“Where Epics Fail: Aphorisms Hold Multitudes of Meaning”

“Best not flirt with disaster, lest it decide to commit.” “Take two opposites, connect the dots, and you have a straight line.” These are a few of the pithy wisdoms included in Where Epics Fail, an upcoming book of aphorisms from Egyptian-American poet Yahia Lababidi.” E. Flock, NPR

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Author Yahia Lababidi

Excerpt: What these humble one-liners can teach us about the times we live in —  By Elizabeth Flock, NPR

“The aphorism, an ancient art form that’s part poetry and part philosophy, often consists of just a single line; it’s intended to be both memorable and illuminating.

For many years the aphorism was considered archaic. But Lababidi — whom Obama’s inaugural poet, Richard Blanco, calls the form’s ‘modern-day master’ — said the 140 character age of Twitter has turned many of us into aspiring aphorists. And he believes the form is more important in a confusing political time than ever.

The Guardian of the Riddle — Aphorisms by Yahia Lababidi.

‘In this moment where it seems the grand narratives are failing to hold our attention, maybe the humble epigram can do its work,’ he said.

Signposts To Elsewhere by Yahia Lababidi

‘While deceptively slight and slender, then you sit with it, and perhaps it liberates you somehow, or reminds you of what you’ve forgotten. Poets, thinkers and artists, he said, do not really teach, but remind us of what we already know.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

Stimulating background knowledge: Brainstorming

Directions: Place students in groups, ask students to think about what they already know about  the topic of aphorisms.  Next, have students look at the picture(s) in the text and generate ideas or words that may be connected to the article. Debrief as a class and list these ideas on the board. Students can use a brainstorming chart  by UIE for assistance.

II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. Aphorisms are part poetry and part philosophy.
  2. The messages can be very illuminating.
  3. Many people consider aphorisms archaic.
  4. Young people now aspire to be aphorists.
  5. The well known narratives fail to hold attention.
  6. Perhaps the humble epigram will interest people.
  7. Aphorisms are deceptively slight.
  8. The messages can liberate the mind.
  9. Wit and verse are a way of life in some cultures.
  10. the author hopes they can be used in this politically polarized, country.

Word Cluster by Freeology


Reading Comprehension


Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentences  taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.

The other___ in “Where Epics Fail” ___us to ___attention, believe we can make a difference, keep our___ open in the face of pain, take ___for our actions, avoid ego and do the hard___ that comes with sticking to___.

WORD LIST: ideals,  work,  responsibility,   hearts,   exhort,    aphorisms,   pay,

 Grammar Focus: Word -Recognition

Directions: Students choose the correct word to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.

But many of Lababadi’s poems/proms feel more personality/personal than they do philosophical, addressing head/heed on the concerns of being an immigrant/immigration and feeling like you’re living in a state of exile/exhale. In his poem Speaking American, Lababidi writes about struggling to fit/fight in after immigrating to the United States.

III. Post Reading Activities

WH-How Questions

Directions: Have students use the  WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.

Who or What is the article about?

Where does the action/event take place?

When does the action/event take place?

Why did the action/event occur?

How did the action/event occur?

Discussion for Comprehension /Writing

Directions: Place students in groups and have them discuss the meanings of some of the following aphorisms by *Yahia Lababidi.   Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class.

1. In thinking about each aphorism which one do you like best? Why?

2. Each group will write one or two aphorisms and share them with the class.

3. Groups try to draw pictures for their aphorisms.

*Aphorisms Yahia Lababidi, Boston University

History does not repeat itself; human nature does.

Envious of natural disasters, men create their own.

The small spirit is quick to misperceive an insult; the large spirit is slow to receive a compliment.

Tattoo: graffiti on a masterpiece.

Different faiths are different dialects of the same Language.

Intuition: generous deposits made to our account by an unknown benefactor.

For the inconsolable, there is Nature.

What is considered eccentric in this world is commonplace in another.

1-Minute Free Writing Exercise

Directions: Allow students 1 minute to write down one new idea they’ve learned from the reading. Ask them to write down one thing they did not understand in the reading.  Review the responses as a class. Note: For the lower levels allow more time for this writing activity.


Category: Poetry