Keeping it short: Richardson distills wit in aphorisms

Karin Dienst


James Richardson

Princeton NJ -- In a world flooded with marketing slogans, sound bytes and self-help lists, Professor of English and Creative Writing James Richardson admits to having had moments of concern about how his own book of one-liners -- a collection of 500 aphorisms -- would be received. He even wondered whether bookstores would shelve the volume with poetry, philosophy or humor.

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."


Excepts below are from "Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays" by James Richardson (Ausable Press, 2001)

The road reaches every place, the short cut only one.

Despair says, "I cannot lift that weight." Happiness says, "I do not have to."

Pessimists live in fear of their hope, optimists in fear of their fear.

You've never said anything as stupid as what people thought you said.

All stones are broken stones.

It's easy to renounce the world till you see who picks up what you renounced.

Value yourself according to the burdens you carry, and you will find everything a burden.

Easier to keep changing your life than to live it.

If you keep your mouth shut, no one can swing you around by the tongue.

Water deepens where it has to wait.

I am saving good deeds to buy a great sin.

There are silences harder to take back than words.

The best way to know your faults is to notice which ones you accuse others of.

Of all the ways to avoid living, perfect discipline is the most admired.

Our lives get complicated because complexity is so much simpler than simplicity.

Who breaks the thread, the one who pulls, the one who holds on?


Aphorisms may be brief, but they are never lightweight. Distilling insight and wit into the smallest possible expression is a challenge that has inspired numerous writers over the centuries. It was French author François La Rochefoucauld, writing aphorisms in the 17th century about vanity and other human failings, who turned Richardson on to the form.

"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."

May 20, 2002
Vol. 92, No. 27
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