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Dan Speers

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On the Contrary
                                                                                                   ...a new kind of epigram
              Epigrams with an Antonymic Attitude   by Dan Speers


I have always been fascinated with contradictions, both physical and intellectual, and especially those relying upon a particular word, a turn of phrase or a sudden reversal of a verbal destination. One of my favorite intrigues are those sometimes childish but always challenging antigrams, including both anagrams and palindromes.

Imagine my delight when rereading what I thought was a simple epigram that I had written, that it turned out to be what can only be described as an antonymic epigram. It fairly jumped off the page. Clever Nigel was most agile / Working hard at being idle.


  A simple couplet, to be sure, but have you noticed something particularly intriguing? The words, agile and idle are antonyms in the sense of active and passive, or if your are a stickler for precision, active and stative. It's a simple matter to verify. Clever Nigel was most active/ Working hard at being stative. This version makes perfect sense, of course, but only a language addict would understand that word play. Best leave it at agile and idle.


  At any rate, the use of antonyms in the epigram reinforces the meaning. I was instantly hooked. I could not stop writing antonymic epigrams. Day after day for days on end. This line reads happy / Now it sounds crappy. Rhyming antonyms occupied my thoughts, my dreams, my every breath. I could do nothing but eat and sleep and write this new turn of art. I had to go on lest I fail / Dying for art cannot prevail.


  At first, I wanted to create rules and standards, an entire structure that would fill generations of English students with fright, then with delight. Rules that embraced the simple couplet, a tetrameter or a two-line octosyllabic verse with variations from iambic tetrameter to trochaic tetrameter, and--dare I say it?--dactylic tetrameter.  If two lines, then why not a complete ghazal? I really was becoming quite mad. I knew the journey once begun / Ends only when one's wit is done.


  Invented poetry types are not new, of course. ShadowPoetry, for example, not ony lists examples of different types of poetry that are familiar, but also a wide range of invented poetry types ranging from the 7/5 Trochee and The Blitz Poem to Trolaan and Wrapped Refrain No. 2. Some, like the Pleides, invented by Sol Magazine's Lead Editor Craig Tigerman in 1999 and later modified by Hortensia Anderson, the popular haiku and tanka poet, are somewhat restrictive, while others, such as the Lannet, a form of sonnet created by Laura Lamarca relatively recently, have few rules.


  In the end, I resolved upon the ultimate truth, simplicity. I decided to maintain the purity of the form with one simple rule: the final word in any antonymic epigram must be a rhyming antonym. To grow the grapes for wine so pure / Be sure to buy the best manure.

Rhyming Antonyms
  An apigram, or antonymic epigram, is characterized by rhyming synonyms with antonyms with the final antonym being the last word in the last line. The final antonym not only provides the internal counterpoint through its meaning but also triggers a twist of logic or irony in the last line. There are no rules on lines, meters, or rhyming schemes other than the requirement that the last word in the apigram must rhyme with a its antonym in one of the preceding lines.

   In this example, taxing and relaxing are antonyms with vacation and work playing at irony.


                 My vacation was so taxing,

                 I go to work for relaxing.

  In this example, a secondary rhyme plays off the image of an uncultured oaf:

                Off to college, a crude Luddite;

                Came home polite—quite erudite.


  An antonymic epigram excels as a vehicle for a pithy statement. The combination of antonyms and the twist both sums up and reveals the hidden truth. For example:

                Wisdom is learning to accept

                The ne plus ultra we must reject.

  Here, the antonyms accept and reject serve a dual role. We began with a proverbial stance, Wisdom is learning to establish the premise, Wisdom is learning to accept.Accept what? This is where we introduce to the accept-reject fulcrum, ne plus ultra, a phrase which means the state of being without flaw or defect.


  All of us believe that we have some virtue, something that we truly excel at, perhaps a special talent, a feeling, an understanding that transcends what others feel or see or know. It is this special something, this hidden virtue, this talent that we believe makes us unique.


  But here's the problem. Our greatest virtue is often our greatest flaw. We can focus on what we think is our major asset but in reality, it is that very asset that inhibits our ability to achieve great things in a different reality, the reality in which we actually live.


  The world is full of great writers who have never written a best seller, incredible lyricists who have never composed a song, unbelieveably talented artists who have painted a masterpiece, playwrights who have never stood upon a stage, and the reason that they have not is that their dream is greater than their will to actually achieve, to actually write the book, the poem, the play, compose the song, paint the picture.


  Thus, at the end,  we introduce the twist, the ironic bit of wisdom that we must accept, the antonym that completes the circle, the virtue we must reject because this same virtue is also a flaw.


The Versatility of Antonymic Epigrams


  Actually the structure of an antonymic epigram can encompass almost any poetic form. There is no rule against iambic pentameters or ballads or even haiku. An antonymic epigram can have three lines, with the rhyming antonyms in first and third lines. I sometimes find it amusing to play with innuendo, especially in internal lines. Grow and slow are the antonyms here.

When eyes divine tease mine, I grow

My part to fill, broad passions swell,

That with luck, my wife will slow.

  And of course, the four-line antonymic epigrams offer an even larger canvas for painting vanities. In the this one, I used a word combination as an antonym, which opens up incredible possibilities for irony and word play. The reference to “strong suit” covers multiple sins and the relationship of fluff and enough leave little to the imagination. The references to handlers and staff I'll leave to others to analyze.

McCain touted companionship

'Til Palin's strong suit turned to fluff.

Once the handlers had had enough

That's when his staff abandoned ship.

  This antonymic epigram also makes use of a common phrase (abandon ship) rather than a true antonym as the antonymic element. I debated this with myself. Would using a phrase dilute the purity of the concept? I decided that there are so many delightful and pithy phrases, idioms, and even cliches that have become an integral part of the language that including these in the genre could add humor, color and character.


  Academically, we do have a term, antigram (or antagram), that describes an anagram that means the opposite of the original word or phrase, as in fluster is the antigram of restful. An anagram refers to a word or phrase that is spelled by rearranging the letters of another word or phrase. In spy novels (guess who wrote on of those), anagram is used as a verb to discover hidden meanings by reading letters out of or in reverse order.


  In the end, the legitimacy of using phrases in anagrams and the prospect of increasing both the variety and appeal of antonymic epigrams won out. I can foresee all sorts of variations on "long in the tooth/short empty youth" and "splitting hairs/repairs" as well relational combinations such "truth will out/doubt."


  An argument about the legitimacy of dueling antonymic cliches such as "peter out" and "stick it out" I will leave for another time.


  In the next example, the first two and the last two lines end in rhyming antonyms. Note how the internalized subject in the last two lines conveys a sense of certainty.

Senior disorganization

Disrupts one's coordination.

Explains why eyes and brain allow

Treats aging bodies disavow.

 The antonyms, allow and disavow, are examples of relational or contextual antonyms in which some words have opposite meanings only in certain or limited situations. Take relief and grief, for example. In terms of slang, we have obvious usuage of "All I ever get from you is grief/Why can't you give me some relief." However, a stronger antonymic relationship can be elucidated by introducing a contextual link, for example, the word affliction can easily posit a sense of grief and a sense of relief as contrasting concepts.


  By this reasoning, while decrease is clearly the antonym of increase, we might find it useful to consider appease and ease as antonyms of increase. Similary, combinations of intesify/pacify and magnify/pacify are perfectly legitimate within a contextual relationship. I am, however, still working on adolescense/senescene.


  Below, the first and last lines fulfill the concept of an antonymic epigram, but there is a possible internal antonym as well.

There cannot be divine intent

Nor rhyme nor reason in content

No blame, no game, no point to vent

If 'it's truly an accident.

  In the above poem, the final rhyming antonym is accident, played off of intent in the first line. In addition to showing antonym combination of first and last lines, this also illustrate the possibility of internally rhyming antonyms. If content is interpreted as the subtance that is contained and by implication, unadapted or unadjusted, then the antonym can be vent (air, air out, ventilate). Here, one should ask the obvious: What was the question or statement that inspired this response?

In the apigram below, the rhyming antonyms are accumulate and dissipate. Note the relationship of care in the first line to careless in the last. After reading this version, go back and reread the antonymic epigram below, substituting the word, wear, for care, and the word, wasteful, for careless.


  Which version do you think makes the more powerful poem and why?

What it took a lifetime's care

    for the man to accumulate,

Took but a year for his heir,

    a careless son to dissipate.

  I am continuing to experiment with antonymic epigrams and of course, will publish them here as they are written. If you like writing poetry, try it yourself. It's kind of fun. Remember that the basic epigram is a favorite poetic tool for literary, political and social satire. In a sense, it is much like the verbal ripostes used by satirists and comics. It is actually a verbal uppercut.


  Don't be afraid to start with an idea and try to make it tighter or more succinct. It may turn out that one is better than the other, but both might work quite well on their own. I began with . . .


He who says he has nothing to conceal,

Fights tooth and nail for nothing to reveal.

which became . . . 

What pleases us most to conceal,

Enemies are pleased to reveal.

  Your targets can be life or ordinary observations:

Wine so good, the more you pour us,

Makes my wine glass grow more porous.


Jokes that depend on a double meaning,

Are jokes that pretend a single meaning.


The pleasures most pleasurable

Are pleasures most regrettable.

 Or focused on particular individuals with foilbles begging for critical attention.

Her claim of birth somewhat recent

Depends how recent is ancient.


Falwell's fault was to imititate

A God no man could duplicate.


  What to call this new, invented poetry type occupied my thoughts for a bit. My inclination is to stick with apigram, but some of the ideas that have occurred to me are: anograms (anogramma is a genus of fern), anigram, antogram, antegram, and antepigrams.


  At the risk of creating a fog of obfuscation, I may turn to some other roots for a proper poetic nomination.


  In the meantime, you might try your hand at the form. I have listed a number of antonyms in the sidebard, and you are free to come up with your own as well. Try it and send me your examples. No pay, but I will publish the the best on this site and you keep the copyright for your work.

 Want to Play?
 Want to try your hand at writing an antonymic epigram? You can, of course, use any combination of antonyms in your epigram, but to help you get started, here is a list of some antonyms that I have compiled.
accept, reject
active, passive
adept, inept
adore, abhor
agile, idle
appall, enthrall
bland, grand
conceal, reveal
condensation, amplification
despise, dignify
disability, capability
disconcert, comfort
done, begun
errudite, Luddite
essential, conditional
fee, free
grow, slow
go, whoa
home, roam
incriminate, vindicate
joy, annoy
kiss, kick ?
knit, split
light, night
mend, rend
mope, hope
nice, vice
obscene, clean
porous, impervious
quicken, slacken
recess, ceaseless
resist, assist
supporter, defector
taxing, relaxing
usurious, generous
venerate, hate
work, shirk
xiphoid, spheroid
yea, nay
zany, sanely
  If you would like to submit your own antonymic epigram, I will be happy to review and if suitable, publish it here under your byline. By submitting your epigram, you certify that you are the original author and will hold myself and this site harmless in the event of any dispute. You, of course, will retain the copyright.
Send your epigram in the body
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Rhyming Antonyms
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Send Me Your Suggestions
What in the world can we call these things? Antonymic Epigrams sounds so academic. Here's some of my ideas: