outside looking on

A poet on the periphery…where else would s/he be?


what is not said

Reticence is a resource of poetry.


in the thick of things

Often in the presence of other art, or one might say under the pressure of other art, poetry arises.


head on a block

The reader was not tall. The podium was high, wooden and wide. A little head bouncing atop a butcher block was what the audience saw.


shells or gems

Erotic poems, gnomic poems on erotic themes, as we see, rather than love poems. At first glance, we may even wonder if love for anyone in particular appears in these poems: either Cavafy experienced it very little or he has been discretely silent in its regard. On a closer look, however, almost nothing is missing: encounter and parting, desire slaked or unappeased, tenderness or satiety—is this not what remains of every erotic life once it has passed into the crucible of memory? Yet it is evident, too, that clarity of vision, refusal to overestimate, hence wisdom, but not less perhaps the differences in condition and age, and probably the venality of certain experiences, afford the lover a kind of retrospective detachment in the course of the hottest pursuits or the most ardent carnal joys. Doubtless, too, the poem’s slow crystallization, in Cavafy’s case, tends to distance him from the immediate shock, to confirm presence only in the form of memory, at a distance where the voice, so to speak, no longer carries, for in this poetry where “I” and “he” contend for primacy, “you,” the beloved addressed is singularly absent. We are at the antipodes of ardor, of passion, in the realm of the most egocentric concentration and the most avaricious hoarding. Consequently the gesture of the poet and of the lover handling his memories is not so different from that of the collector of precious or fragile objects, shells or gems, or even of the numismatist bending over his handful of pure profiles accompanied by a number and a date, those numbers and dates for which Cavafy’s shows an almost superstitious predilection. Beloved object.

—Marguerite Yourcenar, “A Critical Introduction to Cavafy,” The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984), translated by Richard Howard.


hold your tongue

In a workshop if one person is always the first speak, then he/she sets the trajectory of the discussion. Don’t be first to speak all the time.


all special poets

After its chapbook competition, the press announced the winner. And in the same announcement, it listed a small group of runners-up. [Fine.] Then the press listed a larger group of finalists. Then it listed a similar group of semifinalists! [Wow.] Then the press went on to thank all the other poets who had submitted their chapbooks (and paid their fee) but didn't get mentioned in the long list of poets who were runners-up, finalists, and even semifinalists.


end of it

That poet gets credit for reaching a boundary condition. But that’s it.


cheap talk

"The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter."

Dashiell Hammett's detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1930)

The cheaper the critic, the gaudier the patter.


found one

He published but one poem in the last year, and it was a found poem.


sweet sounding things

Avoid a poetry that would whisper sweet nothings in your ear.


noticing and noting

Good criticism is a knowledgeable noticing, with a flair for noting.


category error

He aspired to translate music into language.


slight angle to universe

They turn and see a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe…He may be prevailed upon to begin a sentence—an immense complicated shapely sentence, full of parentheses that never get mixed and of reservations that really do reserve, a sentence that moves with logic to its foreseen end, yet to an end that is always more vivid and thrilling than one foresaw. Sometimes the sentence is finished in the street, sometimes the traffic murders it, sometimes it lasts into the flat. It deals with the tricky behavior of the Emperor Alexius Comnenus in 1096, or with olives, their possibilities and price, or with the fortunes of friends, or George Eliot, or with the dialects of the interior of a Asia Minor. It is delivered with equal ease in Greek, English, or French. And despite its intellectual richness and human outlook, despite the matured charity of its judgments, one feels that it too stands at a slight angle to the universe: it is the sentence of a poet…

E. M. Forster’s description of C. P. Cavafy, related in Marguerite Yourcenar’s “A Critical Introduction to Cavafy,” The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984)


extended description

The image failed because it took too many words to render.


true poets

I was talking about the troubadour poets. She must have misheard me, because she said, “I too find many poets ‘true but dour'."


there and not there

The poet’s influences were evident but not scarring.


rockstar poet

There are about one-hundred rockstar poets. Rockstars in the sense that they could command a good paycheck for a reading at a university auditorium or local arts center; not in the sense that they could fill even the lower tier in a small civic arena.


figure a poem makes

The poem assumed a steady unshakeable stance on the page.


density and sparkle

Without discussing the merits or demerits of Fires, I would like to say that the almost excessive expressionism of these poems still seems to me to be of a form of natural and needed confession, a legitimate effort to portray the full complexity and passion of an emotion. This tendency, persisting and reemerging at all times in literature, in spite of wise puristic or classical restrictions, stubbornly, maybe nightmarishly, tries to create an entirely poetic language, one in which each word, loaded with maximum meaning, would reveal its hidden significance in the way phosphorescences of stones are revealed under certain lights. The poet always wants to put feelings or ideas in concrete forms, in forms that may become in themselves precious (the very term is revealing), like those gems that owe their density and sparkle to the almost unbearable pressures and temperature they’ve been through.

Marguerite Yourcenar, Fires (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981)


preface too much

After his long introduction, I muttered, ‘Methinks thou doth preface too much’.


finer points

The members of the workshop were much too comfortable using power tools, when precision instruments were called for.


good ingredients

After a good meal, all at the table agreed the recipe was a kind of poem.


it matters more

Always matter before manner.


not common literary property

I get so pissed-off at the plain-talk people—who claim that Whitman wrote street talk and that William Carlos Williams let it all hang out—that I forget the beautiful art of simplicity. When I read a stretch of short, simple, powerful things by Jack Gilbert, I remember how utterly moving plainness can be: “Divorce”:

Woke up suddenly thinking I heard crying.
Rushed through the dark house.
Stopped, remembering. Stood looking
out at the bright moonlight on concrete.

Everything is there: exact adequacy, intelligence that withholds comment, and the luck (or vision) of the natural symbol. There is also that invaluable thing—with luck you hit on it fives times in fifty years of writing—when you say something that everyone has experienced (waking up feeling, not knowing why) which is not common literary property.

—Donald Hall, The Poet’s Notebook: Excerpts form Notebooks of Contemporary American Poets (W.W. Norton, 1995), edited by Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tall and David Weiss.


looking up

A poet waits on a tongue of fire to settle over his head.

Acts 2:1
1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.

2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

3 And there appeared unto them separated tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.


cadaver explained

All in the workshop concurred the poem was dead. What followed was an autopsy of the poem.


under construction

They need to build new wings on the edifice of the canon.


escape artist

Form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini.

— Paul Muldoon, The Irish Times, 19 April 2003


coins, stamps, poems

When a coin is misstruck or a postage stamp misprinted, it accrues more value. But a typo in a book of poems is always seen as a diminishment.


not going anywhere

A poem secure in the canon solely on aesthetic grounds.


not it

That's not it: It’s never it…art is never quite it.


deficient text

The poem lacked vitamin V…vocabulary.


extremity's small room


I want a poem which is made of compression, passion, precision, symmetry, & disruption.

I want a poetry which is fetishistic, a-Moral, obsessive, erotic, a poetry of Commission, a poem of pre-meditation, beneath (not above) the law, with malice aforethought. I want a poem of omission. [“Omissions are not accidents,” said Marianne Moore.] That which is withheld on the page is equal in importance to that which is Held.

Lucie Brock-Broido, from “Myself a Kangaroo among the Beauties,” By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2000).


broken thing

In poetry, sometimes a sentence is too much, and only a fragment will do.


difficult passage

Poet, make barricade lines.


vanishes into thin air

A poem of fancy slips easily into the ether.


capital noun

Remember the power of proper nouns. Starting with a capital letter, they raise the poem above the level of generic imagery.


precise and reticent

Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling, for as soon as the mind responds and connects with the thing the feeling shows in the words; this is how poetry enters deeply into us.

—Wei T'ai, Poems of the Late Tang (NYRB Classics, 2008), A. C. Graham, translator.


too well represented

Any poet with an agent will likely be forgotten in the next generation.


test for poetry

Will the poem follow you? Will the poem affix itself to you? Will the poem inflect the course of your life?


build up and tear down

Poetry has always had its makers and its breakers.


linear entity

The poetic line resists the fetish for a sentence.


kitchens and backyards

I once asked Irish poet Eavan Boland whether Patrick Kavanaugh, the unconventional Irish peasant poet, had helped her as a woman writer in a tradition pretty much devoid of women. She answered in terms similar to mine. Kavanaugh had been a crucial guide, she said, because of “his fierce attachment to the devalued parts of his experience and a sense of the meaning of that devaluation within a society.” Kavanaugh made poetry of hay and potatoes; in a sense he gave her “permission” to make poetry of the life inside kitchens and backyards.

Deborah Tall, Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition (W.W. Norton & Co., 1993), edited and with introduction by Sharon Bryan


not exempt

Even the avant-garde must write within a tradition.


standing alone

The poem was made of single line/sentence stanzas, each of which called too much attention to itself, standing self-importantly in open space.


sight in a cold light

Keen attention must at times be unkind.


sad words

All poems are laments for what remains unexpressed by means of language.


late to the party

Woe’s me—born just a little too late for the crest of formal poetry that rose in the 1950s, so that my stuff didn’t begin to appear till the great stampede out of traditional form was on. So I came to the poetry scene like some guest who shows up just when the party is ending, the punchbowl drained, the streamers all tromped to the floor.

—X. J. Kennedy, notebook entry from The Poet’s Notebook: Excerpts form Notebooks of Contemporary American Poets (W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), edited by Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tall and David Weiss.


reward system

Poetry needs to have so many prizes and awards, otherwise its undertaking would be of uncertain value.



real light

The real is a light that dispels.


sound links

The poem as an echoic chain.


rule to judge

When, after having read a work, loftier thoughts arise in your mind and noble and heartfelt feelings animate you, do not look for any other rule to judge it by; it is fine and written in a masterly manner.

La Bruyère, Characters (Oxford U. Press, 1962), translated by Henri Van Laun.


ups and downs

He wrote his dissertation on the variations in iambic modulation.



sense of arrival

To think not of the poem ending but to think of the poem arriving.


free the poets

I noticed that The Poetry Project’s reading space has prison bars on the windows.



Someone who wrote poems, not books.


safe house

Threatened or fugitive words will always find sanctuary within poems.