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This article is taken from PN Review 59, Volume 14 Number 3, January - February 1988.

Poetry and The Common Sense Gerald Hammond

The most popularly accepted expressions of common sense are proverbs. They are pragmatic and contradictory. Many hands make light work of the broth which too many cooks spoil because such truths go deeper than logic. Common sense is their foundation, and common sense is very adaptable, a means by which we can put in order the contradictions and complexities of experience. That is the obvious force of sense, but common is an equally interesting element in the phrase. Proverbs are common to all of us, points of contact between low and high, illiterate and literate. Here their pithiness is worth emphasizing. Succinct and memorable, proverbs fix themselves firmly enough in our consciousness for merely a phrase to act as a trigger. In the 1960s the ruling proverb was the one about a rolling stone gathering no moss. Like most other proverbs this one is morally neutral, and the shift in values was marked by its hijacking by one side of the cultural divide. Elders who warned that restlessness would lead to rootlessness (or mosslessness) were mocked by a generation which took rolling stone for the title of its best group and best paper.

Here is a string of near synonyms: proverb, maxim, adage, commonplace, apothegm, aphorism, epigram. None of these is easy to define, nor are the distinctions between them very clear. All of them, even proverb, because of its use as a title for a book in the Bible, dip at least one foot in the ...


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