March 13, 2013KR OnlineNonfiction

The Smallest Space:
Lyric Aphorism
in Contemporary Poetry


In “Man Carrying Thing” Wallace Stevens made one of his most infamous declarations: “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” Those lines can seem to describe, and have been used to support, a view of contemporary poetry that focuses less on any given poem’s ability to provide an integrative reading experience—or as one critic recently put it, to offer a “poetry of perspective”—and more on its unique capability to disorient, to reproduce the sensation of experience. Yet it may be instructive to look at Stevens’s lines not only in terms of what they call for, but how they do so: Stevens describes a poetry of “resistance” in a formulation that is notable for its clarity, its immediate comprehensibility, even its ease. The lines are aphoristic, and an aphorism requires not just acceptance of meaning but instantaneous recognition of rightness: W.H. Auden, who edited the Faber Book of Aphorisms, noted that “The aphorist does not argue or explain, he asserts; and implicit in his assertion is a conviction that he is wiser or more intelligent than his readers.”

Auden wasn’t being a snob. Generally, aphorisms are didactic, even instructive. The Analects of Confucius, for example, include such aphoristic utterances as, “Claims made immodestly are difficult to live up to.” Statements like these can occasionally sound proverbial, like received wisdom. Part of their thrust comes from their form, which is as formulaic as it is algebraic: X is Y, A must be B, C is the D of E. When aphorisms occur in poetry, especially in poetry that attempts to “resist the intelligence,” it may give a reader pause. Aphorisms, or aphoristic utterances, are increasingly found embedded in contemporary poems that at first glance seem obviously “resistant” to the kind of plain-speech lyric tradition that is often called today’s poetry “mainstream.” Aphorisms, and aphorism-like language, can increasingly be found in poems written by poets associated with avant-garde movements of the past few decades, or poems that utilize techniques associated with such movements—difficult syntax, for example, or extended use of fragment, or a self-consciously uneasy relationship with ideas of “voice” and “speaker.” This essay will examine how, and why, and for what reasons poets typically grouped as “resisters” might turn to a technique aligned with universal truth, objective reality, and univocal speakers—all elements supposedly disavowed in contemporary poetry’s quest, in the words of Tony Hoagland, for dizzying “dis-arrangement.”

Contemporary poems don’t just use the trappings of aphoristic form; they also exploit its fragmented, accumulative logic. The kind of thinking that thinks about itself, that countermands and extends its own arguments, that suggests or invites further thought—the participatory thinking that aphorism demands—is also central to poems that deploy what I’ll call “lyric aphorism.” The poets I will look at, including Anne Carson, Mei-Mei Berssenbruge, Suzanne Buffam, Lyn Hejinian, Chelsey Minnis, Lisa Robertson, and Elizabeth Willis, among others, adapt and alter aphorism in recent poems, drawing on the model of logic that aphorism asserts, as well as adopting its forms. Not all of these poets use lyric aphorism in the same way or to the same effect. However, each uses both the language of aphorism and the thinking that language allows in individual poems, and—in the case of Chelsey Minnis, the final poet I’ll look at—across entire books.

Aphorisms in poems—rather than aphorisms as poems, say in the work of James Richardson, whose “Ten-Second Essays” include numbered fragments like “The reader lives faster than life, the writer lives slower”—can seem to lodge a pebble of meaning under the wobbly tower of stylized disruption that some critics have come to describe (not always dismissively) as the predominant architecture of contemporary American poetry: aphorisms, after all, declare, making universal statements in conventional syntax. Their meanings are generally grasped at first glance; their speakers are authoritative, and authoritatively stable. And yet lyric aphorism is not simply a tidy package of meaning, nor does it elude contemporary poetry’s penchant for complicating voice and individual experience. In fact, lyric aphorism fulfills multiple, sometimes competing, expectations about what a poem might do and who might be doing it. It offers perspective, even as it resists interpretation; by speaking with unexpected authority, it asks us to re-think our default assumptions about speaker, personae, and gender. Because of its form, it can seem to comment on the lyric landscape in which it is embedded, and it can overturn our expectations of that landscape. It straightens when we expect swerve. Aphorism is not a new development in poetry, but its current incarnation offers some useful ways to think about new poetry.


Some of the first aphorisms were written by Hippocrates, who used them not to spin general truths but to record precise, factual details. Their historic relation to facticity may appeal to a classicist like Anne Carson—who in turn has appealed to many younger poets since her first poetry collection, Glass, Irony, and God, appeared in 1992. Carson’s work from the 1990s and early 2000s, including Plainwater (1995) and Men in the Off Hours (2001), includes aphoristic asides along with domestic detail, classical scholarship, pop culture allusions, translations, and surrealist flourishes. For all its formal variety, Carson’s early work mines a vein of deadpan lyricism: purposefully flat, the voice in a Carson poem is disembodied and affectless while the poem itself relates fundamentally particular, even personal, experience. Carson’s deadpan can make aphorism harder to spot: in lines that are syntactically perfect and make sense as strict prose, the “instantaneous recognition of rightness” might seem to be everywhere. Yet Carson’s work shows that lyric aphorism offers a distinct kind of clarity—not just clearness of expression, but a particular mode of it. In her verse-novel, The Beauty of the Husband (2001), aphorisms like “To stay human is to break a limitation” and “Madness doubled is marriage” rise out of the particular circumstances being described—the on-going disaster of the speaker’s marriage. Formally succinct, rotating around their “be” verbs, the statements gesture beyond the conditions of the poem and its speaker, positing a general truth that exceeds the particular circumstances at hand.

As a tonal device, lyric aphorism helps Carson achieve a canny mix of universal specificity, in part allowing her to momentarily neutralize the gendered conventions of lyric even as she writes of female experiences. Embedded within a narrative, lyric aphorism helps lines like these—from “The Glass Essay”—circumvent both sententiousness and feminized sentimentality:

I lean against the sink  
White foods taste best to me
and I prefer to eat alone. I don’t know why.
Once I heard girls singing a May Day song that went:
                            Violante in the pantry
                            Gnawing at a mutton bone 
                            How she gnawed it 
                            When she felt herself alone.
Girls are cruelest to themselves.
Someone like Emily Bronte,
who remained a girl all her life despite her body as a woman,
had cruelty drifted up in all the cracks of her like spring snow.
(emphasis added)

Here the lyric aphorism, which posits a law about gender and cruelty, provides a bridge from the banalities of the “real life” narrative to the heightened language of intellectual work. Carson’s aphorisms often exist as statements that consciously transgress the borders of scholarship and poetry, particularly lyric poetry. They bridge a divide that is as much about topic as it is tone: scholarly research might offer us new ways to conceptualize, as well as write, personal experience. Carson’s aphorism asserts a truth that is universally true in both the world of the poem and the world of the world. The poet Lisa Robertson also uses lyric aphorism to negotiate personal utterance and public claims. Robertson’s poetry is more obviously “difficult”—or “resistant” to use the terms I’ve set for myself—than Carson’s. That is, her poems demure from anecdote or event; unlike a Carson poem, which may talk about unrequited love by narrating a scene of a squirrel jumping from branch to branch, Robertson’s work responds to such abstractions—love, death, nostalgia—not with concrete details, but more abstract language.

Robertson, also a scholarly Canadian, prizes influences and sources—from Rousseau to Lady Mary Montagu—and her lyric aphorisms can knit together the kinds of experience and levels of diction she scatters throughout her work. In R’s Boat (2010) lyric aphorisms provide a mode of clarity that stands out formally as well as intellectually. In these lines, for example, the lyric aphorism is embedded in a passage that aptly demonstrates Stevens’s poetics of “resistance.”

The idea of the indexical
Is pleasantly estranged, dissolved
In the memory of matter
Such as the beige buildings of anywhere
This is the erotic feeling of non-identity
Suddenly the horizon folds
The biggest problem with melancholy is that it is more detailed than
      the world
Now it has spoken in me to become what I will be
Then I would enter the discipline of failure
And at the same time to be disinterested
(emphasis added)

The lines leading up to the aphorism seem tethered to a particular circumstance, perhaps the speaker looking at or remembering an office park, somewhere bleak enough to warrant a “feeling of non-identity.” Yet the scene is not set, the speaker diffuse; though grammatical, the lines are loaded with abstract paradoxes like “the memory of matter” and “pleasantly estranged,” making them difficult to parse. “A Cuff,” the poem these lines come from, is concerned with landscape, architecture, and the processes of looking and perception—which is perhaps why the lines seem to move in dreamy transcription: we are in the nowhere of thinking. So the lyric aphorism again pops out from its surroundings as a moment of clarity—yet like Carson’s, it also gestures outside the poem: not just the melancholy of the speaker, but melancholy itself is being defined here. A full-fledged idea in fully-fledged syntax, the line stalls the poem even as it seems to ground us: we respond to the forceful authority of such a definition, its formal finality. As the literary critic Beverly Coyle notes in A Thought To Be Rehearsed (1983), her work on aphorism in Wallace Stevens, “a reader responds to a statement as an aphorism essentially because its formal and thematic elements create in him a sense of closure.”

But that “sense of closure” may be a sense only: formal finality can obscure what, exactly, is being formulated. We nod in agreement with Robertson’s sentence because it sounds convincingly final, but how could melancholy actually be more detailed than the world? For one thing, our experience of melancholy is generally fitful, while our experience of the world is stable—that is, we’re always experiencing it. What clouds our view is the scrim of mood, not the world’s availability to us. And what kind of details does melancholy have that the world lacks? Melancholy doesn’t have coniferous trees or global warming though allergies and an environmental conscience might send one into a bout of it. Close examination makes the statement less stable, not more. Though we feel stabilized by the grammar, in the context of the poem Robertson’s aphorism—and its sudden turn to seemingly “transparent” meaning—forces us to reconsider our sense of the poem’s speaker. Cast against a difficult, shifting lyric background, the complicated clarity of lyric aphorism can help connect competing ideas of what lyric poetry might say, and who might be saying it.

Like Robertson and Carson, Elizabeth Willis uses lyric aphorism as a stepping-stone from the room of lyric epiphany to the roof of philosophical inquiry. Long concerned with the relationship between visual culture and literature, Willis’s work frequently treats the intersections of painting and poetry, but she too has found models in older poets and eras, including, in Meteoric Flowers (2006), the eighteenth century world of Erasmus Darwin. Her latest book, Address (2011), settles back into shorter lines even as it ventures into radically political poetry (see “This Is Not a Poem About Katherine Harris [R-13th District Florida]”). In Address, the compressed, gorgeous imagery of Willis’s earlier work battles with the circumscribed interiority of lyric address: the book’s eponymous poem begins “I is to they.”

Aphorism helps Willis connect her lyric subjects to the outside world of politics, tenuously offering a sense of common, even communal, experience. As we’ve seen, lyric aphorisms frequently spring from consideration of particular experiences; Willis also embeds aphorism within lyric circumstance, albeit a bit differently. Stocked with the standard terms of lyric, her poem “Friday” begins “Coming to you / from a jumbled dream,” locating us firmly in the interior, private realm of lyric. Cataloguing the short, strange bursts of detail that constitute domestic life, the poem is witty: “I’m thinking on the bright side / while looking for my keys.” But it also points towards an elemental loss, or reversal—“My heart caves in”; I’ve never seen a body / floating to the ceiling”; “So I didn’t find mercy / or it didn’t find me”—which could be the loss of the beloved, or the loss of the experience of loving, or a combination of both. However diaphanously described, specific locales like the “post office” and “the street” ground us in a particular, unique world revealed to us by a particular, unique speaker.

So the aphoristic couplet in the middle of the poem should trip us up, however momentarily. Yet the assertion—“A word is a symptom / of what can’t be described”—doesn’t have the pompous bite of Auden’s “aristocratic genre.” As an aphorism it gestures towards the messy, uncertain center of the poem—the feeling that something is amiss which can’t be accounted for, or described. As a piece of language, the finality inherent in its definition (X is Y) does something else. Rather than continue loading the poem with everyday ephemera, Willis stakes a claim; she makes a universal statement that simultaneously universalizes the experience of the speaker.

The shift in register in “Friday” also marks a shift in thought—the speaker moves from the minute moods of an individual “I” to a general truth extrapolated from those experiences. Who is speaking the aphorism is a productively ambiguous question, in this poem and others that employ lyric aphorism. In the last twenty years, critics such as Marjorie Perloff and the editors of the two anthologies I’ll look at briefly later in this essay have emphasized the ways lyric might complicate the assumption of stable, fixed speakers and their assertions of self and world. Willis has written on this herself, in her essay “The Arena in the Garden: Some Thoughts on Late Lyric.” In that essay, Willis describes the “voice as figure” as a primary feature of “late lyric” poetry. “Potentially multiple,” she writes, the voice of a lyric poem is “not reducible to the realm of single-subject epiphanies.” The troubling, and troublesome, “single-subject” (that is, the speaker of the poem considered as a singular, univocal presence) is one that lyric aphorism effectively scrambles, and might even do away with. For poets cautious of the ways “subjectivity” can almost automatically inflect voice, lyric aphorisms’ disembodied timbre allows for epiphany that is not relegated to the “single-subject”; yet it also offers, as a kind of Hippocratean fact, an utterance that is grounded in personal observation, even personality.

As we’ve seen, lyric aphorism’s claims to “objectivity” rest mainly on its formal assurance; we believe definitions because they sound like definitions. Yet, as we’ve also seen, “believing” a lyric aphorism is tricky: close examination often reveals more complicated propositions that can undermine the assurance we think we find in the aphorism’s formal closure. Exploiting that difference can lead to poems that ask us to question our presumption that lyric poems are either the products of “single-subjects” or no “subject” at all; lyric aphorism can allow a lyric poet to speak beyond autobiography, as well as interrogate the role of language in the construction of self and experience. As a device, it allows a poem access to all the precedents, and outcomes, of the lyric mode.

The poet Suzanne Buffam uses lyric aphorism to circumvent, even clip, the kinds of emotional “confession” we might expect in lyric poetry, perhaps especially lyric poetry written by women. Buffam’s second book, The Irrationalist (2010), published by Canarium (a small press interested in innovative writing), even includes a series of “Little Commentaries” that explore and exploit the boundaries between aphorism and poetry; some are aphorisms in their own right. Her poem “Amor Fati” (one of Nietzsche’s favorite terms) sets personal revelation (“I can’t help what I want”) abruptly next to aphorism’s universalizing technique (“There is no such thing as a dream that comes true. / Every dream is already true the moment it is dreamed”). Such juxtaposition allows Buffam to achieve a definitive, executive tone: she amends and scolds the persistent belief that our experiences and feelings are uniquely ours, even as such scolding sounds like it comes defiantly—and aphoristically—from a “single subject.” Lyric aphorism offers Buffam, like all the poets I’ve looked at so far, a form able to accommodate traditionally “lyric” concerns (personal experience, epiphany, emotion) and yet still question them; lyric aphorism tilts the speaker in a lyric poem both inward and outward at once.


But isn’t much poetry concerned with the universal implications of a particular speaker’s utterances? How does lyric aphorism differ from any other rhetorical device at a poet’s disposal? It might be helpful to think about the tricky positioning of speaker and experience lyric aphorism allows by taking a quick look at a poem not interested in unraveling such relationships. Over eight collections of poetry, Laura Kasischke has honed narrative, “single-subject” lyric poems to a fine, perfect point; in the tradition of Sylvia Plath, or Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kasischke’s domestic lyrics use repetition, rhyme, and often explosively accurate imagery to portray the dialectic between outside event and inner, emotional experience. But they rarely, if ever, use lyric aphorism. While they pursue the inner life of one speaker, they do so within the parameters of the poem’s world—Kasishcke’s clarity of utterance does not rise up, as we saw in Carson, Robertson, and Willis, to the realm of aphoristic expression.

Kasischke’s speakers may have experiences we all recognize, but they don’t articulate them in the terms we’ve seen lyric aphorism demand. “Terrible Words,” from the collection Lilies Without (2007), for example, opens with these lines:

I’ve said these words before, exactly these.

I said them in winter, in the car, at night,
warmed by the cigarette lighter’s dangerous eye.

I said them in summer
When the flowers were in bloom
But there were too many biting flies to go outside.

Truly, I

was the first to say them.

Here, the “I” describes a potentially “universal” experience—saying something you don’t mean—while remaining firmly in the rhetorical realm of the poem’s particular experience: the situation of the car, night, the cigarette lighter is cast as a singular, exceptional event that could have only happened to the “Truly I” narrating the poem to us. Consider this in relation to Buffam’s short “Invective,” from the series of “Little Commentaries.” Toying with the idea that statements are their own evidence, Buffam’s speaker sounds at once irrefutable and forlorn:

Fuck you and the horse you rode in on
Is often just another way of saying come back.

Like Kasischke, Buffam addresses a situation we all might be familiar with—not saying what you mean, because what you mean is too painful to be said. But Buffam’s couplet is also an aphorism: it pivots on that definitional, line-splitting “Is.” The bravado of this aphorism rests on its unhappy symmetry: it starts with “fuck you” and ends with “come back.” We might compare these lines to Kasischke’s and note that the formal requirements of aphorism are not present in Kasischke’s: her verbs describe a sequence of past actions, rather than delineate a timeless definition; she includes many “I” statements. Buffam’s speaker is only speech: there is no context for the utterance, no back-story, no account. When we peer into lyric aphorisms, we glimpse neither a lyric subject—in the Kasischkean sense—nor a voice interrogating the conditions of its own assemblage. Lyric aphorism allows poets to “resist” an overt identification of speaker with poet, while allowing for the presence of a speaking subject.

In the strict requirements of its formulation, lyric aphorism can almost seem like a received form—certain elements, used in certain ways, must be present for it to work. But unlike a sonnet, lyric aphorism is formulaic at the level of sentence and syntax. In forcing the poet’s voice into the narrow channel of its statement, lyric aphorism divests it of particularity. This is why all aphorisms tend to sound as though they were written by the same person. Yet that lack of particularity still responds to the particular worlds of the individual poems—girls figure in Carson’s account of a woman on the verge of mental breakdown, melancholy in Robertson’s survey of dilapidated landscapes, and loss in Willis’s elegy for comfortable domesticity. Lyric aphorism requires those materials be used in distinct ways, however, and in doing so, they let personal claims flare out. Carefully slid into the waiting slots of aphorism, the everyday, the personal, even the confessional, become in and of themselves ways of making broader claims, of connecting personal address to worlds far beyond the personal. Aphorisms, unlike proverbs, are personal. But they also assume a kind of “personalness” for everyone. In lyric aphorism, that authoritative posturing—the boldness, even pompousness of the aphorism—can be tempered by the careful lyric surrounding it. Lyric aphorism allows for a particular kind of tone and representation to work in lyric poems, but it doesn’t just let poets throw their voice: it also offers a method of thinking.


What kind of thinking does aphorism allow? I described it earlier as both “fragmented” and “accumulative.” Aphorisms usually appear in packs, as in Stevens’s Materia Poetica, or the books of Emil Cioran; they invite, as Susan Sontag once noted, more aphorisms. Those aphorisms might contradict, rather than confirm, previous aphorisms. This is one paradox of the form: individually aphorisms assert, define, and argue definitively, but taken together they don’t cohere into argument at all. Sontag, writing about the great Romanian aphorist Cioran, described “the aphoristic style” as “less a principle of reality than a principle of knowing: that it’s the destiny of every profound idea to be quickly checkmated by another idea, which it itself has implicitly generated.” That quality of aphorism as both generative and self-contradicting—not thought but thinking—is important to the next few poets I’ll consider.

Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s poems frequently mix aphoristic statement with exquisitely—sometimes excruciatingly—detailed sensory anecdote. Like Robertson or Willis, Berssenbrugge’s aphoristic moments claim a distinct kind of clarity from the poem they’re embedded within. Unlike those poets, her aphorisms don’t define or delineate so much as suggest or assume. Though they wear the trappings of lyric aphorism, they sit somewhat awkwardly in that suit, partly because of their placement. In Berssenbrugge’s clause-filled lines, a lyric aphorism doesn’t stall us the way it might in a Robertson poem, or even gesture beyond the boundaries of the poem itself, as in Carson’s. Rather, her lyric aphorisms offer a kind of hinge, both between kinds of statement and varieties of rumination.

Married to the artist Richard Tuttle, Berssenbrugge frequently collaborates with artists like Kiki Smith; her volume of selected poems is titled I Love Artists (2006). Perhaps as a result, she is fundamentally concerned with perception; her elegantly discursive lines reveal an individual speaker’s experiences among the mundane realities of the world—walking through the woods, or looking at a house. The pendulum of her long phrasing often swings towards the aphoristic, only to swing outward again to the particular. From her meditation on manners and suicide, “Forms of Politeness”:

Her persistent observation, even after the frost, is of each leaf coinciding                     with its
because of its structure as a lighted space and which shows brightness in
                    idea and
so you have to maintain your own consciousness in order not to be
          with me.
Even if we can uniquely bridge the gap between the fact of a frost and
                    the value
of luminousness, and even though these intrinsic properties of the plant
                    may not be
          what it feels.
What it feels may be a space with pillars, so with light the space extends,
                    as in what
          you believe
to live with. A belief is a word-like object. You can focus your attention
                    on it down to
          a point,
like desire or memory of a strong feeling. You have a certain amount of
                    control over
          your feeling
about general human help by changing what you believe, which
                    embodies the
your speech is empowered to represent, she says.

Berssenbrugge’s labyrinthine thoughts spill into aphorism as she attempts to locate the universal within a set of particular, particularly detailed moments. A sentence beginning in the “persistent observation” of a woman wends its way back toward the troubling implications of any two people interacting. Striving to make connections across all kinds of surfaces, experiences, and modes of perception, Berssenbrugge’s moments of lyric aphorism postulate, rather than define. Swaddled by carefully modulated phrases, their aphoristic oomph is blunted, not emboldened. Even the entirely aphoristic “a belief is a word-like object” feels unsettled, enveloped by competing senses of “you.” It registers as both a claim about the world as such, and a warning to a friend. Berssenbrugge’s aphoristic moments rise out of poems that are generally difficult, and about difficulty.  The precision of the form sits uncomfortably with Berssenbrugge’s desire to acknowledge contingency and map the circumstantial. Yet lyric aphorism allows a point of departure and arrival: a place from which to descend into the tangle of individual perception, as well as a method for rising out of it.

Lyn Hejinian has perhaps been the most explicit of the poets I’ve looked at in her claims for poetry as a kind of philosophical method: “Poetry’s ability to contribute to the work of doing philosophy,” she writes in her introduction to her long poem Happily, “is intrinsic to its medium, language. Every phrase, every sentence, is an investigation of an idea.” Hejinian is best known as one of the founders of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, though her work is just as frequently cited for its deviance from that movement and the splinter groups it has inspired. Happily, one of her best known earlier works, features the prismatic, shifting “I” that is thought to be one of the hallmarks of Language writing; yet even in this work, lyric aphorism is present, centering or grounding the swirling systems of thought and observation. Coyle notes that Wallace Stevens perceived of aphorism in his own work as “launching pads of thought”; in Hejinian’s formulation they might be “investigations of an idea.” And yet Hejinian toys with the formal elements of aphorism, stretching them out in quotidian pitter-patter that softens their definitive edges; Hejinian’s lyric aphorisms are pleasantly blurred, like watercolors. Here are lines from Happily:

Happiness is independent of us bound to its own incompleteness sharply

I can know you without yardstick or sleep, without analysis and from
                    near or far,
          but I can’t know you without myself

Nostalgia is another name for one’s sense of loss at the thought that one
                    has sadly
          gone along happily overlooking something, who knows what

Such hemming-and-hawing might seem to muddy the crystalline channels of aphoristic formulation. Yet in their 1968 introduction to Friedrich Schlegel’s Dialogue on Poetry (which includes his great literary aphorisms), editors and translators Ernst Behler and Roman Struc note that aphorism itself necessitates a kind of bounded openness. They make this case for aphorism: “The aphorism is the only literary means of communication for agile thinking in the process of development and change which does not want to limit itself prematurely.” Hejinian would agree. Her run-on aphorisms build on and check one another, constructing definitions even as they suggest the limits of such a project. Hejinian’s surplus of pronouns—not only “I” but “you” and “we” and “one” and “our”—is self-consciously inclusive rather than merely didactic; she doesn’t just make statements, she suggests why such statements might exist. Lyric aphorism becomes a mold into which we might pour our own experiences, a formulation of knowledge that also allows for “who knows what.” Happily’s propositions suggest that we might all actually experience happiness in some way that Hejinian’s expansive aphorisms could capture.

Even smudged lyric aphorisms like Hejinian’s define and delineate relationships; as we’ve seen, lyric aphorisms are distinguished from other kinds of statement by their willingness to do so. But stacked on top of one another, often in contradictory or paradoxical positions, aphorisms can also seem to undermine that project. The kind of thinking aphorism proposes echoes recent writing on new or late lyric poetry, which describes it—in at least two big, recent anthologies—as “interiority and/or intimate speech that avoids confession, clear speech, or common sense” according to Juliana Spahr, a co-editor of American Women Poets in the 21st Century (2002). The companion to American Women Poets is American Poets in the 21st Century (2007), and its editors, Claudia Rankine (who also co-edited American Women Poets) and Lisa Sewell, also claim that lyric poetry is less concerned with capturing or recounting individual experience than inquiring into the language through which we understand that experience, through its unfurling of thought.

Looked at this way, it seems natural that lyric poets would stumble into aphorism’s pantry and raid it. Aphorisms took off as a kind of homegrown philosophical method during the rise of print culture.  According to the essayist Arthur Krystal, commonplace books became DIY collections of aphorisms as people read and recorded useful or interesting phrases, recipes, facts, figures, poetry, scraps of dinner conversation, and hymns. Organized by headings, such commonplace books invited a certain kind of reading: keeping an eye open for the telling, articulate detail, they promoted skimming and extrapolating, reading for use.

As tomes themselves, though, commonplace books required an open-minded rereading, as one allowed fragments to jostle against each another, piling up in surprising ways. Francis Bacon identified this as one of the most useful of aphorism’s functions in his 1605 tract, The Advancement of Learning. One of the “errors” of learning Bacon identifies is an inability to entertain possibility, brought on by the “over early and peremptory reduction of knowledge into arts and methods.” Allowing knowledge to be dislocated and discrete—modular and not merely a piece in a predetermined puzzle—increased its potential for use. Aphorisms invited a particular kind of response—personal and idiosyncratic, but also aggregative, even revisionary. Bacon continued: “ . . . as young men, when they knit and shape perfectly, do seldom grow to a further stature; so knowledge, while it is in aphorisms and observations, it is in growth.” Lyric aphorism then might seem a strategy that connects ways of formulating—and reading—experience. But its appearance now—in the early twenty-first century—also points to a lyric tradition in contemporary American poetry undergoing a philosophical renaissance.


So far we’ve seen lyric aphorism work as a mode of representation, as in Willis and Buffam, and of thought, as in Berssenbrugge and Hejinian. Its formal requirements can unsettle expectations about what a poem might say (and who’s saying it), while its history offers another way to understand the theoretical underpinnings of recent lyric poetry. But lyric aphorism can also be a method of revolt. Irreverent, rebellious versions of it can be found in the very recent work of a number of younger poets, including Chelsey Minnis, Sommer Browning, Dorothea Lasky, and others. Lyric aphorism in this light may appear much sillier than anything we’ve looked at before. Aphorism’s formality, its omniscient tone of address, is easily twisted into mockery of its own sententiousness; lyric aphorism in these younger poets can frequently slide into its bawdy foil—the one-liner. Like a lot of writing that plays with non-canonical “forms” (the craze a few years ago for instruction poems, for example), lyric aphorism for these poets might be a mouth that joyously bites the hands that feed it—poems and poetry. But even as lyric aphorism in the work of these poets mangles poetry, the aphorisms somehow also constitute it. It’s not just that aphoristic gestures have sneaked into lyric poems, but that a kind of lyric has turned out to sound—and look—like aphorism. In the last poet I’ll look at, aphorism isn’t simply embedded within a lyric field, but is a force that redraws the field of a poem entirely.

One of the most idiosyncratic, touchy, and—as at least one book blurb joyously retorts—“indulgent and melancholy” poets to come along in a while, Chelsey Minnis is adept at long-form poems that veer crazily through emotional and typographical terrain. Her third book, Poemland (2009), is composed almost entirely from “aphorisms and observations,” its pages furnished with three-to-six untitled lines of rejoinder, complaint, assertion, and/or boast. In a way Poemland is Minnis’s take on “poetics”—a flagrantly digitized version of Materia Poetica. Like the Scottish poet Don Paterson, whose Best Thought, Worst Thought (2008) includes scathing aphorisms on poetry, Minnis uses aphorism to taunt poetry, complaining of its badness or inconsequence; but she also toys with aphorism itself, pushing past its formal boundaries and wielding it against lyric conventions of speaker, self, and incident. Nothing really happens in Poemland except the speaker’s endless fulminations. Here is page 88:

One’s happiness cannot be stated . . .
Because it is too natural . . .

And it is like a creamy bruise around the eye . . .
And steam-grown flowers . . .
And it takes you several years of hustling to achieve this effect . . .

Minnis’s previous work has also played with punctuation: her first books, Zirconia (2001) and Bad Bad (2007), included poems composed of cranky, trinket-like images strung together by long sets of ellipses. Minnis’s use of ellipses here counteracts—even mocks—the resounding closure we expect from aphorism proper. Statements trail off provocatively, forcing us to question what, exactly, we find truthful about them in the first place.

But Minnis doesn’t just take potshots at punctuation; her book skewers the aphoristic tone as well. Nothing definitively “is” in Minnis’s poetry—only “like.” Her “it is like” statements shove simile back into the tiny test tube of aphorism. Where aphorism might allege definition, Minnis only pretends to compare, using the universalizing tone as a glib gesture, a kind of middle finger to the quotidian ironies an (actual) aphorist like Cioran might attempt. Less concerned with articulating grand abstractions, Minnis uses the detritus of a messy, single woman’s apartment (“There is no need for the truth . . . / Like scythes that cut through prom gowns . . . ”) to make the big meanings she wouldn’t deign to utter otherwise.

Minnis’s aphorisms are inextricable from the poetry they redress—“poetry” provides the poems with the majority of their subject matter. But Minnis’s aphorisms function more like Bacon’s model, or even a commonplace book, than a lyric poem. They collect and respond, ironize, flaunt, declare, shuffle, and assert. Their tone trumps all—even our interest in their speaker. We ask questions of the utterance, not the person uttering it. Minnis’s “I” remains stable, though exaggerated; it also evades event, managing to give anecdote the slip. Minnis does not ask us to ponder the manifold performances of self, or the events that might engender such a performance; instead she uses aphorism to fight not voice—in the way we’ve considered it in Buffam—but its fussy sibling, tone. In Minnis, what is said is always a function of how it is said. “This is a chain between your thighs . . . ” she declares on page 19. “This is a freedom from achievement . . . / Writing a poem is like trying to do something, isn’t it? / It’s like trying to have an ungroveling feeling . . . ” Without any clear referent, the authoritative bite of this poem seems curiously toothless. This particular poem is a chain? Poetry in general is freedom? Minnis manages to both insist and not say. She is aristocratic, but also bratty. Lyric aphorism becomes a way to assert the self while apparently erasing it; it allows a way of thinking that can seem thoughtless.


I have proposed lyric aphorism as a formal technique discernible inside of certain contemporary poems. Generally embedded within a lyric poem, lyric aphorism proposes a kind of clarity that is distinct from other kinds of clarity—emotional insight, for example, or the kind of epiphany a lyric poem built around anecdote might suggest. Lyric aphorism exceeds those concerns through its formal requirements, as much as through its philosophical pedigree: its syntax seems to describe its content as Truth, and so we might accept it as such. But lyric aphorism can also seem to posit clarity while actually troubling it. In this mode, lyric aphorism achieves a slightly different effect, suddenly presenting us, in a poem that has “resisted” our attempts to assume a coherent speaker, with the effect of a single voice. Such “speaker effects” seem to me to be rooted in the nature of aphorism, where form makes coherency a given. But lyric aphorism in the work of the poets I’ve looked at also speaks to the contemporary appetite for poems that play out their inheritance to lyric traditions in multiple ways.

While lyric aphorism allows for a certain amount of “speakerlessness” through its formulaic syntax, it’s also grounded in particular experiences that often provide the very substance of that formula. By using the syntax of aphorism, poets I’ve looked at escape the pat certitudes of individual voice, the “complacent security on which the lyrical ego hoists its banner” in the words of poet and critic Jed Rasula. But by utilizing aphorism’s distinctive logic, they adroitly avoid simply spinning platitudes. The contradictory thinking that aphorism as a philosophical method proposes allows lyric poets to complicate their own propositions—both as they arise in individual poems, and those of lyric poetry itself. This kind of thinking can be wild and reorienting to poetry, as the work of Chelsey Minnis shows.

Minnis and her contemporaries might suffer from accusations of not writing “poetry”—of writing jokes, or pseudo-aphorisms, or even babble. Yet their provocations seem important, and make their poems interesting and alive as both poetry and critique (Frederick Schlegel: “Poetry can only be criticized through poetry”). In Minnis’s book, lyric aphorism becomes in some sense lyric poetry—not simply embedded within it, but constitutive of it. This is possible because aphorism functions both as form and as thought. A renewed interest in aphorism might signal a strand of poetry more interested in poetry’s ability to speak towards universal experience, remembering that poems can ignite collective emotional and intellectual recognition. Poetry can, after all, talk to the parts of us that want to feel connected to other people, less alone or fragmented in our lives and in our reading both. Lyric aphorism might inaugurate a new way to think about our selves generally, as beings who are, in the end, wonderfully—even thrillingly—non-particular.

Hannah Brooks-Motl is an MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in the New Republic, District, This Land, and on the Poetry Foundation Website. With Stephen Burt she helped edit the book Randall Jarrell on W.H. Auden (2005).