George Murray has published five books of poetry including The Hunter (McClelland & Stewart, 2003) and The Rush to Here (Nightwood, 2007). He has been widely anthologized and has published poems and fiction in journals and magazines here and abroad. A former poetry editor for the Literary Review of Canada, he regularly reviews poetry for newspapers such as the Globe and Mail. He has won or been shortlisted for several awards, and has been on the part time faculty at New School University and Humber College. Murray lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland and is the editor of the popular literary website Bookninja.com. You can keep tabs on him at his website.
Murray tackles the aphorism in his forthcoming collection Glimpse, due out Fall 2010 from ECW Press. Thirteen of these aphorisms appear in the Spring 2010 issue of Maisonneuve.
Stephen Rowe lives in Gander, Newfoundland. His first book of poems, Never More There, was released by Nightwood Editions last October. Visit his website Below the Spruce.
Stephen Rowe What first drew you to the aphorism?
George Murray: After the release of The Rush to Here, a number of critics and colleagues pointed out the closing couplets of those sonnets often had an epigrammatic or aphoristic feel to them, neatly summing up the preceding arguments in their own little nugget of poetry.
Then I was invited to give a talk and reading at Princeton, and was paired with the American poet and aphorist James Richardson. Richardson pointed out the very same thing and urged me to look through my journals for missed aphorisms. Sure enough, there were hundreds and hundreds. These were little ideas or turns of phrase that either hadn't found their way into poems or had such a sense of completeness about them that I never thought to use them as building blocks for longer poems. They'd never fit my vision of the lyrical poem as a crafted creature of multi-lined, enjambed elegance.
I had known a bit about the aphorisms of various philosophers and politicians and wags (Nietzsche, Churchill, Oscar Wilde) but not too much about those within the contemporary poetry world (Don Paterson being one of the few exceptions). I found aphorisms quite compelling as individual poetic statements, and more so in combination. They were each a perfect unit, efficient and crystalline in their brevity, but there was also a collective gravity each loaned the next and borrowed from the last—a sort sub-narrative of condition and harmony that was intoxicating. After harvesting about 1000 of them from my journals, I began paring back and ended up with several hundred. Over the next few years I kept adding to that number until I came up with what I think is a representative collection.
SR: You mentioned that many of these aphorisms were “harvested” from other poems or notes you’ve jotted down over the years, while others were written later once the collection as a whole began to take shape. It’s one thing to find jewels of image and phrase among the deeper context of a fully developed poem, but how exactly does one go about writing aphorisms from scratch? Do you consider aphorisms possible springboards to larger poems or is the reverse true: that they come from a paring down of larger pieces?
GM: Well, I suppose there are many ways to concoct an aphorism, the most common of which for me was the "epiphany". Many of the aphorisms in Glimpse sprang fully formed into my head in reaction to something I'd seen or read or pondered. A couple stabs at the idea and there it was. Some of them came out fully formed as witticisms in speech as I spoke with friends or colleagues. I may have tinkered with the phrasing afterward, but generally the piece appeared in the spirit of the moment, as close to the original impulse as possible. Others just appeared in my notes as a thought that I presumably had one night and forgot about the next day. A third way was in looking at a failed poem with a compelling idea and distilling it.
I suppose these aphorisms could be a spring board to longer poems, but so far not for me. I hope some of them are for others who might find an idea or phrase compelling enough to run with and develop into something longer that takes it in new directions.
SR: Can you comment on which elements of poetic craft came to the fore during the writing of this book? Or, in other words, do you employ a particular prosody when writing aphorisms?
GM: I don't consciously employ any traditional prosodic framework. My goal is really economy and placement of language for best effect, which is what most poetry should be, but often isn't. I like the latte or cappuccino of a wandering, unhurried poem as much as the next guy, but what I wanted these aphorisms to be was the literary equivalent of a short espresso—high pressure thought forced through finely ground language. All the kick in a fraction of the cup space.
My general rule of thumb was to take what came out and see whether there was a more economical way of expressing it, and if there was, go there. Here and there, I let elements of chattiness and/or wandering creep in, as was necessary to the drama or comedy of the individual piece, but mostly what I tried to do was compress.
Along the way there were a few that resisted this compression, and I clung to them as long as I could, but they mostly fell by the wayside. James Richardson's aphorisms are often accompanied by what he calls "Ten Second Essays", which are his expanded version of aphorisms, but in the end I decided against that route, at least for my own sanity. Once I start allowing these things to grow, they get wild and want to be longer poems. I guess they're like bonsai trees, compared to my usual backyard bushes. I'm mixing metaphors now. See what happens when I go on?
SR: I found as I read through these that I began relating the ideas to my own experience, partly as a way of personally validating the ideas expressed, but also to broaden my own understanding of them. There’s an element of experiential learning here, of life education.
GM: It's funny, the aphorisms of others that I've read almost never lead me to write my own, but do sometimes lead me to write longer poems. In that way, what's a complete thought for someone else is really a jumping off point for me. I didn't intend for these to be teaching tools of any sort, but whatever they do on their own, now that they're done, is up to you and them.
SR: Some of these poems express a philosophical approach to life and its mysteries, but there’s also a strong spiritual sense present here. Do you see these as mutually exclusive elements or do they complement each other?
GM: It all runs together for me, as someone who was raised religious but grew up skeptical. I don't really see any of it as mysterious or not, when it comes down to it. It's all made up: religion, science, philosophy, math. It's all based on a set of axioms that if true yield your worldview. "Spiritual", for me, means anything I dredge from a place I can't explain based on immediate empirical data. And I suppose "epiphany" can sometimes fit that bill—though what I like about the aphorism is that it allows for less ambiguous noodling and a certain exact honesty. I guess that nearing 40 is a fairly common time for this kind of mental/spiritual shuffleboard. At least I'm writing poems and not buying a convertible sports car.