What Can We Steal From James Richardson’s “Vectors 3.1: Aphorisms and Ten Second Essays”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Vectors 3.1: Aphorisms and Ten Second Essays,” poem
Author: James Richardson
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its premiere in the Spring 2011 issue of Hotel Amerika.  After being awarded a Pushcart Prize, the piece was included in the award’s 2013 anthology.

Bonuses: Here is a pretty comprehensive introduction to Mr. Richardson’s work over at Writing Without Words.  Here is a poem by Mr. Richardson that was included in Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac.  

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Classic Forms

This work is a little difficult to categorize.  (Poem or work of nonfiction?)  Through the course of forty-two aphoristic statements, Mr. Richardson offers interesting and personal advice for living and productive thought.  These statements come from nature and modern life and seemingly whatever the accomplished author wished to communicate.  Appropriately, some of the statements seem somewhat redundant; advice often seems this way.


Even words are beyond words

Mr. Richardson releases the statements in firehose fashion, allowing the reader to wallow in the complicated thoughts.  What is the effect?  I think the unrelenting sparseness forces the reader to select which aphorisms he or she appreciates most.  After all, our parents and other authority figures tell us a million things; how many concise statements really stick with us?

One thing that I’ve learned from teaching is that some folks are unwilling to admit that they don’t know exactly what a word means.  Under most circumstances, this isn’t a big deal.  (Um…if you’re a lawyer, you should really know what a “deposition” is and so on.)  We don’t go to dictionary.com for definitions.  We go to word nerds.  This is what Mr. Richardson means by “aphorism:”

Any principle or precept expressed in few words; a short pithy sentence containing a truth of general import; a maxim.

The aphorism is a classic form; people have been sharing pithy and concise advice for thousands of years.  Why bother continuing to compose such works?  Well, for one thing, we all want to read Mr. Richardson’s spin on the form.  Further, Mr. Richardson is a contemporary writer who inherently has very different experiences from those who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago.  Those who composed the aphorisms in the Christian Bible lived long before the invention of audio recording equipment.  (Obviously.)

Check out aphorism #17:

You try to take it back, but the tape in reverse is unintelligible.

The development of new technologies allows for new metaphors to inhabit classic forms.  If a work of scripture were written today, what would that look like?  What about an epic poem?  A Socratic dialogue?  Would the last form be done in the form of text messaging?

Aphorisms, as Mr. Richardson demonstrates, are very much a form of poetry.  Mr. Richardson only gives himself several words to communicate a big idea.  Isn’t this the work of poetry?  To address huge concepts in as few words as possible?  (You know…the “right” words?)  Isn’t this a principle we can apply to any piece of writing?  A memo, a letter to the gas company, the climax of a short story?  Even though it’s more incumbent upon poets to be concise, writers in all forms can and should borrow this poetic technique.

What Should We Steal?

  • Tackle a classic form with a contemporary mindset.  Shakespeare would have used cell phones in his plays if he were still alive and writing.  (So would Seinfeld, for that matter.)  How might recent developments shape a classic form?
  • Borrow the toolbox of the poet, no matter the form you’re using.  If you’re listening to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” okay, fine; the “dream” is the point.  In a narrative, the dream must simply be another facet of the world and characters you create.

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