cards play themselves

In poker, we say ‘the cards play themselves’, no interpretation needed to determine who has the better hand. So it should be in book reviewing—quote heavily from the book, and let the lines themselves show their relative value.


odd man in

Often Dante gets inserted in a list/lineage of English poets.


parts of the whole

A lyric poem retains its wholeness; while the long poem is known by its lyric parts.


not debut

After a first book published late in life, the poet corrected the interviewer: This is not a ‘debut’ collection, this is the best I could do to date.


repetition or insistence

Gertrude Stein once declared that ‘there is no such thing as repetition’—a surprising pronouncement form a writer whose most enduring line of poetry is a loop of intoxicating repetitions: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’. Stein distinguished the idea of repetition from insistence; in poetry, she suggested, only the latter was possible. By this logic, each time a word or phrase repeats, it lands with a different inflection. Stein’s ‘rose’ line is a perfect case in point; it begins with Rose as a proper name, which then blossoms into the flower itself, and ultimately suggests the past tense verb, ‘arose’. Stein’s string of roses has been often interpreted as an affirmation of reality over metaphor—a rose is a rose, and nothing more—but she also saw it as an intensifier, one that manifested the rose in all its vividness. ‘I think in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years’, Stein later wrote of her famous line in Four in America.

—Sarah Holland-Batt, “Repetition and Rhetoric: On Michael Sharkey,” Fishing for Lightning (University of Queensland Press, 2021).


note struck by an adjective

Every adjective creates a tone when applied to a noun.


new epithets

A line from AndrĂ© Gide’s Marshlands: “Find new epithets for ______.” Good advice.


welcome emptiness

How I enjoyed these ‘open field’ poems; especially welcome were the blank spaces in between phrases and fragments.


bird by its name

When you say ‘bird’ in a poem, think what kind of bird. When you say ‘tree’, think what kind of tree. And if it matters, and it should, then use the specific name.


act to narrative

The instant you admit any action whatever, no matter how simple, you admit some suggestion of what went before the action and of what is to follow it and of the cause and intention of the action—that is, you admit some element, however slight, of story.

—Kenyon Cox, What is Painting?: Winslow Homer and Other Essays (W. W. Norton, 1988)


annoying innovation

The poet was doing something innovative with typography—it was annoying to read.


all eyes

The poet walked into the room and all eyes were on her; and her eyes took them all in, because looking was prelude to language.


poetical failure

The most common failure of beginning poets is that they think poetry should be poetical.

art is

Art alters nature.


at talent's limit

In the end I want to feel that I made the most of my limited gifts


unable to suffer further

The critic had wanted to write a scathing review but, being a person of character, he was unable to do so—realizing he’d closed the book only a few pages in.



Wide-eyed, ready for anything, I’m trying to read like a young person again.


swim out

        'The English language
belongs to us. You are raking at dead fires,

rehearsing the old whinges at your age.
That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,
infantile, like this peasant pilgrimage.

You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it's time to swim

out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements,

elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.'

—Seamus Heaney (in the voice of James Joyce), Station Island (1984)


trace story

In the briefest lyric there’s the hint of narrative.


grand steps

Like steps up to a palace door, you know by the first few lines you’ve entered the realm of a poem.


first things

A poem establishes itself first in language and then you get what it’s about.


bad blurb

I confess I couldn’t wait to get to the end of this story. I had to skip ahead many pages to get to that comforting sigh of the book closing.


prose poem is

I would have placed emphasis on the subversive character of prose poetry. For me, it is a kind of writing determined to prove that there’s poetry beyond verse and its rules. Most often it has an informal, playful air, like the rapid, unfinished caricatures left behind on cafĂ© napkins. Prose poetry depends on a collision of two impulses, those for poetry and those for prose, and it can either have a quiet meditative air or feel like a performance in a three-ring circus.

—Charles Simic, "Essay on the Prose Poem," delivered on June 1, 2010 at The Poetry Festival in Rotterdam.


open to

One open to the wiles of language.


yadda yadda yaddo

A writer who took pride in having done the full circuit of residencies and retreats.


two not three

Terza rima: A sequence of interrupted couplets.



The title was just a coat-hook, a thing to hang a poem on.


content / style

Content of a high order needs little style.


doing the same thing

I don’t dismiss a poet for being prolific, but I am suspect of rote output.


wasted words

Poet, write through the necessary word-waste.


comes with the territory

It’s rare to find a formal poem that doesn’t sound stilted in places.


block off the chip

The book I ordered, a study of the fragment in literature, arrived today. Turns out it’s over four-hundred pages.


blood to poem

Hard for the word to travel from blood to poem.

—Yannis Ritsos, Monochords (Tavern Books, 2017), translated by Paul Merchant.


no absolutes

There are no absolutes when it comes to language.


around the corner

Poet, write a line that can look around
the corner.


know how

Knowing things makes for better writing: connections multiply, metaphors arise easily.


not part way

Don’t start this poem unless you mean to finish it.


poor poet

Poor poet. (One who earns no income from poetry writing.)
Poor poet. (One who writes inferior poetry.)
Poor poet. (An expression of sympathy for one who struggles to write superior poems.)


foreign language

A work of art, like a foreign language, is closed to us until we learn to read it. Meaning is latent, seemingly hidden. There is also the illusion that the meaning is concealed. A work of art is a structure of signs, each meaningful. It follows that a work of art has one meaning only. For an explicator to blur an artist’s meaning, or to be blind to his achievement, is a kind of treason, a betrayal. The arrogance of insisting that a work of art means what you think it means is a mistake that closes off curiosity, perception, the adventure of discovery.

—Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook (David Zwirner Books, n.d.)



important poetry

When one reads enough poems, one learns the important entry points to the universe.


words with holes

All words have holes in them.


sound subject

Sometimes the subject is the sound.


learned and declaiming

It’s not hard these days to be known as an intellectual poet.


first principle

The first principle of architectural beauty is that the essential lines of a construction be determined by a perfect appropriateness to its use.

—Gustave Eiffel

The first principle of poetic beauty is that the essential lines of a construction be determined by a perfect appropriateness to its effect.


no outer limit

Language itself is perhaps the only limit on what poetry can be, and sometimes I’m not sure that even that boundary holds.


poorer for it

Many who enter the trade come to think that poetry should be spelled “poorertry”


prose poetry defined

Lines that yearn for the roominess enjoyed by sentences in a paragraph.


anaphora and more

Do I repeat myself? Very well, then I repeat myself, I am many, I contain multiples.


not de-prosed

Adding a metrical lilt to your lines and hanging some rhymes at the line endings, doesn’t de-prose your poetry. The prose remains despite the meter and rhyme.


made with feeling

Joan Mitchell:

“I carry my landscapes around with me.”

“Painting is made with feeling. One has to have the guts to feel and love outside oneself.”

“The solitude that I find in my studio is one of plenitude. I am enough for myself. I live fully there.”

[Quotes I copied off cards at the Joan Mitchell retrospective exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Arts]


stunning cover

That four-color cover does nothing to enhance the text inside.


getting to great

You don’t just get to read great poetry. There’s a bit more to getting it.


not numbers that count

Among poets, one’s popularity runs inverse to one’s respect among one’s peers.


title wave

Just the titles of Wallace Stevens’ poems put to shame the entire output of many other poets.


never know enough

We don't know enough, we'll never know.
Oh happy Homer, taking the stars and the Gods for granted.

—Robinson Jeffers, "The Epic Stars"


counter the common

Often poets write against popular sentiment and the common viewpoint.


poem's apotheosis

Being printed as a letterpress broadside is the apotheosis of the poem.


fair question

What is the quality of your audience?


good people to know

They were good bourgeois bohemians.