Lyric Aphorism in Contemporary Poetry

Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and author of the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, sends news of The Smallest Space: Lyric Aphorism in Contemporary Poetry by Hannah Brooks-Motl in The Kenyon Review Online. The essay explores, as Brooks-Motl puts it, how “Aphorisms, and aphorism-like language, can increasingly be found in poems written by poets associated with avant-garde movements of the past few decades … [and] how, and why, and for what reasons poets typically grouped as “resisters” might turn to a technique aligned with universal truth, objective reality, and univocal speakers.”

In the essay, Brooks-Motl quotes W.H. Auden, who, in the Faber Book of Aphorisms, wrote: “The aphorist does not argue or explain, he asserts; and implicit in his assertion is a conviction that he is wiser or more intelligent than his readers.” I don’t share Auden’s view of what he called the “aristocratic” character of aphorisms or his assertion that aphorists regard themselves as wiser or more intelligent than readers. I think aphorists are more like stand up comedians or very very short storytellers, both of whom rely on their audiences to be complicit in and complete what they say. The best aphorisms create moments of shared insight, not didactic lessons handed down from on high.