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From Re Judicial by Baticuling (Jesús Balmori) in El libro de mis vidas manileñas (1928)

A photo of Re Judicial by Baticuling (Jesús Balmori)

Before the first stanza, the author begins with a little message: "Antonio Manipula, juez ... y falsificación." This provides the reader with some background on what the poem is about: some judge named Manipula condemned for embezzlement and fraud. The first two lines say "these days, that who doesn't rob is a mule and those who don't embezzle are fools", and goes on in how such crimes are "ordinary" (corrientes).

What is the proper term for such a message?

This isn't limited to because I think that there are English poems with such a feature, although I can't find any.

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  • 1
    Related, but not a duplicate: literature.stackexchange.com/q/3789
    – bobble
    May 4 at 4:58
  • Proem, perhaps?
    – verbose
    May 4 at 8:22
  • 1
    "Argument" has been used for this, May 4 at 13:57
  • A reasonably close analogue of the case here is found in G K Chesterton's _Antichrist, or, The Reunion of Christendom: An Ode". He's responding to a bit of overblown rhetoric by the Conservative MP F. E. Smith in a parliamentary debate on the Welsh Disestablishment Bill; Smith said that it had "shocked the conscience of every Christian community in Europe", and Chesterton mockingly considers what that would actually look like, ending "Chuck it, Smith!" May 5 at 12:04
  • Chesterton prefaces the poem with a brief quotation from Smith's contribution to the debate. Like the example here, the point of this is to provide context directly relevant to the poem, rather than (1) to have some sort of metaphorical relevance as with typical epigraphs or (2) to tell an earlier part of a story as with typical prologues. May 5 at 12:05
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These are very rare in English (I don't know how common they are in Spanish); I've identified two poems that have them. A word fr them is headnotes.

Some of these are arguments. From Wikipedia

An argument in literature is a brief summary, often in prose, of a poem or section of a poem or other work. It is often appended to the beginning of each chapter, book, or canto. They were common during the Renaissance as a way to orient a reader within a large work.

For example, Around the World in Eighty Days has an argument at the beginning of each chapter, the first one being:

Chapter I

IN WHICH PHILEAS FOGG AND PASSEPARTOUT ACCEPT EACH OTHER, THE ONE AS MASTER, THE OTHER AS MAN

If you need a name for a message at the beginning of a poem which is not an argument, you could use the word "headnote". The definition in Collins Dictionary is

a brief explanatory note prefacing a chapter, poem, story, legal report, etc.

which seems to fit.

They are probably not “epigraphs” — The Poetry Foundation defines epigraph as:

A quotation from another literary work that is placed beneath the title at the beginning of a poem or section of a poem.

This is a poetry-centered definition. You can have epigraphs before chapters and stories as well. However, they generally have to be quotes from some other work.

I also wouldn't call them prologues. There are some famous poems that have prologues: The Canterbury Tales, Piers Plowman, Robert Browning's the Two Poets Of Croisic. All of these are actually parts of the poem, written in poetry and not prose.

One poem I found with a headnote is Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the original version. It starts out as follows, with what Coleridge calls an argument:

THE RIME OF THE ANCYENT MARINERE

ARGUMENT.

How a Ship having passed the Line was driven by Storms to the cold Country towards the South Pole; and how from thence she made her course to the tropical Latitude of the Great Pacific Ocean; and of the strange things that befell; and in what manner the Ancyent Marinere came back to his own Country.

The other poem I found with a headnote is by Richard Wilbur. It starts:

Ballade for the Duke of Orléans

who offered a prize at Blois, circa 1457, for the best ballade employing the line “ Je meurs de soif auprès de la fontaine.”

This poem, despite containing the line “I die of thirst, here at the fountain-side” is not a translation of one of the dozen or so Middle French poems we know containing that line, but a new ballade written by Wilbur.

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Epigraph has already been mentioned in the comments. An example in a language other than Spanish was asked for.

"S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse A persona che mai tornasse al mondo, Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse. Ma penciocche gammai di questo fondo Non torno viva alcun, s'i'odo il vero, Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo"

This excerpt is from Dante's Inferno. T, .S. Elliot uses it to preface his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Many critiques of the Prufrock call the Dante excerpt an epigraph.

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  • But the epigraph from Dante doesn't actually tell the reader what the poem is about.
    – Peter Shor
    May 6 at 1:35
  • @PeterShor it is basically a curated, selected poem before a story. Which does not match with the OPs question.
    – A. E. Sam
    May 6 at 6:29
  • @A.E.Sam: An epigraph can also be a quote before a poem: The Poetry Foundation defines it (in the context of poetry) as "A quotation from another literary work that is placed beneath the title at the beginning of a poem or section of a poem." But the OPs message isn't from another literary work; the poem's author wrote it himself.
    – Peter Shor
    May 6 at 11:29
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A prologue or prolog (from Greek πρόλογος prólogos, from πρό pró, "before" and λόγος lógos, "word") is an opening to a story that establishes the context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one, and other miscellaneous information https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prologue

While the above statement is prologue for a story, I found a statement that exactly matches your guidelines, in poetry itself.

'A prologue is a separate introductory section that comes before the main body of a poem, novel, or play, and gives some sense as to what's to come. ... The definition of prologue is opposite to that of the epilogue, a separate section of the text that provides a conclusion and answers questions.'

What is the proper term for such a message?

So that would be a prologue.

An epigraph meanwhile, is a poem before a story/novel selected by the author because of interest to the story that is to come.

And you are right, it is extremely tough to find a prologue in a poem. The closest I got what this -- (Which is entirely a prologue, acknowledging the comment by Peter Shor)

enter image description here

Hope this helps.

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  • This isn't really an example. As you can see from this website, the whole poem is the prologue to the unpublished work Electra Hid an Axe. A Drama in Eleven Episodes with two Choruses, The lines in bracket at the top are stage directions.
    – Peter Shor
    May 6 at 21:55
  • @PeterShor Thanks, I edited my answer.
    – A. E. Sam
    May 7 at 14:13

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