By: Aryanne Ferguson
I’m sure there’s a word for it – the page at the front of a novel that’s blank save for a couple quotes. Here I go to Google…. Ah, the epigraph: a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme. So not quite a “poetry prequel,” but close enough. Do you use epigraphs, Reader? Confession, I never have because they’re usually wasted on me as a reader. I have no clue what they’re alluding to before I read the book; I never bother looking at them during reading; and then when I’ve finished the book only if I loved the book do I glance back at the beginning pages, trying to hold on to the magic of the first time I read it. Then I might read the epigraph and say, yes, so that’s what the author meant.
That said, in the future I might include an epigraph because it helped inspire my writing process, or because it adds something to the novel or prepares my readers in some way for the experience of reading about the world I’ve written. If I was inspired by a quote, it would probably be a line from the 2nd or 3rd stanza of W.B. Yeats’s The Second Coming. It’s deliciously foreboding.
Novel-wise, I love Clearcut by Nina Shengold, which is about a man logging the woods of the Pacific northwest in the 1970s who picks up a hitchhiker one day. The novel has some great epigraphs:
San Francisco 2x4s
were the woods around Seattle;
Someone killed and someone built, a house,
a forest, wrecked or raised
All America hung on a hook
burned by men, in their own praise.
-Gary Snyder, Myths and Texts
Mama, mama, many worlds I’ve come
Since I first left home.
-Grateful Dead, Brokendown Place
(lyrics by Robert Hunter)
Do these epigraphs make you want to read the novel? What’s your opinion on the use of epigraphs?