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.
5/3/2022 08:34:30 am
Intriguing thoughts, Anita. Thanks. I was noticing the seemingly common root in "aphorism" and "metaphor". Is that the same "phor" or do they derive from different roots?
5/3/2022 09:32:40 pm
What an intriguing topic, Anita! I've always thought of William Stafford as the master of these .. so many proclamations. The very kinds of flat-out statements that poetry writing teachers discourage, right? Yet I never thought of whole stanzas, or the last six lines of a poem, for example, as constituting an aphorism (such as the ending the Raab poem). Yours is a delightful tangle!
5/5/2022 06:48:32 am
Good question, Charles. Usually in Greek, an "a" before a word serves to negate it. "Phor" by itself meant (in ancient Greek) "bearing" or "bearer" and "meta" of course means transfer -- so, "transferring the load"? This is just what the dictionary says. I'd love to ask someone who knows.
5/6/2022 12:28:00 pm
I love aphorisms when they tread lightly. Thank you for this wonderful theme, Anita!
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