guiding spirits of lit

Certain writers (e.g., Dante, Shakespeare, Dickinson, etc.) are no longer historical literary figures, having transcended the bonds of time, they’ve become guiding spirits of literature.


ray of light

One day Hopkins was walking down a garden pathway when he suddenly stopped, and looking down toward a spot on the ground, began to turn round on his heel. After he had been doing this for some time an alarmed gardener, thinking him slightly queer, asked him what he was doing; to which Hopkins replied that he was trying to get the “inscape” of one single piece of gravel which was caught in the sun’s ray, and which he was trying to see from all angles.

Quoted from Donald Nicholl, Recent Thought in Focus (Sheed and Ward 1952), p. 70.


exposed and open

In order to understand art, one must be exposed to art in as many of its manifestations as possible, and then one must be open to those varied experiences, in order to develop a true and abiding feeling for art.


a poem contends

As soon as it's made, a poem contends with formless that would erase it, that would cause it to fade into the din of background noise.


annotations mon ami

From the margin notes in the used book he was reading he recognized a kindred reader.


no longer one of us

One of those people you knew who had given up on being a poet, and who now seemed more ordinary to you.


ideal poem

I write or try to write as if convinced that, prior to my attempt, there existed a true text, a sort of Platonic script, which I had been elected to transcribe or record.

—Donald Justice, "Notes of an Outsider," Platonic Scripts (U. of Michigan Press, 1984)


books instead of toilet paper

They closed the libraries during the pandemic. Lucky for him he was a prepper when it came to hoarding books.


lyric poets and others

There are only lyric poets and poets who write other texts we call poems.


plagiarist's defense

Legal doctrine: Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Ignorance of the literature is no excuse.


write this way

Too many writing guides pointing to the same kind of good writing.


life's work

A critic who conducted us through one poem with insight and due respect.


the image

In the image, imbalance suggests movement, a movement toward balance and stability.
The image is the unlocked door between the adjoining rooms of imagination and memory.
The poem is not a system for the reproduction of images, but one for the making of images.
The image allows us to experience time as if it were a landscape.
Through the image, memory forestalls the ephemeral.

—Eric Pankey, from “The Image,” Vestiges: Notes, Responses & Essays, 1988-2018 (Parlor Press, 2019)


first poem

Remember the excitement, even thrall, of composing your first real poem, however rudimentary: the images, the turns of phrase, the surprises of diction, pattern and word sounds, etc. In a sense every poem written since is a grasping after that first experience.


paper bandages

Some poems are bandages for the wounds of the soul, the lacerations of the spirit.


text takes a backseat

Even the broadside seems to have sacrificed the simple virtues of text to visual impact.


road kill

He was so long on the poetry circuit, all he knew was being a performer.


skim off the best

The poet skims off the best of life and puts it in his work. That’s why his work is beautiful and his life is bad.

—Leo Tolstoy

[A Writer’s Commonplace Book (Michael O’Mara Books Ltd., 2006), compiled and edited by Rosemary Friedman.]


read for

Read for comprehension, and for disorientation, dislocation, and dizziness.


range of years

As a young poet he imagined himself a Rimbaud, but after twenty years at the university he’d become John Crowe Ransom.


life stories

Many people want to write poetry only if they’re allowed to tell their life stories.


wordless moment

The image, though composed of words, adds a moment of nonverbal sensing to the poem.


well-made well-worn

Often the talk of craft, the importance of craft, belies a conservative approach when it comes to art-making.


metaphor go ahead

Our metaphors go on ahead of us, they know before we do. And thank goodness for that, for if I were dependent on other ways of coming to knowledge I think I'd be a very slow study. I need something to serve as a container for emotion and idea, a vessel that can hold what's too slippery or charged or difficult to touch.

—Mark Doty, “Souls on Ice


parochial dialect

Many artists utter universals when they speak of process, composition, creation, etc.; when, at most, they should be speaking in a parochial dialect.


all marked

The dream of a perfect commonplace book wherein each page might be marked or underlined as a place to return to.


famous flaws

Flaws in a work become attributes over time: We accept and then praise the author/artist for not seeing the missteps.


stacking up

When a book gets delivered to your home before you have finished the last one ordered.


somewhere in the margins

Awake, it’s trickier business, this saying
so deliberately what we can only hope means anything.
Especially when we’re at it this late, weighing words
until they somehow seem to matter, until
we look at them again in the next day’s excruciating light
and realize mostly we stayed up all night for not nearly enough.


          And you wherever you are,
with your own frantic pages of notes to get back to,
another night drunk down to the cold bottom of the cup,
imagining an even better poem somewhere in the margins
of the best you can do right now,
you know how that one goes.

David Clewell, from “This Book Belongs to Susan Someone,” Blessings in Disguise (Viking Penguin, 1991, The National Poetry Series)

[I've been away from St. Louis for 35 years, but David was a poet I was close to in my last few years there.]


critical making

All artists are critics by means of their making certain things rather than others, and by making those things in certain ways rather than others.


not less or more

If Woolf is your source text, your erasure poem can't go wrong: Every word in the text was well tested before you came along with your eraser.


subject extent

Some poets change subject matter poem to poem; others change subject matter only after exhausting a series of poems related to a single subject.


genre renegade

I’ve never accepted that Joyce’s works are classed prose and not poetry.


soft start

The beginning was too benign.


under grandeur, grandeur under

The business of the poet and novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things.

—Thomas Hardy, from 1885 notebook; quoted in The Life of Thomas Hardy, p. 171


little done well

Most poems fail because they accomplish very well so little.


the time it took

He said he’d written the poem only today, which was true, as much as it was true that the poem had been composed over the better part of his life.


wordly love

A poet too much in love with her vocabulary.


members only

A poet who desperately wanted to join club Avant-Garde.


priceless poetry

Poetry stands in resistance to this commercial culture. It is not about acquiring material wealth; instead, it’s about human insight, genuine human connectivity, and promotes mindfulness and awakening. In that way, poetry is priceless.

—Arthur Sze, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Interview with Arthur Sze by Kenji C. Liu, Jan 26, 2020.


wait it out

He’d become much more willing to wait for a poem to come.


you say tomato

Any two people can scan the same line and disagree on the stresses.


red zone

When writing the last 20 lines of a poem, the poet is in the red zone.

[On Super Bowl LIV Sunday]


solo act

The poetry reading turned into a one-person play.


waist deep and weilding

The intrepid poet wades into language without fear.


music before content

A poet's attunement to the activity of his speech organs can trigger corresponding aural (phonic) 'ideas', in which case a poem's sound structure is tied to the poet's phonic imagination, and the sequence of speech organ movements or sequence of phonic imaginings marks the inception of poetic thinking. That's what poets mean when they say that poetry begins with sound. Schiller, for instance, would often hear "a poem's music in [his] soul first, before having a clear idea of its content" (cited in Ernest Dupré and Marcel Nathan, le langage musical: Étude medico-psychologique, 1911)

—L. P. Yakubinsky, On Language and Poetry (Upper West Side Philosophers, 2018), trans. by Michael Eskin.


mind made

Imagination is not experience. Imagination is experience manqué.


six shooter

The dread of recognizing the sestina form on a page.


where to begin

Knowing there was so much of the poet to read, I found it hard to start.


poem without bounds

To write an inexhaustible poem.


woven design

A poem as intricately patterned as an oriental rug.


wrong blocks

After Harry Thurston Peck, editor of The Bookman, had reviewed Robinson's first collection, finding the author's "humor is of a grim sort, and the world is not beautiful to him, but a prison house."

[Robinson responded in the letter to Peck.] "I'm sorry to learn that I have painted myself in such lugubrious colors..." [Going on to say:]

“The world is not a prison house, but a kind of spiritual kindergarten where millions of of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.”

―Edwin Arlington Robinson, quoted in Edward Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life, by Scott Donaldson.


three too many

Is there an example of a tripartite metaphor?


audience held

One feels most like a poet in that bardic moment speaking before enrapt faces.


library of the mind

He closed his eyes and saw in his mind where all his books were, those shelved and those stacked on their sides. When he opened his eyes, he couldn’t find the one title he was looking for.


lit is

To write a singular document.


drives on

The truck-driver poet looked at each exit ramp as a possible ending before he speeded past.


wind flow

[Episodes of Eccentrics Among Haikai Poets, 1816, compiled by Takenouchi Gengen’ichi] begins its description of Sutejo this way:

    […] From a very young age, she showed signs of a poetic turn of mind. In the winter of her sixth year, she made:

       Yuki no asa ni no ji ni no ji no geta no ata
       Morning snow: figure two figure two wooden clogs marks

    Because of this, one year she received a poem from someone exalted:

       Kayahara no oshi ya suti oku tsuyu no tama
       Too good to be left in a weedy field: this drop of dew.

The original word for what’s given as “a poetic turn of mind” is fūryū, literally “wind flow”—an expression that can’t be translated to anyone’s satisfaction. It refers to a liking for things somewhat unworldly or transcendental or the object of that inclination, such as poetry. Among its synonyms is fūga, which carries a greater dose of “elegance” or “refinement.” Another synonym, fūkyō, suggests “poetic dementia.” Any haikai person must be imbued with fūryū, fūga, or fūkyō.

—Hiroaki Sato, On Haiku (New Directions, 2018)


one among many

Each of us playing a small part in the poetry’s panoply.


dog-ear bookmark

The dog-eared page could mark an important passage, a run of words to return to, or it could mean a stopping place, when then where the book was closed, set aside and never opened again.