Alvin Feinman (1929-2008) was my poetry teacher at Bennington College in the 1980s. He made a huge impression on me as a teacher, with the purity and integrity of his engagement with poetry, and I consider his poems to be among the greatest written by an American in the 20th century, rivaling the work of Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, with whom his poetry and poetics have so much in common. I collaborated with the late Deborah Dorfman, Alvin’s widow, Harold Bloom, Alvin’s close friend from their grad school days at Yale, and Alvin’s former student and colleague Vivian Heller to bring out Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman, just published by Princeton University Press. Harold Bloom wrote a preface for the book, and I wrote a biographical/critical introduction.
Alvin only published twice: his debut, Preambles, in 1964, and a reissue of that book, Poems, which contained a handful of additional poems, in 1990. When Alvin died in 2008, he left behind a small cache of documents, about 200 manuscript pages. Deborah had been transcribing and editing this manuscript for several years by the time I contacted her in the summer of 2014. The manuscript contained dozens of poetic fragments and 47 unpublished poems. Deborah and I decided to put together a complete edition of Alvin’s poetry—the text of the 1990 edition of Poems plus 39 of the unpublished poems.
Alvin’s writing demands a thoughtful approach, Elizabeth Lund wrote in her review in The Washington Post, “the speaker doesn’t just describe a moment, he tries to re-create it, as in the lovely poem “Waters,” in which he notices “Sunlight stitching the water —/ an oar silverly lifted./ And blue, and yellow, and red boats drift —/ like pleasures in a mind that needs no center.” These poems do have a strong center, which springs from the speaker’s intelligence, his measured rhythms and use of rhyme, and his sometimes detached outlook as he examines the world around him and always knows that “Something, something, the heart here/Misses.” Light is a recurring theme, and shapes the gorgeous “Stills: From a 30th Summer,” one of many poems that show why Feinman’s work deserves a broader audience.”
Here is a small, lovely poem from the book:
Song of the Dusting Woman in the Library
What is it holds the scholar to his desk
These nameless days, and through the long
Uncounted years? Is it the use of tears
He works to understand? Is it the song
He seeks that has not yet been sung?
And will he sing then when the tome
Is shut, the last word’s echo in his brain?
And will he weep then when the last
Idea is hung, when he has wrung
The name, the origin, the issue of each pain?
According to Bloom, “The best of Alvin Feinman’s poetry is as good as anything by a twentieth-century American. His work achieves the greatness of the American sublime.” Yet, in part because he published so sparsely, Alvin remained little-read and largely unknown when he died.
In researching my introduction, I found a sheet of paper with a quote from Geoffrey Moore scribbled on it in one of Alvin’s copies of Preambles. Alvin wrote “of W.S.” (perhaps William Shakespeare) at the top of the quote, which reads: “One has a sense while reading him that creation is proceeding before one’s eyes. The whole is a continuous process, not a ‘talking about’ … so that, one receives through the aesthetic sense an impression of pure potency.”
Alvin’s poems convey the same sense Moore describes of creation taking place before one’s very ears and eyes. His poems recount intense emotional, intellectual, even spiritual experiences that catalyze similar experiences in the reader. “For a poet, it is never a matter of saying it is raining,” Paul Valéry wrote. “It’s a matter of . . . making rain.” The process is the poem, and vice versa. The great challenge and reward of Alvin’s poems is that in reading them one participates in their making.
Listen to Harold Bloom read “November Sunday Morning” and “Relic”, two of Alvin’s greatest poems.
It may be that everyone already knows how good the aphorisms of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916) are. But I just got acquainted with her work through the book Aphorisms (Ariadne Press, 1994), translated by David Scrase and Wolfgang Mieder. Ebner-Eschenbach’s aphorisms (Geary’s Guide, pp. 116-118) are terse and tart, but not acerbic. She touches on numerous themes, many dealing with human psychology and relationships, many related to men versus women. By the standards of her times, she could certainly be classed a feminist: “When a woman says ‘each’ she means each person. When a man says ‘each’ he means each man.”
Many of the great themes are tackled in her aphorisms, truth, beauty, love, religion, morals, class, society, governance, duty, etc. Because she was also a writer of poems, plays and fiction, many of aphorisms are related to the arts or being an artist: “As an artist, you should not wish to create what you don’t feel you have to create.” And she has some aphorisms that relate to our current election season: “In order to fill a public office brilliantly one needs a certain number of good qualities, but bad ones too.”
I have a method for keeping track of important passages in the books I’m reading. I put a little tick mark in the margin near the passage, then I record the page number on an index card (which doubles as my bookmark). As long as the index card stays in the book, I can go back and revisit key passages. Turns out that when reading this book I had put tick marks on practically every page, often marking several aphorisms per page that I wanted to note and revisit at some point. Here’s a sampling from her 582 aphorisms:
We generally learn how to wait when there is nothing more to wait for.
Beware of those virtues which people praise in themselves.
There are more truths in a good book than the author even intended.
Fools usually know best what the wise doubt they can ever learn.
People for whom we are a source of strength give us our support in life.
The believer who has never doubted will hardly convert the skeptic.
You can sink so fast that you think you’re flying.
It is a characteristic of the great that they demand far less of other people than of themselves.
The old saw “It’s always hard to begin” only applies to skills. In art nothing is harder than to end, which means at the same time to perfect.
You’d like to know what your acquaintances say about you? Listen to what they say about people more worthy than you.
Fighting for something is better than begging for it.
A gradual retreat is often worse than a sudden fall.
The scale we measure things by is the measure of our own mind.
Think about what has to be accomplished; forget what you have already accomplished.
I regret nothing, says arrogance; I will regret nothing, says inexperience.
We always have to keep learning, at the very end we even have to learn to die.
Ljupka Cvetanova, about whom I blogged back in 2012, sends news of a new book of aphorisms written by 20 female aphorists from the Balkans. Women from every country of the former Yugoslavia are included: Slovenia, Croatia, Republica Srpska, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Serbia, and Macedonia. One of the aphorists, Dragana Pasic, is also a cartoonist, and she drew caricatures of all the authors for the cover.
Aleksandar Cotric (Geary’s Guide, p. 30, as well as here and here), a male aphorist from the Balkans, wrote the blurb on the back of the book. With thanks to Ljupka, here’s an aphorism from each of the 20 contributors, translated into English. With this book, the great aphoristic tradition of the Balkans, with its sharp satire and dark wit, just got a lot greater.
Whenever I swallow my pride, I get a stomachache. —Dragana Pasic (Republica Srpska)
I have to see an optician. I can’t see the bright side of anything. —Lence Stoimenova (Macedonia)
He who works, makes mistakes. My boss is infallible. —Biljana Kitic Cakar (Republica Srpska)
A blink of an eye is what separates you from reality. —Ljupka Cvetanova (Macedonia)
I don’t take my enemies by surprise. I count on them. —Sandra Petkovic (Serbia)
TV series are a serial killer of time. —Marina Raicevic (Serbia)
One becomes human by birth and inhuman by conviction. —Nada Karadic (Serbia)
Silence is gold no one pays for. —Divna Bjelic (Serbia)
You only live once. Life is expensive. —Natasa Curciska (Macedonia)
Beware of false friends and sincere enemies. —Maja David (Slovenia)
Some people eat out of dishes. Others eat out of boredom. —Zora Cabrilo (Bosna and Hercegovina)
The watch is a thief. Whenever I’m not looking, it steals a couple of minutes. —Sladzana Klacar (Bosna and Hercegovina)
An aphorism is hard for a woman. It shortens her tongue. —Jasmina Cekic (Serbia)
A verbal conflict is born out of excess of words and shortage of brains. —Mirjana Dzapo (Bosnia and Hercegovina)
Life used to write novels; now it can hardly tell a joke. —Gordana Vranjanin (Croatia)
Our country (Serbia) can only be moved on slippery ground. —Deana Sailovic (Serbia)
Not all chances are to be taken. Some should be dropped. —Danica Miletic (Austria)
If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes an official political statement. —Jelena Vukelic (Serbia)
I don’t care about other people’s opinions. I can hardly come up with my own. —Sladzana Kosic (Serbia)
Don’t ask how much a life is worth. Death doesn’t take bribes. —Branka Milicevic (Serbia)
A couple weeks ago, browsing in my local library, I picked up a copy of Mark Twain Laughing (University of Tennessee Press, 1985), edited by P.M. Zall. As one would guess by the title, the book quotes many amusing stories, anecdotes, maxims, and jokes from the writings, letters and lectures of the inimitable American wit and raconteur. Last year the University of California Press published the third and final volume of the Autobiography of Mark Twain.
Where I live in Hartford, Connecticut, we have the Mark Twain House & Museum, so sometimes I feel overly familiar with ‘Twainiana’. Still, it’s always good to get reacquainted with an author you think you know well. Inevitably there are some surprises. Most of the following aphorisms quoted in the book were selected from earlier titles: Mark Twain’s Notebook (1935), edited by Albert Bigelow Paine; Following the Equator (1897); and Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar for 1894.
It is often the case that a man who can’t tell a lie thinks he is the best judge of one. 
These wisdoms are not for the luring of youth toward high moral altitudes. The author did not gather them from practice, but from observations. To be good is noble; but to show others how to be good is nobler and no trouble. 
Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it. 
It is easier to stay out than get out. 
There are several good protections against temptation, but the surest is cowardice. 
Prosperity is the best protector of principle. 
Grief can take care of itself; but to get full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with. 
There are no people who are quite so vulgar as the over-refined ones. 
Every one is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody. 
The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice. 
The proper office of a friend is to side with you when you are in the wrong. Nearly anybody will side with you when you are in the right. 
Have a place for everything and keep the thing somewhere else. This is not advice, it is merely custom. 
All gods are better than their conduct. 
The human race consists of the dangerously insane and such as are not. 
Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired. 
Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority, it is time to reform—(or pause and reflect). 
Let us adopt geological time, then time being money–there will be no more poverty. 
It’s wonderful to stumble upon an unknown aphorist. Doubly good when it turns out to be a woman. Because it seems there are fewer female aphorists. It was by chance I happened upon the writings of Elia Peattie (1862-1935). It happened because I saw a quote I liked by the man of letters Charles Eliot Norton regarding poetry. The quote appeared in the introduction written by Elia Peattie to a poetry anthology she edited called Poems You Ought to Know. This, of course, prompted me to Web-search Peattie’s name. I didn’t expect to find much, but there was an entire website devoted to this journalist, poet, playwright, anthologist, essayist, and author. Her writings are marked by many insightful statements. A large number of her assertions have been collected on the website under the heading “Quotables.” Here are some samples:
There is never any use in trying to conceal the truth. Truth is like water and flows through the tiniest cracks.
Carry no umbrellas. Umbrellas are an illusion and a distinct snare to the traveler. They torment the spirit more than a scolding husband, get lost oftener than a baby, and are always where they should not be and never where they should.
Love is, of course, an illusion—all the really important things are.
Really it is quite a distinction to be in the minority. Because the minority is the advance of progress. It forms the majority in the next generation.
All really interesting occasions of a social nature are more or less associated with good coffee.
The American Aristocracy is, in the very nature of things, ephemeral.
There is a mistake in supposing that women wish to acquire the independence of the other sex. It is merely independence they wish to acquire—and independence is not a matter of sex.
The time of men is not so important as they think it is.
If there is one offense greater than another in literature, it is a book which explains a book.
I wrote about Jim Finnegan’s aphorisms in May of last year, and for many years Jim has been a reliable and perspicacious source of new aphorists for this site. He started his blog, ursprache, 10 years ago on the assumption that, “Maybe if I just write short things related to poetry and art, I can keep up a blog.” Pretty soon Jim started punctuating his own aphoristic ars poetica with quotes he’d collected, so that the blog also became a commonplace book. When Jim is moved to assert something outside of poetics, he posts to Tramp Freighter. Wherever his thinking appears—on ursprache, Tramp Freighter or his own aphorisms—Jim’s thoughts are well worth hearing. Check them out.
Patrick Hunt is a man of many parts: archaeologist, writer, composer, poet, art historian, aphorist; I have even seen him play the recorder with his nostrils. I wrote about his sayings back in 2008, Aphorisms by Patrick Hunt, and then again in 2014, More Aphorisms by Patrick Hunt. His collected poems 2009-2014, Landscapes Antique and Imagined, is published by Corinthian Press. He has a new play coming out, an imagined philosophical dialogue between Pascal and Voltaire at Café Procope in Paris, from which these new aphorisms come…
In order to become fully human we must die.
A butterfly appreciates flight because it began as a caterpillar.
We may see best in light but we hear best in darkness.
To find a happy person look for humility and gratitude.
Rain happens when clouds take off their clothes.
Genius is impossible without unfettered imagination.
In medieval courts, clever jesters fooled everyone into thinking they were crazy when telling terrible truths.
Beston Jack Abrams turns 89 today. As he approaches his tenth decade, I honor and celebrate the “ancient aphorist,” as Jack refers to himself, with what I consider his top 10 aphorisms, excerpted from Abramisms: Lives of the Ancient Aphorist, Volumes I and II and the steady stream of new sayings it is my privilege to receive from Jack. For more Abramisms, see my posts from 2007, 2011, 2012, and 2014. Happy birthday, Jack!
#10. At this point I am less concerned about the future simply because there is less of it; and as for death, as with any adversary, fear is reduced as proximity increases.
#9. If we don’t accept reality today, it will not disappear but will return tomorrow as myth and legend.
#8. The ear is a better communicator than the tongue.
#7. Grace is to win without bragging; lose without excuse; live without complaint and share without regret.
#6. Contentment wears slippers; curiosity wears boots.
#5. Complete arrogance is the result of incomplete data.
#4. To be a success first show up, pay attention and then show up again.
#3. Nothing causes greater adherence to an opinion than opposition to it.
#2. A well conceived conclusion may also be an introduction.
#1. The first impression reveals as much about the observer as the observed.
“Editors Lough and Stein prove that good things come in small packages with this collection of modern aphorisms — short but sweet nuggets of wisdom, humor, insight, and clever turn of phrase.” Thus begins the Publishers Weekly review of Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit, to be published November 1. The book includes aphorisms by former poet laureate Charles Simic and 2010 National Book Award finalist James Richardson as well as writers including David Shields, Stephen Dobyns, Ashleigh Brilliant, H.L. Hix, Charles Bernstein, Alfred Corn and me, among others.
“The 32 contributors (many of them poets),” the PW review continues, “introduce their work with prefaces, often confiding what the aphorisms mean to them. Their efforts delve into philosophy, self-reflection, and witty observation, often with what Lough, in his introduction, calls a twist (as in Oscar Wilde’s “I can resist anything except temptation”). Whether offering social criticism (such as Steven Carter’s gently barbed “Much can be tolerated by condemning it”), fine advice (as in James Guida’s “Bosses, like cats, should have to wear little bells to warn of their approach”), or keen definitions (“Panic is worry on a tight schedule,” according George Murray), each writer presents a worldview in bite-sized, memorable bon mots. Admittedly, another old saw — “A little goes a long way” — is also applicable, and the book is probably best dipped into at intervals. Not every writer will be to every reader’s taste, but there is sure to be something for everyone in this proverbial box of chocolates.”
Here is a selection of what Short Flights contains…
Eternity is the insomnia of Time. —Charles Simic
Success repeats itself until it is failure. —James Richardson
I tend to choose narcissists as my friends; that way I don’t worry that they’re talking about me behind my back. —Sara Levine
I can name everything I have given up, nothing I have not. —H. L. Hix
The best remedy for worry is disaster. —Steven Carter
Knowledge is what happens when you rob suspicion of doubt. —George Murray
Astrology is the one religion with practically no believers and countless followers. —Irena Karafilly
In the beginning there was nothing, in the end there was Wal Mart. —Hart Pomerantz
The first kiss in the world was a bite. —Lily Ackerman
I love originality so much I keep copying it. —Charles Bernstein
It’s solitude if you like it. Loneliness if you don’t. —Eric Nelson
If you don’t have anything nice to say, post a comment. —Ann Lauinger
To see clearly, one must very often squint. —James Geary
Gertrude Stein once dismissed Ezra Pound as the ‘village explainer’. In his aphoristic writings, Georges Perros (1923-1978) at times comes off as the ‘village complainer’. Though born in the literary hothouse of Paris, by his mid-thirties Perros settled in a quiet town on the coast of Brittany. There he wrote his aphorisms and lived apart from the writerly crowd.
Not unlike the dour and acerbic Cioran, Perros’ aphorisms languorously lash out at the absurdities of human life, expose personal weakness, and interrogate the nature of love: “Any woman putting me into an erotic state makes me want to make love with another woman.” Like a boxer working out in front of a mirror often he is the target of his own jabs: “The less I lie, the more I blush.” The wit and humor of many of these pensées relieves some the darkness of those other pieces, which seem to be drafts for a suicide note: “Suicide doesn’t mean wanting to die but, rather, wanting to disappear,” and “I see only absences.” Perhaps a prelude to the last section of this book, which is a series of journal entries written as Perros fell into severe cancer treatments, and which he seemed to take on with heroic stoicism: “I dwell inside my shadow.”
Here’s a Perros selection, from Paper Collage (Seagull Books, 2015), translated from the French by John Taylor. (For even more Perros, see the Fall 2010 issue of FragLit Magazine, edited by Olivia Dresher, an accomplished aphorist herself, where John Taylor published an extensive group of Perros aphorisms.
Memory is like the mantel of a fireplace. Covered with curios that one must be careful not to break but that one can no longer see.
Man is the only … thing of this world that raises its eyes to the sky as if it were asking a question.
How to make the other person stupid without his noticing? Love him.
Having nothing to hide except that you’ve nothing to hide.
I’m sure that God exists. As for believing in Him, that’s another matter.
As soon as man feels eternity, the moment falls off the hook.
It takes the stupid a long time to understand; and the intelligent, not to understand.
Man, a sum of subtractions.
Sitting next to me in the café was a gentleman laughing while reading The Financial Times.
Curiosity, the bee of ignorance.
When my dog sees me completely naked, it doesn’t recognize me.
I never heard a fisherman say he loves the sea.
He said softly what he thought out loud.
He was more intelligent than his own average.
Human beings are old babies.
You need character only two or three times during your lifetime.
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