fragment transcendent

The close relationship between the Romantic conception of literature and the fragment was most explicitly articulated in the work of Friedrich Schlegel and other German Romantic writers based in and around the university town of Jena from the end of eighteenth to beginning to nineteenth century. For instance, Friedrich Schlegel declares: ‘There is so much poetry and yet there is nothing more rare than a poem!’ This is due to the vast quantity of poetical sketches, studies, fragments, tendencies, ruins, and raw materials’*.

—Ben Grant, The Aphorism and Other Short Forms (Routledge, 2016)

*Philosophical Fragments by Friedrich Schlegel, translated by Peter Firchow, Minneapolis, London, University of Minnesota Press, 1991.


ahead unknown

Artists and poets tend not to belief in predestination.


not for free

A poem the poet had paid for.


plagiarism paranoia

The poets who most fear plagiarism are the least likely targets.


forever forms

You can see a strange kind of Neoplatonism propounded by certain crackpot defenders of poetic forms. They have come to believe that certain poetic forms are ideal forms, immutable and outside of time.


powerful image

The most powerful image of my emotional life is something I had repressed and one of my sisters lately reminded me of. It was when my little brother, who was two and a half years younger than I, died at eighteen months. My mother some days later found his footprint in the yard and tried to build something over it to keep the wind from blowing it away. That’s the most powerful image I’ve ever known.

—A. R. Ammons, Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews, and Dialogues (U. of Michigan Press, 1996), edited by Zofia Barr.


bad piano

The poet often feels like some poor composer who has bought a beaten piano from a closed bar. A few of the keys stick and a couple when struck make no sound at all. For those he must hear the sound in his head.


much too much

Sometimes life gives one too much to write about.


language believer

A poet never loses faith with language.


portrait of an author

The magazine he most wanted to publish in, he didn’t subscribe to.
If he went to a poetry reading it was because he was the featured reader, or the featured reader was someone important he hoped to introduce himself to after the reading.
When he was published in a literary magazine, he turned straightaway to his own poem, checking it for typos…then immediately closed the magazine.
Next thing to do, right after getting that publishing credit, was to update his c.v.
For an author photo, he pushed the limit, sending a photo two decades old.
His books all seemed to be published by different publishers; perhaps each editor was one and done.
His bio listed all his prizes and publications down to the most obscure and the earliest ones in his career.
In his apartment, the only books he owned, at least the only ones visible on bookshelves, were his own.


first concern

Whether the assessment is positive or negative, the critic’s first task is to make the reader care.


taps and scratches

Poetry, for me, has always been bound up with this unease, fueled by contingency toward forms that will transcend it, as involved with silence as it is with sound.

There is a passage in the writings of Simone Weil that has long been important to me. In the passage, Weil describes two prisoners who are in solitary confinement next to each other. Between them is a stone wall. Over a period of time — and I think we have to imagine it as a very long time — they find a way to communicate using taps and scratches. The wall is what separates them, but it is also the only means they have of communicating. “It is the same with us and God,” she says. “Every separation is a link.”

—Christian Wiman, “Gazing into the Abyss,” The American Scholar, Summer 2007.


given space

As I read these poems I began to enjoy more and more their blank areas.


lit from within

An image illuminated by its own light.


near perfect if not true

Even as misremembered, the line was near perfect.


right kind of wrong

A poem that was the right kind of wrong, making its missteps due to its leaps or when getting to close to an edge.


act of survival

Because those poems that move me are enactments of discovery, not retellings. In those poems that change me the speaker is most often the protagonist, not the narrator. The narrator knows he will survive the poem. The protagonist never knows if he will even make it to the end; the poem itself becomes the act of survival, the act of flailing and probing, an open desire for grace or change. I think this is what Stevens meant when he said the poem is the act of the mind in the process of finding what will suffice. Not having found what will….

—Jorie Graham, “Pleasure,’ Singular Voices: American Poetry Today (Avon Book, 1985), edited by Stephen Berg.


better left unsaid

The only way to have said it better would have been to just to think it, to not have uttered it at all.


further persuaded

Each line needs only to persuade the reader to read the next.


old songs

Old poems, old songs…how to let them go?


got the once-over

Nothing worse could be said of a poem than it was all artifice and surface.


steel grace

I append the translation by J. U. Nicolson (The Complete Works of François Villon). I find Mr. Nicolson’s rendering of this poem more satisfactory than D. G. Rossetti’s or John Payne’s, both of whom make the poem too “musical,” destroying its natural diction which was Villon’s great quality, and both of whom make the poem too sentimental. Villon has sweetness in him and love of beauty, even piety; but his grace is a steel-like hardness; he is never, except perhaps in the Ballade of Grosse Margot, sentimental. Swinburne understood Villon perfectly, and he did several excellent translations but he did not translate the Dead Ladies:

    Say where, not in what land, may be
    Flora the Roman? Where remain
    Fair Archippa’s charms, and she—
    Thaïs—in beauty so germaine?
    Echo, calling afar, in vain,
    Over the rivers and the marshes wan,
    Lovelier once than girls profane?
    But where are the snows of the last year gone?

Burton Rascoe, Titans of Literature (Blue Ribbon Books, Inc., 1932)


typo byproduct

If you haven’t suffered a bad typo, you’ve not published enough. To a publisher: If you haven't let slip an egregious typo, you're not publishing enough.


page eater

A codex book uneasily digested by a digital device.


fascist poetics

Pound’s fascism should have been evident by the certainties in which he propounded his poetics.


throws light upon illusionist

We need critics because poets and writers, like magicians, are reluctant to divulge the mechanics behind their tricks.


art of time and place

The true work of art...is not the work of the individual artist. It is time and it is place, as these perfect themselves.

—Wallace Stevens, Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (Vintage, 1965).

[Last evening was the twenty-third annual Wallace Stevens Birthday Bash. Cole Swensen was the speaker and her presentation was titled, "Perhaps the Truth Depends." She took us on a journey of quotes and pictures related to Stevens' habit of walking, plus some related history of walking poets.]


singular path

Cut your own idiosyncratic path through literature.


false front

That false-front description that relies on expected adjectives.


chalk lettering

A poem so transitory it should be written in chalk.


case made

Every poem that is written is a defense of poetry.


colorful icing

A title that was cake decoration.


coming home

“But it took him a long time / finally to make up his mind to go home.” That’s the last line and a half of Bishop’s “The Prodigal.” Home, of course, is mutable, like any word or concept. But not indefinitely so. We learn from poetry of the gradual balancing of language on the exact midpoint between it-could-be-anything and it-can-only-be-this. I want to ask in this essay if I’m a poet, if that’s my “home”—but I think, for me, it’s still too early to know.

—Valerie Cornell, “On Being Unable to Read,” By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2000), edited by Molly McQuade.


first sight

First sight, best sight. To describe with new eyes.


no answer

A last line has no answer.


stand-up stanza

A single stanza can set a poem bolt upright.



mental link

Metaphor as mind-rhyme.


invitation to a voyage

The ideal place to teach creative writing is a used book store, says my friend Vava Hristić.
My hunch that language is inadequate when speaking about experience is really a religious idea, what they call negative theology.
Poetry tries to bridge the abyss lying between the name and the thing. That language is a problem is no news to poets.
A New Hampshire high school student reading an ancient Chinese poem and being moved—A theory of literature that cannot account for that commonplace miracle is worthless.
For Emily Dickinson every philosophical idea was a potential lover. Metaphysics is the realm of eternal seduction of the spirit by ideas.
Seeing the familiar with new eyes, that quintessential idea of modern art and literature, the exile and immigrant experience daily.
A poem is an invitation to a voyage. As in life, we travel to see fresh sights.

—Charles Simic, The Poet’s Notebook (WW Norton & Co., 1995), edited by Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tall and David Weiss.


place or prop

For Wallace Stevens place names were just props in the staging of the poem; they’re not real places.


sidestep the missteps

Part of the ‘anxiety of influence’ relates to the effort not to repeat the errors of the precursors.


among us

They lived among us, yet we didn’t know our poets.


trunks and foliage

Beyond the words, beyond the woods.


before he was anything

My father, before he was anything else, was a poet. He regarded this vocation, as he records in the notebooks, as some “mission from G-d.” (The hyphen indicated his reverence to the deity; his reluctance to write out the divine the name, even in English, is an old Jewish custom and is further evidence of the fidelity that he mixed with his freedom.) “Religion, teachers, women, drugs, the road, fame, money…nothing gets me high and offers relief from the suffering like blackening pages, writing.” This statement of purpose was also a statement of regret: he offered his literary consecration as an explanation for what he felt was poor fatherhood, failed relationships, and inattention to his finances and health. I am reminded of one of his lesser-known songs (and one of my favorites): “I came so far for beauty, I left so much behind.” But not far enough, apparently: in his view he hadn’t left enough. And this book, he knew, was to be his last offering.

Foreword by Andrew Cohen to The Flame: poems, notebooks, lyrics, drawings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018) by Leonard Cohen.



The publicity described him as a ‘professional poet’.


no such thing

The prosiest of poets are the first to reject the prose poem.


verse arises

And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again. For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not until they have turned to blood within us, to glance, to gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - not until then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge [1910] (Dalkey Archive Press, 2008), translated by Burton Pike.


small knowing group

Rather have a cabal than an audience.


line limit

If this line keeps going on, ranging forward, loping along, it will soon reach the limit of the margin and become prose.


time (un)bound

The perfect poem is both of its time and absolutely outside of time.


first image

An image everyone missed until this moment.


by your hands

Poet, don’t accept the form, shape it.


great and simple images

A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

—Albert Camus, Selected Essays and Notebooks (Penguin, 1979), translated by Philip Thody.


poetics of the political

It’s the poetics in a political poem that make it matter.


line by line

Lines that advance and lines that reinforce.


join the ranks

The least you could do after giving up on being a writer, is to become a serious reader.


new and abused

I had to give him credit for titling his book, New & Rejected Poems.


what is time, what is poetry

For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.

—Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book XI (ca. 400 CE)

For what is poetry? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than poetry? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is poetry? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.


apart from process

I know he wrote a lot of poetry, but did he write any poems? There being a difference.