Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Illinois Poet's Forum

John Bradley

                                  Some of My Favorite Aunts Are Ants: On the Aphorism

For first, it trieth the writer, whether he be superficial or solid: for aphorisms,
except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of
sciences . . . . So there remaineth nothing to fill the aphorisms but some good
quantity of observation; and therefore no man can suffice, nor in reason will
attempt, to write aphorisms, but he that is sound and grounded.


So wrote Francis Bacon, in his The Advancement of Learning, in 1605. The aphorism has evolved (or de-evolved?) a bit since then. You might argue, without tongue planted firmly in cheek, that to writeaphorisms in the twenty-first century you must be of ungrounded, unsound mind. As can be seen by the aphorism used for the title, above, of this piece. Only an unsound person—such as yours truly—could write something as ridiculous, Bacon would surely say, as the goofy aphorism in my title.

I can still remember stumbling on a copy of Antonio Porchia’s Voices, translated by W. S. Merwin, in a used bookstore in Minneapolis in the early 1970s, my first encounter with the aphorism. The cover—a Magritte print of a man with wings on a bridge, his back to a sitting lion—was as enigmatic as the work inside. I had never heard of Porchia, and I didn’t know what to make of his writing, which at the time I would have called sayings. Unlike the sayings I heard from my mother. But Porchia's sayings appealed to me. I liked their distilled nature. And I liked their mysteriousness. Yet they weren’t poetry. At least not how I expected a poem to appear, with line breaks and stanzas. Porchia’s aphorisms seemed like outcasts from a philosophy book, or maybe feral sayings from an apocryphal book of the Bible.

And yet the aphorism is poetic, resembling a fragment of a Sappho poem. It could be a cousin of Chinese fortunes or Japanese haiku, or even the paltry pun, but it’s much easier to say what an aphorism is not.

It’s not a t-shirt saying, and certainly not a bumper sticker slogan. It’s not a marketing mantra, nor a riddle, nor zen koan. It’s not the punch line of a joke you’ve missed, and it’s definitely not something you’d find on a grave stone, though I wouldn’t be surprised if someone hasn’t tattooed an aphorism on his or her flesh.

I once saw in a text book a list of aphorisms to be used as writing prompts for composition students. One of those aphorisms has stuck with me for over thirty years. They do that, clinging to stray corners of the brain. This one sure did:

                          “Money is the best deodorant.”

                          --Elizabeth Taylor

As memorable as it is, my creative memory had slightly altered this to “Celebrity is the best deodorant.” Time has proven Taylor's original aphorism much truer than my misremembered version.

My own path to the aphorism came long after using them as writing prompts. I had been writing prose poem for quite a while and began to wonder—how small can a prose poem be and still be a prose poem? Can it still breathe and have a pulse if only a line or two? Well, yes and no. After much experimenting, I realized that the one or two line prose poem often took on another personality. I was starting to write aphorisms. I learned that the aphorism has its own unique identity, quite different in tone from the prose poem. The aphorism wants to give advice of some kind, assumes the voice of authority, and the writer must play with these expectations in some way. But this might not be true for other aphorists.

Which leads me to this conclusion: Asking an aphorist to explain the rain will leave you in the drink.

While aphorisms can be wise, silly, philosophical, funny, provocative, absurd, biting, blunt, elliptical, haunting, I find myself still drawn to the deep solitude of Antonio Porchia’s little book. Voices was the only book he wrote in his lifetime (1885-1968), and I suspect it was his Leaves of Grass, a book that slowly grew over many years as he fed and watered and nurtured his aphorisms.

Porchia must have the last word, he whose aphorisms are still being read and admired today: “They will
say that you are on the wrong road, if it is your own.”

 --John Bradley