bottom drops out

Until it’s too late, a reader can’t be certain that a space or a pause in the poem is not an abyss.


one and same

Often narcissist and poet fail to resist synonym.


sum of its form

The fault of certain formalists is to think the poem is the sum of its formal elements.


touch of a lover

Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.

—Plato, The Republic


up to the chin

The poet wades into words unafraid of what the depths hold.


core sample

A poem that was like a core sample of one’s soul.


missed exit

As the poem proceeded you could almost see the poet glancing back at the perfect ending he’d blown by.


new idiom

Like carrying coals to Newcastle. Like bringing poets to Brooklyn.


ringing in your ears

Pantoum the bell tolls…it tolls for you and you again and again…


make a great noise

“Romanticism is the fear of looking truth in the eyes,” [Tolstoi] said last night, speaking of Balmont’s poems. Suler did not agree with him, and read some of them with great feeling, lisping in his agitation.

“That’s not poetry, Lyovushka, it’s charlatanism, nonsense, mere senseless word-spinning. Poetry is artless. When Fet wrote:
     What I will sing, I know not,
     But my song will swell within me,
he expressed the true feeling of the people about poetry. The muhzik, too, knows not what he sings; he just sings oh! and ah! and ai-da-mi! and out comes a true song, straight from the soul, as the bird sings. Your new poets do nothing but invent.


Going through the mail:
“They make a great noise, they write, and when I die—they’ll say a year after: ‘Tolstoi? Wasn’t that the Count who went in for shoe-making, and then something or other happened to him?’”

—quoted from “Lev Tolstoi,” a series of remembrances by Gorky, in Maxime Gorky: On Literature (U. of Washington Press, 1973).


drop trap

Books are just cages that get dropped over writing.


more lighght

The teacher had assigned the technique of ‘erasure’ as a means of creating a new text from an existing one. A lazy student picked Saroyan’s ‘lighght’ as his target text, and ended with ‘ghgh’ as his finished text. Of course he could be awarded nothing less than an A.


drip, drip...

A critic who believed in trickle-down literature.


page count: one

A broadside equal to a whole book.


chance meeting

Always a pleasure to encounter a secret lover of poetry.


limited but unlimited

Another point made by the Institutionalists is that poetry should try to produce its effect by suggestion rather than direct statement or description. Yen Yü said that ‘poetry that does not concern itself with principles nor falls into the trammel of words is the best’, and that great poetry ‘has limited words but unlimited meaning’. It follows that the poet should not heap up too many realistic details but attempt to capture the spirit of things with a few quick strokes of the brush.

—James J. Y. Liu, The Art of Chinese Poetry (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966)


learning to read

It wasn’t that poem by poem the book got better, rather poem by poem you read them better.


taken aback

After reading her poem in the workshop group, she could hear a scuffing sound as chairs pushed back a little ways from the table.


lesser line

For years you had a line of poetry running through your mind that was, you discovered, misremembered; now the actual line seems off and less well rendered.


critique carry forward

The critique of this poem may not matter; however, that critique may inform the next poem.


didn't see that coming

Tabula rasa, facing the blank page, then ex nihilo, the wonder of the poem that comes from nowhere you saw coming.


world deprived of metaphors

The unhappy consciousness must find a way out of this tension between Hegel’s rational (and reasonable) knowledge and Job’s total refusal to accept it. Poetry, Fondane believed, was perhaps the only option left and his reasoning can be summarized as follows: There was a time when there was no split in the human consciousness between the world in which one lived and acted and this other, parallel world created by the mind in its act of reflection upon the external world. At that time human thinking was a thinking of participation. As the rational, Socratic thinking (i.e., philosophy in the traditional sense) was born and began to evolve, this thinking of participation, existential thinking (not existentialist) began to retreat and diminish. But at the point of intersection of the two, thinking of participation and philosophical reflection, poetry came into being. Poetry is, thus, the refuge of the unhappy consciousness, the refuge offered to a being engaged in the confrontation with an all-pervading and domineering rationality. But poetry cannot be practiced in a world in which the literal dominates; a world in which there is a perfect match between the signified and the signifier, a world deprived of metaphors. Unfortunately, Fondane did not have the opportunity to explore further and develop this so promising idea.

—Michael Finkenthal, Benjamin Fondane: A poet-philosopher caught between the Sunday of History and the Existential Monday (Peter Lang, 2013), 59-60.


book once owned by

Inside the cover of this book I see written the previous owner’s name, “Brett Holt.” Brett, perhaps you are dead, that would be an excuse; or you were forced by circumstance to travel light, to get rid of most of your possessions, that would be a good enough reason, otherwise I don’t know how it was you ever parted with this book.


all or nothing

Even the experts couldn’t excerpt from his work.


first flowering

No flower is so beautiful as a poet holding and reading from a first book.


known unknown

One of those poems many readers knew about but the anthologies had yet to acknowledge.


genre fluid

The work was ‘transgenre’.


in my head

The intensity and thoroughness of his formal training, coupled with years of self-schooling, enabled him to separate the process of painting into stages: a generative, conceptual phase and an executive, process-oriented one. In the first he conceived the complete work almost in its entirety, much as an experienced chess player plans a number of strategies before making a move. In the second he would paint an entire canvas quickly, so that it retained the freshness of a wonderful accident. When asked, “How can you paint a big picture so quickly?” he replied, “because I’ve already painted it in my head…Just putting it on the canvas, that’s nothing."

“Milton Avery: The Late Paintings” by Robert Hobbs, Milton Avery: The Late Paintings (Harry N. Abrams, 2001).


desperate act

Revision often feels like shooting one’s horse.



come knocking

Reading the long poem, I thought to myself, Where is that man on business from Porlock when you need him to come knocking?


against self rule

Resist the tyranny of personal narrative.


this one, this one is it

Editors roll their eyes at those perpetual revisers. The author who sends him/her a dozen drafts of a single poem or story, each one supposedly a great improvement over the prior draft. As the galleys are being typeset, one more revision arrives, so clearly better than all that came before.


e. e. cummings in paris

In a concluding section called “Parisian Epilogue,” Rascoe recounts an evening spent in Paris when he and his wife were introduced by Lewis Galantière to Archibald MacLeish, MacLieish’s wife and to E. E. Cummings. Perhaps fueled by a few cognacs, Cummings went on quite an engaging verbal tear that evening. Then, as the night was wrapping up:

     The illuminated disk in the tower of Gare St. Lazare said one-thirty, and I was a rag from listening; but Cummings wanted to go somewhere and dance.
     “Count me out!” said Galantière, “I have to be at work at nine in the morning. Paris for you fellows is a pleasure resort. For me it’s where I earn my living.”
     “It’s funny I never thought of that,” said Cummings. “Somehow you never seem to associate Paris and a job. Think of having a job in Paris! What a quaint idea! But having a job anywhere would be a quaint idea for me, least of all in Paris. Did I say an idea? Why, it would be a godsend! Do you know where I can get a job, any little job—in Paris, Andalusia, New York, or Hong-Kong? I hereby apply for any job that may be floating around. All I require of the job is that it shall not be eleemosynary. It must pay me enough for a bed, cognac and cheese—and, oh, yes! a ticket fortnightly for the Bal Tabarin and two sous for the vestiaire. Vestiaires must live. Two sous for the vestiaire. That’s all I ask."

—Burton Rascoe, A Bookman’s Daybook (Horace Liveright, Inc., 1929)


fall in

Often when writing longhand the letters stagger into the harsh light of the page.


large container

The margins of the poem are the universe.


conditions favorable to life

Like a habitable planet a good poem should have an atmosphere and weather.


seen, heard, felt, tasted...

The best images were sensed—they couldn’t have been imagined.


destined and undetermined

The first line felt fated and yet could lead anywhere.


at the kitchen table

I have a great affection for the picture of Emily Bronte's loaves rising, but am fonder of Tsvetaeva, one daughter living, one daughter dead, clearing a defiant space on the kitchen table. To be torn apart by births or revolutions or both, and survive at least for a time, is a prerequisite for the fullest genuine genius to flower.

Medbh McGuckian, from Delighting the Heart: A Notebook by Women Writers (Women’s Press, 1989), edited by Susan Sellers


making bad choices

If the plagiarist had real talent she would have stolen a better poem.

[News link.]


no going back

When you have written an important poem it’s hard to write an ordinary poem.


not going there

An aging writer should resist at every turn writing about death.


improbable power

Tiny poem with the power of an atom.



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.


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.