spells, prayers, songs

The belief that words in themselves have the power to make things happen—especially words in extraordinary combinations—is one of the distinguishing features of native American thought; and it may be said that for people who share this belief a connection exists between the sacred and the verbal, or, to put it in more familiar terms, a connection between religion and poetry.

When the connection is broken, poetry begins to lose its audience. It may still be admired, but it comes to be recognized as a form of self-expression, unable to establish contact with supernatural forces. Not surprisingly, the word ‘poetry,’ as it is understood in English today, has no precise equivalent in native American languages. What are thought of by outsiders as Indian “poems” are actually spells, prayers, or words to songs.

—John Bierhorst, introduction to The Sacred Path: Spells, Prayers & Power Songs of the American Indians (Wm. Morrow & Co., 1983)


approximal readings

No one knew what the poem was about. But each reading was about right.


press on

One never finishes a perfect poem.


poetry is poetry written

The poet defines poetry in the making of the poem.


adequate containers

Words just poured out of him, and thus his books were like buckets.


reader falling behind

This process, Pushkin feels, can lead the poet to greater isolation even as the work becomes more insightful and accomplished:

He creates for himself, and if his works are still published from time to time, he encounters coldness or inattention, and he finds an echo of his sounds only in the hearts of a few admirers of poetry, who, like himself, are secluded and forgotten by the world.

Akhmatova takes this for a description of Pushkin as much as for a description of Baratynsky. "All of Pushkin's contemporaries enthusiastically recognized themselves in the hero of The Prisoner of the Caucasus," she writes, "but who would agree to recognize himself in Eugene from The Bronze Horseman?" While she doesn't overtly compare the drop in her literary reputation to the drop in Pushkin's, she draws a broad conclusion with her own situation clearly in mind: "Thus, it is not so much that poetry is static, as that the reader does not keep pace with the poet."

—Kevin Frazier, “A Posthumous Collaboration: Anna Akhmatova’s Relationship with Puskin,” review of My Half Century: Selected Prose (The Overlook Press; reprint edition 2012) by Anna Akhmatova (Ronald Meyer, trans.), bookslut, January 2013.


faces in the crowd

Some say the process of composition is the most exciting, but it pales compared to seeing a rapt audience hanging on your every word.


singular image

Seek the specific not the generic image.


contested space

One might ask: Was ever a country’s canon created from contest winners?


crazy craft

When craft transcends control and becomes obsession, it starts to get interesting again.


pure and applied

The ‘pure’ is the imagination, the ‘applied’ is the craft.


stop short

A popular form of Chinese poetry is the four-line poem called the stop-short, in which the sense is supposed to continue after the poem has stopped. But even in the longer poems that is almost universally the method. It is the hum of reverberations, after the poem has been read, that is sought for. And even such a narrative poem as Po Chü I’s Everlasting Wrong, one of the famous “long” poems of the language (though it runs only to few pages), is constructed in accordance with this instinct, and is, therefore, really a sequence of lyrics.

—Conrad Aiken, “Arthur Waley,” A Reviewer’s ABC: Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken from 1916 to the Present (Meridian Books, 1958)


loose words

The dictionary is dead. Long live the language at large.


eyes open

Each day a poet wakes with new eyes for the same world.


latticework canon

As poems multiply and lodge themselves in various media, each of us creates a latticework of connections—a poem here, a poem there, a poem over there—that will in time become one's personal canon.


influence further

A poet who can’t be influenced can’t advance.


revised horizon

He’d reached a point in his life when he had more poems in draft form than he had days left to revise and to finish them.


emotional memory

Recalling the way a work of art made me feel is often more durable than other kinds of memory. I can often remember how I felt when I read a novel, for example, without having a good recollection of its plot. What remains after looking at a painting is not an exact imprint of the image in the mind, but rather the feeling it gave me, a feeling that I sometimes must struggle to name because emotions as experienced in the body are often cruder than the words we assign to them. Visceral responses to an image, however, are inevitably avenues to meaning. It isn’t always clear why a picture affects us the way it does, but for me, pursuing that mystery is the single most fruitful way to discovery. As Henry James once wrote, “In the arts, feeling is meaning.”

—Siri Hustvedt, Mysteries of the Rectangle (Princeton Architectural Press, 2005)


bestest mostest etc

Hyberbollocks: Exaggerated nonsensical praise, often evidenced by the author’s blurbs.


word forge

Like Homer’s shield of Achilles, give me language metallurgy.

[Homer's The Iliad, Book XVIII, "The Shield of Achilles," Alexander Pope translation.]


best seller

The poet’s publisher called with some exciting news: “Your book is selling in the hundreds!”


game changer

It never occurred to me that I wasn’t going to write poetry until I read Wallace Stevens. When I was very young, reading Shakespeare and Blake and Keats, or when, in adolescence, I began reading Yeats and Eliot and Pound, my experience of reading invariably strengthened an existing sense of vocation. Because this experience, the fact that reading great poets increased my confidence, never varied, I had no reason to examine it. Then something completely different happened; then a door was shut very sharply. Reading Stevens, I felt I would never write, and because I didn’t want this to be true, I had to look more closely at those early experiences, and at the new, to find the source of the verdict.

--Louise Glück, “Invitations and Exclusions,” Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (Ecco, 1994)


digging and sifting

Less creativity and more archaeology; that is, less imagination and more psychic excavation.


figure esquisse

If there’s no word for something, we can always use others to sketch its outline.


as in love

Don’t go for the fast word. Wait for the fated word.


human document

I most admire those writers who lived to write.

[Thinking of Jim Harrison.]



I am interested in the ways language can suggest or provoke (though never surround) an endlessness.

—Heather McHugh, Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1993)


coruscating course

A long poem flecked with many lyrics.


character slide

A critic who began his career as a curmudgeon but in time became a crank.

[Thinking of Karl Shapiro.]


reflexive property

He said that poetry was difficult. Like life?, I said.


loss for words

This is a poem that should be quickly translated into a dying language.


in the end is the beginning

A gifted lyric poet who lacked only the ability to see that he was rewriting one poem.


comic turn

After modernism, formal poetry became a special case of light verse.


moving parts

Practical or sensitive form—that the artist feels relationships, i.e. weights, measures, durations, correspondences, gravities, propulsions, and cooperates to set them in motion. The physical universe has “laws” of motion and the artist is sensitive to them. Here language—as well as paint, tones struck from the string—is a “matter” of vibrations; and form has to do with the working in structures of moving parts.

—Robert Duncan, “Notes on Poetic Form,” The Poet’s Work: 29 Masters of 20th Century Poetry on the Origins and Practice of Their Work (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979) edited by Reginald Gibbons


spinning wheel

This section of your poem is just buffering.


fast talkers

An interview is a casual shortcut to exposing (for the interviewer) and to espousing (for the interviewed poet) a method and a poetics.


universal accord

Criticism tries to steady the jangly localities of taste by striking a universal chord.


horsemen pass by

The barbarians didn’t ransack the library because they didn’t know what it was.

[I realized after posting this one that I'd perhaps lifted the notion from Karl Shapiro's essay "The Poetry Wreck."]


attempts to revisit

To revise one attempts to revisit the original psychic space of the piece’s composition.


overplatoed his hand

Plato, courageous almost beyond belief, secure in his own literary powers, nevertheless appears to discard his own defensive irony when he rejects Homer in the Republic. Scholars of philosophy are not very wary in regard to Plato’s blunder, because (at their best) philosophy is for them a way of life. But Plato sought to replace Homer as the culture of Greece, which was as likely as demoting Shakespeare for the English-speaking world, Goethe for the Germans, Tolstoy for the Russians, Montaigne and Descartes for the French. I would add Walt Whitman for the New World, except that we have not yet learned how to read him, except for a handful: Thoreau, Hart Crane, Borges, Pessoa, Neruda.

—Harold Bloom, “The Greeks: Plato’s Contest with Homer,” Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (Riverhead Books, 2004)


long gone

I read the poem for a while, and then, my being unnecessary to its course, I just let it go on without me.



A poem locked in the prison of the canon.


cause of death

To a poet suicide is death by a natural cause.


money pit

Are manuscript contest entry fees and other submission fees draining the disposable income that poets have for buying poetry books?


in closing

If nothing else, the last line has pride of place.


breeze of surprise

     There are so many ways to go, the detectives know, opposition and conflict, theories drifting over and beyond one another. Things changed by the act of observation. The old laws of physics. Speed and position. Time and distance.
     They will comb through images, looking for any random detail, the breeze of surprise, a clue. The more obscure the moment, the more valuable the knowledge. There is always a chance they will spot something they already overlooked.
     They work in much the same way as poets: the search for a random word, at the right instance, making the poem itself much more precise.

—Colum McCann, Thirteen Ways of Looking (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015).



One might say the last two lines of that sonnet were ‘the odd couplet’.


public storage space

The prose poem’s great flaw is that it’s anything and all.


cast out

A poem that was read as though it were a magic spell.


personal library

I visited the reestablished Thomas Jefferson Library in the Library of Congress yesterday. Some titles have not been replaced from the original catalog. Jefferson ordered his books according to Lord Bacon's system of the subject areas: Memory, Reason, and Imagination. Jefferson used the categories "History," "Philosophy," and "Fine Arts."


ticking line

Meter is a lateral clock.


core story

The poem was a thumbnail novel.


echo chamber

That is, in poetry more than in any other verbal genre, readers bring an expectation that not only do all the elements matter down to the comma and the white space at the end of a line and between or within stanzas, but that each of those elements, no matter how widely arrayed, may tug at other elements and condition the whole. The poem is an echo chamber where we listen to the reverberations that otherwise dissolve into the white noise of anxiety.

—Lee Upton, “Poetry, Defined. Briefly.” Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy (Tupelo Press, 2012)


comedy club

I couldn’t be sure if he was a critic or a heckler.

[Thinking of William Logan.]


battle lines

There are many ways to go wrong in writing a political poem, but the number is no greater than those encountered in writing a love poem.


press press pull

Each line a lever in that strange contraption called a poem.


passing fancy

Engaged in a language dalliance.


the fruit

The Fruit

This is how I want the poem to be:
trembling with light, coarse with earth,
murmuring with waters and with wind.

—Eugénio de Andrade, 28 Portuguese Poets (Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2015), translated by Richard Zenith and Alexis Levtin.

Os Frutos

Assim eu queria o poema:
frementa de luz, áspero de terra,
rumoroso de águas e de vento.


hard cases

He wrote poems with words that don’t fit well into poems.


nth sense

Poetry is a human sensory faculty as yet not fully understood.