Aphorisms by Ville Hytönen

Finnish aphorist Ville Hytönen is a poet and co-founder/director of Savukeidas, a publishing house focused on Finnish and translated poetry and essays. Hytönen spent his youth in Turku but now lives in Tampere. Hytönen’s poems have been translated into thirteen languages, including Georgian and Udmurt. He’s translated Mark Twain and Albanian poetry into Finnish. “I am trying to open up aphorism,” he says, “shatter its traditions and discuss what kind of short sentence we can actually write in the future.” Here, from the bilingual collection Distantly Lyrical published by Oasis of the Smoke Press,  is a glimpse into that future of short, shattered sentences, written in a quintessentially sparse Finnish fashion: an unmistakably dark heart surrounded by the kind of blank white light that produces stark, revealing contrasts….

You can close the door if you know where you’re going.

You can open to door if you know where you’re coming from.

When you are free to choose, the choice is compulsory.

What doesn’t kill, oppresses.

When I fall asleep beside you, you are condemned to resume my life

light is the exponent of form

time erodes everything; it’s a builder

fault in form is an example of the unique

distance means possibilities

form still remembers every cut

only self-confidence doesn’t need to prove anything

searching for work is unpaid work

Listen and you learn how to lie. Lie and you forget how to listen.

I found out how to lie to hacks: I told the truth and nobody believed that.

Aphorisms and Metaphor, in Music and Lyrics

Aphorisms and metaphor just keep on turning up everywhere, including in this song by the band Sparks, pointed out to me last night by James F. Kraus, the art guy.

Check out ‘Using Rap to Teach Pithy Lessons in Business‘ for an interesting story of how one Silicon Valley exec is using aphorisms found in rap lyrics as strategic management tools.


In any other tool, it is a major design flaw. But here it is the single most essential feature. This perforated skull, this bowl held together by holes, keeps what it wants by leaking, lets go what it cannot hold. Take this clutch of strawberries. Pick one and eat it. Savor its sweetness. See it disappearing.

On Signs

A friend told me a story recently, and it’s one of those stories that is funny at first but, when you think about it, it becomes kind of philosophical, too. It’s story about signs, about looking for signs, and about finding the right road.

My friend was driving along an old country road in Vermont when he came to a crossroads. There were two signs pointing in opposite directions, but they both had the name of his destination written on them: Middlebury. One sign said “Middlebury” and pointed to the left; the other sign said “Middlebury” and pointed to the right. My friend didn’t know which way to turn.

There happened to be an elderly gentleman leaning on a nearby fence, so my friend got out of his car, walked over to the man, and asked, “Does it matter which way I go here?”

The man stared at him blankly for a moment, then said: “Not to me it don’t.”

Our lives are filled with signs. There are street signs, traffic signs, “Keep off the grass” signs, no smoking signs, “For sale” signs, “For rent” signs, one-way signs, “Buy-one-get-one-free” signs, “Push” signs, “Pull” signs, and my favorite kinds of signs: “Entrance” and “Exit” signs. Everywhere we look there are signs.

Of course, in the Bible, everyone is always looking for signs. And we’re still looking. We all come to crossroads in our lives, and we’d love to have a sign, some simple sign that we’ve made the right choice. Did we pick the right course? The right career? The right spouse? Some kind of sign, even a little one, would be nice, just to reassure ourselves that we’re on the right path.

There is no lack of signs in our lives; in fact, if anything, there are too many signs. With so many signs, signs that often contradict each other, how do we decide which way to go? That “Entrance” sign may show you the door but it doesn’t show you what’s behind it, and with every exit you step once again into the unknown.

People of faith believe that God will nudge them in the right direction, will help them choose a path, will give them a sign of signs. People without faith, like me, don’t believe that. I see the world as more like that elderly Vermont gentleman: pretty much indifferent to which road I take. There’s nothing bad about that; it just means I’m looking for different kinds of signs, and I’m looking for them in different kinds of places.

The Polish author Wieslaw Brudzinski wrote:

The most difficult thing to find is the way to the signposts.

I remember this saying when I’m in search of a sign because it’s a reminder that, once you’ve had your sign, the hardest part is already over. If you’re at a crossroads in your life, consider yourself lucky. At least you’ve reached a place where you have to make a clear choice: You either turn left or turn right, go forward or go back.

An even more difficult time is before you reach the crossroads, when you’ve been driving a long, long time through a strange and alien landscape, when you have no idea where you are, where you’re going or even whether you’re headed in the right direction, only that you are a long, long way from home and there is not a single signpost in sight. This is the really hard part, and you know the old guy leaning on the fence isn’t going to help.

The most difficult thing to find is the way to the signposts.

How do you find the path? Or, even more importantly, how do you have the courage to stay on the path when you have no idea where it’s going? It helps to hear what others have said who have also passed this way. Winston Churchill said,

If you’re going through hell, keep going.

This is not a sign, but it is excellent advice if you ever want to find those signposts. The Buddha said,

Be lamps until yourselves.

This is also not a sign, but it does stress the importance of bringing your own source of illumination when you’re looking for one, especially in the dark. Ralph Waldo Emerson said,

A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.

There’s no sign here either, just the determination to find one.

When you find yourself in a dark and sign-less time, follow the trail of breadcrumbs others have left behind. If you don’t have faith in a god, you can still have faith in yourself and your fellow man. If you don’t believe in any single sacred scripture, you can still compile a sacred scripture for yourself. “Make your own Bible,” Emerson, a preacher who lost his faith, wrote in his journal. “Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of triumph out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John, and Paul.” And I would add Cyril Connolly, who observed:

Life is a maze in which we take the wrong turning before we have learnt to walk.

Words like these help guide us through the maze, at least until we find our way to the signposts.

Learning via Metaphor with The Private Eye Project

David Melody believes the central importance of the metaphor mind is largely being trampled by most of what goes on in schools. So he and his colleagues at The Private Eye Project are restoring metaphor to its rightful place in education by providing kids with loupes, the little magnifying lenses used by photographers and jewelers, so they can observe the world in new ways. The essential question involved in learning via metaphor is: What is it like?. Interestingly, this is exactly the same central question involved in the therapeutic technique called ‘clean language’, in which metaphor also plays a central role.

The Private Eye Project “promotes a very simple, hands-on way to teach and evoke metaphoric/analogic thinking,” says Melody, associate director of The Private Eye Project. “Founded over 20 years ago by Kerry Ruef, the program has spread to tens of thousands of teachers and the millions of students they represent. About the program Richard Lederer has said, ‘A visionary work. The Private Eye is a gift to all those who care about language.’ U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Haas says, ‘The Private Eye is a wonderful contribution to literacy, poetry and ecological awareness.’ But just as many scientists praise it.

Dan Carsen of public radio station WBHM did a segment on The Private Eye Project last November: “As one teacher put it, ‘cliché is stripped away,’ and a sense of wonder ensues as magnification seems to change everyday things into something else entirely. But that’s just the beginning. Regardless of subject, students are nudged to make comparisons, and then more comparisons, between what they’re seeing and things they’re already familiar with. This process is repeated, often 10 times, partly to forge mental connections, partly because it shows there’s no wrong answer, that it’s a creative process … Making mental connections between things makes actual neurological connections in the brain. And since we’re talking analogies, you might say the Private Eye program is trying to improve students’ ‘hardware’ through brain-building exercise so they better upload the ‘software of say, ninth-grade social studies. Or just about anything else they come across.” Read or listen to the full story here.

If you love learning and you love metaphor, The Private Eye Project is worth a good long look…