Aphorisms and Metaphors by Francis Ponge

The French author Francis Ponge, who died in 1988, practiced a kind of writing that occupies a space somewhere between definition and description. He wrote what he called “proems,” prose poems in which he contemplates and conjures ordinary objects, sometimes everyday things like cigarettes, soap, and doors, but usually aspects of the natural world like snails, pebbles, and shrimp. Each text is a meditation on and minutely detailed description of the object in question and, at the same time, an elaborate extended metaphor for the experience of writing. The novelist Tom McCarthy recently wrote a very nice appreciation of Ponge and his unique approach.

In a preamble to the proem “The Lizard,” which, like so many Ponge texts, turns out in the end to be a metaphor for the writing process itself, Ponge describes his method like this: “This unpretentious little text perhaps shows how the mind forms an allegory and then likes to resorb it. A few characteristics of the object first appear, then develop and intertwine through the spontaneous movement of the mind thus leading to the theme, which no sooner stated produces a brief side reflection from which there at once emerges, unmistakeably, the abstract theme, and during the course of its formulation (towards the end) the object automatically disappears.”

Though Ponge is not primarily an aphorist, his technique (brief, vivid descriptions; lots of compressed metaphors) and his form (the abbreviated essay) naturally produce aphoristic lines. He has a sensitivity to the natural world similar to that of Malcolm de Chazal; their descriptions of things are always meticulously precise. Ponge, for example, describes a butterfly as “a flying match whose flame’s not contagious” … “like a maintenace man it checks [the flowers’] oil one after the other.” De Chazal writes:

Light shining on water droplets spaced out along a bamboo stalk turns the whole structure into a flute.

Like De Chazal, Ponge also had a relatively brief flirtation with the surrealists, though the work of both men is, if anything, hyper-realistic rather than surrealistic. This is a quality they both share with another oddball aphorist, Ramon Gomez de la Serna. Gomez de la Serna had an acute eye for the slightly absurd aspects of nature:

The giraffe is a horse elongated by cursiousity.

And so did Ponge:

The horse … is impatience nostrilized.

Ponge also shared a sensibility with another wonderful French author who spent a lot of time pondering the writing process, Paul Valery. Valery observed:

A cyclone can raze a city, yet not even open a letter or untie the knot in this piece of string.

Ponge noted:

A wind strong enough to uproot a tree or knock down a building cannot displace a pebble.

Ponge’s goal, in his own words, was “by a manipulation, a fundamental disrespect for words etc. [to] give the impression of a new idiom that will produce the same effect of surprise and novelty as the object we are looking at.” Indeed, the surprise and novelty of his proems, like that of the world he contemplated, are remarkably fresh.

A mind in search of ideas should first stock up on appearances.

Liquid, by definition, is that which chooses to obey gravity rather than maintain its form.

(A flowing river is an infinity of superimposed production belts. —Malcolm de Chazal)

Stone, which does not regenerate, is the only thing in nature that constantly dies.

It is always towards the proverbial that language tends.

Beauty is the impossible which lasts.

True poetry is what does not pretend to be poetry. It is the dogged drafts of a few maniacs seeking the new encounter.

There is something excessive about a rose, like many plates piled up in front of a dinner guest.