Small Departures: Aphorisms, Poems, and their Intersections

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train tracks

Recently, I’ve become familiar with the poetry of James Richardson. He’s not unknown or without critical acclaim. He teaches at Princeton and has been writing and publishing for decades. In his books, among pieces clearly recognizable as poems, there are many short, often numbered and listed entries he calls “Vectors.” This is what they look like:

“There are two kinds of people in the world…and who is not both of them?”

“Desire’s most seductive promise is not pleasure but change, not that you might possess your object but that you might become the one who belongs with it.”

“Writer: how books read each other.”

Richardson has hundreds of “Vectors.” They’re his own aphorisms, in a long tradition of aphorisms spanning centuries and cultures. When he started writing them decades ago, he was the only American aphorist he knew of, and until I started reading Richardson’s poetry I had never given much thought to the aphorism. Now I find I’m drawn to them, to their exacting language, to their ability to contain an expanse of thought within such brevity.

An aphorism, as defined by Miriam-Webster is “a terse formulation of a truth or sentiment.” True enough, but it’s helpful also to think about what an aphorism isn’t—it isn’t a proverb, for example. Proverbs are used to reiterate something already known. They’re often easy to remember sayings or metaphors that apply to common social instances as broad truths, like “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” or “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” or “A watched pot never boils.”

Aphorisms are more particular. They’re self conscious in a way that proverbs are not and they are made in effort to redefine their subject matter. They depend heavily on syntax and offer an observation, then a turn on that observation, which serves in the end to open the reader’s mind to a new point of view. While proverbs are comfortable bits of wisdom, the aphorism is probably going to make you squirm in the seat of who you think you are.

Read Antonio Porchia’s “Voices” to feel the heartbeat of the aphorism. Porchia was born in Italy in 1886 but lived most of his life in Buenos Aires, where he died in 1968. He lived in poverty and had no literary education, yet he is widely considered the master of the aphorism. The six hundred mostly one-line entries that make up “Voices” were his life’s work. W.S. Merwin says of Porchia’s collection, “…at the center to which they bear witness, as well as the matrix of their form, is the private ordeal and awe of individual existence…It is this ground of personal revelation and it’s logic, in the sentences, that marks their kinship, not with theology but with poetry.” Here are a few of Porchia’s aphorisms:

“Before I travelled my road I was my road.”

“Man goes nowhere. Everything comes to man, like tomorrow.”

“I am chained to the earth to pay for the freedom of my eyes.”

“In its last moment the whole of my life will last only a moment.”

So are aphorisms poetry? I’m going to say yes for two reasons. The first reason is that W.S. Merwin says they are. The second reason I take no issue in overlapping aphorisms with poems is because they’re born from the same impulses. More specifically, I find this is true for the impulse behind poetry of the interior, or lyric poetry. In an article from the LA Review of Books this past July, Stephen Burt wrote,

Why write lyric poems, if all life has taught you “applies” only to yourself? Lyric poetry…wants to be aphorism, and vice versa — it demands that impossible thing, a representative uniqueness, a way to embody the self that nonetheless speaks to somebody else. It sounds impossible, and yet poets do it all the time.

When you encounter the moment in a poem that leaps out of the poem’s self-consciousness and straight into yours, or everyone’s, that’s an aphoristic device. Take the poem “Conch” by Annelyse Gelman in the Oct 24, 2016 issue of the New Yorker as recent example. The poem, in it’s twelve distinct lines (or are they one line stanzas?) undulates between a surreal suspension, as in the opening lines, “Sang into your mouth but there was no slug inside. / The brain begins to feel claustrophobic, fossilized.” And the grounding connection of aphorism that immediately follows, “It takes exactly one lifetime to adjust to the darkness.” Gelman’s poem leads the reader from interior to common experience with her aphorisms:

“Some people, born inside out, are prone to unravelling.”

“Among our vestigial traits: coccyx, wisdom tooth, death.”

“Fruit is the fruit of the tree: rot is the fruit of the fruit.”

I see the aphorism as a flag the poem is waving, a point of contact, or discovery, that exists only in relation to the space around it: poem, aphorism, more poem, then reaching into blank space. When an aphorism stands alone, there’s no more poem around it, just the reaching into blank space. Some poets are aphorists with a penchant for context, and an aphorist is a poet who lives by pure economy. The experience is a little different, but the outcome feels the same.

James Richardson says an aphorism “changes your angle of vision.” And Sharon Dolin, in a piece that can be found on, says that an aphorism “unfolds the reader’s mind.” Isn’t this true for any poem? In the end, I suppose it doesn’t much matter whether an aphorism is poem or not unless you’re looking for them in a bookstore, or submitting them for a literary prize. And speaking of prizes, I’ll end with this aphorism by Bob Dylan: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”