ars poetica library - v2009

In early 2007, I began compiling a list of poetry-related essays and criticism. Having a large collection of essays and criticism in my own library and with a wish-list at hand to add to my personal holdings, I was off to a good start. In compiling the first version my obsessive compulsive tendencies served me well and the list grew steadily over a couple week period. But it soon became apparent that I would exhaust my resources rather quickly and I knew that other poets would know of more books than I was unaware of. At that point I queried the New Poetry List members for help, with only one requirement: No poetry books per se could be suggested; the books suggested had to related to ‘poetics’ (whether guidebooks/essays/criticism/aphorisms) or more broadly they could be books about art-making or philosophy that might inform the practice of making poems. More good suggestions poured in from the list members. Some duplicating titles I had, but many new ones were suggested. I sorted and culled the additional suggestions and finalized a first version in March of 2007. The first version of the list is posted here.

At first I referred to this list of books as the ‘poet’s ideal library’, with the idea being that such a library, stocked with these titles, would be of interest and of use to many practicing poets. After it became clear that no one list could be comprehensive enough to cover all interests, nor focused enough for those of a particular sensibility, I scrapped the ‘ideal library’ and substituted the broader and more open name of "Ars Poetica Library.” I also made it clear that this list was to be thought of as a ‘work-in-progress’. A list that could be added to and refined as time permitted.

In the last two years books were added, and more titles were suggested to me by various poets, and new books have been published in the intervening period as well. Last weekend I tidied up the new version of the list and dubbed it the Ars Poetica Library – 2009 Edition.

The list of course tilts heavily to the contemporary, and that could be improved upon. So the work goes. And your suggestions are welcomed. My thanks to Anny Ballardini for posting it on her Poets' Corner website.



Poetry perforce.


bad break-up

A metaphor going through a messy divorce in my mind.


thought / breath

In poetry the sentence fragment operates as a unit of thought or breath.


brief compass

Just as two poems don’t make a single narrative (at best they are related by links between characters or similar elements), so two or more poems don’t make a narrative or formal structure (except as one poem requires another to complete it). The poet’s ambition should be satisfied—as mine in is this collection [Lavorare stanca]—if each poem, in its own brief compass, manages to create a structure of its own.

—Cesare Pavese, “The Poet’s Craft”
Hard Labor, translated by Wm. Arrowsmith (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1979)


reordering the mess

A rearranged bad poem is a bad poem rearranged. (Thinking of some of Ted Berrigan's sonnets.)


caged beasts

The words pace like beasts in their cage of form.


sic n stet

Poetry is a copy-editor’s nightmare: One haunted by visions of ‘sic’ and ‘stet’.



As an autodidact I found I was flunking out.


the secrets

The Secrets of Poetry

Very long ago when the exquisite celadon bowl
that was the mikado’s favorite cup got broken,
no one in Japan had the skill and courage
to mend it. So the pieces were taken back
to China with a plea to the emperor
that it be repaired. When the bowl returned,
it was held together with heavy iron staples.
The letter with it said they could not make it
more perfect. Which turns out to be true.

—Linda Gregg, All of it Singing: New & Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2008)


i'll pass on that

I think at times that had my personal history and relationships been neglectful, chaotic or ugly, I may have written some better poems. No thanks.


above earth

Poetry as the language of the floating world.


rant timeless

Rant on, but rant timeless, as though you know there is no real end to the struggle or that all the struggles are really one.


no artifact apart

The poem is by-product of existence. It has no value as artifact unless connected to a life.


made new by translation

And so, via such stints of translation, the pleasures of writing have time and again returned to me. With ears for a new sound, with eyes rinsed clear of shady habit, I could hear a line I’d never written and see a beauty further than I’d known. I suppose that‘s all that a new poem is, to a poet: a cadence that was always on the wind but only just now heard as a music; an object always to hand but only just now lifted into the sunshine where it shows the eye a shape and shapeliness it had not seen to use.

—Donald Revell, The Art of Attention (Graywolf Press, 2007)


before ink

Before it is ink the poem is always beautiful. After, it’s often a stain on the page.


shooting blanks

you can’t      make
        it      more of
a poem      just by adding      space


publish and perish

For poets it’s more a matter of publish and perish.


density is it

Though not spatial, density of language is a primary dimension of poetry.


carrying the record

But all the greatest landscapes have been painted indoors, and often long after the first impressions were gathered. In a dim cellar the Dutch and Italian master recreated the gleaming ice of a Netherlands carnival or the lustrous sunshine of Venice or the Campagna. Here, then, is required a formidable memory of the visual kind. Not only do we develop our powers of observation, but also those of carrying the record—of carrying it through an extraneous medium and of reproducing it, hours, days, or even months after the scene has vanished or the sunlight died. [p. 29]

—Winston Churchill, Painting as a Pastime (McGraw-Hill, 1950; Cornerstone Library reprint, 1965; previously printed in Amid These Storms, Scribners, 1932)


warm up

Still practicing your scales in those first few lines?



I realize I’m reading a book that should never have gone out of print.


reverse engineering

Spent all day reverse engineering a great poem. Still the poetic ghost in the machine never showed itself.