hard reading

Poetry is hard reading.


specific point-to-point vividness

Much of his [Stefan Zweig’s] prose rhythm is poetic in the raw sense of being laid out with the specific point-to-point vividness of verse. Often you will find Zweig writing a clause that could match to a line by Rilke.

--Clive James, “Stefan Zweig,” Cultural Amnesia

(I first encountered Zweig’s incredibly lucid prose in his book Erasmus of Rotterdam…I can only imagine how well he reads in German.)


existence elucidated

Poetry is existence elucidated by means of the imagination.


proving ground

The public reading as the proving ground for the poem.


basic formal constraint

The basic formal constraint in contemporary poetry is the width (8.5’’) and length (11”) of a standard-size sheet of paper, along with its typical margin widths.


first and final line

Write each line as though it was the first and final line of the poem.


two kinds of poetry

Great writers must find their distinctive voice, and you can hear Robinson's in "Reuben Bright" (1897). He uses simple rhetoric, the emotion compressed in spare language. As the poet Winfield Townley Scott observed in his notebooks, there are basically two kinds of poetry. One is represented by Hart Crane's line "The seal's wide spindrift gaze toward paradise," the other by Robinson's "And he was all alone there when he died." One is a magic gesture of language, the other "a commentary on human life so concentrated as to give off considerable pressure." The greatest poets combine the two, Scott believed: Shakespeare often, Robinson himself now and then.

—Scott Donaldson, Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life (Columbia University Press. © 2007)


tome is tomb

For a poet, tome is tomb.


shelved and thus held dear

After I read the book, I put it in my small library; shelved and thus held dear. Could the author ask for any other tribute?


with a dog's ears

It’s well known that dogs can hear sounds inaudible to human ears. A good reader can sense words and phrases not present in the poem but only adumbrated by their absence.


secular prayer

The poem as secular prayer.


enter at your own risk

Poetry is not a fiefdom or a private domain. It is a city whose gates stand wide; which has never exactly welcomed its newcomers but has always found room for them.

—Eavan Boland, Ronald Duncan Lecture, 1994


iambs on the march

The jackbooted iambs are marching again in their ranks of five.


strains at its tether

The line strains at its tether: Can you sense the tug of a line that has reached its optimal length?


threadbare cloth

A poem of abstractions is a threadbare cloth.


not silence but white noise

Some have called the empty space around the words a kind of silence. But it's the white noise of all the words trying to enter the poem, words clamoring to be heard, text struggling to make itself visible.


It's Chinatown

Sometimes when faced with difficult or complex poetry, the detective’s words to Jake Gittes at the end of the movie Chinatown come to mind: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."


drenched in words

One must be drenched in words, literally soaked with them to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment. When they come . . . they come as things in themselves; it is a matter of felicitous juggling!; and no amount of will or emotion can help the thing a bit.

—Hart Crane,The Letters of Hart Crane, November 26, 1921


meaning over matter and sound

The materiality of text is slight. The acoustic effects of language are dismal compared to those of music. Thus, no one is much interested in words devoid of their meanings.