material at hand — the laundry of my life, clean or dirty — is used to build a world in which another reality is implied, with its own slants of meaning and its own more immediately legible dramas.
However, it is the bits and pieces of poetry that I snatch out of the air — recognizing kindred DNA, in compact form almost like fortune cookies, like koans, like earworms — that interest me.
I often wonder what kind of satisfaction readers of novels get, if any, from those scraps at the front of a book. Do they really serve the reader as well as the writer?
For the author of a novel, finding extracts from other people’s work — especially though not exclusively from poetry — can seem a sort of amicus brief. One is not alone in one’s literary obsession or moral stance; see, look, Emily Dickinson has signed on to testify, or Keats, or Tacitus, or the Venerable Bede. They can seem forced endorsements from the dead, or (sometimes) payback endorsements by the living.
Am I insecure in my intentions? What difference does it make to the reader if (say, in the epigraphs for my novel, Wicked), Tolstoy asserts something about history that I, for the sake of this story, momentarily believe? Or Daniel Defoe muses about the human preference for being considered wicked? Only an unusual reader will finish a four-hundred page book and go back to check if the epigraphs selected were pertinent, or pretentious, or instances of false advertising. (I’ve often wondered why epigraphs weren’t reprinted on the last page of the book, almost as a kind of questionnaire: “Would you be willing to take a brief survey to let us know how we’re doing at supplying apt and pithy promotional epigraphs?”)
Increasingly I’ve seen other writers do what I like to do — and what my kids did in their play. They don’t settle on a single bon mot as the glorious icon to distill their work exactly. (If it could do that, there’d be little reason for readers to continue past the epigraph page.) Instead, some writers assemble two or more extracts that can take oppositional positions or can indicate apparently unrelated topics. This way, a page of epigraphs acts as a kind of teaser, a conundrum: What can these arguing testimonials come to mean?
In a forthcoming book of mine, Hiddensee, which is set in nineteenth-century Germany, I use four epigraphs. The first is nearly contemporaneous with the time of my story — Heinrich Heine, from a fanciful short story of his about classical gods migrating to rural Germany. The second is from an essay by Virginia Woolf on the psychology of Lewis Carroll. The third constitutes four lines of the former Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Hass, from his Pulitzer Prize-winning Time and Materials. The fourth is one line from a young poet, Danez Smith, the extract of whose “summer, somewhere” I found in Poetry.
So the page of epigraphs is meant, I suppose, to be a kind of found poem that anticipates some of the stresses and tensions I hope to uncover in the novel. (In contemporary music the term is sampling, perhaps?) I hope to find, to cherish, to relish, and to repurpose (but never to parody or malign) the work of kindred spirits. By some dim retroactive process, perhaps their original work will take on a different gleam. Best would be if readers might be encouraged to go find the work in its entirety and see what the extract truly means in the mind of its own writer, not in mine.
My kids, that Christmas Eve, finally went to sleep. Visions of sugarplums didn’t really dance in their heads — they don’t know what a sugarplum is. Neither do I. But if I just say that line, and remind you that Tchaikovsky wrote the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” I’m appending another epigraph to my new novel. It appears here and here alone. Add it up.
Epigraph pages are treasure hunts for meaning. Poetry can only hint, it can never mark the spot with an X.