poem index

Making a Space for Aphorism: Exploring the Intersection between Aphorism and Poetry

Written by

Sharon Dolin
Contributor Page

Year

2011
Printer-friendly version
An aphorist is not one who writes in aphorisms but one who thinks in aphorisms.

                                        —Yahia Lababidi
 

In the last few years, I have been drawn to writing aphorisms, which I think of as small journeyings between poetry and prose. Too short, usually, to be considered prose poems, they nonetheless often have the pith and compression of poems. Yet how do they differ? In my American Heritage Dictionary, an aphorism is defined as "A terse statement of a truth or opinion; an adage." The word comes from the Greek aphorismos, meaning "to delimit" or "define." An aphorism draws a ring around—and then occupies—a very small territorial space.

What drew me to aphorisms was my reading of a new compilation of Kafka's Zürau Aphorisms, translated by Michael Hofmann. This collection contracts and expands the notion of what an aphorism can be. Some are merely observations: "Like a path in autumn: no sooner is it cleared than it is once again littered with fallen leaves." Others strike me as snapshots—fragments—of the personal: "To let one's hate-and disgust-filled head slump onto one's chest." And of course, some grapple with such large concepts as Evil, God, Humility, Babel: "Once we have taken evil into ourselves, it no longer insists that we believe in it." Finally, there are the aphorisms that, rather than delimiting something small, seem capable of offering a Weltanschauung, a world view, as in the justly famous aphorism that ends the Kafka collection:

It isn't necessary that you leave home. Sit at your
   desk and listen.
Don't even listen, just wait. Don't wait, be still and
   alone.
The whole world will offer itself to you to be
   unmasked, it can
do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy.

This aphorism verges on being a parable: a small story that teaches. It strikes me that this is a self-portrait of the artist as a receptacle of, versus creator of, reality. Or, as the Moody Blues sang aphoristically many years ago, "Thinking is the best way to travel."

The liberal sense of what an aphorism can be—sometimes philosophical, psychological, self-reflexive, self-reflective, diaristic, observational, linked—is what I first felt drawn to when traveling with my family in Greece and considering how to steal time for writing when I was in the midst of marital discord and a demanding eight-year-old. The aphorism, that brief slice of air, was my solution. It allowed in the gaps that began, more and more, to signify the gaps in my own life.

The first sequence I wrote, Naxos Aphorisms, began in verse with an occasional foray into prose. All succeeding sequences have been in prose with one or two in verse. The spirit of a place has shaped my aphorisms, as well as my proclivity to write them in a sequence—where they build upon each other—as opposed to plucking isolated nuggets from life's tree. This is an unusual way to write aphorisms, but I am interested in expanding the notion of what an aphorism can be: from a pithy saying to an image or a personal thought to an entire sequence of thoughts, images, and sayings that, like an origami creature, leaps into being and unfolds in the reader's mind.

In my own aphorisms, perhaps because my primary medium is poetry, I have often sought to distinguish a poem from an aphorism.

Only the first is content with leaving its question unanswered.
                              (The Book of Lost Aphorisms)

The lyric poem may be a moment—as the struck match—in time. The aphorism is the brief flare of mind depending in time.
                              (Istanbul Aphorisms)

An aphorism is an answer in search of its question. A poem is a question in search of the unanswerable.
                              (New York Aphorisms)

Still, some aphorisms are also poems. That is how much of Kafka strikes me and why I return to him again and again. "A cage went in search of a bird" (Zürau Aphorisms)—a one-line poem/aphorism. Those aphorisms that are also poems are often metaphorical and evocative and contain a small world unto themselves. Certainly, this Kafka aphorism is a road, a tale, a desire. That's what's so compelling about it. It is not a small clasped box, as many aphorisms can be, but a cage that catches the imagination and leaves the door open. I am interested in challenging received notions of aphorisms as crystalline, impersonal truths and am further interested in the space—the seam, as in stitching—where the lyric and the aphorism meet and marry.

One of the best-known contemporary aphorists is the poet James Richardson. His book Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays includes the following:

128. Intimates: the ones it's hardest to tell everything you're thinking.

145. In these times, the tragic passions do not end in death. They split me, and we live on.

149. Money and love both say they are all you need.

349. The man who sticks to his plan will become what he used to want to be.

418. Am I the past? As the lake forgets the rain.

Think about this last one—how haiku-like, only shorter, it is. As soon as aphorism drops into metaphor, the border between the aphorism and the ultra-short poem is obscured.

Here's a longer, more personal—yet universal—one by Richardson:

59. When she was little her face rose up before me, reading, driving. Even now I cannot have her out of my sight for thirty seconds in a supermarket. But she will leave home, and there will be whole days I hardly think of her. Between this beginning and that ending is a story I cannot admit I am being told. Compared to it, what is the failure of my work, our language, the planet?

What parent couldn't enter this aphorism? It sums up a life view: an aphorism with narrative—modest yet grand in its sweep. If it were given a title instead of a number, wouldn't we be tempted to read it as a small prose poem?

But are some aphorisms really poems in disguise? Or are poems sometimes aphorisms in disguise? In paging through Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists, an encyclopedic compendium of aphorisms (with very few women in it), one would think so. James Geary classifies the first stanza of Emily Dickinson's poem "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant" as an aphorism. He also classifies one-liners from Bob Dylan, David Byrne, and Leonard Cohen's song lyrics as aphorisms. "He not busy being born is busy dying" (Dylan). Hard to argue with that as an aphorism.

Think, also, of the aphoristic wisdom of Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet. If I page through it with an aphorist's eye, the sentences, singly and in groups, almost all break down into aphorisms. Here are the lines, from Stephen Mitchell's translation, that give me succor:

[H]ave patience with everything unresolved in your heart and . . . try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

This stance of the wise voice proffering advice is a characteristic mode of the aphorism and one I am interested in upending—or, at the least, unpacking. An aphorism in the shaky voice of the young poet may be just as wise.

Jane Hirshfield is one of a handful of contemporary women who has been writing aphorisms that are sometimes in verse, sometimes in prose. She calls them "pebbles" and "assays," two forms that strike me as being different kinds of aphorisms: "they both make poems that like to think," she has written. A pebble is "cool, detached, and often a bit self-contradictory"; an assay is "a meditation" without a conclusion ("Statement" following "Poe: An Assay"). Aren't these really just definitions of the aphorism? Here are two excerpts from the series "Seventeen Pebbles" from her collection After:

Sentence

The body of a starving horse cannot forget the size it was born to.


The Story

"Did you ever ___," my weeping friend asked.
I lied and said yes and invented a story,
a fate I would now have also to live through,
because like a bride I had promised myself to its hands.

When I was traveling in Turkey, I took along the Scottish poet Don Paterson's book of aphorisms, Best Thought, Worst Thought: On Art, Sex, Work, and Death, and found myself in violent disagreement with a number of them. The worst response an aphorism can elicit in its reader is a vigorous shaking of the head. Or is it? Of course, Paterson has an aphorism at the ready: "Anything that elicits an immediate nod of recognition has only reconfirmed a prejudice." And "Of course you don't like all aphorisms. I don't like all of you."

Here's one of the ones I disagreed with: "Poetry is the word in silence. Only a poem can consist of one word." I have no quarrel with the first sentence; poetry and silence throw each other into greater relief. But a poem must be at least two words in juxtaposition, rubbing together. The minimum needed to create a metaphor is two: hummingbird heart, for instance.

Yet Paterson's ability to write aphorisms that are tinged with the personal is admirable—such as the aphorism directly following the one I disagreed with:

Forty next year. Excellent; that's broken the back of it. Officially, time will be short. I can stop pretending that I will ever read George Eliot, that one day every woman will love me, that I find Mozart anything but a huge bore...

I've recently been teaching Anne Carson's "The Glass Essay," from Glass, Irony, and God, as a quintessential long poem with its masterful braiding together of the familial (her father's death, her difficult visit with her mother) with her reading of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights as a way to cope with the third strand (her failed love affair). Here are the most oft-quoted lines:

Everything I know about love and its necessities
I learned in that one moment
when I found myself

thrusting my little burning red backside like
   a baboon
at a man who no longer cherished me.
There was no area of my mind

not appalled by this action, no part of my body
that could have done otherwise.
But to talk of mind and body begs the question.

Soul is the place,
stretched like a surface of millstone grit between
   body and mind,
where such necessity grinds itself out.

The first sentence, "Everything I know about love," strikes me as a personal aphorism; the sentence beginning "Soul is the place" strikes me as a cooler aphorism. The two are linked and also written in verse. They depend upon each other. Perhaps this small moment is what I consider the future of the aphorism: the most personal of moments in the service of generating a truth about the human condition.

The reason aphorisms have fallen out of favor may be the reason women don't usually write them. Traditionally, they have dressed themselves in the suit of rhetorical authority—and since the sixties, relativism—the personal, the subjective—has been the only acceptable truth. Have we now reached the limit of the local truth, and will there now be a renewed interest in the aphorism but with a more particular (dare I write it?) nuanced, personal voice?

Aphorisms have traditionally signaled a general truth through abstraction, and many of those remain favorites of mine—signposts to live by. Yet the trick of the aphorism may also be, and in this sense it is not unlike a lyric poem, to evoke the general through a particular, even a particular point of view. I believe an aphorism can be personal and not generic—though many good aphorisms are: "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." This is an aphorism by Gandhi, but it could have been said by President Obama, Saint Teresa, or Greg Mortenson (author of Three Cups of Tea). Serendipitously, it appeared as part of a sprawling graffiti-style artwork on the walkway of Riverside Drive near my home in New York City, so for me it is colored by the place in which I saw it.

Recently, I had the good fortune to spend time in Lisbon, Fernando Pessoa's city. I visited the Casa Fernando Pessoa, where he lived with his mother and sister. It was there that I learned that Pessoa's final words before he died were in English and were, in the context of being deathbed words, an aphorism: "I know not what tomorrow will bring." One is inclined to think of Gertrude Stein's famous, possibly apocryphal, last pair of questions: "What is the answer?" Brief pause. "What is the question?"

For me, some aphorisms are context-dependant, the way a glistering sea stone, when lifted into the alien air, dries and loses its sheen and thus our interest.

It turns out Pessoa wrote many aphorisms in his life, quite a few in English.

If you only knew the concentrated bitterness I strive to hide by all this nonsense. By the bye, do you know whether I am sincere in telling you this?

I sometimes am struck with an astonished fear at my inspirations, at my thoughts, realizing how little of myself is mine.
                              (Aforismos e Afins)

In both aphorisms—and in so much of Pessoa—there is that heteronymic playing with identity, with expanding the notion of what a self can be. I wonder if the aphorism's appeal is the appeal of the miniature: to see a sliver of the world—or, in some instances, a world view—pared down to a few words.

There's a basic humility to the aphorist who takes as a given the impossibility of knowing more than a grain of sand here, a woodpecker's knock there. Or is it a basic hubris—as though the world and human nature were knowable from the smallest detail? But isn't that precisely the double-edged quality of lyric poetry, its humble arrogance in its small assertions of truth? The aphoristic impulse is the opposite of the epic impulse or the encyclopedic. Perhaps that is why there are so many aphorisms on Love, God, and Death: unfathomable subjects that have continued to be wellsprings for much lyric poetry since Sappho. This is where—in the reverse end of the telescope, as near things recede far away—the aphorism and the poem may, on occasion, marry.