Literature | Where Epics Fail: On the enduring power, and beauty, of aphorisms

"It falls to the epigram to remind us of our higher selves and larger allegiances to one another". American-Egyptian poet and author Yahia Lababidi introduces an exclusive selection from 'Where Epics Fail', his forthcoming collection of aphorisms.

Arts & Culture, Books, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, August 16, 2017 13:31 - 0 Comments

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(Photo: Yahia Lababidi)

An ancient Persian proverb proclaims, “Epigrams succeed where epics fail.” I was so struck by this thought when I first encountered it, and on so many levels, that I decided I would name my forthcoming collection of aphorisms after itComposed over a ten year period, the subtitle of this book of brief meditations is Art, Morality and the Life of the Spirit — three life-giving spheres of our existence where the grand narratives seem to be failing to hold our attention or capture our imagination.

Since I was a young man growing up in Cairo, Egypt, I was surrounded by a love of wordplay, and attracted to the power of proverbs. Wit and verse were viewed as a sport, even a sort of national pastime (at least, during the three decades that I lived there). It wasn’t about being book-smart; proverbs were used as a form of street poetry and viewed, somehow, as fossils of ancient philosophies merging with living truths. They were our oral tradition and inherited wisdom — rescuing keen psychological insights from the past, and passing it onto future generations — as shortcuts to hard-won life experiences. Good aphorisms aspire to this type of wisdom literature, as well.

In my late teens, some two and a half decades before Twitter, I began writing what would become my first book of aphorisms. Nearly a decade later, I found myself putting the finishing touches to Where Epics FailNow based in the US, I marvel that my miniature art coincides with an Aphorism Renaissance in America. In that same period, however, I have also observed that the inner and outer landscape have changed, dramatically.

On a personal level, after decades of intellectual exploration, I am humbled to discover that, spiritually, I still stand on the shore before a vast and limitless sea…  I was not the only one changing, of course. Both my old home, Egypt, and my newly adopted one, America – as well as everywhere in between, it seems – have been battling for their soul. In a world in which people are increasingly more divided and less inclined to lend their ear to the heroic epic — whether in poetry or in politics — it falls to the epigram to remind us of our higher selves and larger allegiances to one another.

“Poetry is an act of peace. Peace goes into the making of a poet as flour goes into the making of bread,” says Pablo Neruda. As an immigrant, a Muslim, and a writer living in Trump’s bewildering America, I sense this peace-mission with renewed urgency. As a citizen of our increasingly polarized world, I feel called upon to try and use my art to alleviate the mounting fear and loathing, directed at those of different backgrounds and faith traditions. 

The 800 aphorisms in Where Epics Fail are what is worth quoting from my soul’s dialogue with itself, but they are, I hope, more than a series of personal reflections. On one level, they are addressed to general readers and lovers of language, and specifically resonate with those who appreciate wit and wisdom: pithy sayings, inspirational or spiritual sustenance in a sentence. On a deeper level, the aphorisms in my new book are intended for seekers, thinkers and devotees of beauty, who share my belief that it is art’s duty to try and ‘make a joyful noise’.

It is my passionate wish that, in the short meditations found in my latest book, readers will encounter thoughts that might begin to liberate and heal their wounded selves, and in turn, our wounded world. Aphorisms are headlines, but they are also the stories — inviting readers of sensitivity and conscience to breathe life into them, by living at a higher level of consciousness.

A selection from Where Epics Fail:

Aphorisms respect the wisdom of silence by disturbing it, but briefly.

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Poems are like bodies—a fraction of their power resides in their skin. The rest belongs to the spirit that swims through them.

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Said a poem to a poet: Can I trust you? Is your heart pure to carry me, are your hands clean to pass me on?

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Unlike prose, poetry can keep its secrets.

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To write is to bow is to pray.

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There are many ways to donate blood, writing is one.

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To acquire a third eye, one cannot blink.

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Miracles are everyday occurrences, recognizing them is not.

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If we ask life for favors, we must be prepared to return them.

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Spiritual fast food leads to spiritual indigestion.

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Paths are also relationships – to be meaningful, they require fidelity.

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If we pay attention, we are ushered along our path in winks and nudges.

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It’s easier to be fearless, once we remember that we are deathless.

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You can’t bury pain and not expect it to grow roots.

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If our hearts should harden and turn to ice, we must try, at least, not to blame the weather.

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To accept the world as it is isn’t realistic, it’s cynical.

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The only failures are misanthropes.

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Where there are demons, there is something precious worth fighting for.

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At the heart of every vice sits selfishness, yawning.

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The problem with being full of yourself is that you cannot fill up with much else.

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Why announce to the world your few good deeds, when you hide your many bad ones—even from yourself?

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As we make peace with ourselves, we become more tolerant of our faults—in others.

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We can lend ideas our breath, but ideals require our entire lives.

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All who are tormented by an Ideal must learn to make an ally of failure.

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In the deep end, every stroke counts.

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Poor rational mind, it would sooner accept a believable lie than an incredible truth.

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The guardian of the riddle must speak in riddles.

 

Yahia Lababidi’s work was recently profiled on PBS NewsHour’s Poetry Series. Where Epics Fail: Aphorisms on Art, Morality and Life of the Spirit” will be published in early Spring 2018 by Unbound, in partnership with Penguin Random House. Ceasefire readers can receive a 5% discount on advanced orders by using the code: Yahia.

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Yahia Lababidi

Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian-Lebanese-American author of six books of poetry and prose. Lababidi’s last book “Balancing Acts: New & Selected Poems (1993-2015)” debuted at No. 1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases under Middle Eastern poetry. His first book, “Signposts to Elsewhere,” a collection of original aphorisms, was selected as a 2008 Book of the Year by The Independent. His forthcoming book, “Where Epics Fail: Aphorisms on Art, Morality and Spirit,” is being published by Unbound in partnership with Penguin Random House, and is now available for pre-order.

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