library paradox

When I had fewer books I read more. Or maybe I read them better.


don't stay too long

The writer welcomed the interviewer into his office, but the guest chair offered turned out to be quite uncomfortable.


pierced consciousness

The first line went in like a hypodermic needle, quick with a faint twinge.


no mail

The epistolary poem was marked ‘Return to Sender’.


literary lineage

A critic who could take any new poet and show the links to all her/his literary lineage.


roots with dirt

These days
whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them

And the dirt

    just to make clear
    where they come from.

—Charles Olson

[Quoted in Dale Smith's essay re "Slow Poetry."]


go big or

Sorry, but if you’re not a romantic poet, in time people will pay less attention.



A political poet whose mouth was like a flamethrower: He had the sympathetic audience leaning back in their seats to avoid being singed.


tough slog

The experience of reading a long poem is enhanced merely by one’s sense of accomplishment.


word wait

The poet had waited a long time to use that particular word in a poem.


time running out

He kept waiting for that one great run of poems.


describe then design

We are searching for some kind of harmony between two intangibles: a form which we have not yet designed and a context which we cannot properly describe.

—Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Oxford U. Press, 1977), by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein.


real struggle

The imagination as nemesis.


other utterance

First line: announce something other.


beyond the book

Books often don’t go on, but certain poems do persist in the public consciousness.


remains airborne

A poem that somehow remained airborne in the zeitgeist.


unsteady reading

The lectern was wobbly…the poems read even shakier.


one stroke

It is better to paint a good unfinished
picture than a poor completed
one. Many believe that a picture
is finished when they have
worked in as many details as possible.
—One stroke can be a completed
work of art.

—Edvard Munch, The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We are Flames which Pour Out of the Earth (U. of Wisconsin Press, 2005) edited and translated by J. Gill Holland


rescued and restored

Found on an acknowledgments page: The poem “Title Here” was published in an ill-advised version, based on an editor’s suggestions, in Lit Magazine. The poem has been restored to its original state in this volume.


the nothing that is

Nothing is what those without content write about.


amherst amethyst

Emily Dickinson: Her mind outshone her life.


written in sand

The poet thought he held his new poetry book in his hands, but as he read it turned into a handful of sand running through his fingers.


eyes glazed over

The scholar, after spending many hours annotating the text, was glossy-eyed.


clear or turbid

Porson: Clear writers, like clear fountains, do not seem so deep as they are: the turbid look most profound.

—Walter Savage Landor, “Porson and Southey,” Imaginary Conversations (1882)


fast or facile

Poet, be aware when words come too easily.


not unless

The editor said he’d publish my poem if I would agree to strike the last line. I replied that I’d let him publish my poem that way if he’d legally change his name to Notable Dolt.


constant threat

A poem that threatened line by line to turn into a different genre.


passage lodged

We call them ‘passages’ in literature yet some lodge themselves inside of us for the remainder of our lives.

vision not recognition

The purpose of the image is not to draw our understanding closer to that which this image stands for, but rather to allow us to perceive the object in a special way, in short, to lead us to a 'vision' of this object rather than mere 'recognition'.

Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose (Dalkey Archive Press, 1991), trans. by Benjamin Sher.


fixed and unfixed

Poem as a dynamic array of words


bad map

We can’t expect the poem to be a guidebook, think of it as more like a badly drawn map.


noun's act

Are not some verbs merely the familiar actions of nouns?


hold firm

I’d rather write a poem that remains important to me, than make a change that feels inauthentic.


shove over

Don’t worry how the poem will sit with the audience.


critical compliment

Miss Moore has great limitations—her work is one long triumph of them; but it was sad, for so many years, to see them and nothing else insisted upon, and Miss Moore neglected for poets who ought not to be allowed to throw elegies in her grave.

Randall Jarrell on Marianne Moore, Poetry and the Age (1953).

Above quote encountered in Viscous Nonsense: Quips, Snubs and Jabs by Literary Friends and Foes (Princeton Architectural Press, 2021) edited by Kristen Hewitt.


absorbing all opinion

The long idiolectic poem that many poets claimed to know, confident that nothing they would say about the poem could be contradicted by evidence from the text.


close reading

Close reading: Trying to be in the room where the poem happened.


longer and harder

Avant-garde poets try to outdo one another in writing the longest and least engageable poem.

[After reading a review of Nate Mackey’s 976 page book.]


distinct and uncertain

Poems are often like voices carrying over water, both distinct and uncertain when heard.


no kink

I hung about town the whole month of June because of the introduction I was writing to my Shakespeare translations. I was terribly afraid to get stuck in the muddle of pseudo-scholarly verbosity which every great centuries-old theme gathers round it and of only adding to this tangled skein a kind of modified kink. Imagine, it did not happen! I succeeded in saying in very simple and comprehensible words a great deal about Shakespeare that I learned when I was translating him, and all this on one printer’s sheet!

—Boris Pasternak, in a letter to S. I Chikovani, 15 March 1946
Letters to Georgian Friends, translated from the Russian with an introduction and notes by David Magarshack (Seckler & Warburg, 1967)

saved you from the poem

Be thankful the editor had the good sense to not publish your poem.


make it sing

Poet, take pains to make it sing.


loose talk

Literature: loose talk transcribed.


breathe the world in

Colette was a lifewatcher. To look she used all her senses at once—she heard, she touched, she breathed the world in, she stared with intense care, fixedly, like a cat, hypnotized.

Regardé, the last word Colette uttered before she died, was her living word for l’amour, la vie, le monde.

—Helen Bevington, “Colette and the Word RegardéBeautiful Lofty People (Harcourt Brace, 1974))


wow and yes

Nothing better than a last line that is both unexpected and inevitable.


beyond print

It should be a source of pride to have written a good number of absolutely unpublishable poems.


command performance

A poet who was too much the impresario inside his own poetry.


uncredited character

He had a walk-on part in the literary movement.



Take a commonplace, clean it and polish it, light it so that it produces the same effect of youth and freshness and originality and spontaneity as it did originally, and you have done a poet's job. The rest is literature.

—Jean Cocteau, Le Rappel à l'ordre (1926)


poem before the poem

The ‘proto-poem’—the poem composed only in the mind—will always be much better than the poem.


bridges in space

The lines were bridges over
the emptiness on each side.


see it slant

Before you can ‘tell it slant’ you must first see it at an angle.


controlling interest

A poet whose inclination was to control the material and not to discover what was withheld from him in the material.


but only a little

The Cistercian monk Gilbert of Hoyland (d. 1172) insightfully wrote, “We have to pass beyond human experience but only a little to experience union with God. The divine majesty immeasurably transcends every creature, yet it is as if the divine majesty is close and familiar.” This “only a little” is Emily Dickinson’s impetus and the abiding conviction embodied in all her poetry.

—Charles M. Murphy, Mystical Prayer: The Poetic Example of Emily Dickinson (Liturgical Press, 2019)


have you no shame

Apparently poets don’t embarrass easily.


first and last art

His art never shifted or changed in any significant way. He continued to produce variations of his original vision.


turbulence ahead

Like any flowing substance language is subject to turbulence.


new evaporate

Even if one’s work is new and original, one must ask whether it escapes the ephemeral.


triumph of content

The container never greater than what’s contained: If you think form over content, your poem will fail.