Fold 2: Hellenistic Epigram

Short poems are “folded” — that is, the “form” folds or doubles somewhere past the middle. This complicates the energy of the whole.

From the Hellenistic collection — some of the earliest self-conscious “short” poems in the Western tradition — we have this from Leonidas of Tarentum:

Give me one small smattering of earth,
the unhappy cemetery weight
of a heavy stone is to crush richer sleep:
If I am dead who cares I was Alkander.

(Peter Levi, trans Greek Anthology, Penguin Classics, 102).

The “genre” is the epitaph: our short tradition is rooted in an awareness of finitude, which must mean our tradition has roots in transcendence, for without some notion of transcendence, we cannot conceive of mortality (hence no epitaphs).

A further move within this particular language game is the distinction between light and heavy on top of the grave. Here this topic intersects with the concept of eternal sleep AND with the topic, “do not disturb this grave.”

The “fold” or final move in the game is to name the possessor of the plot, but now noting that there’s a contradiction in the tradition: all his fuss over the identity of a dead man.

Thus the “fold” in the form helps the true “form” emerge at the end of the poem.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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