Aphorisms and Poetry

Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and author of the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, altered me to ‘Making a Space for Aphorism: Exploring the Intersection between Aphorism and Poetry‘ by Sharon Dolin from Poets.org:

“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.”

Click here to read the whole piece.

Cree Proverbs

Good fortune and bad fortune arrive in the same canoe.

Follow one elk at a time.

Words are strong, brevity stronger, silence strongest.

Trust life, especially when you cannot see around the bend where she leads you.

Ask the flint-maker about flint.

A tired hunter cannot aim.

Fire in the hands of a fool becomes prairie fire.

For the man in a trap, everything is a trap.

Illusion makes the path very rocky.

The bird that flies straight is the first one to be struck by an arrow.

The log used to cross a river is left behind.

When incomprehension is great, violence is near.

Aphorisms by Peter Yovu

“My life has always occurred at the nexus of psychology, spirituality, and art,” writes Peter Yovu, and that’s exactly the spot his lines hit with unerring aphoristic accuracy. There are several other aphorists who have occupied a similar space. Antonio Porchia, a long-time Yovu favorite, is a master of Zen-like pronouncements such as

The loss of a thing affects us until we have lost it altogether.

Yovu strikes similar wistful, though haiku-inflected rather than koan-ish, note:

If you wish to give me something I’ll keep, you’ll have to steal it from me first.

Yovu also has a sharp, serenely surreal eye (and a sense of humor!):

A jellyfish is one of the sun’s muscles.

that partakes of Malcom de Chazal’s painterly observations:

Space is the widest open of all mouths.

But Yovu’s voice and perspective are uniquely his own. He has published a couple of books of haiku-influenced poems, “but the aphorisms go in a different, though sometimes not too different direction,” he says. “I love paradox and a poetic/spiritual quirkiness.” The quirk is, in fact, the elementary particle from which all true aphorisms are made. Like neutrinos, quirks stream through and around us, though we can’t see them and rarely even detect them. Only sayings of the finest mesh capture their fleeting spark. Peter Yovu has spread his net of quirkiness wide and come up with some remarkable catches.

Always leave your glasses where you can see them.

The more I try to escape, the more the arrow of Everything considers me its bull’s eye.

When a tiger attacks you, become a jungle.

It is often not what you take off that leaves you naked, but what you take on.

A celebrity is everyone but himself.

An introvert is happy to be no one. To be someone requires the consent of too many people.

I’m well over sixty. That’s not always true. Sometimes I’m fairly ill over it.

The sky never quite recovers from a fallen tree.

I only write the lines I would highlight in a novel or essay. Why bother with the rest?

There are no right angles in the brain, though there may be wry tangles.

A book, lying unopened on the bed: a stack of horizons.

It will soon be over is the longest thought.

What is foreign to you can only increase your vocabulary.

The only true loss is trying to remember what it was.

The darkness lies under me. My face is the hull of a great ship.

Like a razor a mirror is dulled by too much use.

I wish to develop all my senses, and there are, of course, many more than five. A sense of the absurd, for example, the organ for which is found in many a church.

There are senses I do not wish to lose—sight, certainly, or hearing. But equally I would not wish to lose my sense of the absurd. What would be the name for someone who lost his sense of the absurd? I can think of two: blind, deaf.

Aphorisms by Jay Friedenberg

Jay Friedenberg is professor of psychology and chair of the Psychology Department at Manhattan College, where he founded and directs the Cognitive Science Program. His research interests are in vision (symmetry detection, center of mass estimation, and art perception) and has written books on cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and non-linear dynamics. Though plenty of scientists/inventors have been aphorists, there are not a lot of aphorisms about technology itself. Alfred North Whitehead’s

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can can perform without thinking of them

is one of the few sayings that directly addresses technology. “Moore’s law” (the number of transistors on a circuit doubles roughly every two years) doesn’t count, since that’s an axiom not an aphorism. Friedenberg’s sayings occupy a niche within that science-technology-aphorism gap, a place where psychology and biology rub shoulders—with surprising results…

Some people fall in love with themselves and then suffer a broken heart.

The mind is what the brain does.

Wine in, whine out.

Arrogance: being wrong in a loud voice.

The more complicated something is the greater the number of ways it can break down.

Buy what you need and you will never want. Buy what you want and you will forever be in need.

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.

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…

Aphorisms by Peter Siviglia

Dinner with Peter Siviglia will not cost you an arm and a leg (he insists on picking up the tab)—unless you happen to be the waiter or waitress, in which case your limbs might be endangered because Mr. Siviglia feigns gnawing at them every time a plate or a glass of water (or more often, a glass of wine) passes before him. Surprised serving staff (and fellow diners) must also contend with a relentless barrage of puns, many of which have clearly already achieved iconic catchphrase status in the annals of Siviglian family lore; to wit, every time Mr. Siviglia is referred to as ‘sir’—as in, “Would you like fries with your burger, sir?”—he responds with mock indignation, “Don’t call me surly!” These traits—the Marx Brothers-esque antics, the inability to pass up any opportunity for a pun—are telltale signs of the inveterate aphorist.

Mr. Siviglia’s aphorisms, which he calls Recipes from the Top of the Food Chain, mix political and moral musings with Ambrose Bierce’s (Geary’s Guide, pp. 356–358) brand of acerbic wit. Like Bierce, Mr. Siviglia writes one of the oldest forms of aphorism—the definition, e.g.

Responsibility: the rejection of excuses.

But he often takes the definition one step further, by adding several layers of philosophical exposition in what might be called the Siviglian syllogism, e.g.

Most people view the world in a mirror and see only themselves. Hence, the Platinum Rule: Do not do unto others as they would not have you do unto them. Corollary to the Platinum Rule: Do not do that which places others in danger.

“I think philosophical wisdom often repeats itself from age to age in different forms,” he says, “but repetition of good is good.” In Recipes from the Top of the Food Chain, Mr. Siviglia serves up fresh takes on age-old philosophical dishes that will definitely keep you coming back for more. Just don’t call him surly…

Truth: the most powerful and disarming of weapons. To believe that you can deceive without detection is self-deception. To admit error is to treat acid with a base.

The two certainties in life: Death and Taxes. Well, it’s time to add a third: Mistakes. Work, therefore, must be checked, rechecked, and checked again. Even then, some mistakes, like pests, will persist; but by then, those that remain, hopefully, will be harmless.

The street cleaner who does his or her job well deserves the same admiration and respect as the PhD who does his or her job well.

Conduct yourself so that everyone can rely on you; be wary in choosing those on whom you rely.

Luck begins and ends when the sperm hits the egg. It is a word for losers and for those few who are both successful and modest. Therefore, take an extended vacation from “if only”, “might have”, “could have”, “would have”, and their colleagues.

When you care what someone thinks of you, you are hostage to that person. Be hostage first—and preferably only—to yourself.

Success: achieving one’s goals. Wealth is a measure of success only if wealth is the goal. Too often people judge the success of others by their own goals.

Three people never to trust: cowards, the greedy, and the desperate.

Sometimes enemies are preferable to friends: you will never turn your back to an enemy. (Consult Julius Caesar.)

But for a moment, money will not buy happiness; yet happiness without money is in jeopardy of lasting little longer than a moment.

Life is too long and too difficult not to (a) fish for trout as often as possible, (b) specify your preference as often as possible.

Even the top of the food chain worries.

Aphorisms by Markku Envall

Sami Feiring, a Finnish aphorist and charter member of the World Aphorism Organization, sends new translations of aphorisms by Markku Envall (Geary’s Guide, pp. 273–274). Envall practices an uncommon variation on the form—the aphorism sequence—that is popular in Finland. “In an aphorism sequence,” Sami writes, “the basic unit is not a single aphorism but a set of aphorisms, usually about five. The aphorisms in an aphorism sequence usually deal with a common theme but are also intertwined with each other in a more profound way. Several noted Finnish aphorists have used and use the form, including Mirkka Rekola, Paavo Haavikko, and Markku Envall.”

Here is what Envall himself has to say about the aphorism: “The answer to the question of what an aphorist wants to say is his written and published aphorisms. There is hardly any other way to reply to that question. Also, explaining or interpreting one’s aphorisms is useless. In my opinion, an aphorism includes all the meanings the reader finds in it. The author has no exclusive right to the correct interpretation, not to mention the only correct interpretation.”

The first aphorism below is an aphorism sequence.

Man is the cancer of nature, growing uncontrollably and exponentially.

A dead man is a cured cancer cell in the world’s body.

Useful as soil or as ash.

If our species faces extinction, a question arises: Is there then any thought that could comfort us?

Yes, there is. To see our evilness, ugliness, and imbecility; that is the comfort.

The listener gives therapy; the talker takes it.

The lynch mob realizes spontaneously: What is done by many is done by none.

Progress does not abolish social evils but merely increases their variety.

If all people were thrown into the sea, the sea would immediately become cleaner.

As much order as necessary, as much freedom as possible.

The paradox of the avenger: Your enemy dictates your conduct as well as your ethics.

Away with metaphysics! A good life is a series of good moments.

We live as if we had two lives. The first one is used for the acquisition of resources.

When faith replaces knowledge, its reliability is halved but its insistence doubles.

Darwin refuted original sin. The Fall of Adam and Eve is an acquired characteristic.

I’m making progress. My memory is shorter than the circle I’m strolling around.