from one to another

You only have so many notes, and what makes a style is how you get from one note to another.
—Dizzy Gillespie*

You only have so many words, and what makes a style is how you get from one word to another.

*Quoted in J. D. McClatchy’s Sweet Theft: A poet’s commonplace book (Counterpoint Press, 2016)


wind aware

Use the page like a sail reaching.


kinds of sight

The observer discovers, the seer creates. Mistrust the latter.


hole cloth

A poem whole was impossible. Most passages came apart during reading. Even in the middle of a line he could lose his way and fall into fragment.


symbol rule

Any image that recurs within one’s oeuvre will eventually function as symbol.


as an artist

As an artist, you should not wish to create what you don’t feel you have to create.

People who read only the Classics are sure to remain up-to-date.

There is a poet in every competent person; this comes out when they write, read, speak or listen.

Art originated in a longing for the superfluous.

The spirit of a language is revealed most clearly through its untranslatable words.

Philosophers arrive at conclusions, poets must allow theirs to develop.

The old saw “It’s always hard to begin” only applies to skills. In art nothing is harder than to end, which means at the same time to perfect.

Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Aphorisms (Ariadne Press, 1994), translated by David Scrase and Wolfgang Mieder.


weight of white

The thin line of letters trekking across the page felt an avalanche of white building over them.


job description

That former art once referred to as editing is now known by the term ‘content management’.


method and manner

The writer’s formula for composition was praised as style by the reader.


create trap

The notion that you must make things which you have no real impulse to realize.


sounds across time

But if one followed Marsh’s image [Reginald Marsh's Wooden Horses], nobility seemed to exist in art today “only in degenerate forms or in a much diminished state,” because that was now the nature of the real. For the poet too “a variation between the sound of words in one age and the sound of words in another” was itself “an instance of the pressure of reality.” Locke and Hobbes had denounced the seventeenth century for its connotative use of language, that had resulted in an era of urbane, witty poetic diction, with Pope and Swift as its chief proponents.

—Paul Mariani, The Whole Harmonium (Simon & Schuster, 2016)


measure for measure

Most poems fail based on a simple mixed measurement ratio: the material (subject, idea, story, substance) weighs less than its length in lines.


allowed to float up

Blurble: 'verb' – sound made when you lift a book and turn to the back cover.


smiling while reading

The rare joy of reading a joyful poem.


great leap

A first line that made you believe anything could happen next.


street view

Do the great poems open up new avenues or do they create blind alleys that other poets must run down?


doubly well spoken

Understood first for what it said, then afterwards admired more deeply for the manner of its expression.


the river

An archetype is something like an old watercourse along which the water of life flowed for a time, digging a deep channel for itself. The longer it flowed the deeper the channel, and the more likely it is that sooner or later the water will return.

—Carl Jung, “The Primordial Images,” Psychological Reflections, ed. Jolande Jacobi (1970).


hands off

He knew when to take his hand away from the painting.

—Pliny the Elder, Natural History

She knew when to take her hand away from the poem.


not random

The middle of the poem was so messed up you believed the poet must have a plan.


but few are chosen

In our minds many poems make themselves known, but our hearts hold and carry forward a very few.


well worn

When perusing another person’s bookcases, I always look for the tattered dust-jackets.


active border crossing

The boundary between poetry and prose, always floating and permeable, has now become vital.


near eye

At first art is archaic, the sensible form being rudely controlled by the artist's hand; it becomes, in the second stage, classical, the form being adequate to the thought, a transparent expression; last, it is decadent, the form being more than the thought, dwarfing it by usurping attention on its own account.

The peculiar temptation of technique is always to elaboration of detail; technique is at first a hope, it becomes a power, it ends in being a caprice; and always as it goes on it loses sight of the general in its rendering, and dwells with a near eye on the specific.

—George E. Woodberry, "A New Defence of Poetry," Heart of Man, and Other Papers (Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1920)


beauty beat down

A poem that beat me down with its beauty.


abounds around us

The imagist can find any number of poems hidden in plain sight.


pay dirt

The poet is a prospector finding ore in the played-out mine of time-honored themes.


power source

The word that didn’t belong in the poem is now a node of energy driving its very existence.


guard dogs

The lesser poets of the group/school are the ones most protective, even militant, in preserving its domain. Because that domain is the only thing that gives their work value.


one speaking

I’m somewhat anti-Browning. He always spoke in another character, for another character. I do not let anybody else speak a word (in my poetry, it goes without saying). I speak myself and for myself everything that is possible and that which is not. Sometimes I unconsciously recall somebody else’s phrasing and transform it into a line of poetry.

—Anna Akhmatova, “Pseudo-Memoirs,” My Half-Century: Selected Prose (Ardis Publishers, 1992), edited by and translated by Ronald Meyer.


long & short of it

If I had more time I would write a shorter letter.
—Blaise Pascal

If I had more time I would write a shorter poem.


role players

The editor selects, the critic corrects.


never apologize, never explain

A little magazine editor is often asked by a rejected author to explain the reason for his/her rejection. Which always reminds me of the line spoken by the character Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles (played by John Wayne) in the 1949 western She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: "Never apologize and never explain—it's a sign of weakness."

[She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings.]


but drowning

He was a poet of the moment. The last time I saw him he was waving.


ignores borders

The translator is a smuggler whose contraband is words.


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.