Aphorisms are not poems. But the way in which they may or may not resemble poems might tell us something about poetry. The hope is they will tell us other things too.
As a poet and critic many of Don Paterson’s aphorisms in The Fall at Home tell us about poems and poets. For instance: ‘Poetry isn’t a calling, it’s a diagnosis.’ And if you don’t think that is entirely fair Paterson has stressed elsewhere that he believes the truths these words of wisdom carry have a brief shelf-life. ‘An aphorism is the result of a sudden momentary conviction.’
This is as good as a definition as I have read, although Paterson has others. There is a section at the back of this collection devoted to the aphorism itself. A book of aphorisms becomes ‘a lexicon of disappointments.’
That word conviction is important. We might talk about poetry as having conviction, or possessing its own kind of truth, but rarely as a straight-forward argument about how the world is. And it should probably not be a huge surprise that a form which is devoted to proclaiming grand truths without any discernible context has been a exclusive affair, even more so than poetry or philosophy (the aphorism arguably sits somewhere between the two). If you want to be an aphorist it helps to be male and exceptionally well-educated. Dying is also a good career move.
Dear or alive, the first thing the aphorist must do is conjure up a kind of authoritative voice. Paterson sums up the stylistic limitations this imposes in another of his own pieces:
“Despite our attempts to imbue them with some flavour, any flavour – aphorisms all turn out so… generic; they all sound as if they were delivered by the same disenfranchised, bad-tempered deity.”
Perhaps. If Paterson is frequently disenfranchised and bad-tempered, he also has his own rough brand of cynicism and seediness. Subjects addressed encompass everything from art, envy and poetry to politics, sex, music, disgust and jealousy. Moreover, the voice in The Fall at Home varies considerably, from the enigmatic ‘the reason for the pillow is that it eliminates the face’, to frank, personal disclosure. However, this variety conceals as much as it reveals. In the first place the author, like the face in the pillow, is hidden. The aphorism had been left for us to find like something carved into a rock. Elsewhere, we get what seem to be confessions. There are very few taboos:
“Fifty. The siesta; the waning of all activity requiring a libido’ the introduction of one’s prostate to the wider community…”
But despite the superficial intimacy of a line like this we do not really come away with any clearer picture of who the author is. We have been introduced to ‘one’s prostate’, the waning of ‘a’ libido, but we haven’t seen him. In the end what is in question is an age, not a person.
So, we might want to think about the aphorism as a vessel for carrying to the surface secrets which each of us as individuals might wish to keep private, but which nevertheless are important precisely because they are not unique: Paterson’s combination self-aggrandisement and self-humiliation is not a contradiction so much as the point, a kind of exposure-therapy designed to obliterate the self. One the joys of the form, if joy is the right word, is that these feelings of self-disgust or disgust at others are kept in check by its restrictions, expressed but rarely dwelled on or indulged. They can be funny too, as these ones often are. Besides poetry and philosophy, the aphorism also has something in common with the joke, not only in its brevity but also its structure:
“First day of solo living after thirty years. I meet myself in the hall coming back from the kitchen, and to my dismay I see we now have no way of avoiding each other.”
Here you see the initial set-up – a whole life conjured through a short sentence without an active verb – followed by the interjection of the absurd (‘I meet myself in the hall’) which is itself expressed so mundanely that you do not clock what has happened until the sudden resolution… (unfortunately, the other thing aphorisms have in common with jokes is that you kill them when you take them apart).
The aphorisms in The Fall at Home often gesture towards non-existence, a desire for nothingness which feeds off the same feelings of disgust and shame which drive the humour:
“Suddenly I realised I had written three books of aphorisms where none should have sufficed.”
You can see the same nihilistic streak in Paterson’s poetry; think of the final line in Rain (Faber, 2011): ‘none of this, none of this matters’. Few British poets play so finely, or so consistently, on the line between meaning and meaninglessness.
Does the aphorism matter? At one-point Paterson casts the form as the poem’s sinister but necessary, alter-ego:
“A poem is a ladder to the sky; an aphorism is just a stair to the cellar. But right now there is probably more you need in the cellar than in the sky.”
It is tempting to say something here about technology. After all, we appear to be bombarded on all sides by ‘momentary convictions’ like midges on a Scottish island. Perhaps aphorisms are good flies? The comparison is probably misguided. The problem with social media is not that tweets aren’t aphorisms (they were never meant to be), but that we are all sucked into perform a strange kind of labour with no promise of reward.
An aphorism, like a poem, should be its own reward, but also one which holds at least the promise of learning something new about ourselves and what it is we believe we want. It is a peculiar, difficult balance. Paterson is a popular poet if there ever was one, and The Fall at Home is a wicked, sly introduction to a form with a reputation for obscurity that still has a lot more to offer, and the book demands less effort from the reader than you might think. As Paterson puts it, if the aphorism is a waste of time, at least it is only a very brief one.