More Aphorisms by Laurence Musgrove

I wrote about Laurence Musgrove—professor of, among other things, rhetoric and composition, creative writing (poetry), and visual thinking at Angelo State University in Texas—back in 2013, in connection with his witty, illustrated alter-ego, Tex. But behind every great wisecracking cartoon character is an animated human aphorist, and Musgrove is the source of memorable maxims even when they are not appearing in speech bubbles above Tex’s head. In his recent collection—One Kind of Recording: Aphorisms—he writes, “aphorists whittle sentences to a point.” Musgrove’s sentences are pointed and often poignant observations about life’s many inconspicuous yet decisive moments. A selection…

The signposts
to your life
are just up ahead
but mostly
behind you.

The more things you know
the more things remind you
of other things you know.

The best seat in the house
is sometimes outside.

From the bandwagon
it’s hard to see
you’re running over.

Take it or leave it
usually means take it.

The only way
to get anywhere
is to leave.

Age is when
the temporary
becomes permanent.

Close friends
know how to
keep their distance.

Apology admits
it should have
spoken up sooner.

Our lives depend
on those who
depend on us.

The aphorism
is a song
we’ve never heard
but recognize.

Aphorisms by Sharon Dolin

The epigraph at the start of Sharon Dolin‘s Manual for Living is from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (Geary’s Guide, pp. 326–328) and reads:

Know first who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.

Roughly the first third of Dolin’s book riffs on and is inspired by Epictetus’s Encheiridion and Discourses, in which his observations and aphorisms were recorded by his friend and follower Arrian. Dolin takes an aphorism from Epictetus and uses it as the title for a poem centered around that saying, updating the Stoic stance towards the vagaries of life with contemporary relevance. In ‘Approach Life as If It Were a Banquet’, Dolin writes with Stoic brevity of the evanescence of all things…

Implore no more / for what is, is no more.

Epictetus followed the standard Stoic line that we are not masters of our own fate and that unhappiness results when we hold mistaken beliefs about what falls within our sphere of influence. Some things are up to us, he wrote, and some are not up to us. In the great drama of human life, Epictetus said:

What is yours is to play the assigned part well. But to choose it belongs to someone else.

In ‘Always Act Well the Part That Is Given You’, Dolin writes:

Rehearse / reluctance with vehemence. The wavering scene / unwaveringly.

In ‘Happiness Can Only Be Found Within’, Dolin matches Epictetus’s

A person’s master is someone who has power over what he wants or does not want, either to obtain it or take it away. Whoever wants to be free, therefore, let him not want or avoid anything that is up to others.


All honor, steady bliss / comes from the peerless pear you raise / to your own lips.

And, in ‘Pay No Attention to Things That Don’t Concern You’, Dolin braids a fresh thread onto the Epictetus line

No man is free who is not master of himself.

with her own

Give up on self-belief / you’ve got to seek / in crow’s feet / of another’s smile.

I had the pleasure of spending a day last April with Sharon and other aficionados at a one-day aphorism symposium in Hartford, CT, organized by Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and genius loci of Tramp Freighter. (That’s us in the below pic.) Dolin read from Manual for Living and other aphoristic work that day, demonstrating her gift for deftly slipping Stoic wisdom into poems that succeed as both lyric and aphorism.

Aphorisms by John Getchell

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

Do without

Wherever you turn in Sign of the Apocalypse, you find unmistakable signs of Getchell’s warm, funny, insightful intelligence at work.

More Aphorisms by George Murray

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 by Sarah Manguso

“I don’t read prose so much as root through it for sentences in need of rescue.” This is the first sentence in Sarah Manguso’s 2016 examination of the aphorism in Harper’s, ‘In Short: Thirty-six ways of looking at the aphorism,’ in which she also confesses she has “a thing for writers who deliver their work by the line, the epigram, the aperçu.” Manguso is one of those writers herself, as she demonstrates in her collection of aphorisms, 300 Arguments (Graywolf Press, 2017).

Manguso’s Harper’s essay is an aphoristic consideration of the aphorism as a literary form. In item #27 of ‘In Short’s’ 36-section sequence, she rejects the idea that the aphorism is a modern, Twitter-induced phenomenon and, as such, is evidence that our attention spans are contracting faster than matter at the edge of a black hole. “Please don’t try to convince me that my romance with concision follows from the way we experience reality now, in interrupted and interruptive increments,” she writes, “or that if I like short literature I should be on Twitter; or that my taste is merely a symptom of a pathological inability to focus or commit; or that since I have a child I no longer have the time to write at length. I have always loved concision.”

One of the aphorisms in Manguso’s essay about aphorisms is:

Brevity isn’t the soul of witlessness; shallowness is.

The aphorism is the oldest written art form on the planet. It is now and always has been a discipline and style of philosophical thought, not some psychic shortcut to drive-thru insights. Aphorisms are words without ends. As Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (Geary’s Guide, pp. 116–118) put it,

An aphorism is the last link in a long chain of thought.

Manguso’s aphorisms are indeed ‘arguments’; i.e., they put forward a point of view, a position, from which readers can form their own chains of thought. The arguments in 300 Arguments are not the partisan bickering we’ve become accustomed to, but part of the writer’s process of working on, reasoning through, and figuring out that also catalyzes that same process in the reader. In so doing, Manguso’s aperçus fit Julien de Valckenaere’s (Geary’s Guide, pp. 61–62) definition of aphoristic excellence:

The shortest aphorism that makes you think the longest is the best.

A selection from 300 Arguments:

The first beautiful songs you hear tend to stay beautiful because better than beauty, which is everywhere, is the memory of first discovering beauty.

If you want to know someone’s secret, don’t ask a thing. Just listen.

Achieve a goal and suffer its loss.

The trouble with setting goals is that you’re constantly working toward what you used to want.

I grew up amid violently white winters and green summers and roaring autumns. Now, in a place without such seasons, I’m stuck in a waiting room with the TV on the same channel all day, and I’m never called in for my appointment.

Giving up hope and submitting to suffering looks the same as achieving total detachment and surpassing the Buddha but for one detail: the smile. Remember to smile.

Aphorisms by Evan Esar

Evan Esar, an anthologist and collector of jokes and quips, described himself as a ‘humorologist.’ “I am not interested in dull stuff like the psychology of laughter,” he is quoted as saying in his 1996 New York Times obituary. “I am interested in classifying humor, in the nature and evolution of humor. I am a man of science.” His scientific pursuit of humor led him to classify laughter as deriving from five categories: wordplay, caricature, blunders, wit and nonsense. In the introduction to 20,000 Quips & Quotes, he wrote: “Where there is insight in citation, or wisdom winged with wit, especially from the world of letters, I have quoted liberally. For a good epigram not only makes a point, but a point to ponder.” Esar’s own sayings offer plenty of points to ponder, here accompanied by related sayings from authors no doubt featured prominently in his collections…

Think twice before you speak, and then you may be able to say something more insulting than if you spoke right out at once.

Think once before you give, twice before you accept, and a thousand times before you ask. —Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

Admiration: Our feeling of delight that another person resembles us.

Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves. —Ambrose Bierce

Success is the good fortune that comes from aspiration, desperation, perspiration,and inspiration.

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. —Thomas Edison

Character is what you have left when you’ve lost everything you can lose.

Character is fate. —Heraclitus

Statistician: A man who believes figures don’t lie, but admits that under analysis some of them won’t stand up either.

Doubt everything at least once, even the proposition that twice two is four. —Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

An epigram is the marriage of wit, and wisdom; a wisecrack, their divorce.

There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. —Dorothy Parker

Aphorisms by Franklin P. Jones

It’s been years since a reader first emailed me about Franklin P. Jones (1908–1980), and in that time I’ve only been able to find this collection of aphorisms from Great Thoughts Treasury and this bio from Jones worked as a journalist and then as a public relations executive in and around Philadelphia. His quips and sayings appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He’s part of the American tradition of homespun wisdom, and like many moral aphorists of the late 19th and early 20th century he found his metier as a columnist/newspaperman, like his predecessors Josh Billings (Geary’s Guide, pp. 13–16), Mark Twain (pp. 58–61), Ambrose Bierce (pp. 356–358) and “Kin” Hubbard (pp. 37–38), with whom he shares a similar wit and sensibility.


Hubbard wrote

The safest way to double your money is to fold it over once and put it in your pocket.

Jones wrote

The most efficient labor-saving device is still money.

Hubbard wrote

Nobody ever forgets where he buried the hatchet.

Jones wrote

One thing you will probably remember well is any time you forgive and forget.

A selection of some of Jones’s other notable observations…

Nothing produces such odd result as trying to get even.

It’s a strange world of language in which skating on thin ice can get you into hot water.

Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger.

What makes resisting temptation difficult, for many people, is that they don’t want to discourage it completely.

Bravery is being the only one who knows you’re afraid.

Experience enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.

A Selection of Romanian Aphorists…

The folks at Asociaţia Culturală Citatepedia have launched a project to promote Romanian culture online, and one of the first initiatives is a translation of 1,000 Romanian sayings into five languages—English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. The sayings come from across the cultural spectrum—poets, playwrights, philosophers, painters, journalists. The first queen of Romania, Carmen Sylva, who was also a writer, is represented with…

There is a goodness that repels and a badness that attracts.

Romania’s national poet, Mihai Eminescu, is featured with an observation that seems especially apt for the tumultuous times we’re currently in…

Contemporaries are the worst historians.

Which brings me to Ion Luca Caragiale, playwright, pamphleteer, poet, and political commentator, who is my favorite among these classic Romanian thinkers and writers…

Honor and grammar: these are the first conditions of a good press.

This world resembles a vast funfair.

Do you want to get to know things? Look at them closely. Do you want to like them? Look at them from afar.

The stupid die; stupidity is undying.

For the soul that is easily shaken, the threat is harder than the blow itself.

Judging by the portraits, these translations seem to focus on 18th, 19th and perhaps some early 20th century authors. For those wanting to hear a contemporary voice, check out a previous post on Valeriu Butulescu

A derailed tram considers itself independent.

You can read the full list of Romanian aphorists in English here at the Intercogito project. In the meantime, with thanks to the Asociaţia Culturală Citatepedia for providing this fascinating glimpse into Romanian aphoristic writing, a selection of some other authors and their aphorisms…

Books show us what our mind alone is not capable of making us fathom.
—Panait Istrati

Beware of banality. Don’t forget, if you must drown, at least don’t drown in a basin—fling yourself into the ocean.
—Octavian Goga

The moments of our life have the same significance as ashes being sifted
—Max Blecher

A teaspoonful of wit is sometimes worth more than a wagonful of strength.
—Liviu Rebreanu

You love your homeland even more when you have lived away from it for a while and when you have listened to what foreigners say and how they judge it.
—Iulia Hasdeu

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…


Annie Sandoli

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.

Anne-Sophie Galli

You don’t need eyes to see.

A lack of time makes people creative.

Stephanie Hazelwood

Eating McDonald’s will satisfy your craving not your hunger.

Coffee without caffeine is wasted energy.

Karina Alexander

A caged lion cries at the thought of being free.

The greatest freedoms one can have are a pen and a strong opinion.

Kate Millar

A house in a neighborhood can only see the houses next door.

Every thread fears being unpicked.

John Glasfeld

Learn to swim before learning to sail.

There are times to swim and times to float.

Kimberly Rufen-Blanchette

Light shines brightest when impeded.

A prism of light starts small.

Madeleine Schaffer

When the last brick is laid, the building collapses.

Circles are squares in HD.

Mara Moettus

Summer needs winter to give it a name.

A haircut is the least painful measure of time.

Mindy Koyanis

Not every scene on screen is seen.

Use writer’s blocks for building.

Nate Swope

If nobody saw it, it never happened.

Bullets don’t discriminate.

Aphorisms by Francis Picabia

From the indefatigable aphorist and convener extraordinaire Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and genius loci of Tramp Freighter

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:


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.



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.


The most beautiful book would be that which would not be possible to consider as a book.

When art appears, life disappears.