sad privilege of poetry

Athens is a holy name, but
There’s no trace of the gods.
Only Apollo...Apollo is a good tramp,
Now that his women are gone, he gets by
Selling knickknacks and pirates.
One evening at dusk
We noticed him, drunk, raving:
“If the harmony of the spheres ssshloows,
Wha kennai do? Wha kennai do?
Maybe a black cloud
That scolds the treacherous sky,
Or the herd that bleats for the fugitive shepherd?”
Ah, maybe this is the sad privilege
Of poetry, to die last.

—Fausto Melotti, Fausto Melotti (Editioni Charta, 2008), translation by Elene Geuna


against disgorgement

I’m against disgorgement art: lacking the sifting, selection and shaping that makes art engaging and compelling.


essence not attributes

A poem fails when it relies on attributes and not essence.



I’m least interested poetry of wordplay which seems to attract those who consider themselves avant-garde.


limit test

A sonnet is a poem testing the limits of fourteen lines.


markson notes

Afflicted by cerebral palsy, the poet Larry Eigner (1927-96) managed to type a prodigious amount of poetry over his lifetime using only his right index finger.

Ludwig Wittgenstein enjoyed peeling potatoes (kartoffeln) as it helped him clear his mind and to think deeply, a routine he learned while serving in the Austrian army during The Great War.

Sigmund Freud was said to accept a sack of potatoes in trade for a session on his couch during the economic struggles in Vienna after The Great War.


first few

A poem must expose its essence in the first few lines.


poor word choice

One word ruined the whole poem.


no return

As with Heraclitus’ famous remark, ‘You cannot enter the same poem twice’.


no quibble here

To find something to quibble about is not the object of a poetry workshop.


no exit

The poem as a maze without an exit.


higher order word

The word finds its apotheosis in a sentence.


path of the sentence

A path made of irregular stone slabs snakes its way around the full length of the imperial villa of Katsura. As opposed to the other gardens in Kyoto made for static contemplation, here inner harmony is reached by following the path step by step and reviewing each image that your site perceives. If elsewhere a path is only a means to an end and it is the places it leads to that speak to the mind, here the footpath is the raison d’etre of the garden, the main theme of its discourse, the sentence that gives meaning to every word.

—Italo Calvino, “The Thousand Gardens,” Collection of Sand (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), translated by Martin McLaughlin


writing and not finding

So many poems feel like someone writing and writing more lines, trying to find something.


old warriors

Time turns the avant garde into the old guard.


not wrong about suffering

After walking through dozens of grand galleries in a major European museum, in my mind arose a different sense to Auden’s line, “About suffering they were never wrong, / The old Masters.”


offer to redirect

In the poetry workshop model the poet whose poem has been critiqued should be allowed a few minutes toward the end of the session to ‘redirect’ the commentary should s/he feel that the group missed some important aspect of the poem.


no high claims

Poetry needs no high claims because it’s poetry and that is enough.


knotted lines

These fibres call to mind the pieces of rope used by the Maori and mentioned by Victor Segalen in his novel Les Immémoriaux (A Lapse of Memory): the Polynesian bards or narrators would recite their poems by heart, with the aid of interwoven strings, the knots of which were counted between their fingers to mark off the episodes of their narrative. It is not clear what correspondence they established between the succession of names and deeds of heroes and ancestors on the one hand and the knots of different size and shape placed at different intervals along the strings on the other; but certainly the bunch of threads was an indispensable aide-memoire, a way of making the text permanent before any form of writing.

—Italo Calvino, “Say It with Knots,” Collection of Sand (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), translated by Martin McLaughlin


on two wheels

Should one hesitate at the end of the line or make the turn on two wheels.


music box

The poem as music box.


make it stop

And the calliope played on: Kalliope, the muse of epic poetry.


save a life

Poetry can save one’s life, and it need not be from trauma; it may be as simple as opening one to the world through language.


one and done

There is art you are grateful to have experienced but wouldn’t want to own. There are poems you’re grateful to have read but wouldn’t read again.


poem in mind

In the mind the poem has its essence before the first word is written.


alt aesthetic

Not everyone need accept your aesthetic.

six-hundred coffee-houses

The Viennese café was the quintessential meeting place of the city, a well-upholstered extension of the public sphere. As one historian of this era writes, the Viennese café ‘was an institution of a special kind…a sort of democratic club, for discussion, writing and playing cards’. There were about 600 of these coffee-houses in the imperial capital in 1900. Some Viennese conducted most of their work in cafés, often alternating between two or three favorites in a day. One businessman was said to have had his hours printed on his cards thus:

          From 2 to 4 o’clock — Café Landtmann
          From 4 to 5 o’clock — Café Rebhuhn
          From 5 to 6 o’clock — Café Herrenhof

—Richard Cockett, Vienna: How the City of Ideas Created the Modern World (Yale U Press, 2023) p 15


me poets

When you spend time on social media with other poets you realize how needy they are.


text excerpt is enough

I’m suspect of any book that needs a trailer to promote itself. Save your fancy visuals, a short text excerpt will do.


bookend critics

I think of Perloff and Vendler as bookend critics, standing each on opposite sides of a shelf marked 'modern and contemporary poetry'.


chatter not matter

Language as communication interests me more than language as material.


full of bluster

Young poets have to be full of bluster about what they are doing; otherwise they’d have no confidence to keep writing.

—Charles Simic "The Great Poets’ Brawl of ’68," New York Review of Books, April 23, 2014


form and content

The postcard being the perfect format for the haiku form.


what works for me

Except for authors expressing what works for themselves, I’m not in favor of writer’s advice.


mime poet

His use of language left so much unsaid you felt he missed his calling as a mime.


under blurbed

Turns out the gathered blurbs were not fulsome enough to please the publisher.


not easy even in three lines

In just three lines there are thousands of ways to go wrong in writing a haiku.


stages of experience

First the poetry startled you, then it enthralled you, then by study you became aware of its faults and limitations—but still you admired this poetry.


what is

Tu Fu is far from being a philosophical poet in the ordinary sense, yet no Chinese poetry embodies more fully the Chinese sense of the unbreakable wholeness of reality. The quality is the quantity; the value is the fact. The metaphor, the symbols are not conclusions drawn from images, they are the images themselves in concrete relationship.
The concept of the poetic situation is itself a major factor in almost all Chinese poems of any period. Chinese poets are not rhetorical; they do not talk about the material of poetry or philosophize abstractly about life—they present a scene and an action. “The north wind tears the banana leaves.” It is South China in the autumn. “A lonely goose flies south across the setting sun.” Autumn again, and evening. “Smoke rises from the rose jade animal to the painted rafters.” A palace. “She toys idly with the strings of an inlaid lute.” A concubine. “Suddenly one snaps beneath her jeweled fingers.” She is tense and tired of waiting for her master. This is not the subject matter, but it is certainly the method, of almost all the poets of the modern, international idiom, whether Pierre Reverdy or Francis Jammes, Edwin Muir or William Carlos Williams, Quasimodo or the early, and to my taste best, poems of Rilke.
If Isaiah is the greatest of all religious poets, then Tu Fu is irreligious. But to me his is the only religion likely to survive….It can be understood and appreciated only by the application of what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life.” What is, is what is holy.

—Kenneth Rexroth, “Tu Fu, Poems,” Classics Revisted (New Directions, 1986)


stay humble

Picking up an old poetry anthology, and perusing its contents page: A few names still known, but many more gone from contemporary consciousness.


where social doesn't mean self

I dream of a social media site where the poets talk about what they’re reading and say very little about their own publications or events.


the innumerable lost

Being asked to contribute an essay to a book of forgotten or neglected poets—it’s not a small number to choose from.


you can make this stuff up

Oulipo: mechanical prompts that produce dopey texts.


secrets of beauty

I have just seen at Picasso’s house a drawing on a large canvas that depicts a mass grave. It was as if the drawing was deepened by innumerable lines that the painter had previously erased. These lines bear witness to a search—not for a better line, but for the only line that will do.

Poetry is not holy just because it speaks of things that are holy. Poetry is not beautiful just because it speaks of things that are beautiful. If we are asked why it is beautiful and holy, we must answer as Joan of Arc did when she had been interrogated for too long:
“Next question.”

Beauty is lame. Poetry is lame. It is from a struggle with the angel that the poet emerges—limping. This limp is what gives the poet his charm.

The masses can love a poet only by misunderstanding him.

Poetry works like lightning. Lightning strips a shepherd bare and carries his clothes several miles away. It imprints on a ploughman’s shoulder the photograph of a young girl. It can obliterate a wall and leave a tulle curtain untouched. In short, it creates unusual things. The poet’s strikes are no more premeditated than lightning.

A poet should be recognizable not by his style but by the way in which he looks at things.

At first a poet is not read at all. Then he is read badly. Then he becomes a classic, and habit prevents him from being read. Eventually, he retains his few early lovers for eternity.

A poet must not refuse honours, but he must see to it that no one thinks of offering them to him. If they are offered to him, it is because he has done something wrong. He must then accept the honours he is offered as a punishment.
This is what Erik Satie meant when he said, “It is not enough to refuse The Legion of Honour; you have not to deserve it.

All beautiful writing is automatic.

A poet’s laziness, waiting for voices: a dangerous attitude. It means that he isn’t doing what he needs in order to make the voices speak to him.

I used to use a detective agency’s advertisement to describe the figure of the poet: “Sees everything, hears everything, nobody suspects a thing.”

A poet never has enough freedom. Everything that he hoards turns against him. He is fortunate if somebody plunders him, dupes him, abandons him, ransacks his house, and drives him out of his home.

The poet has a truth of his own that people mistake for a lie. The poet is a lie that tells the truth.

The poet uses ornamentation to win people over and to seduce his readers. One day the ornamentation will fall away.

A poem always unravels too quickly. You have to tie and retie it firmly.

Seriousness that imposes: Never believe it. Never confuse it with gravity.

The canvas hates to be painted. The colours hate serving the painter, the paper hates the poem, and the ink hates us. What remains of these struggles is a battlefield, a famous date, a hero’s testimony.

Éluard’s clear water reflected the nature of his soul and so lovingly deformed it. Those who imitate him can only reflect a reflection.

Poetry is ill-served by people who live with their feet on the ground while wanting to look like dreamers. Poetry walks with one foot in life and one foot in death. That’s why I call it lame, and it is by its lameness that I recognize it.

I have noticed that one must write countless pages before a single word strikes a chord with a reader, or a single detail is remembered. The truth is that people will pass judgement on our house on as slight a basis as the catch on the door. This observation give me a sense of vertigo that makes me lazy.

Why do these thoughts come to me, to someone who is so reluctant to write? It’s probably because—having broken down in a street in Orléans—I am writing them on the move, in a third-class carriage that keeps jogging me. I reconnect with this dear work [of writing] on the endpapers of books, on the backs of envelopes, on tablecloths: a marvellous discomfort that stimulates the mind.*

—Jean Cocteau, selections from Secrets of Beauty (Eris, 2024; based on Éditions Gallimard, 2013), translated by Juliet Powys, with an introduction by Pierre Caizergues.

*The introduction states that this book of thoughts was composed in March 1945 on a journey back to Paris from the town of Anjouin. The car in which Cocteau was traveling broke down and was towed into Orléans, where he then took a train to Paris.


almost a solicitation

When a poet gets a “No, thanks,” rejection, he ignores the ‘no’ and clings to that ‘thanks’ and thinks the editor is saying in code, ‘Send me something again soon’.


building materials

From solitude and silence, the poet erects a home.


less is more

A shortened life magnifies the poet’s output.


attention and ardor

To read poetry requires attention and ardor.


avant light

Many of her poems were avant-garde versions of light verse.


black sounds

In his 1930 essay, “The Duende: Theory and Divertissement,” Lorca wrote: “All that has black sounds has duende…. The black sounds are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the fertile silt that gives us the very substance of art.” Lorca goes on to describe the three forces—the Angel, the Muse, and the Duende—that “everyone senses and no philosopher explains.”

According to Lorca, when the Angel sees death on the way he flies in slow circles and “weaves tears of narcissus and ice.” When the Muse sees death, she closes the door. But the Duende “will not approach at all if he does not see the possibility of death.” Lorca writes: “Everywhere else, death is an end.” Death’s possibility—the necessity of its proximity—is that which makes art human and alive.

The omnipresent loom of death—the body and its dangers, the heart and its constancy of harm—is what makes the poetry of Thomas James so powerful. So ubiquitous is this power of “black sounds” that—according to a student who, in earnest, made a list of Thomas’ touchstones, his word-hoard, his lexicon (such easy prey—moon, stone, bone, wound)—over a dozen instances of the word “dark” appear in this one book. But Lorca wrote, after all, that poems are works of art that have been “baptized in dark water.”

—Lucie Brock-Broido, Introduction to Letters to a Stranger (Graywolf Press, 2008) by Thomas James.