content / style

Content of a high order needs little style.


doing the same thing

I don’t dismiss a poet for being prolific, but I am suspect of rote output.


wasted words

Poet, write through the necessary word-waste.


comes with the territory

It’s rare to find a formal poem that doesn’t sound stilted in places.


block off the chip

The book I ordered, a study of the fragment in literature, arrived today. Turns out it’s over four-hundred pages.


blood to poem

Hard for the word to travel from blood to poem.

—Yannis Ritsos, Monochords (Tavern Books, 2017), translated by Paul Merchant.


no absolutes

There are no absolutes when it comes to language.


around the corner

Poet, write a line that can look around
the corner.


know how

Knowing things makes for better writing: connections multiply, metaphors arise easily.


not part way

Don’t start this poem unless you mean to finish it.


poor poet

Poor poet. (One who earns no income from poetry writing.)
Poor poet. (One who writes inferior poetry.)
Poor poet. (An expression of sympathy for one who struggles to write superior poems.)


foreign language

A work of art, like a foreign language, is closed to us until we learn to read it. Meaning is latent, seemingly hidden. There is also the illusion that the meaning is concealed. A work of art is a structure of signs, each meaningful. It follows that a work of art has one meaning only. For an explicator to blur an artist’s meaning, or to be blind to his achievement, is a kind of treason, a betrayal. The arrogance of insisting that a work of art means what you think it means is a mistake that closes off curiosity, perception, the adventure of discovery.

—Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook (David Zwirner Books, n.d.)



important poetry

When one reads enough poems, one learns the important entry points to the universe.


words with holes

All words have holes in them.


sound subject

Sometimes the subject is the sound.


learned and declaiming

It’s not hard these days to be known as an intellectual poet.


first principle

The first principle of architectural beauty is that the essential lines of a construction be determined by a perfect appropriateness to its use.

—Gustave Eiffel

The first principle of poetic beauty is that the essential lines of a construction be determined by a perfect appropriateness to its effect.


no outer limit

Language itself is perhaps the only limit on what poetry can be, and sometimes I’m not sure that even that boundary holds.


poorer for it

Many who enter the trade come to think that poetry should be spelled “poorertry”


prose poetry defined

Lines that yearn for the roominess enjoyed by sentences in a paragraph.


anaphora and more

Do I repeat myself? Very well, then I repeat myself, I am many, I contain multiples.


not de-prosed

Adding a metrical lilt to your lines and hanging some rhymes at the line endings, doesn’t de-prose your poetry. The prose remains despite the meter and rhyme.


made with feeling

Joan Mitchell:

“I carry my landscapes around with me.”

“Painting is made with feeling. One has to have the guts to feel and love outside oneself.”

“The solitude that I find in my studio is one of plenitude. I am enough for myself. I live fully there.”

[Quotes I copied off cards at the Joan Mitchell retrospective exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Arts]


stunning cover

That four-color cover does nothing to enhance the text inside.


getting to great

You don’t just get to read great poetry. There’s a bit more to getting it.


not numbers that count

Among poets, one’s popularity runs inverse to one’s respect among one’s peers.


title wave

Just the titles of Wallace Stevens’ poems put to shame the entire output of many other poets.


never know enough

We don't know enough, we'll never know.
Oh happy Homer, taking the stars and the Gods for granted.

—Robinson Jeffers, "The Epic Stars"


counter the common

Often poets write against popular sentiment and the common viewpoint.


poem's apotheosis

Being printed as a letterpress broadside is the apotheosis of the poem.


fair question

What is the quality of your audience?


good people to know

They were good bourgeois bohemians.


far sound

A poem that was a far-off sound.


latent images

In a good photograph, latent in the image are many days and years both behind and ahead of the picture.


a certain relation

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.

—Susan Sontag, “On Photography” (1977)

To write a poem is to appropriate the thing written about. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.


flummery perfumery

You would think by now that the ink of blurbs would be infused with scratch-n-sniff perfumes.


asking the wrong questions

I thought more highly of him as a poet before he interviewed another poet.


obscure in their own way

The authors I most love are obscure in different senses of that word.


home poem

The childhood home is the first poem. Poets should not give in and go back home too easily or too often.


didn't come out that way

After reading the blurb, I thought, he probably means what he says as praise.


chop chop

This or that critic, as a way of calling a poem basic, often balks at its being “just prose chopped up into lines.” Reader, this statement may sound radical at first, but it couldn’t be more obvious. Poetry is just prose chopped up into lines. I mean this to be final, categorical, and no slight to poetry.

—Elisa Gabbert, “What Poetry Is,” The Word Pretty (Black Ocean, 2018)


name and calling

Until someone else calls you a poet, don’t think of yourself as one.


end happens

The end of a poem happens; you can’t try to explain the end.


questioned line

Interrogate each line you write: Could it be twisted or steered away from common diction?


read it to me

It was a poem I’d rather have read to me than read myself.


what is given and withheld

Within a few lines you know what you’re going to get from the poem, and what will not be disclosed. After that, all there is to do is relax.


discouraging the biographer

Documents relating to Cavafy’s life are scarce. He seldom kept a journal, and very few of his own letters have survived. His life was rather uneventful, and his remarks on his poems are generally unhelpful, while the observations recorded in his sporadic journal entries are seldom of great interest. His poem ‘Hidden’, which he wrote in 1908 but never published, is particularly discouraging for the biographer:

   From what I did and what I said
   let them not seek to find who I was.

—Peter Mackridge, introduction to Robert Liddell’s Cavafy: A Critical Biography (Duckbacks, 1974).


least and slight

He was afraid he’d become one of those poets who could compose something from the least wisp of thought, a slight wind brushing the skin.


why read poetry

Reason #449 to read poetry: Poetry is a repository of knowledge about our world.


two peas

The avant-garde has its own formalism.


start and finish

It was a great first line because of the poem or story that followed.


small step

Poet, all those primers and guidebooks will only take you so far.


sit down and grind

E. A. Robinson: “I don’t have trances, furors or ecstasies. My poetic spells are of the most prosaic sort. I just sit down and grind it out and use a trifle more tobacco than is good for me.”

Quoted in Geoffrey Grigson's The Private Art: A Poetry Note-Book (Allision & Busby, 1982), in the section “Fish Crows and nightingales,” 103.


to stem the tide

Day after day, I will write the same poem in the sand, allowing the tide to erase it. Until I get it right, and then even the tide dare not touch it.



talking to oneself

Some poets eventually talk on and on to themselves.

[Thinking of Ammons’ late books.]


content control

Content is revised by selection and highlight.


annotated copy

How does one make so many thoughtful notes in the margins, mark the key passages, underline so many sentences, and then let the book go, so that it may find its way into my hands.


gross vehicle weight

No line without one weighted word.