One fateful day in March of 2015, John Getchell, having stirred from a long, cold, snowy Maine winter, found himself shopping in a big-box store south of Portland, where he encountered an internally-illuminated portable marquee, of the kind most often seen bearing Bible verses outside churches. John had a little revelation right then. He bought the internally-illuminated portable marquee, set it up on his front lawn along a well-traveled road in his Maine neighborhood, and began posting his thoughts for the day—every day. And so it came to pass that Maine got one of its most eccentric roadside attractions and the rest of us got the musing, amusing gospel according to John the aphorist, in Sign of the Apocalypse: Ruminations and Wit from An American Roadside Prophet.
Many of John’s signs are unabashed plays on and with words…
Box wine is a cardboardeaux
Santa’s helpers are subordinate clauses
Others harbor more wistful wisdom…
Be the person your dog thinks you are
Half of the people you know are below average
Some are smart political satire…
The buck doesn’t even slow down here
Build a longer table, not a higher wall
And one is a lovely Emily Dickinson-ian quatrain that serves as a kind of perennial existential New Year’s resolution…
Eat it up
Wear it out
Make it do
Wherever you turn in Sign of the Apocalypse, you find unmistakable signs of Getchell’s warm, funny, insightful intelligence at work.
In the ‘author’s note’ to his most recent book of aphorisms, Quick, George Murray describes aphorisms as “poetic essences” or “poems without all the poetry getting in the way.” “With an aphorism,” he writes, “I am trying to convey a poetic idea, or a moment of epiphany in the most economical way possible, but without losing the elegance and solidity of the well-crafted poem.” The idea and experience of epiphany is perhaps the best organizational principle through which to approach George’s work. His aphorisms are carefully distilled tinctures, administered with pinpoint accuracy and utmost efficacy across a wide range of issues and concerns, including the subject of epiphanies…
Epiphany is the third ball thrown towards hands that have already caught one each.
Many of his aphorisms are, in fact, “poetic essences”: the essential image, shorn of any formal superstructure—the artichoke’s heart without its choke, thorns or petals…
Each leaf is a table at which the sun dines.
The brain is a catcher’s mitt.
Memory is the purest form of imagination.
(Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”)
Jugglers are thieves pickpocketing the air.
A man standing at a dead end need only turn around to see the road continue.
Two things that are equal are each halves.
Other aphorisms are more politically minded, achieving at times a kind of imagistic social satire:
Politics weaponizes idiocy.
Age is a process of coming to terms with the unmade bedding of one’s own eyes each morning.
At birth we are presented with a menu and life is the couple of minutes the waitress is giving us to decide.
Leaders are seldom the first to arrive.
Quick rewards readers with memorable insights and imagery, delivered with grace and precision. And if you like these extracts, check out George’s previous collection, Glimpse: Selected Aphorisms, which I blogged about back on January 21 2011.
Aphorisms from Harvard Summer School’s JOUR S-137 Feature Writing Class
The course description for JOUR S-137 Feature Writing, taught at the Harvard Summer School by Kansas City Star columnist and Nieman fellow, class or 2017, Jeneé Osterheldt, says the class will focus on reporting and writing techniques that “lead to stories that sing with rich detail and narrative style.” The aphorisms Jeneé’s students produced during my workshop with them demonstrate just how much rich detail and narrative panache can be compressed into a single, well-crafted sentence. Aphorisms in general—and these aphorisms in particular—read like abbreviated short stories. Just as in a journalistic feature, in an aphorism writers have to sketch in context and back story with a few quick, deft touches—a concise description here, a striking image there. From that small cluster of details, the reader becomes the accomplice of the writer in unspooling the narrative from its aphoristic core and constructing its meaning. That’s what make a good aphorism sing, and it’s what makes these aphorisms swing…
A feeling is either the salt in the ocean or the sun in the rain.
The difference between a seed and a rock is potential.
You don’t need eyes to see.
A lack of time makes people creative.
Eating McDonald’s will satisfy your craving not your hunger.
Coffee without caffeine is wasted energy.
A caged lion cries at the thought of being free.
The greatest freedoms one can have are a pen and a strong opinion.
A house in a neighborhood can only see the houses next door.
Every thread fears being unpicked.
Learn to swim before learning to sail.
There are times to swim and times to float.
Light shines brightest when impeded.
A prism of light starts small.
When the last brick is laid, the building collapses.
I enjoy finding a good tiny book. One I picked up a few years ago: Yes No: Poems & Sayings by Francis Picabia, published by Hanuman Books (1990) and translated by Rémy Hall. It’s a red covered paperback measuring only 2.5” in width and about 4” in height. With gold titling and a picture of Picabia (Geary’s Guide, pp. 264–265) in his studio on its cover, it’s quite striking. Hanuman Books was itself a tiny operation publishing books by avant-garde writers out of the Chelsea Hotel.
Francis Picabia, early on associated with Dada, was one of those restless and quixotic artists who worked in many styles and used various materials, including text in his work. The book begins with short aphoristic poems, under the heading “Yes No,” and then his “Sayings.” What’s better than a beautiful tiny book full of fascinating aphorisms? (Note: Picabia apparently composed some of his sayings all in caps.) Here’s a sampling of Picabia’s sayings:
MEN COVERED IN MEDALS MAKE ONE THINK OF A CEMETERY.
Art is the cult of error.
Beauty is relative to the amount of interest it arouses.
Paralysis is the first stage of wisdom.
Laws are against the exception, and I only like the exception.
Only useless things are indispensable.
Knowledge is ancient error reflecting on its youth.
Taste is tiring like good company.
Me, I disguise myself in order to be nothing.
For a man to be no longer interesting, it suffices not to look at him.
Men have more imagination for killing than for saving.
Desire fades away if you possess, don’t possess anything.
The justice of men is more criminal than the crime.
GOD’S SHADOW IS MAN IN MOONLIGHT.
ALL BELIEFS ARE BALD IDEAS.
Mystical explanations are the most superficial.
My revolutionary friends, your ideas are as narrow as a small shopkeeper from Besançon.
Love-making is not modern; yet it is still the thing that I like best.
MY ARSE CONTEMPLATES THOSE WHO TALK BEHIND MY BACK.
The most beautiful book would be that which would not be possible to consider as a book.
The indefatigable aphorist and convener extraordinaire Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and genius loci of Tramp Freighter, brought together dozens of like-minded Hartford residents on April 1 for a one-day conference on aphorisms. After a talk by myself and readings by aphorist/poets Sharon Dolin, Alfred Corn and George Murray, a couple dozen aspiring and accomplished aphorists engaged in an afternoon of analyzing, discussing, writing and sharing aphorisms. A selection of the amazing results is below.
I suppose we should expect Hartford, old stomping ground of Mark Twain and Wallace Stevens, to continue to produce masters of the one-liner. Even so, the engagement, verve and sheer wordsmithing skill of the workshop participants was truly impressive. It was a lively, fun, inspiring day, of which I was glad to be a part.
The fox in the hen house is not looking for a hat.
Eat, drink, and be merry and you’ll never write a book.
Give us this day our daily bread, cause mama ain’t no cook.
To search for true love is to search for icicles on the sun.
When we carry too many
bags, the one we need most
is left behind.
The more we have,
the more we can’t find.
We buy things, then
rent storage, then dumpsters.
Most people travel
round trip, others one way.
Bravery is recognizing no other options.
Holding hands requires tucking elbows.
Finally grieving your leaving, I show up.
Life sentence; endless death.
Anyone who says life is too short must not be paying attention.
It’s not that I don’t love you; it’s that you want me to.
I had no time to check my watch.
So many opinions—what we need is a good breeze.
The clementine is the aphorist’s orange.
Everybody wants a piece of the pie, but nobody wants a piece of your mind.
If he tells you he’s just getting started then you’d better finish it.
Home is the place that is no place like home.
Joseph Ellison Brockway
A strong metaphor pries open the eyelid of a sleeping mind.
Even sugar in the sweetest mouth leads to decay.
Even the smallest grain of dirt in a dust storm rises to the occasion.
No raindrop drops alone.
Art is the soul laid bare on a canvas.
A wall once built is hard to demolish.
Harsh words can worm their way into even a hardened heart.
If the door is left open even a crack, the disaffected can enter again.
Everybody says you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, but some really dangerous people know you only have to fool enough of the people enough of the time.
The long and winding road to success is less traveled than the expressway to glorious failure.
Einstein said, “Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Today, we want it simpler.
Empty mind, empty pen.
Death is a pause.
Extra packaging, landfill ravaging.
Refuse to reuse, drown in refuse.
Fish don’t know they are in water.
Memories are what one expects one’s past to have been.
No two people climb the same mountain.
The voice does not choose the ears which hear it.
Our arms seem to open widest when we’re falling.
Art on the walls always makes the walls smaller.
Speaking to a stranger isn’t possible.
Best not forget that the clock is an instrument of torture.
My friend Beston Jack Abrams refers to himself as the “ancient aphorist,” because he turned 90 last month and is still reading, writing and thinking about aphorisms. He recently published Volumes I–IX of his collected works, Abramisms: Lines of The Ancient Aphorist. But Jack’s nickname is even more appropriate for another reason. He is an accomplished practitioner of the oldest form of aphorism in existence—the moral saying.
The very earliest aphorisms ever recorded, in Egypt and China more than 5,000 years ago, are concise life lessons passed on from parent to child. Many of the greatest moral aphorists were also preachers, writers and speakers able to compress a profound sermon into a simple sentence. So I was not surprised to read in the afterword to Jack’s most recent book that early in his schooling, an aptitude test (allegedly, Jack says) discovered he had the mental profile frequently found in clergymen. Jack may think he missed his true calling to spread the Word, instead pursuing a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry, but I think he just found an unexpected pulpit—the aphorism.
Jack, like all the best moralists, doesn’t moralize. And he’s never preachy. In his writing, he seeks to follow the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olum, which he describes as “a concept that each of us is obliged to contribute to alleviating as best we can the difficulties of our world.” Jack’s contributions are incisive, insightful analyses of human nature, unfailingly delivered with deep empathy and mischievous humor …
Happiness thrives on a diet of reduced expectations.
Maturity arrives when we do not feel diminished by what we do not know.
Among my investments listening is the least costly and the most profitable.
Defeat is not permanent unless we refuse to accept it.
Unintended consequences are inevitable.
Science gives us facts; fiction gives us truths.
Unless you can sometimes laugh at yourself, I cannot take you seriously.
Humility is merited more often than it is demonstrated.
In his nine decades on the planet, Jack has lived a lot of history. His more politically-inclined aphorisms are wise and timely reminders that the same perils repeatedly present themselves—and to avoid repeating the same mistakes, we need to return to the same solutions …
A peaceful life requires a tolerance for contradictions and foreigners.
Complete arrogance is the result of incomplete data.
There is no alchemy that changes opinions into facts; the search continues for an alchemy that allows facts to alter opinions.
In comparing the corrupt with the incompetent, choose the former; at least they know what they’re doing.
Fortresses are still fashionable: every day we build them around our prejudices.
Nothing causes greater adherence to an opinion than opposition to it.
If we don’t accept reality today, it will not disappear but will return tomorrow as myth and legend.
The past should be valued as a source of light rather than a place of residence.
I’ve posted selections of Jack’s ‘Abramisms’ in 2007, 2011, 2012, 2014 and again just last year to celebrate his 89th birthday. I commend to you his aphorisms.
I had the pleasure and honor of meeting Jack only once in person, in 2007 at a talk I gave in Philadelphia. But since that time, I’ve been privileged to consider myself Jack’s correspondent, aphoristic confidante and friend. However ‘ancient’ an aphorist he may be, Jack is living proof of the enduring vitality of the form—and the lasting vivacity and value of his own aphorisms.
It only remains for me to give Jack the last word:
“With words we pursue and sometimes capture reality. On with the chase.”
Mardy Grothe describes Metaphors Be with You, his new book, as “a museum of quotations” but, thanks to his innovative use of QR codes linked to an online database, the book is a living, breathing museum of metaphorical masterpieces all language lovers will want to explore. In the book, Mardy selected “The Ten Best Things Ever Said” on 250 topics. He then used the QR Codes to link each of the 250 topics to its corresponding section in Dr. Mardy’s Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations (DMDMQ), an online database of metaphorical quotations. Scan a QR code with your phone and you’ll find source information, additional quotations, and other resources for the methodically metaphorically minded. Thus, the database can continue to grow and evolve as a complement to and extension of the print book.
Predictably, I chose the topic ‘aphorism’ to illustrate Mardy’s method. But metaphoriacs will find much else to celebrate and discover here…
Aphorisms are essentially an aristocratic genre of writing. —W.H. Auden
How many of us have been incited to reason, have learned to think, to draw conclusions, to extract a moral from the follies of life by some dazzling aphorism. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
Aphorisms give you more for your time and money than any other literary form. Only the poem comes near to it, but then most good poems either start off from an aphorism or arrive at one. —Louis Dudek
An aphorism is the last link in a long chain of thought. —Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Aphorisms are literature’s hand luggage. Light and compact, they fit easily into the overhead compartment of your brain —James Geary
The aphorism is a personal observation inflated into a universal truth, a private posing as a general. —Stefan Kanfer
An aphorism can never be the whole truth; it is either a half-truth or a truth-and-a-half. —Karl Kraus
Certain brief sentences are peerless in their ability to give one the feeling that nothing remains to be said. —Jean Rostand
Aphorisms are salted and not sugared almonds at Reason’s feast. —Logan Pearsall-Smith
An aphorism is a one-line novel. —Leonid Sukhorukov
Marquis De Vauvenargues (Luc de Clapiers) (Geary’s Guide, pp. 141-143) was of noble lineage, but born to family with little money. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that his aphorisms combine some of the aristocratic cool we associate with Le Rochefoucauld and some of the social criticism one finds in Chamfort. He served ably in the military as an officer, and his leadership style may have been summed up by this statement: “No one is more liable to make mistakes than he who acts only on reflection.” Unfortunately, some of the campaigns in which he was engaged ended badly for the French side. He also suffered the loss of a younger compatriot with whom he was perhaps smitten, or at least he was obsessed by the young man. Resigning from the military, in ill health, he retired to Paris, and became close with Voltaire, who encouraged the publication of his only volume: Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain. Alas, his lifespan was brief as an aphorism. He died pitiably at the age of 31. He said, “Few maxims are true in every respect.” You decide.
Clearness is the ornament of deep thought.
Obscurity is the kingdom of error.
To praise moderately is always a sign of mediocrity.
Before attacking an abuse we must find out if its foundations can be destroyed.
No one likes to be pitied for his faults.
The man who renders his wealth useful, practices a great and noble economy.
The bad are always greatly surprised to find cleverness in the good.
We find in ourselves what others hide from us; and we recognize in others what we hide from ourselves.
Whoever is more severe than the laws is a tyrant.
More fortunes are made by energy than by prudence.
Dependence is born of society.
It is of no use to possess a lively wit if it is not of right proportion: the perfection of a clock is not to go fast, but to be accurate.
A fool who has a good memory is full of thoughts and facts. But he does not know how to draw conclusions, and everything depends on that.
I do not approve the maxim which desires a man to know a little of everything. Superficial knowledge, knowledge without principles, is almost always useless and sometimes harmful knowledge.
A hero does not seek glory in order to bring hunger and misery in the home of his enemies, but to endure them for his country: he does not desire to cause death but to brave it.
It is not true that equality is a law of nature. Nature has made nothing equal, her sovereign law is subordination and dependence.
Necessity moderates more troubles than reason.
The favorites of fortune and fame topple from their pedestals before our eyes without diverting us from ambition.
Persons of rank do not talk about such trifles as the common people do; but the common people do not busy themselves about such frivolous things as do people of rank.
It is easy to criticize an author; it is difficult to appreciate him.
He who seeks glory by the path of virtue has no idea of asking what is to be his reward.
When we are convinced of some great truths, and feel our convictions keenly, we must not fear to express it, although others have said it before us. Every thought is new when an author expresses it in a manner peculiar to himself.
It is not exactly truth which is most wanting in men’s ideas, but precision and exactitude.
We have not time enough to reflect on all our actions.
He who needs a motive for lying is not born a liar.
Men are so born for dependence that even the laws that govern their weakness do not suffice them: fortune has not given them masters enough, fashion must compensate for this, and rule them even to the cut of their shoes.
Alvin Feinman (1929-2008) was my poetry teacher at Bennington College in the 1980s. He made a huge impression on me as a teacher, with the purity and integrity of his engagement with poetry, and I consider his poems to be among the greatest written by an American in the 20th century, rivaling the work of Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, with whom his poetry and poetics have so much in common. I collaborated with the late Deborah Dorfman, Alvin’s widow, Harold Bloom, Alvin’s close friend from their grad school days at Yale, and Alvin’s former student and colleague Vivian Heller to bring out Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman, just published by Princeton University Press. Harold Bloom wrote a preface for the book, and I wrote a biographical/critical introduction.
Alvin only published twice: his debut, Preambles, in 1964, and a reissue of that book, Poems, which contained a handful of additional poems, in 1990. When Alvin died in 2008, he left behind a small cache of documents, about 200 manuscript pages. Deborah had been transcribing and editing this manuscript for several years by the time I contacted her in the summer of 2014. The manuscript contained dozens of poetic fragments and 47 unpublished poems. Deborah and I decided to put together a complete edition of Alvin’s poetry—the text of the 1990 edition of Poems plus 39 of the unpublished poems.
Alvin’s writing demands a thoughtful approach, Elizabeth Lund wrote in her review in The Washington Post, “the speaker doesn’t just describe a moment, he tries to re-create it, as in the lovely poem “Waters,” in which he notices “Sunlight stitching the water —/ an oar silverly lifted./ And blue, and yellow, and red boats drift —/ like pleasures in a mind that needs no center.” These poems do have a strong center, which springs from the speaker’s intelligence, his measured rhythms and use of rhyme, and his sometimes detached outlook as he examines the world around him and always knows that “Something, something, the heart here/Misses.” Light is a recurring theme, and shapes the gorgeous “Stills: From a 30th Summer,” one of many poems that show why Feinman’s work deserves a broader audience.”
Here is a small, lovely poem from the book:
Song of the Dusting Woman in the Library
What is it holds the scholar to his desk
These nameless days, and through the long
Uncounted years? Is it the use of tears
He works to understand? Is it the song
He seeks that has not yet been sung?
And will he sing then when the tome
Is shut, the last word’s echo in his brain?
And will he weep then when the last
Idea is hung, when he has wrung
The name, the origin, the issue of each pain?
According to Bloom, “The best of Alvin Feinman’s poetry is as good as anything by a twentieth-century American. His work achieves the greatness of the American sublime.” Yet, in part because he published so sparsely, Alvin remained little-read and largely unknown when he died.
In researching my introduction, I found a sheet of paper with a quote from Geoffrey Moore scribbled on it in one of Alvin’s copies of Preambles. Alvin wrote “of W.S.” (perhaps William Shakespeare) at the top of the quote, which reads: “One has a sense while reading him that creation is proceeding before one’s eyes. The whole is a continuous process, not a ‘talking about’ … so that, one receives through the aesthetic sense an impression of pure potency.”
Alvin’s poems convey the same sense Moore describes of creation taking place before one’s very ears and eyes. His poems recount intense emotional, intellectual, even spiritual experiences that catalyze similar experiences in the reader. “For a poet, it is never a matter of saying it is raining,” Paul Valéry wrote. “It’s a matter of . . . making rain.” The process is the poem, and vice versa. The great challenge and reward of Alvin’s poems is that in reading them one participates in their making.
It may be that everyone already knows how good the aphorisms of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916) are. But I just got acquainted with her work through the book Aphorisms (Ariadne Press, 1994), translated by David Scrase and Wolfgang Mieder. Ebner-Eschenbach’s aphorisms (Geary’s Guide, pp. 116-118) are terse and tart, but not acerbic. She touches on numerous themes, many dealing with human psychology and relationships, many related to men versus women. By the standards of her times, she could certainly be classed a feminist: “When a woman says ‘each’ she means each person. When a man says ‘each’ he means each man.”
Many of the great themes are tackled in her aphorisms, truth, beauty, love, religion, morals, class, society, governance, duty, etc. Because she was also a writer of poems, plays and fiction, many of aphorisms are related to the arts or being an artist: “As an artist, you should not wish to create what you don’t feel you have to create.” And she has some aphorisms that relate to our current election season: “In order to fill a public office brilliantly one needs a certain number of good qualities, but bad ones too.”
I have a method for keeping track of important passages in the books I’m reading. I put a little tick mark in the margin near the passage, then I record the page number on an index card (which doubles as my bookmark). As long as the index card stays in the book, I can go back and revisit key passages. Turns out that when reading this book I had put tick marks on practically every page, often marking several aphorisms per page that I wanted to note and revisit at some point. Here’s a sampling from her 582 aphorisms:
We generally learn how to wait when there is nothing more to wait for.
Beware of those virtues which people praise in themselves.
There are more truths in a good book than the author even intended.
Fools usually know best what the wise doubt they can ever learn.
People for whom we are a source of strength give us our support in life.
The believer who has never doubted will hardly convert the skeptic.
You can sink so fast that you think you’re flying.
It is a characteristic of the great that they demand far less of other people than of themselves.
The old saw “It’s always hard to begin” only applies to skills. In art nothing is harder than to end, which means at the same time to perfect.
You’d like to know what your acquaintances say about you? Listen to what they say about people more worthy than you.
Fighting for something is better than begging for it.
A gradual retreat is often worse than a sudden fall.
The scale we measure things by is the measure of our own mind.
Think about what has to be accomplished; forget what you have already accomplished.
I regret nothing, says arrogance; I will regret nothing, says inexperience.
We always have to keep learning, at the very end we even have to learn to die.