just once

You were famous—infamous some might say—for never seeing a movie more than once.

That’s right.

But now that you have—

More time? I still don’t look at movies twice. It’s funny, I just feel I got it the first time. With music it’s different, although I realize that sometimes with classical works, I listen to them with great enthusiasm and excitement the first time, but I’m not drawn to listen to them again and again. Whereas with pop, it’s just the reverse. Give me Aretha singing “A Rose is Just a Rose,” and I can play it all day long. I can’t explain that.

Afterglow: A last conversation with Pauline Kael (De Capo Press, 2002), intro and interview by Francis Davis


his darlings murdered

A writer who lived off his kill fees.


near sighted

It was all close-to-home writing.


kelp diver

He had delved so deeply into the poem that he felt submerged in the text, a diver with the alphabet twisting upward around him like kelp.


mouthpiece mort

The poet presumes to speak for the dead.


star from the start

The attractive beauty of an inchoate poem.


pleasure reading

An hour won. Dryden’s Epistles read for pleasure September night windy, dark, warm, and I have read the Epistles of Dryden.

Reading these Epistles which have no connection with my work and little with my ideas, have given me a happy sense of my own leisure. Who has the necessary time and vacancy of mind to read Dryden’s Epistles for pleasure in 1927? or to copy out extracts from them into a Commonplace Book? Or to write out more often than is necessary the words: Dryden, Epistles, Dryden’s Epistles? No one but me and perhaps Siegfried Sassoon.

E.M. Forster, Commonplace Book (Stanford U. Press, 1985), edited by Philip Gardner


cruel and unusual

But for the law against cruel and unusual punishment, I’m sure many prison libraries would love to own this book of poems.


easy writer

Writers don’t fear their facility even though it’s that talent which most threatens their true work.


marking / making

A couple tables away in a café, I watched as a young woman scribbled intently in an ordinary spiral notebook…markings/makings of a new world.


carrying case

Thousands of years from Homer or Sappho and we can still carry around poems in our heads.


end or beginning

Was it the last line of this poem, or the first line of the next?


a way of truth

Thus, as Crispin says, no man can “think one thing and think it long.” At best, all man’s trivial tropes can do is reveal a way of truth. And the early Stevens sought for aphoristic techniques to make those tropes sound as fragmentary—as “trivial”—as possible.

Beverly Coyle, A Thought to be Rehearsed: Aphorism in Wallace Stevens’s Poetry (UMI Research Press, 1983)


strings and stick figures

Poet, treat the alphabet as so many puppets commanded by your hands.


after dante

In the middle of the poem which is life I found myself within a dark woods.


running short on everything

Stunted lines, stinted vocabulary.



He thought of poetry as one of the staples of life.


skeleton key

The least line of text in his hands became a skeleton key able to open a trove of associations.


condition of poetry

Interestingly, three of the major writerly features of the pieces in Tender Buttons are alliteration, rhyme, and repetition, mainstays of poetry. Are these the fixed points around which the apparent chaos of those separate words attempt to dance? Indeed, much of Stein’s difficult work inclines toward the condition of poetry…


Finally it was impossible: the meaning, the associated emotion, could not be destroyed. It could be baffled but no annihilated. Unlike the paint [re Cezanne] that became apples and mountains, or within both simply shapes on the flat inflexible surface of a canvas, words cling to their meanings. And the mind of the listener also clings to meaning. She told [interviewer Robert Bartlett] Haas:

   I took individual words and thought about them
   until I got their shape and volume complete and
   put them next to another word and at the same
   time I found out very soon that there is no such
   thing as putting them together without sense. I
   made innumerable efforts to make words write
   without sense and found it impossible. Any human
   being putting down words had to make sense
   out of them.

—Lawrence Raab, “Remarks as Literature: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein,” Why Don’t We Say What We Mean? (Tupelo Press, 2018)


go on from here or end

A poem whereby any line from here on could be either the next line or the last.


poem from nothing

It’s dangerous when you can pluck a poem out of thin air. To be able to find a poem in any situation, generated from the least stimulus.



melting into wall

The fate of the painting was, over time and by inattention, to become part of the wall upon which it was hung.


noticed or resistant to notice

Nothing is beneath notice, though some things resist being recorded.


perfectly useless concentration

What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.

[Letter from Elizabeth Bishop to Anne Stevenson]

One Art: Letters by Elizabeth Bishop, selected and edited by Robert Giroux (FSG, 1995)


nothing to work with

It was the kind of poem that didn't deserve revision. Nothing of its subject justified further effort.


astonishing turn

Another page, another chance to astonish.


words will be there

A poet is not one to ever despair of words.


pall over opening night

Sadly we must report that the playwright died in a struggle over Chekhov’s gun.


writing gewgaws

Postmodernism permits the poet to be inspired by insipid things.


ideal flower

In [Mallarmé's] preface to René Ghil’s Traité du Verbe (Treatise on the Word, 1886), he said that his aim was to perceive, beyond a real flower, the ideal flower that can never be found in this world: “Je dis: une fleur! et, hors de l’oubli où ma voix relègue aucun contour, en tant que quelque chose d’autre que les calices sus, musicalement se lève, idée même et suave, l’absente de tous bouquets” (I say: a flower! and, out of the oblivion into which my voice consigns any real shape, as something other than petals known to man, there rises, harmoniously and gently, the ideal flower itself, the one that is absent from all earthly bouquets).



goodbye to all that

In part regret and part relief, she was a person who was no longer a poet.


admired if not loved

Alexander Pope is not a poet one loves. But Pope lives on by quotable verse that sings and stings.


against fiat

Critical reputations are made on grand claims. Yet I’m suspicious of all grand claims, finding hedged hypotheses sufficient to most subjects, conjectures able to brush past any exceptions.


emcee bounce

The best open mike emcee I knew also worked as a bouncer at a blow-out bar down the street. He would cross his thick arms over his chest and make eye contact with a poet going over his time. The poet would stop mid-word and slink off the stage.


clear, real, true

There are facts that have the impact of poems.


word sounds

Let me repeat my conclusion: sounds in practical language (practical verbal thinking) don’t possess independent value, they don’t draw our attention, and we are not consciously aware of them. In poetic language (poetic verbal thinking), conversely, sounds do become the focus of our attention; they acquire independent value, and we become consciously aware of them.


Mikhail Lermontov, too, provides compelling evidence on this topic. He frequently writes of the sounds of words, separating them from their meanings. Thus, a variant of his poem “Angel” reads:

   The soul settled down amid earthly creation
   But it felt estranged in this world.
   Of one thing only it dreamed: sacred sounds,
   Their meaning it did not remember.

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


suit brought before

A political poem is a lawsuit brought before the court of history.


forever young song

He loved that poem inordinately, like an old song from his youth.


amateur maker

Bless and pity the amateurs in art and in poetry. So moved they are by art, they want to try to make it.


poet of a certain age

If you call poetry ‘verse’ you immediately mark yourself as retrograde.


no discrimination

What a Paradise for poets the Great World would be, if any discrimination were made between fine gold and brass.

Logan Pearsall Smith, All Trivia: A Collection of Reflections and Aphorisms (Ticknor & Fields, 1961), forward by Gore Vidal. [p 170]


shut in

What a terrible lot to realize one has been taxonomized, thereby shunted and dismissed, into a particular literary movement or mode.


fully less

A luxuriant style, ascetic only in terms of content.


category angst

Definitions and their discontents.


run over

That pang of disappointment felt when you turn a page expecting another poem, only to realize that the one you were reading hasn’t ended.


beauty can't be stopped

The setting for Linda Gregg’s poem “Fragments” is an underground subway car, late at night in the city. The speaker observes the pathos and unglamorous fatigue of the other riders. We’ve been here before, we readers, in life as well as in literature. Yet the abstract assertion in line five, when we encounter it, gathers the entire scene into a unified magnetic field:

   You can’t call the exhausted people on
   the 1 or 9 beautiful. Especially
   the drunk at the back yelling and stumbling
   and grabbing the pole gracefully just
   in time. Beauty has a strangeness.


Indeed, the poem's worldly descriptions are now changed, because they are filtered through the idea of beauty. We see that “Fragments” is making the case for a particular kind of beauty: the beauty of so-called ordinary reality, even in its most awkward, tawdry manifestations. Even in fatigue, asserts the poem, even in this flawed impoverished setting, beauty makes its appearances. Beauty cannot be stopped.

—Tony Hoagland, “Say It. Say it.” The Art of Voice (Norton, 2019)


deep seething

An important but unfinished poem, like a long dormant volcano, might erupt at any time.


true or trending

There is a real audience and a manufactured audience. The latter will not stay with the author even over her/his lifetime.


one hundred

If you can’t name one hundred poets, then you can’t say you have even partial knowledge of contemporary poetry.


serious about books

I’m not saying he was overzealous about keeping his library intact, but his bookplate featured a human skull overwritten with the words:
‘Under Penalty of Death
Return this Book to X’.


patterns and pairs

A poetry that was a matter of pattern and pairings.


above the sway of things

[Narrator: the painter Masuji Ono, grown old.]
‘Being at Takeda’s,” I told them, ‘taught me an important lesson early in my life. That while it was right to look up to teachers, it was always important to question their authority. The Takeda experience taught me never to follow the crowd blindly, but to consider carefully the direction in which I was being pushed. And if there’s one thing I’ve tried to encourage you all to do, it’s been to rise above the sway of things. To rise above the undesirable and decadent influences that have swamped us and have done so much to weaken the fibre of our nation these past ten, fifteen years.’ No doubt I was a little drunk and sounded rather grandiose, but that was the way those sessions around that corner table went.

‘Indeed, Sensei,’ someone said, ‘we must all remember that. We must all endeavor to rise above the sway of things.’

—Kazuo Ishiguro, The Artist of the Floating World (Vintage International, 1989)


title bigger than the book

The more grand and encompassing its title, the less likely it is that the anthology adequately contains the important writing of its time.


another unexpected poem

Poets say they don’t know where poems come from, right before writing another one.


meaning what

A poem of semantic antics.


shooting script

Poem as script to be enacted by the reader.


putting poets aside

And so a gathering like this of ours, when it includes such men as most of us claim to be, requires no extraneous voices, not even of the poets, whom one cannot question on the sense of what they say; when they are adduced in discussion we are generally told by some that the poet thought so and so, and by others, something different, and they go on arguing about a matter which they are powerless to determine. No, this sort of meeting is avoided by men of culture, who prefer to converse directly with each other, and to use their own way of speech in putting one another by turns to the test. It is this sort of person that I think you and I ought rather to imitate; putting the poets aside, let us hold our discussion together in our own persons, making trial of the truth and of ourselves.

—Socrates in Plato’s Protagoras (Leob classical edition, W.R.M. Lamb translation)


and it is me

I found the perfect reader for my poem, and it was me: Only I could see all the nuances, subtleties, allusions packed into the poem.


stage over page

In almost all cases hearing a poet read in person will sway me more toward his/her work.