Keeping it short: Richardson distills wit in aphorisms
He need not have worried. "Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays," which was published in 2001 by Ausable Press, is selling well and has dovetailed nicely with his collection "How Things Are: Poems," published in 2000. In recognition of his literary achievements, Richardson is one of eight writers this year to receive an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Richardson jokes that aphorisms are the "perfect literary form for someone with a short attention span." They are direct, witty and often paradoxical. They can be great fun to write -- Richardson confesses that some of his impetus for this kind of writing is to "make cracks," and he enjoys getting laughs at readings. "Some people find poetry inaccessible," he said, "but many people tell me that they 'get my aphorisms right away,' and they find that appealing."
"Back in 1993, I was looking at Montaigne for an essay when a note sent me to the maxims of La Rochefoucauld, which I read not only with delight, but with eager disagreement," he said. "Soon, aphorisms were fizzing up in response to whatever I was reading -- which was, more and more, Antonio Porchia, Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach and the Oxford Book of Aphorisms."
Goethe, Blake, Nietzsche, Wilde and Benjamin also wrote aphorisms, using the form to refute pomposity or dogma and fuse truth, value and immediacy in one moment.
"I think of these aphorisms as much more literary than philosophical," said Richardson. "What an aphorism does is as linguistic to me as what a poem does. I approach writing aphorisms as though conducting scientific experiments with words and ideas."
This form of writing, with its equation-like rotations and distillations, seems particularly suited to someone interested in math and science. Richardson, who entered Princeton as an undergraduate in 1967, had once intended to become a physicist, but he took some poetry courses and discovered a new passion. When one English professor gave his class the option of handing in poems instead of papers, Richardson jumped at the offer and has been writing poetry ever since.
Publishing a collection of poems one year followed by a collection of aphorisms the next year enabled Richardson to explore and appreciate some of the challenges in pursuing both creative forms simultaneously. "While the subject matter is similar, an aphorism is somewhat impatient, and a poem requires patience and even meditation," he said. "I'm used to working much more obliquely with poems, and the directness required for an aphorism still sometimes feels odd."
Another discovery of Richardson's is that starting a writing day in pursuit of an aphorism often ruins that day for poetry, but starting with a poem might very well lead to an aphorism -- a segment extracted from a poem that works better on its own.
Perhaps Richardson says it best in this aphorism from "Vectors": "Truth is like the flu. I fight it off, but it changes in other bodies and returns in a form to which I am not immune."
President Tilghman's first year
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Editor: Ruth Stevens