It’s Suddenly Understandable: On Aphorism, Lyric, and Experiment

By Stephanie BurtJuly 27, 2016

It’s Suddenly Understandable: On Aphorism, Lyric, and Experiment

Candor Is the Brightest Shield by Andrew Maxwell
Erratic Facts by Kay Ryan

WE LIVE IN a fine time for aphorists: think about Twitter, or about all the ways in which language “goes viral.” Think of James Richardson, who had been publishing verse for decades before he found, in aphorisms, his métier: “Once it’s gone, how easy to say it was mine.” Aphorisms and their allied forms — apothegms, proverbs, quips, short bits of wisdom (the Tolstoy scholar Gary Saul Morson wrote a good book distinguishing all these subtypes) — attempt to address many people’s experience at once. They can make clear their origins in one author’s sense of the world — no one would mistake a maxim of La Rochefoucauld’s for a Blakean Proverb of Hell — but they can’t just reflect one scene, one moment, or one incident: “I,” “me,” and “mine” are anathema to aphorism, though “we” and “you” (the plural you) will do. They must be abstract, not concrete: extended metaphor and allegory are fine, but not description for description’s sake. And aphorisms — so claims the journalist James Geary, who wrote two books about them — “demand a response: either the recognition of a shared insight […] or a rejection and retort.” They look finished, but they also stimulate conversation, even if they also get the last word.

Those rules at least appear to make aphorisms the opposite of lyric poems, which work to manifest one inner life, as unique as the language that embodies it. Aphorisms are small and hard, like insects, and often they sting; lyric poems are (or at least are allowed to be) soft, sources of light and warmth. In our time (though not in all times) lyric poetry can open up for extended description, and it solicits recognition, respect, rehearing, even appreciative silence, rather than direct response.

In practice, of course, the personal lyric and the would-be universal aphorism merge all the time: the former incorporates the latter, from Catullus to Langston Hughes or Wallace Stevens (“Thought is false happiness”). Philip Larkin even wrote a poem about their relationship — he called it “Continuing to Live”: Why live? Why write?

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

Why write lyric poems, if all life has taught you “applies” only to yourself? Lyric poetry (Larkin implies) wants to be aphorism, and vice versa — it demands that impossible thing, a representative uniqueness, a way to embody the self that nonetheless speaks to somebody else. It sounds impossible, and yet poets do it all the time.

They do not always tell us they are doing it; usually they put aphorism inside lyric, the general inside the personal. Kay Ryan, however, does it the other way around. Very few Kay Ryan poems hold a capital “I”; all of them, though, make clear that it’s Ryan who wrote them — it’s easy to recognize her tone, and easier still to notice the wry, disillusioned perseverance with which her phrases guide us through a world in which (to quote a favorite earlier poem) “[s]nails / make mucus. / Even the / most precious / barriers / to lettuce / are useless.”

As Ryan gets older she finds new ways to sublimate the personal into the abstract or allegorical: her new book, Erratic Facts, addresses (so interviews reveal) the death of her partner, and Ryan being Ryan, she finds ways to generalize grief. Here is the first poem in that book, called “New Rooms”:

The mind must
set itself up
wherever it goes
and it would be
most convenient
to impose its
old rooms — just
tack them up
like an interior
tent. Oh but
the new holes
aren’t where
the windows

Ryan responds to another famous aphorist, Milton’s Satan, who thought (for a while) that the mind was its own place, and could turn any hell into heaven: nope. Instead, the mind — your mind, Ryan’s mind, any mind — is like an awkward guest, pitching a tent that approximates a tomb. You can get in, but you can’t see out, nor can you see other people from inside. You might — to quote another poem — be less like a camper than you are like the gold-loving dragon of Northern myth for whom “any loss is / total,” since

The circle
of himself
in the nest
of his gold
has been
broken. No
loss is token.

So the two-body problem — how can aphorism also be lyric? — though oxymoronic in theory, certainly has solutions, whether in Ryan’s or in more usual (less pointed) ways. It also seems easy (if you have seen a master do it) to collect extant solutions: aphorisms, epigrams, apothegms, and lyric poems all invite us to gather them up and arrange them, in single-author books and anthologies. In such collections we’ll know where one aphorism, one poem, one book ends and the next begins, whether we are reading Walter Benjamin’s One-way Street, or Erratic Facts, or the New and Selected Poems of that too–little known miniaturist Samuel Menashe, though only some of Menashe’s poems were aphoristic (others were more like magic spells; even so, each could stand on its own).

But what if we have a three-body problem? What if a poet wants at once to write aphoristically, or apothegmatically, and to write lyric (personal, inward, emotional), and to write as part of a post-avant-garde? What if a poet owes something to G. C. Lichtenberg, and something to Emily Dickinson, but something else to Duchamp’s snow shovel hung from a wall? That poet might be the mysterious Andrew Maxwell, author of “many small booklets” privately circulated under the imprint “PRB […] for Poetic Research Bloc, later Bureau, or ‘Personal Resource Booklet,’” between 1999 and 2013. Five of these booklets have now been collected, or redacted, or assimilated, into Candor Is the Brightest Shield, published in 2015 by the redoubtable Ugly Duckling Presse. It’s one of my favorite books of the previous year, not so much for the questions it answers about aphorism and meaning and poetic form as for the questions it declares unanswerable.

As Maxwell explains in his afterword, he has “tried consistently to abandon poems and other objets d’art […] in pursuit of remarks and propositions, and portability of phrase”; he has, he adds, “been uncomfortable with the book […] I prefer the unfinished argument.” And no wonder: Even more than other post-avant poets who favor pointed or numinous generalities — from Michael Palmer to Juliana Spahr to Tan Lin — Maxwell takes the single phrase or sentence as his unit, and he uses each one of those sentences to say something about the big world, something not limited by an “I” or a “me,” open to an unlimited “we,” and almost teasingly solicitous of our response.

Moreover, you can rarely be sure what he says. Maxwell’s characteristic aphorisms at once tell, and show, how important, how delightful, it is never to be quite understood — for example: “To fail gracefully in a non-composited environment // Against the genius of the plants, the ruth of tears, or this approbation of literature.” His devotion to play, his insistence on gentle mockery, extends all the way to the metaphors that he chooses when trying to describe his own work: “We’re not done yet / with these technical snowflakes.” I’m only now done quoting his first page.

Maxwell duplicates the experience of jumping from proposition to proposition, measuring it against your own thoughts, and saying sometimes “Yes!” and sometimes “What?” You might also say, as he says, “[P]eople aren’t people any more / but swell to fit the fruit of an argument”; he reminds himself what his form, and our language, leave out. Some of the fruits of his arguments look familiar — for example, je ne regrette rien, as it might be restated by a malfunctioning AI: “Let’s forget how we lived, for / we lived as we do. This gay clover // and I won’t close the quote. // The scraps are ours.” (That’s “clover” as in a delicious pasture, or good fortune.) Sometimes they are not arguments so much as attempts, like Larkin’s, to show us how helpless Maxwell feels, how stuck in his own uniqueness, and how much he wants nonetheless to generalize, to say something that will also apply to you, and you, and you, and you. A numbered sequence called “Subject to Invention” describes its own components, accurately, as:

  1. The man of feeling amongst familiars

  1. Hunger and randomization

  1. Down-in-the-mouth lyric and promissory assertions
    hustling out the bric-a-brac of minor threats
    and the ecstatic fragment

  1. The ecstatic fragment

  1. A mature poetry, or flotation device

(Mature poetry could be a flotation device; consider “The Castaway.”)

A clever resistance to semantic function, an insistence that we just don’t know, that words can turn opaque, pops up every few lines and yet never takes over a reader’s experience: that’s what you get when you try to merge aphorism (general truth) and lyric (personal truth) and Maxwell’s particular line of the North American and European avant-garde (what is truth?). It haunts, it teases, it invites me to return. By the end of the first chapbook, “Quotation or Paternity,” Maxwell has asked whether lyric identification is also escapism: “Trying to identify, it means / Trying to be mistaken / About something else.” Poetic language is, perhaps, the record of a mistake: in somebody else’s terms, we misrecognize ourselves.

Within Candor, the single aphorism or stanza or monostich all get turned inside-out, rendered partial, as do the connections between them: there are the discrete chapbooks, stanzas and lines within them, pages, numbered series. A bevy of numbered sentences, with the collective title “Life X,” claims to apply to any life, to give “models for living,” except that the models cannot be followed. Like life itself, they can shock us, or disappoint us, or reveal the power of impersonal institutions, or jump away just as they are understood. “That children are fixable is a first principle we rehearse with a nervous hand on a saltwater slate.” The slate might have come from a tale by Ben Marcus, for whom, also, “[c]rying is born of revival.” And then, suddenly, Maxwell wants to know what we talk about when we talk about love:

19. It’s suddenly understandable to talk about love as being parental, even as I love you tentatively, deliberately, constructively.

20. But we’ll be lost without these ambiguities, the slapstick warmth, the muddled cries, the abiding nourishment.

21. One doesn’t seek explanation at the teat.


24. Living as we do, how can we afford not to?

If adult romance replicates the nuclear family, are both of them a trap? Should we seek in our own lives the weirdly incestuous vibe we might get from an older, or long-married, couple? Is it okay to pursue goals we cannot articulate? Are all those questions implicit in Maxwell’s phrases, or have I been overreading, trying inappropriately to pin this advanced author down?

More than earlier aphorists, Maxwell disagrees with himself. He can be shockingly grim, like Karl Kraus: part 40 in “Life X” reads “Hope is not a youth movement, but buries its young in the tide.” (Don’t tell the Bernie Bros.) Part 41, however, asks us to persevere: “Poetry is a commitment to food access.” Maxwell asks us to process and reprocess his sentences until we know whether any seem true. And because he’s so witty so often, and so close to prose sense, that scrutiny does not simply (as the 1980s cliché had it) reveal the reader’s role in the production of meaning; it helps us think more clearly, about thought itself, about romantic love, and parenthood, and political commitment, and divisions within the American left.

“Cartoon or no, philosophy is refusal. Should any small thing merit its place? Inchworm, inchworm, grow, grow, grow!” exhorts part 47 of “Life X.” Maxwell proceeds by inches (parents often must). Progress toward peace in Israel/Palestine, on the other hand, proceeds not at all: that part of the world comes up in one of the first places where Maxwell uses proper nouns, and here “[a]ny story of progress that avers that something is done is a pillow talk of ad men and featherweight conquerors.” Would it would otherwise. (In a book so abstract, it’s good to see that the poet also reads the news. Even that news.)

Then he gets back to thoughts on the shape of thought: “Words being so short, it’s preposterous that they leverage anything.” “Life is the italic against the prior art.” “Prior art” means not only literary history but also, in patent law, the repertoire of already existing inventions. If something is prior art it’s not original. But if something is original enough to seem foreign (like words that we put in italics), it may baffle us, like a glowing umbrella:

We make an umbrella of the light.

Raise the umbrella.
Lower the umbrella.

The more public Maxwell’s ambit becomes, the more frustrated he sounds — sometimes he sounds frustrated at the wish (common in Brooklyn, common in the post-avant-garde these days) to make a big difference, to document injustice, by writing obtrusively strange and challenging poems: “Journalism is a poor substitute for delight,” he says, in a poem about Émile Zola’s muckraking novel Germinal. (Is experimental literary writing a poor substitute for journalism?)

Maxwell on parenthood, on the other hand, is almost sweet. A child “fails to describe the world in the canonical way, and we want that.” Parenthood entices, and then disproves, misleading generalities about who a person (your son, for example) “is” and always will be: “Your son is always this son. Will this work in the long view?” How melancholy it is to love a child and know he, she, they could seem very different soon. And that’s just an example: the distinctive pleasure in reading Candor lies in the way you (or I) can sometimes unpack Maxwell’s compressed quips to discover such clear commentary on human life, and yet sometimes we can’t. He even tells us that we can’t know which puzzles are susceptible to solution: “[T]he discrete animal unmakes the line. Fictions speciate too.”

Such phrases are almost right, almost clear, almost wise; and yet they are also alienated, almost science-fictional in their affect — they don’t fit any neat conception of wisdom, nor of lyric, nor of the kind of decoding that makes La Rochefoucauld, or Kraus, or Richardson, or Ryan, sound (each in their own way) like they have figured things out. Yet we keep trying:

Unthinkability is a trojan horse.

One cannot put off saying anything
that will distinguish me from the rest.

(Notice the juggling here with “one” and “me” and perhaps with the French general pronoun on.) This way of writing, at once emphatic and tentative, becomes Maxwell’s signature, almost as wry quips amid irregular rhyme become Ryan’s. He is concerned to distinguish “[t]he threat of knowing nothing” from “uncertainty, / which is the presence of alternatives”: his sentences and stanzas acknowledge the former in order to find their way to the latter, so that he is “not at a loss / knowing sorrow too is axiomatic.”

Candor Is the Brightest Shield is a book of aphorisms that try to be lyric, that also try to be avant-garde, to resist the very sense they make, and it’s a delight; it’s a book about parenthood and political frustration and adulthood and reading and Brooklyn and giving up on trying to stay au courant in the arts and not knowing what makes a poem. But it’s also a book about uncertainty, about what John Ashbery called “this not being sure.” Toward the end of “Life X” Maxwell sets himself apart from the paternal, or patriarchal, writers who claimed to know what’s what, and what makes an individual:

Updike summarized that part acutely:
Each witness is individual. And he
was the perfect Stevens abstraction —
a white man from model Pennsylvania.

This poem would drive him like a nail
into Palestine. It’s hard to reason apart
for a somehow more compatible fiction,
or something selfish that will affiliate.

It’s hard not to think of these failed states.

If Maxwell believes in anything consistently it might be a search for new kinds of origin, a hope — not revolutionary (whatever that means) so much as Arendtian — to give other people (children included) the space to begin again: “Never begrudge a small project. […] Consider it like a child, fighting to begin.” Is this a poetry of protest? Of resignation? Of irony? Of what? It’s hard for me not to keep quoting it, especially since each sentence or stanza works hard to complicate the last; it’s hard for me not to keep asking what it means, what it might be asking me to do, which shows how hard it is to get answers, but how much this poetry asks me to try.

It could not ask if it seemed to have all the answers. We can never be certain how much of our experience resembles other people’s, just as we can’t know if they see our “blue” (yes, Maxwell has read Wittgenstein: I wonder if he has also read Aaron Kunin). Nor can we know how much of what we believe will fall apart on us next year. To these two truths, the three-way collision that generates Maxwell’s technique seems uniquely appropriate — and he walks away from that collision with good humor too. His poems understand how tough understanding yourself, or understanding anyone else, or predicting their behavior, or putting reflection into words can be, and then forgive us for doing it anyway: after all, “mercy is crowded,” and “[t]o be liberal in love we put a bridle on / a phantom, and judge it literature enough.” I for one can’t get enough — and I’ve only quoted from the first three chapbooks in this five-part book: in Maxwell’s own spirit of unfinished open-endedness, I leave the other two, undescribed, for you.


Stephanie Burt is professor of English at Harvard.

LARB Contributor

Stephanie Burt is professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, among them After Callimachus; Advice from the Lights, an NEA Big Read selection; and Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems. She lives in Belmont, Massachusetts, with her partner, two kids, too many X-Men comics, and two astonishing cats.


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