In my flash prose course, I include a couple days of reading/discussing/writing aphorisms. Students sometimes find this part of the course surprising if not downright odd at first. But I like to think that they come to agree with me that these tiny bursts of language, usually no longer than a single sentence, are the flashiest prose of all, both in the flash of time it takes to read one and in the flash of awareness it triggers. Not-so-good aphorisms are not much more illuminating than a bumper sticker, but the best have the force and resonance of a short poem.
My interest in aphorisms began with my mom. She was a repository of proverbs, maxims, folk sayings, quotable quotes. She seemed to have some catchy-sounding bit of wisdom for any occasion. She fired them off without attribution, so it took me a while to discover that her expressions weren’t of her own making but came from a variety of sources, ranging from the Bible to Ben Franklin to Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde to who-knows-who. I still don’t know the source of some of them.
One of her often repeated sayings was “to you a swallow is a summer,” which she said almost exclusively to my dad. I don’t remember any specific context for this comment, nor did I understand what she was telling him (though I could tell it wasn’t a compliment). Nevertheless, I loved the sound of that phrase and the authority of it, even though for a long time I thought “a swallow” referred to what you do with your throat, which made the statement all the more mysterious and fascinating.
After a while my sisters and I took up the cudgel of that expression and began to wield it as a retort to any perceived insult/threat. For example, my sister might say to me: Take a shower, you stink. And I might reply: Shut up. You take a shower. To you a swallow is a summer. This snappy rejoinder was especially effective with kids at school who, when I unloaded that curse on them, usually took a step or two away from me scratching their heads in confusion.
My mom had a fairly cynical world view, which she conveyed to us with two of her most frequent gnomic utterances: “no good deed goes unpunished,” and “if you feed the pigeons, expect to get crapped on.” How could I not love the paradox of the former and the inescapably vivid logic of the latter? I also remember her saying as a sort of all-purpose bit of wisdom: “at night all cats are gray,” a statement that always mystified me, but again, I delighted in the picture it created in my mind.
When I went off to college, mom presented me with a new, hefty edition of Bartlett’s Quotations, telling me that it would come in handy. I rolled my eyes and acted deeply apathetic. But her affinity for pithy expressions and well-phrased insights had rubbed off on me, and secretly I was pleased to have that book, which I still own—well worn, dog-eared, underlined and highlighted.
But it wasn’t until I was a sophomore English major that I began to think of aphorisms as a serious and complex use of language. It was William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” that first blew my mind. Blake’s aphorisms were full of contradiction and ambiguity and insight that seemed richer, more intense (and more confounding) than the amusing/ironic turns of phrase that I was used to. “The cut worm forgives the plow;” “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom;” “sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”—these were new and intriguing and exciting to me. Around the same time, I was introduced to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary and Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Bierce’s witty, cynical definitions were, like Blake’s liberating proverbs, memorable and subversive and thought-provoking. I wasn’t as fond of Franklin’s good-natured homilies and practical advice, but he’s got a few zingers in there, such as “three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.”
Aphorisms and their proverbial cousins have been around for a long time, much longer than even the Book of Proverbs, and there has been a surge in interest in them in recent years. One of my favorite contemporary poets, James Richardson, has published several collections that include what he calls “aphorisms and ten second essays” (a couple of my favorites: “Of all the ways to avoid living, perfect discipline is the most admired” and “God help my neighbors if I loved them as I love myself”). James Geary—whose books about the history of aphorisms have established him as an authority on the subject—maintains a popular blog/website called All Aphorisms All The Time, (http://www.jamesgeary.com/blog/) which features aphorists from many countries and time periods. Two years ago, the literary journal Hotel Amerika devoted an entire, sumptuously produced issue to contemporary aphorisms. I love aphorisms because to me they are poems disguised as prose, or maybe a better way to say it is that they are prose that work like poems: highly compressed language, musical phrasing, complex and often paradoxical thought and feeling. And for a poet teaching a Flash Prose class, what could be better than that?