Aphorism, the gemstone of rhetoric, succeeds on sound. To be memorable, aphorism must have rhythm, ring and poise. Does that make the aphorism poetry? In turn, can poetry be aphorism?
Of course. Poets distill their parade of image and observation into aphorism. It’s become something of a formula: the poet creates a scene and scenario then draws something not quite Aesop out of it. The great success of this form has inspired a million imitations. Who is better prepared to put music and laconic meaning together than poets? Wit and wisdom have been serving poets since Homer. Aphorists think poetry as they piece together words.
The itch to write aphorisms has infected a number of poets. Scot rhymer Don Paterson’s acclaimed Rain followed his Nick Hornby-praised Best Thought, Worst Thought: Aphroisms. Sometimes poets’ aphorisms aren’t written as aphorisms. Instead they’re journal entries. Anna Kamienska’sIndustrious Amazement: A Notebook in the March,2011 issue of Poetry, with scribbled thoughts including, “A poet is a person translated into words,” and “Accidents are the atoms of life….”.
James Richardson is one of the more polished aphorist poets. His 2004 collection Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms contained One through Three-Point- Oh editions of aphorisms written between 2000 and the book’s 2004 publication. Because he’s such a lyrical poet (by today’s standards), the aphorisms seem less than music. Still many are clever: “The road reaches everywhere, the shortcut only one” and “Happines, like water, is always available, but so often it seems we’d prefer a different drink.” Like the poems, they express a thin optimism and a can-do-except-when-you-can’t attitude.
Richardson’s latest collection, the National Book Award finalist By the Numbers, draws the distinction between poetry and aphorism more sharply. Richardson may write aphorisms but the poems are largely empty of them. There is action, there is consideration and choices that remain unchosen. If there’s a lesson, it must be drawn by the reader. Richardson won’t spell it out. Go to the aphorisms for that.
Both the poetry and the aphorisms break their themes from common materials. The poems place an emphasis on the components of speech . “Subject, Verb, Object” stays practical: “‘I’ …a kind of motel room/ yours to the end–/of the sentence that is.” The title poem is a counting game with annotations. “Metallurgy for Dummies” is a compendium of glinting image.
Richardson is down on love except when he isn’t. That, of course, is where the problem lies. “In Shakespeare” tells us something we already know, “…a lover turns into an ass/as you would expect…” In Classic Bar Scenes” we find, “the chase is a tired/and tiring metaphor.” From the aphorisms: “Passion is faintly rhetorical, as if we needed to convine ourselves we were capable of it.”
Fear defines many of these poems, highlighting the uncertainty, the dichotomy that clouds Richardson’s world view. Poems including “Emergency Measures” and “Head-On” address mortality in ways we can’t deny. “Don’t look down death’s dress,” the poet urges.
Richardson also obsesses on the gods, putting them on bar stools, and making them give press conferences. He reminds us of our animist heritage (“It was the small gods we talked to/before words”) and lets us know that God hated Adam because the man sang out “stupid names for the animals.” At the same time, Richardson loves science. In the long and long-lined poem “We Are Not Alone or Physics You Can Do At Home,” a sort of technical essay illustrated with household objects, he makes the connection between quantum physics and the commonplace.
The best poems are the shortest. These tend to be more aphoristic, obviously musical and quicker to surprise. “Prokaryotes” ponders the chance of life as well as the way we experience it. “Say we found it on Europa,/DNA, an alien line,/could we wait a billion years to ask/How was it for you –/blue, that whiff of ammonia, Time? ”
The aphorisms please more often than they don’t, and are clever enough to overcome their own preachiness. “Nothing dirtier than old soap,” goes one; witty but without much weight. That’s the way Richardson seems to like it; simple observations on complex subjects. “Faith is broad. It’s Doubt that’s deep,” is clever and rings of truth but sounds like cocktail talk. You can almost feel Richardson patting us on the shoulder as he tells us this, spilling our drink in the process. Still, many are perfect, just as they should be: “The odds against today were insurmountable, until it happened,” and “The reader lives faster than life, the writer slower.” Even as Richardson’s poetry moves away from aphorism, his aphorism moves closer to poetry.
It would be interesting to interview Richardson, Don Paterson and others on the relation of aphorism and poetry and how writing one affects the writing of the other. Looking for common qualities, note both Paterson and Richardson are musical writers, not afraid of rhyme and rhythm and adept at image. Their aphorisms aren’t always any different.–Cabbage Rabbit