4/30/2022 4 Comments
Poetry as Aphorism
Let's touch lightly upon the poem as aphorism. Most poets don't deliberately write aphorisms and call them poems, probably because aphorisms are innately stodgy: they flaunt rather than hide their didactic role of summing things up, so that you can't read too many of them in a row without cleansing your palate between doses.
Hint: the aphorism too often can sneak into the last stanza as a way of validating and “clarifying” the good intentions of the poem.
However, the (often hidden) aphoristic tendencies of poetry can be fun to mess around with as a kind of literary device. I would even go so far as to say a well-placed aphorism can completely change the “body chemistry” of the entire poem, even if in itself it seems innocent of any such intention.
Here are a few one-liners from Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (died, 1990), ably translated by Paul Merchant in his book Monochords. Ritsos regarded them as daily warm-up exercises.
Ritsos was possibly writing one-liners in the tradition of Heraclitus (c. 500 BC) whose tendency was more majestic (tr. by Brooks Haxton in Fragments: the Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus):
A contemporary poet, and there may be many others, who very deftly uses an aphoristic approach (think: summing everything up in the last line) is Lawrence Raab. Here's the final 1 ½ stanzas of his poem “Lost” (Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Fall 2017)
And here's the stunning final line of one of my favorite poems by Jorie Graham, 'Subjectivity' – a long poem that labored mightily and brought forth a yellow butterfly!
To finish, here's a poem of mine in which I deliberately succumb to the tangled logic that can be the death of a good aphorism.
– Martin Prechtel (The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic)
Much soul-searching is taking place in these historically difficult times, some of it private, but some through the enormous and complicated sieve of the collective unconscious. We feel one another's pain, so much so that once again we find ourselves re-visiting the perennial “Problem of Humans,” and once again hoping for the possibility to see it in a new light.
The light of Poetry, for example, especially its ability to stimulate visionary thinking. Poetry is vastly under-rated, under-utilized and misunderstood in the world we have mostly inhabited as rude guests for some 250,000 years. Our inconsiderate behavior has sometimes been so gauche and ignorant that I wonder if that in itself is part of a Larger Plan yet invisible to us. Does the Earth benefit from humans wreaking havoc upon its stately code of reciprocities?
In many origin myths, humans make their entrance rather late, and deeply unfit for the lives they have been destined to lead here. As if our entire world had been built upon an error – which should be logically impossible. At various times we are said to have been made of: mud, sticks, wood, cloth, and sometimes even then had to be forgiven many times in order to remain on the shelf at all. But even though the creator god destroys each flawed version of our species when inevitably it proves to be inferior, and starts over with a different set of ingredients, the story does not allow any realistic effort to root out and avoid the endless repetition of the mistake. As if the origin myth itself is the problem – a tossed-off first draft, truly little more than a bare outline, unable to include matters like quality of material, integrity of design, or anything at all about ways to improve our initial conditions.
Some ancient origin myths, especially in the East, insist that the chief work of the Universe and everything in it, is to become fully conscious or enlightened. Furthermore, that we humans have actually been very slowly, but collectively working ourselves into a fully awakened state, far beyond simple awareness. If this is true, however, it surely seems that we should have been fully conscious for quite some time already. If the vast and powerful universe so urgently needed us in order to manifest this one trait it could not bring into fruition itself, why has it spent so much energy and still not met its goal?
I know I must be asking the wrong question all over again. Were humans side-tracked by words?Did someone empty a huge tin of alphabet letters onto the path we were so imperfectly following, and suddenly, as they began to blow away, we disappeared into the woods on either side, snuffling like wild boars, having at last found our true calling?
There in the bush we discovered-were-discovered-by – Poetry! Poetry uses words in different proportions and densities than does prose. It is essentially a sixth sense, a separate way of being alive that for some reason was handed over to humans. We have an exclusive contract to preside over the eons of its unfolding. Perhaps the Universe is in thrall to our final “aha!” when we make that one last connection and become conscious.
I like to think we human beings carry inside us – like a sort of Original Virtue – a capacity for the raw metaphor that underlies everything. And in a strange mathematics of twos and threes, metaphor is primary. We can only truly understand anything at all through analogy to something we already know. It is the final and the first, the breakaway, the Form that emerges of its own accord out of tendency, out of strange attractiveness, out of whim. Yet most people never experience poetry as metaphor at all, even though it is hourly revealed in the gaps of meaning that naturally occur between poetry and prose. Our odd deafness to this achingly simple state of affairs, has prevented us for a very long time from returning to the full capacity for consciousness each one of us is capable of.
(and yes, I did end a sentence with a preposition, hoping that might be a small step in the right direction. . . .).