a poem equal to architecture

A poem should have a social function equal that of architecture. The poem as a beautiful form of habitable human space.


poem from there to the end

No matter at what point one entered the poem, it was a poem from there to the end.


an infinitely small vocabulary

A perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.

—Jack Spicer, "Lorca Letters"


poet laureate of anywhere & everywhere

The Poet Laureate of the Corner Store; The Poet Laureate of Greenland; The Poet Laureate of Half-Past Ten O’Clock; The Poet Laureate of I-10; The Poet Laureate of the Burning Trash Barrel; The Poet Laureate of Wal-Mart; The Poet Laureate of Leap Year; The Poet Laureate of Las Vegas; The Poet Laureate of Pinehurst Golf Course; The Poet Laureate of Fairhaven Cemetery; The Poet Laureate of LAX; The Poet Laureate of the Moon. It’s such an honor to be named Poet Laureate…


more mass

Some poems seem to accrete mass with each rereading.


cheese graters

The fashion for fragments: Another poet who has taken a cheese grater to his brain. Can you not synthesize, configure, integrate or make whole?


leaves a scar

A great line of poetry leaves a scar in time.


enemy of decoration

Seferis quotes Cavafy’s critics…
“Cavafy's method is always to use the most frugal and anti-poetic phrase for the expression of his poetic ideas.” He is “the implacable enemy of any kind of decoration.”

Then Seferis says…
There is no doubt of the fact that “Cavafy stands at the boundary where poetry strips herself in order” (as I have said elsewhere) “to become prose.” No one has ever gone farther in this direction. He is the most anti-poetic (or a-poetic) poet I know…

—George Seferis, “Cavafy and Eliot—A Comparison,” On the Greek Style, translated by Rex Warner (Little Brown, 1966)


word weeds

Word weeds: some beautiful in their scattered, untamed glory; others thick and choking out the poetry’s fullest flowering.


box or old barn

Even a poem that closes, as Yeats said, like a box clicking shut, is open in many ways…reading it is like being inside an old barn with many missing boards and shingles, the light streaming in from many directions.


free-roam romance

The poem was all horses running on a beach, manes catching sunlight against surf…all that free-roam romance.


poets mistaken about love

Poets are the only people to whom love is not only a crucial, but an indispensable experience; which entitles them to mistake it for a universal one.

—Hannah Arendt, "Action," ch. 33 (footnote), The Human Condition (1958)


uneasily reconciled polarities

A superior metaphor is made of uneasily reconciled polarities.


strop them upon your tongue

Like an itinerant knife sharpener, the poet should try to find words in need of a good honing. And, if need be, he should strop them on his tongue a few times until they have a bright new edge.


no match for verisimilitude

The imagination is no match for verisimilitude.


narrative at risk

The poet will always put the narrative at risk in favor of arresting images and felicitous sounds.


silent poetry

Painting is often called "silent poetry," Wushengshi, and thought of as a way of releasing feelings that need not, or sometimes could not, be put into words. Huang Tingjian,a great eleventh-century calligrapher, wrote of painter Li Gonglin:

Duke Li has verses which he doesn't want to throw out,
So with light ink he "writes" them down as silent poetry.

From the The Three Perfections: Chinese Painting, Poetry & Calligraphy by Michael Sullivan (George Braziller, revised edition '99)


all poems are political

In contemporary society, to write a poem is a political act.


makes a physical impression

Though entirely made of words, the poem somehow makes a physical impression on one’s life.


web of belief

The poem as a 'web of belief’. (after Quine)


necessarily brief and flashing apparitions

“…the fragment understood as a new genre, perhaps the only genre of our time, a legitimate and self-sufficient expression of the lyric moment, the product of a poetics which does not wish to mix the necessarily brief and flashing apparitions of poetry with elements of a different, voluntary nature.”

—Eugenio Montale, “On the Poetry of [Dino] Campana,” (1942), Second Life of Art, Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale (Ecco Press, 1982), translated by Jonathan Galassi


lyrical eschatology

Poetry = lyrical eschatology


first line like a fuse

Poet, light your first line like a fuse!


nice title

Inadvertent insult in front of a painting: “Nice frame.” After reading a poem: “Nice title.”


gestalts glitter

The phenomenological power of both metaphor and thisness derives from an awareness of an extreme tension between being and time. Thisness is the lyric comprehension of this tension; an instant of time opens to embrace the resonance of all that is; time is present, but suspended--held in balance. Metaphor, by contrast, is a form of domestic understanding: wholeness overrides morality, but does not erase it. The distinction of things remains the foundation of their resonant connexion. In metaphor, gestalts glitter: those inflected by being and time, flashing back and forth over the hinge of what is common.

—Jan Zwicky, Wisdom and Metaphor, #67


unapparent harmony

Heraklitas states "an unapparent harmony is more powerful than an obvious one." And so it is with all superior metaphors in poetry.


a ballot cast

To write a political poem is to cast a ballot in ongoing, open-ended referendum on the future of the world.


no rung below you

Sometimes when you come to the end of a line, you have that sensation of stepping down a ladder and feeling for a moment that there is no other rung below, that you’ll be left to dangle in space.


Wallace Stevens Birthday Bash

"I don't have a separate mind for legal work and another for writing poetry. I do each with my whole mind."--Wallace Stevens.

Tonight I'm introducing the poet Lawrence Joseph who will be delivering an address entitled: "The Poet and The Lawyer: The Example of Wallace Stevens." The event is the annual Wallace Stevens Birthday Bash, put on by the Hartford Public Library and The Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens.


attended to on many levels

In a poem, the words ask to be attended to on many levels.


second most important writing instrument

Second in importance to a poet’s favored writing instrument is the wastebasket.


less is core

For a poet, 'less is core'. If I can't say it in a page, I can't say it.


the poet's Rubicon

When reading a great poem, see if you can tell which line was the poet’s Rubicon.


perfectly balanced, expertly weighted

A poem so perfectly balanced and expertly weighted with words that at the end of the poem one felt an urge to read it backwards, half-expecting the same experience and pleasure.


Walt's truth

I come next to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a book of singular service, a book which tumbled the world upside down for me, blew into space a thousand cobwebs of genteel and ethical illusion, and, having thus shaken my tabernacle of lies, set me back again upon a strong foundation of all the original and manly virtues. But it is, once more, only a book for those who have the gift of reading. I will be very frank—I believe it is so with all good books, except, perhaps, fiction. The average man lives, and must live, so wholly in convention, that gunpowder charges of the truth are more apt to discompose than to invigorate his creed. Either he cries out upon blasphemy and indecency, and crouches the closer round that little idol of part-truths and part-conveniences which is the contemporary deity, or he is convinced by what is new, forgets what is old, and becomes truly blasphemous and indecent himself. New truth is only useful to supplement the old; rough truth is only wanted to expand, not to destroy, our civil and often elegant conventions. He who cannot judge had better stick to fiction and the daily papers. There he will get little harm, and, in the first at least, some good.

—Robt. Louis Stevenson, “Books Which Have Influenced Me,” from Essays On The Art of Writing


survives a misquoting

A good line of poetry can easily survive a partial misquoting.



the other side of originality

When he claims to be solitary, the artist lulls himself in a perhaps faithful illusion, but the privilege he grants himself is not real. When he thinks he is expressing himself spontaneously, creating an original work, he is answering other past or present, actual or potential creators. Whether he knows it or not, one never walks alone along the path of creativity.

—Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Way of the Masks, quoted in “The Artist as Critic,” Every Force Evolves a Form by Guy Davenport


the retinue and the slave

The prose writer attends the retinue that is language. As one enslaved, the poet lies prostrate before each passing word.


exposes, expounds, propounds

Theory at first exposes, then expounds, and finally propounds; and in that last phase it becomes an insidious enterprise.


poem made of poems

Reading the Classical fragments one is struck by the fact that any poem is perhaps no more than a conglomeration of smaller ‘poems’. The ideal would be that any passage excerpted from a poem could stand alone as a poem.



A critic should be 'periperspicacious'.


tabula rasa

Something there is (in a poet) that doesn’t love tabula rasa. That makes one desire to take up pen as though it were a sharp nail and to scratch his or her name, in so many, many words, into that blank tablet.


substitution of terms

Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.

—Bertrand Russell (1872-1969), Mysticism and Logic

Poetics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.


simple theater

I find great enjoyment at a poetry reading because it is the simplest form of theater: A poet, a lectern or sidetable to hold books or papers, enough light to read by, a bottle of water, and perhaps a microphone and amplifier if the acoustics of the space are poor or the voice of the particular poet doesn’t carry. The audience arrayed in several ranks of chairs (but seldom are more than 50 seats required). That’s it. No cast, costumes or props, no musical instruments, no projector or screen, no flashing or colored lights, just the human voice commanding the attention of a room full of people.


footnote to a poem

A footnote to a poem is either an affectation or it is the failure of a word or line to hold its own against time.


old tricks

Ah, the avant-garde, up to their old tricks again.


accident and argument

A poem is part welcome accident and part crafted argument.


disturbing intrusion of elements

“I have tried to present my sensations in what is the most congenial and impressive form possible to me. The technical obstacles of painting perhaps dictate the form. It derives also from the limitations of personality, and such may be the simplifications that I have attempted. I find in working always the disturbing intrusion of elements not a part of my most interested vision, and the inevitable obliteration and replacement of this vision by the work itself as it proceeds. The struggle to prevent this is, I think, the common lot of all painters to whom the invention of arbitrary forms has lesser interest. I believe that the great painters with their intellect as master have attempted to force this unwilling medium of paint and canvas into a record of their emotions. I find any digression from this large aim leads me to boredom.”

—Edward Hopper, “Notes on Painting,” 1933, MOMA exhibit catalogue


solved before one's eyes

Sometimes as one reads it is as though the words are still slotting themselves into place just as the eye reaches them. The poem as a puzzle being solved before one's eyes.



All form is procrustean. The paradox of form: what is de rigueur often leads to revelation.


image of note

When all the gulls flew up at once, they sounded
like a big tree in a strong wind, its leaves.
I’d shut my eyes and think about a tree,
an oak, say, with real shade, somewhere.

—Elizabeth Bishop, “Crusoe in England”

[I admire the way Bishop has deftly connected auditory and visual elements in this image.]


switching yard

The poem was a vast switching yard of word-freighted lines and digressive sidetracks.


thrall language

The poem as "thrall language."


always writing about two things

One is always writing about two things at the same time in poetry and it is this that produces the tension characteristic of poetry. One is the true subject and the other is the poetry of the subject.

—Wallace Stevens, "The Irrational Element in Poetry" (OP 227).


a ping in the universe

A poem is a ping in the universe whose sender cares not if it hits anything and echoes back.


so as to record

Written so as to record; but read for its art.


harnessing forces

In art, and in painting as in music, it’s not a question of reproducing or inventing forms, but of harnessing forces.”

—Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: logique de la sensation, p. 39



The nouns, through meaning and sound, give the poem a texture not unlike ‘impasto’ in painting.


epigraph exceeding

How often it is the case that the factoid or quote that serves as epigraph for a poem overshadows and exceeds what follows.


incorrigible line

A line of poetry should be incorrigible. Not a single word or syllable could be altered without diminishment.



Only the language that is integral.


sharp or faint footprint

For what it may be worth, in my own experience, a poem appears as a kind of footprint—as sharp as the one Crusoe saw or as faint as a ghost fossil in stone—but always solitary and iconic: an image, a phrase or a rhyme that is like a bit of music seeking words.

—Thomas McGrath, "Notes, Personal and Theoretical on 'Free' and 'Traditional' Form," Poetry East, #20-21, 1986


distance between language and experience

A poem matters most in that moment when it closes or collapses the distance between language and experience.


sleep is work

For a poet even sleep is work.


stolen or by chance

If what I do prove well, it won't advance.
They'll say it's stolen, or else it was by chance.

—Anne Bradstreet, The Prologue


poem you should never have started

The poem you should never have started is the only poem you must finish.


to ruthlessly insinuate time

Time is the text’s only enemy. The text must ruthlessly insinuate the thoughtless continuum that is time.


first failed translation

The poem in its original language is the first failed "translation" (of the poet's motive or vision for it).


not everything is poetry

In every piece of music, not everything is music, and in every poem not everything is poetry.

—Joseph Joubert, Notebooks (translated by Paul Auster)


language alchemy

In the alchemy of language that is poem-making, gold is the elusive element. So, in that pseudo-science of trial and error, we must trust the errors.


to define is to defend

One’s definition of poetry is one’s defense of poetry.


6 lines

Certain critics (Wm. Logan comes to mind) operate using the “Richelieu Principle”…they’ll readily hang a poet on as few as six lines:

"Qu'on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j'y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre."

"If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged."

—Cardinal et Duc de Richelieu (1585–1642) French clergyman, noble, and statesman


illusion of a higher reality

The primary problem of any art is to cause by appearance the illusion of a higher reality.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "Truth and Poetry"


durable goods

Books are my durable goods. And my favorite major appliance: a bookcase.


ordinary and rare words

What matters in writing, I think, is that the ordinary word seems to be used for the first time, and the rare one seems ordinary, so that one doesn't stumble over it and no word feels strange or wrong, wherever it is placed.

—Juan Ramon Jiménez, The Complete Perfectionist: The Poetics of Work, ed. Christopher Maurer (Doubleday, 1997), p. 147


thoroughbred books

The difference between the titles given to poetry books and the names that thoroughbred owners give their horses is growing indistinct.


old battle flag

Their manifesto was an old battle flag trotted out with some new dyes and hastily embroidered emblems.


chapel of words

Reading a small poem: entering a chapel of words.


flawless and boring

A flawless poem is often a boring poem—I want to marvel at the most outlandish, overreaching mistakes.


so far ahead as to seem behind

...poetry, which is generally ahead of its time, may go so far ahead as to seem behind in time.

—Eugenio Montale, Poet in Our Time, translated by Alastair Hamilton (Marion Boyars, 1976)


petty verities

Without truth the work rings hollow; yet petty verities impair a piece’s power.


pentecostal pro mundi

Poet, be a pentecostal pro mundi!



Revision: like in the game of jackstraws, if a single phrase is taken rashly from the construct of the poem, the whole structure of the piece collapses into loose straw.


last stand of the metaphysicians

Poetry is the last stand of the metaphysicians.


the destinies of speech

Poetry is one of the destinies of speech. In trying to sharpen the awareness of language at the level of poems, we get the impression that we are touching the man whose speech is new in that it is not limited to expressing ideas or sensations, but tries to have a future. One would say that the poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language.

—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie (1969)


in the wake of a poem

Awash in the wake of language that is a poem, one knows what kind of vessel was the mind that cut through the blank sea of the page. It may be too far to catch sight of now, or be shrouded in fog, but one knows the craft: Be it an ocean liner, sailboat, trawler, cigarette boat or just a dinghy with a small outboard motor.


not over when you've heard the last word

Only a poor poem is over when the you’ve heard the last word or close the pages of the book.


poetry's purpose

Poetry presupposes its purpose.


paradoxically more personal

The impersonal style that thwarts the reader's access to the poet's point of view and narrative intention is paradoxically more idiosyncratic and personal than the poem that allows the reader to share the poet's meanings and moods.


no need for praise

He who is sure, absolutely sure of having produced a viable and lasting work, has no more interest in praise, and he feels himself beyond glory, because he is a creator and knows it, and the joy he derives from it is divine.

—Henri Bergson, The Sources of Morality and Religion


healthy disregard for grammar

A poet should have a healthy disregard for grammar.


that line

The line for which the rest of the poem exists.


towering crag

The best line is a towering crag.
It won't be woven into an ordinary song.
The mind can't find a match for it
but casts about, unwilling to give up.

—Lu Ji, The Act of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (Shambhala, 1996), translated by Tony Barnstone


the seamstress and the butcher

Sometimes the language is in need of a seamstress; other times a butcher is what’s called for.


poetry's one-room schoolhouse

With a degree of sentimentality, we love the sonnet because it is poetry’s one-room schoolhouse.


to bifurcate and ramify

Each line of poetry must bifurcate and ramify in the reader’s mind.


specimen poem

Alas, specimen poem, all charm lost, you are now but a pinned and labeled butterfly.


unnecessary confusions

...it is not necessary, because an epoch is confused, that its poets should share its confusions.

—Robinson Jeffers, "Poetry, Gongorism and a Thousand Years"



Utopoeia: the poem as utopia built from language; a place where the mind wants to dwell forever.


carrying wave

It seems a writer has no need for more than one major feeling. Love, or envy, or fear, with deep, multitude ligatures and a good basic complex—he can get along pretty well with that. But he does need one feeling. On this wave he modulates the others and his whole universe. It’s his carrying feeling.

—Henri Michaux, "Observations"

literary toy

Avoid the company of those who take poetry for a literary toy.


circus of words

The poem was a nice circus of words, but I couldn't smell the animals nor hear the groan and creak of the trapeze.


driven to the dictionary in vain

A poet should be capable of driving the reader to a dictionary now and again; sometimes in frustration for what is not found therein.


greatest lyric poets

The greatest lyric poets, for instance Hölderlin or Keats, are poets in whom the mythic power of insight breaks forth again in its full intensity and objectifying power. But this objectivity has discarded all material constraints. The spirit lives in the word of language and in the mythical image without falling under the control of either. What poetry expresses is neither the mythic word-picture of gods or daemons, nor the logical truth of abstract determinations and relations. The world of poetry stands apart from both, as a world of illusion and fantasy—but it is just in this mode of illusion that the realm of pure feeling can find utterance, and can therewith attain its full and concrete actualization. Word and mythic image, which once confronted the human mind as hard realistic powers, have now cast off all reality and effectuality; they have become a light, bright ether in which the spirit can move without let or hindrance.

—Ernst Cassirer, “The Power of Metaphor,” Language and Myth, 1946


language atrophied

Their language atrophied and died because the culture lacked poets.


locution of the elided

Poetry as locution of what is normally elided.


hidden fire

Aquel que illumina las palabras opacas
Por el occulto fuego originario.

He who illuminates opaque words
With their original hidden fire.

—Luis Cernuda, "A un Poeta Muerto (F.G.L)"


criticism's mission

Criticism--not to drag down or to demean, but to exhort, to challenge, to impel.


trammel of time

To be constrained by rhythm is to be trammeled by time.


prose poetry defined

prose poem: a poem that eschews the line in favor of the sentence.


cosmos unto itself

A poem should be a cosmos unto itself.


concentrated attention

Each work of art excludes the world, concentrates attention on itself. For the time it is the only thing worth doing--to do just that; be it a sonnet, a statue, a landscape, an outline head of Caesar, or an oration.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, "A Self On Trial," Journals, vol. 8.


abiding faith

The love of words begins with their meanings and sounds, and develops into an abiding faith that these attributes can convey experience and emotion.


word dreams

These word dreams we call poems.


fantastic, mysterious practices

Extirpate the idea that any fantastic, mysterious practices are required for attaining higher knowledge. —Rudolf Steiner, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and How to Attain It (Anthroposophic Press, 1947)

Extirpate the idea that any fantastic, mysterious practices are required for attaining higher poetry.