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What is an aphorism?

A dictionary will tell you it’s a concise statement of a principle or general truth. William Stafford, lauded poet and longtime Lewis & Clark professor, crafted thousands of them during his 50 years of daily writing. He called an aphorism the kind of statement that “delivers groceries.”

Earlier this year, in conjunction with the William Stafford centennial, Vincent Wixon and Paul Merchant published Sound of the Ax: Aphorisms and Poems by William Stafford.

In their preface, the editors say that Stafford’s aphorisms explore “faith and harmony, the lives of animals, art and writing, how to behave, war and peace, loyalty, appearance and reality, history, honesty, egoism, work, fears, all expressed in a concise, witty, and provocative way.” They go on to note that his aphorisms “enter the mind with a jolt of revelation.”

A few samples appear below.

Aphorisms of William Stafford

Every mink has a mink coat.

Off a high place, it is courtesy to let others go first.

A realization: my slogan for writing—lower your standards and go on—applies to living, to getting old.

I write short things because no one will listen long.

People should help their kids know decisively which way is north, if they know which way north is.

Successful people are in a rut.

Believing our way, we find.

The arrow tells what the archer meant to say.

What can’t be avoided must be endured.

Art is first nothing, then something.

Though we often turned we never wandered.

Faith is easy; doubt is hard.

My life isn’t what I thought it was. But the world isn’t either.

The truth is, every day brings a different possibility—and a doubt about yesterday.

The sky is bigger than any country.

A poem knows where you already are, and it nails you there.

It is snowing what I will know. And it is melting what I will forget.

Many things we think we are leaving are waiting for us.

Literature is words that merit being said again.

I’ve got in a lot of trouble in my life by being careful.

Poetry is prose without the mistakes.

The river keeps looking for the perfect stone.

A common sin: Insufficient care in avoiding the approval of others.

Strange, the best part of a room is a window.

Go in peace—but go.

Passages from Sound of the Ax: Aphorisms and Poems by William Stafford, edited by Vincent Wixon and Paul Merchant (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014), are used by permission of the press and the Estate of William Stafford.

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