A few years ago in the AWP catalog I saw a call for submissions of aphorisms. It intrigued me, in part because I’d just come across a book by a poet I was translating that was entirely aphorisms, and had just written a review of a book that worked with aphorisms (though not exclusively) that I thought was wonderfully done. And though I didn’t submit anything, and don’t remember which journal it was (though I wish I did – would love to find and read the issue – anyone?) it stayed in the back of my mind.
Aphorisms as a poetic form raises interesting questions about poignancy, insight, length, originality and explanation. The sound-bite quality they have seem incredibly useful for a lot of different applications, and of course appealing to a short-attention-span more-is-better mentality (culturally speaking). Aphorisms are the tweets and status updates of poetic thinking.
The risk they run is balancing on that line between poignancy and cliché, between insight and grandiosity and pretension. Their success at first glance seems to hinge on the originality of the idea, rather than the language used to express it, something that tends more towards philosophy than poetry in my mind. But then aphorisms work best at the intersection between philosophy and poetry – the idea drawing from the philosophical reflection, but the lack of explanation, the insistence on absorption rather than proof draws from poetry.
And especially from poetry the invitation to expand – the concentration of an idea not the end of the author’s thought but the beginning of the reader’s.
So it’s especially interesting I think to read a collection of aphoristic lines that are primarily engaged with writing and poetry. Interesting, and risky, because every writer thinks about writing all the time, and so how much originality or insight can be achieved.
If you’re Claude Royet-Journod, the answer is quite a good deal. What follows are a collection of lines I was interested in. This may be useful to no one but me. Oh well:
“Empty” more of time than of space.
All writing is built on entropy.
This shifty death.
No manuscript shows any real state of the text in process of becoming. [And wouldn’t it be interesting to see that? Poetry as process, or the process as poetry – something that translators think about a lot.]
I write down something barely visible: there lies the menace, where something violent may be born. Bataille says the philosopher is someone who is afraid. Some books are overdressed. To write is to unveil the anatomy. The literal has to be followed through.
…And the cold.
Fear brings us together. Fear of discussing the book that I write and you read. Or again, the opposite.
Like so many reflections on writing, this is highly personal. We learn about the author through his subject, always, but there is an autobiographic impulse at work here. He writes about his process, his preferences for solidity over surrealism, how italics seem phallic to him, his fear. It’s intimate and revealing in a way that actual autobiography and even memoir can’t be. It’s revealing of detail with chronology. Without plot, which as he says, “is the tissue that separates and realigns four or five character-words” (18). And this seems much more indicative of a living mind to me – the scattered and yet linked thinking about oneself, reflecting on the very act you’re engaged in. In some ways the book is a record of the writing of the book, while insisting that it isn’t: “No manuscript shows any real state of the text in process of becoming.”
For a long time, I didn’t know my name. Despite my ignorance, the name was mine.
(Is it like that for a book title?)
Writing: to join spans of time.
Accidents are essential. They are what give form and readability.
Too much sense reduces the line to ashes.
In the hollows of language. Never in its fullness.
…Everything surges toward articulation.
Unsurprisingly, given the title of the book, he returns again and again to motion, and to silence. I’m not quite sure how, but I’m certain these things are connected. On the very first page of the book there are two single sentances, seperated by a paragraph of prose. The sentences are: “A writer’s immobility puts the world in motion.” and “silence is a form”
All this tends to be extremely awkward. I mean in the elaboration of a form. What is awkward is the heart.
I’ve been having conversations for a long time with a good friend about awkwardness in writing. In translation especially. At first I saw awkwardness only as a detraction, I used awkward as a pejorative to describe work that I didn’t like. And in the three years we’ve been talking about it, I’ve done a complete flip. Awkwardness, I’ve come to believe, has an important place in literature and in literary translation and writing. It indicates a lacking in the text, something lurking behind it that can’t be fully indicated through language. More than that, it is a place where the writer becomes most visible, especially in translation when it is the translator who is the writer first engaged with.
I like this resistance (to sense).
In the final section of the book there are an abundance of quotes attributed to Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and a handful of other philosophers. The quotations don’t just work in the mode of collage or juxtaposition; in fact there’s an interesting appropriation that seems to happen in part because the tone is so consistent between the original lines and the quoted lines. I wondered whether the quotes were legitimate, or false attributions, and then realized that the very act of wondering was far more interesting than actually finding out. The gesture is of course extendable to Royet-Journod’s text by intention: if he can take/make the words of others part of his own voice and thinking, then we readers can do so with his: “A book is not a property. Whose property is a body?” What seperation exists between the book and the body that generated it. If the author is an author by virtue of a book, and a book is not a property, than can the body belong to even itself?