try to return

It is in poetry that we try to return our love for language.


recalibrate tolerances

As soon as a critic starts to effuse about ‘perfection’ you can surmise that a recalibration of tolerances is in order.


closer to real

Surrealism gathers strength when it hews closest to the real.


never better

Every couple of years the famous poet would publish another book and the critics always said “He’s never been better,” as though that were a compliment.


whole at once

He alone can conceive and compose, who sees the whole at once before him.

—Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), Life and Writings of Henry Fuseli, edited by John Knowles


old technology

Language is perhaps our oldest technology.


syllabus poetry

From the moment it was written it was syllabus poetry. A 'text' that went straight to academe without even a passing wave to an audience.



To have written a tamper-proof poem.


parts of speech

A noun is not a word; it’s an image forming out of an alphabetic mist. A verb is a blurred noun. An adjective is a noun’s coat of paint. An adverb is a verb’s extravagant flourish. And the other parts of speech just don’t matter.



A desiccated body lies in an ornate sarcophagus of form.


close to nature

Poetry keeps language close to nature.


image of note: a rabid fox

I with the sin of despair
for the world my species has spoiled,

the fox for its hunger,
its rabies, its dirty coat
slung over a frail skeleton.

(from the poem "The Ruiner of Lives," by Chase Twichell,
reprinted in Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems,
edited by Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer, Univ. of Illinois Press, 2007)


pyschological flowering

Not confessional; rather the soul exposed in its full archetypal and psychological flowering.


local poetics

‘All poetics is local’. (To turn Senator Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neil’s maxim.)


one and done

I can admire an avant-garde of one. As a group an avant-garde is less attractive. Something like an art gang.


interchangable blurbs

Blurbs should be attached to the backs of books with velcro. They're so generic and indistinguishable in their praise, that it would be a kind of efficient recycling to pull them off of the old books and to reapply them to newly released titles.


the sublime ratio

When evaluating art, try to measure the ratio of surface to essence. The lower the value the better the art.


what is poetry anyway?

Tell me, you people out there, what is poetry anyway?
      Can anyone die without even a little?

--Mark Strand, concluding lines from “The Great Poet Returns,” Blizzard of One (Knopf, 1998)



You read it to yourself silently, yet you could feel it in the mouth and in the ears.


items of interest

A poem lurks in every list.


ultimate compliment

No higher compliment can be paid to a poem than to have it typed out, folded, and then slipped into one’s breast pocket.


not a sandheap

S.H. Butcher, best known for his translations and commentary of Aristotle’s Poetics (New York, 1907)…wrote previously a survey entitled “Greek Literary Criticism” where he presented fully and clearly the significance of Phaedrus 264C*. After quoting the whole passage, Butcher says: “Here, observe, and for the first time, the law of internal unity is enunciated, as a primary condition of literary art—now commonplace, then a discovery...Organic as distinct from mechanical unity; not the homogeneous sameness of a sandheap, but a unity combined with variety, a unity vital and structural, implying mutual dependence of all the parts, such that if a part is displaced or removed, the whole is dislocated...From this point of view the unity and artistic beauty of a literary composition are found to reside in a pervasive harmony, a single animating and controlling principle.” (pp. 192-193)

[quoted from a delightful treatise on the subject of: Organic Unity In Ancient & Later Poetics (Southern Illinois U. Press, 1975) by G. N. Giordano Orsini]

*”Every discourse must be composed like, or in the likeness of, a living being, with a body of its own as it were, so as not to be headless or feetless, but to have a middle and members arranged in fitting relation to each other and to the whole.”


muse crossing

The sign said ‘Muse Next 10 Miles’. So I backed off the accelerator and kept my eyes peeled. (‘I have a feeling we’re not in Maine anymore, Toto.’)


running on empyrean

It’s easy to be a poet at twenty and one can run on language adrenaline well into one’s thirties. But being a poet at fifty, sixty, and beyond, takes an Apollonian stamina.


underlined for naught

After so many years I turn to this page again without an inkling of what attracted me to underline a certain passage.


skin-deep cover

In the last thirty years, in terms of graphic appeal, the covers of poetry books have made a quantum leap. The insides of the books are much the same as they've been for centuries...with only the poet’s text, legibly laid out, to prove its case.


hard to see

Critics, like other people, see what they look for, not what is actually before them.

—George Bernard Shaw
Epigrams of Bernard Shaw (Haldeman-Julius Co., 1925)



Clearly a poem written by ear.



A perfect poem, like a god, would possess aseity.


nothing pinned

Without end one can opine about poetry while almost nothing can be proven.


no taxation without publication

The poetry tax: poetry manuscript contest fees.


verb verve

About adjectives: all fine prose is based on verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move. Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats’s “Eve of Saint Agnes.” A line like:

   The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass.

is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement—the limping, trembling, and freezing is going on before your own eyes.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald (in a letter to his daughter, Frances, quoted in The Crack-Up.)


loved beyond reason

One’s last poem is loved beyond all reason.


emerging market

In the waning days of 2008, with the economy in disarray, venture capitalists were taking a hard look at poetry as a possible growth sector. Now you know things are really getting bad.


out of the animal darkness

While excavating archaeological sites in Egypt, some of the few remaining fragments of Sappho’s poetry we have were discovered as stuffing inside a mummified crocodile. Isn’t that an apt analogy for where all poems come from, arising by chance from an obscure animal darkness?


irritable reaching

One should be capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fragments and illogic. [Apologies to John Keats]


micro to macro

The poem as microcosm is lens onto the macrocosm.


never complete

There may be volumes titled ‘Collected Poems’ but there is no such thing as a ‘Complete Poems’.


rivers of poetry

The rivers of poetry flow everywhere, and they do not necessarily converge. [31]

—Elias Canetti, Notes & Notations (Noonday Press, 1994), translated by H.F. Broch de Rothermann


thankful for small things

The word ‘elver’ (immature eel) was introduced to me by Theodore Roethke’s poetry. I have never used the word in a poem, but I’m thankful to know it all the same.


be afraid, very afraid

In its writing the poem should scare you at first.


pet poems

Our poems are our pets.


bad trannie

It was automatic writing with a bad transmission.


interruption of the poetic

Poetry as something happening among other things happening. As something happening in language, and to language under siege. Poetry as memory, sometimes memory of the future. Poetry as both fixed and in process, ever a paradox. Above all, poetry as experience, as Philippe Lacou-Labarthe would put it. (He would add, poetry as interruption of the “poetic,” but that’s for some other time.)

—Michael Palmer, “Poetry and Contingency,” Active Boundaries: Selected Essays and Talks (New Directions, 2008)


tallied perfectly

Each line tallied perfectly into the sum of the last line.


impact image

An image that aggressively rearranges the space of human experience.


scroll through

The online poem was a scroll through.



Mangrove poetry: thickets of language with many roots sunk in psychologically murky waters.


requisite madness

But if any man come to the gates of poetry without madness of the Muses, persuaded that skill alone will make him a good poet, then shall he and his works of sanity with him be brought to naught by the poetry of madness, and behold their place is nowhere to be found.

—Socrates (Plato), Phaedrus edited by R. Hackworth, Cambridge, 1952


thereafter always moving

The moment you open the book to that page, the poem becomes the perpetuum mobili.


not taken lightly

The poet humbles language by taking it seriously.


descant / disgorge

Only an Ezra Pound could have descanted/disgorged The Cantos.



When the poem is finished why is it that the words seem preordained?


blank page block

Block: The letters lie buried in an avalanche of whiteness. You can hear only muffled cries, but can’t make out any words.


row, row...

The meter was so strong and regular I thought of the poet as a coxswain with a megaphone calling out: ‘Row, row’…


permanent things

Fashions, forms of machinery, the more complex social, financial, political adjustments, and so forth, are all ephemeral, exceptional; they exist but will never exist again. Poetry must concern itself with (relatively) permanent things. These have poetic value; the ephemeral has only news value.

—Robinson Jeffers, preface to The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Random House, 1938,(p. XV)


escape passage

Poem as escape passage from the din and flash of spatio-temporal reality


word gourmand

The poet is a word gourmand: The savor of the syllables together with the texture of the meaning are an experience the poet deeply craves.


wrinkled brow

The lines came at a cost of many years, and may as well have been wrinkles on the poet’s brow.


hometown crowd

Poets in New York City read to each other all the time.


reading backlog

If only my insomnia would come back, I could catch up on my reading.


as the crow flies

...how are we to say what we see in a crow's flight? Is it not enough to say the crow flies purposefully, or heavily, or rowingly, or whatever. There are no words to capture the infinite depth of crowiness in the crow's flight. All we can do is use a word as an indicator, or a whole bunch of words as a directive. But the ominous thing in the crow's flight, the bare-faced, bandit thing, the tattered beggarly gipsy thing, the caressing and shaping yet slightly clumsy gesture of the downstoke, as if the wings were both too heavy and too powerful, and the headlong sort of merriment, the macabre pantomime ghoulishness and the undertaker sleekness -- you could go on for a very long time with phrases of that sort and still have completely missed your instant, glimpse knowledge of the world of the crow's wingbeat. And a bookload of such descriptions is immediately rubbish when you look up and see the crow flying.

—Ted Hughes, "Words & Experience," Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, edited by W.N. Herbert and Matthew Hollis (Bloodaxe Books, 2000)



A poem, by any definition, makes demands on the reader.


too close for comfort

It’s intimidating to put one’s words in proximity to an excellent quote.



Each line filled one with the anticipation of being on a road approaching the skyline of a city never visited before.


a life's work and then some

At the time of his death at 29, the poet and philosopher Novalis was working on an ‘Encyclopedia of Universal Knowledge’. So much like a poet, to think such a project possible, even had he lived a long time.


open outcry

On the language's trading floor, poets buy & sell words furiously in open outcry.


ten to one

For every poet that you know there are ten other crazy and beautiful ones you’ll never know.


theory theists

Theorists and theists, different gods, but mired in dogmas all the same.


broken field runner

Poet, be a broken field runner through the language!


the aesthetic-constructive

Even before non-representative styles were created, artists had become more deeply conscious of the aesthetic-constructive components of the work apart from denoted meanings.

--Meyer Schapiro, “Style,” The Problem of Style (Fawcett Publications, 1966), edited by J.V. Cunningham


my own poems

Too many poets know only their own poems.


poem as hive

A poem is a resonant hive. Hear it, and feel its vibrant thrum.



The poet walks alone out onto the springboard of the first line.


face value

Of course the facile are afraid of the self.


physicist flummoxed by poetry

Robert Oppenheimer was working at Göttingen and the great mathematical physicist, Paul Dirac, came to him one day and said: "Oppenheimer, they tell me you are writing poetry. I do not see how a man can work on the frontiers of physics and write a poetry at the same time. They are in opposition. In science you want to say something that nobody knew before, in words which everyone can understand. In poetry you are bound to say something that everybody knows already in words that nobody can understand."

(An anecdote quoted in various texts)


beyond the call

One must be truly Heroic to write (or to read) so many successive couplets.


light shelter

Alone in the room, reading in a floor lamp’s cone of light, my hut.


momentous image

The image was a haiku momentous.


alternate alphabet

The reviser’s alphabet: the squiggle, the strike-through, the arrow, the slash mark, etc.


where word is god

Even more than in the poem, it is in the aphorism that the word is god.

—E. M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered, translated by Richard Howard, Arcade Publishing, 1971


blowing the bridges

A poet who blows the bridges of the lines behind him.


bad company

At the open mike I fell in with a bad crowd.


intrument of intimacy

After the advent of email, only the poem was left to replace the letter as an instrument of intimate communication.


burst reader

Some people can read a book from beginning to end. I tend to be a burst reader, reading no more than a page or two at time. Perhaps this explains my poetry affinity.


llittle said thus loud

Words strike us as loud when they’re trite and spoken at a significant decibel level. Uttered at the top of one’s lungs, good poetry won’t hurt the ears.


imaginary parks

According to [Jean] Starobinski, Rousseau argued that civilization veils the transparency of nature; I want to ask if poetry can unveil that transparency….The experiment is this: to see what happens when we regard poems as imaginary parks in which we may breathe an air that is not toxic and accommodate ourselves to a mode of dwelling that is not alienated.

At the same time, it is necessary to recognize that experiments tend to be conducted in artificial conditions. The imagination is a perfect laboratory, cleansed of the contaminations of history. The true poet has to be simultaneously a geographer of the imagination and a historian of the alienations and desecrations that follow the march of ‘civilization’.

--Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth, Harvard Univ. Press, 2000


DNA of lit

Quotes are the DNA of literature.


bush pilot

Sometimes one fears that last line will never come, one feels like a bush pilot running low on gas, hoping to find an airstrip cut out of the wilderness.


no axioms

Poetry hasn’t axioms; it has some formulas, but all of those have at least one variable.


secret life

He had made poetry his secret life. But he realized after a time that no one was searching for what he’d hidden.


natter manner

The natter mannerists: the ‘talk poets’.


dread word

Dread the last word, so much you enjoyed the poem’s writing, or reading.


sum of the ideas

Tout poète véritable, indépendamment des pensées qui lui viennent de la vérité éternelle, doit contenir la somme des idées de son temps.

Every true poet, independently of the notions that come to him from eternal truth, should contain the sum of the ideas of his times.

—Victor Hugo, Les Rayons et les Ombres (1840, Preface)


parody paradox

No one quotes from the great parody.


in defense of criticism

One reason to read criticism is to write less, and, secondarily, to make it harder to write the next poem.


our cult

By the late twentieth century it was possible to consider those who pursued poetry as members of a cult.


one thing

Today I want to do one thing: to write a beautiful line.


world in miniature

The genuine poet is all-knowing—he is an actual world in miniature.

—Novalis, Pollen and Fragments, translated by Arthur Versluis (Phanes Press, 1989), p.124


render unto the reader

Render unto the reader what the reader has reason to expect. That may not always be meaning but it must be a meaningful experience.



I see little difference between poets and the inventors of self-propelled flying machines.


leap or fall

There is something in art that can’t be taught: What can be taught is an approach, an address or a stance, a way of being available to what might come next. But in all art, after that, it’s the leap, or the fall, and those events can only be experienced.


substitution of terms

Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.
—John Godfrey Saxe (lawyer and poet), The Daily Cleveland Herald, March 3, 1869.

Poems, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.


reader or hoarder

I fear I’ve gone from being a book reader to a book hoarder.


phone sex scansion

When poets talk about scansion it reminds me of phone sex…lovers from afar aching to close the distance.


wave building

Feel the line build, a wave about to break.


poetry of flowers

The poetry of flowers contains no pedantry and no affectation.

—Anna Fitch Ferguson, Bits of Philosophy (1933)

(At a book sale, I found this lovely little book by a woman who lived much like Thoreau at Walden Pond: simply, with a writing implement and ready aphorism.)


plain sight

Plain sight is poetry because real seeing is such a rare phenomenon.


beset piece

It could be described as a beset piece.


lost in its distance

A poem at a remove, is a poem flirting with the chasm in which it will be lost.


word oasis

A word oasis in a language-parched land.


unnecessary / essential

Poetry exists at the poles of unnecessary language and essential language.


abstract critical violence

But I would raise the question…whether what I have called “matter of fact” criticisms (of which there have been a good many varieties) are not less likely, in general, to do violence to our common sense of apprehension of literature or poetry than the “abstract” criticisms I have contrasted with them. The “abstract” method , as Hume said, apropos of its use in morals, “may be more perfect in itself, but suits less the imperfection of human nature, and is a common source of illusion and mistake in this as well as in other subjects.”

—R.S. Crane, The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry (U. of Toronto Press, 1953)


banal personal reminisces

Why are so many banal personal reminiscences passed off as poetry?


resists paraphrase

A poem that resists paraphrase at every turn.


meaning matters

The meaning is the matter.


threatens literature

To write the poetry that threatens literature as we know it.


in praise of vague

The Italian poet Leopardi believed vagueness was an essential characteristic of poetry, allowing the mind "to wander in the realm of the vague and indeterminate, in the realm of those childlike ideas which are born out of the ignorance of the whole."

See G. Singh's comprehensive study of Leopardi and the Theory of Poetry:"It is because the poet is attracted to the vague and indefinite, more than what is clear, concrete, and precise, that his language, even when it does not contain a full-fledged image or simile or metaphor, does to a certain extent partake of the character of an image or a symbol, both saying and suggesting something much more than what it commonly would outside of poetry." (Singh)


train window

Images in a poem flicker by in fleeting transit like things seen from a train window.


favorite number

A number that never fails to raise my spirits: 811 (Dewey Decimal System classification for Poetry).


new improved tide

Some people say Ezra Pound first said “Make it new.” I’m pretty sure that Proctor & Gamble had that slogan long before he did. There is the ring of ersatz capitalism in that ‘make it new’ dictum.


deep divide

The deepest divide in poetry is between the authentic impulse and the crafted artifice.


little spells

...modern poetry has replaced the “big spell” with a lot of “little spells,” each work pulling us in a different direction and these directions tending to cancel off one another, as with the conflicting interests of a parliament. (“Magic & Religion”)

—Kenneth Burke,The Philosophy of Literary Form (Vintage 1957)


recast line

Sometimes you have to recast and recast the line like a fly fisherman over a stream of sullen trout. Ever hopeful that on one perfect presentation the line will suddenly draw taut.


no sense of decency

Often after reading a famous poet’s blurb on the back of a poetry book, the attorney Joseph Welsh’s well-known rebuke of Senator Joseph McCarthy comes to mind: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”


prime movers

Are the words being moved around by you, or are they moving you around?


theme park

The poem was a theme park for words.


line relationship

Finally, no particular line is valuable except inasmuch as it performs a dramatic function in relationship to other lines in a particular poem: one kind of line ending becomes powerful because of its relationship to other kinds of line endings.

—James Longenbach, The Art of the Poetic Line (Graywolf 2008)


basic misunderstanding

Bad poetry begins with a misunderstanding of what poetry is.


fewer better

I need to read fewer poems better.



serious style

Striving for a style so substantive it’s content.


announce themselves

There are poets who announce themselves by how they dress. There are poets who announce themselves by the inventive ways they spell their names. And then there are poets who announce themselves with only a few words at the outset of a poem.


three-dimensional almost

At one point in The Orchards of Syon (XXIII) I say ‘I write / to astonish myself’. This self-astonishment is achieved when, by some process I can’t fathom, common words are moved, or move themselves, into clusters of meaning so intense that they seem to stand up from the page, three-dimensional almost.

—Geoffrey Hill, Don’t Ask Me What I Mean,
edited by Clare Brown and Don Paterson (Picador, 2003)



It was a reading full of wannaBeats, but the magic of a specific time can't be reclaimed by declaiming in a similar style.


cathedral and scaffolding

The poem was like a cathedral covered by scaffolding. There was beauty and wonder underneath but it could not be seen for all the critical attention.


home appliance rescues poem

When confronted with a particularly abstract meditation, I want to say to the poet, “What this poem needs is a toaster.”


lyric event

Because of its brevity the lyric can be an event outside of artifice.



Poet, be a conquistador of terra tacenda!


music of our misery

What is a poet? An unhappy man who in his heart harbors a deep anguish, but whose lips are so fashioned that the moans and cries which pass over them are transformed into ravishing music. His fate is like that of the unfortunate victims whom the tyrant Phalaris imprisoned in a brazen bull, and slowly tortured over a steady fire; their cries could not reach the tyrant's ears so as to strike terror into his heart; when they reached his ears they sounded like sweet music. And men crowd around the poet and say to him, "Sing for us soon again"—which is as much as to say, "May new sufferings torment your soul, but may your lips be fashioned as before; for the cries would only distress us, but the music, the music, is delightful.

—Søren Kierkegaard, from “A” in Either/Or: Parables of Kierkegaard, edited by Thomas Oden (Princeton, 1978)


poetry / religion

The sign in the bookstore read: ‘POETRY/RELIGION’. Yes, I thought, they are beginning to understand that only faith sustains our genre.


not-for-profit poetry

There are two kinds of poetry presses: IRS sanctioned 501(c)(3) nonprofits and de facto nonprofits.



It seems I have a blindspot when it comes to visual poetry. I am vested in the fact that such a thing as a 'poem' can be made from the pure and simple resources of language.


thousand pictures

A word is a well of a thousand pictures.


imaginative elsewhere

Poets dream within their imaginative elsewhere. In Scotland we live with very occasional illumination, so ours is actually a rather sunlit verse; by contrast, the Spanish poet is stalked by shadow.

—Don Paterson, The Blind Eye, Faber & Faber 2007



Unable to raise a flame from the kindling of the first few lines.



The language of poetry is supersaturated.


modulate this

Political poetry necessarily ranges beyond the modulation of literary poetry.


sound of the pages

It was the sound of turning the pages that he remembered most about the book.


multum in parvo

The phrase multum in parvo has always had a special significance for me. In its terse and compact Latin diction, it exemplifies exactly what it connotes: much in little. The archetype of brevity, however, is not easy to define. Abstraction, conciseness, symbolism, and imaginative potential are basic in the concept. A multiplicity of detail is concentrated into a unified principle, the particular is transformed into the universal, a largeness of meaning is conveyed with the utmost economy of means. This largeness of meaning should be accomplished by a dramatic impact, in a word: insight with a gasp.

—Carl Zigrosser, Multum In Parvo (George Braziller, 1965)


slow to stop

The longer the poem the more extensive the ending. An epic poem should avoid rapid deceleration. Or to put it another way, a freight train or line of barges doesn’t stop on a dime.


life's sake

Art for life's sake. That and that alone.


airport bookstore

Walking into an airport bookstore, behind me hundreds of people streaming in all directions to this or that gate and flight, and I realize how lucky I am to know the classics from the chaff.


instance unloosed

To unloose the instance without effusive utterance.


words to beware of

Certain words aspire to the state of poeticism.


exotic & commonplace

Eliot was from the first a poet with a remarkable range of diction, and with a natural gift for the vividly memorable phrase. He was always consciously aware of the varied resources of English poetic diction and delighted to place an exotic word exactly, or to give us a sudden shock which the unexpected introduction of a commonplace word or phrase can provide.

—Helen Gardner, The Art of T.S. Eliot, E.P. Dutton & Co 1959



A poetry impossible to deplete even after repeated readings.


prose poet

Prose poet: Escapee from the chain-gang of the line. He runs on, hearing the dogs in the distance.


limits of spoken word

Tough emcee: He once grabbed a skin-head poet by the short hairs and dragged the guy away from an open mike.


in front of the poet

In front of a new, genuine poet, you always experience the paradoxical and wonderful feeling that all of a sudden you understand a language so far unknown to you.

—Lucian Blaga (Romanian philosopher and poet, 1895-1951), The Élan of the Island, 1946

from A Blaga Anthology on CD, Dr R.T. Allen


book ruins

I awoke one day shadowed by the ruins of stacked books.


that word

A word you want to build a poem around.


load-bearing wall

Think of each line as a load-bearing wall: If the wrong one is broken through during revision, the whole structure of the poem collapses.



The zeitgeist is expressed more clearly by the obscure many than by the acclaimed few. It is within the ordinary gossip and buzz, within the thousands of unacclaimed poems, that poetry takes shapes. [295]

—Alice Fulton, “A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge,” Feeling as a Formal Language (Graywolf Press, 1999)


crowd of words

In order to reach the poetry, to the crowding words I say, “Make way, make way.”


workshop character

The Ventriloquist’s Dummy: The person who practically hops up on the workshop leader’s lap, saying what he/she expects the workshop leader would want her/him to say about the poem.


moving parts

A poem of many moving parts.


thought experiment

The poem as ‘thought experiment’.


linebreak ache

Linebreak ache: experiencing a poet execute one of those overly clever linebreaks meant to call maximum attention to syntactic meaning or a word within a word.


extraordinary ordinary

"Astonishing" is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We're astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we've grown accustomed to. Granted, in daily speech, where we don't stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like "the ordinary world," "ordinary life," "the ordinary course of events." ... But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone's existence in this world.

—Wislawa Szymborska (her acceptance address for the Nobel Prize in Literature)


writing and writing about

To write about poetry, I must be writing poetry.


good shepherd

Poet, be a good shepherd of words! Tend them well, lead them watchfully into the bright pasture of the page.


effortless poetry

It’s hard to get over the effrontery of a poem when obviously so little effort went into its making.


too late now

A poem I should have encountered when I was seventeen.


surface phenomena

But to fool one’s self that definitions are being reached by merely referring frequently to skyscrapers, radio antennae, steam whistles, or other surface phenomena of our time is merely to paint a photograph.

—Hart Crane, “General Aims and Theories”


jewel box

The sonnet is poetry’s jewel box.


fall line

Find the fall line through the poem.

(In memory of my nephew. RIP WW)


looking in all the wrong places

You have to get away from the anthologies. You have to find the poems less easily found/bound.


the power under one's hand

At my desk I reach for a pen and realize that I’m at the console that controls the universe.


simple means

Because of its simple means (language), the educated poor are deeply attracted by poetry. The privileged impoverishment of being a poet in this world.


being alive to poetry

Just as our body needs to breathe, our soul requires the fulfillment and expansion of its existence in the reverberations of emotional life. Our feeling of life desires to resound in tone, word, and image.

—Wilhelm Dilthey, “The Imagination of the Poet,” translated by Louis Agosta and Rudolf A. Makkreel, Poetry and Experience (Princeton U. Press, 1985)


different standards

It was a poem manufactured to meet precise critical standards; thus it failed the test of art.



Reading the poem was like descending a switchback trail of lines, stopping now and again to take in the view.


debris reader

A poet is a vagrant reader, a debris reader: Cereal boxes, fortune cookies, instruction manuals, pill bottle labels, junk mail, coupons, ticket stubs. Any scrap of printed matter, no matter how inconsequential, may yield a revelation.


rime or responsibility.

A poem of no rime or responsibility.


make a raft

Wrecked and adrift on the high seas of language, lash the lines together and make a raft.


peripheral vision

Some poems come from visions; while other poems are caught out of the corner of one’s eye.


uneducated eye

The Artist is uneducated, is seeing IT for the first time; he can never see the same thing twice. - The Public and The Artist can meet at every point except the—for The Artist—vital one, that of the pure uneducated seeing. They like the same drinks, can fight in the same trenches, pretend to the same women—but never see the same thing ONCE. —Mina Loy, "The Artist And The Public," The Last Lunar Baedeker, edited by Roger L. Conover, The Jargon Society, 1982 (The first part of the above quote made me think of Monet and his iterations of haystacks, the Rouen Cathedral, poplars...)


it was there all the time

A poem anyone could have written before someone did.


doesn't sweat the small stuff

The translator takes faith in the universals (ocean, hunger, love, etc.) and lets the trivial matters tied to time or place take care of themselves or fall away.


seed word

What was the ‘seed word’ of the poem?


state of the art

The poetry book was carried in a brown paper sack that he’d raise to eyes now and again for a little peek.


how it happens

The old woman came from Myli with a basket of tomatoes so she could enter my poem.

--Yannis Ritsos, from "Monochords," translated by Paul Merchant
In Pieces: an anthology of fragmentary writing, edited by Olivia Dresher, Impassio Press 2006.


tics not techniques

Eccentric capitalization or breaking the line within a word seem more like tics than poetic techniques.


book of forms: pantoum

A pantoum has the formal virtue of when you've read it once, it feels like you've read it twice. Or as Yogi Berra put it, "It's déjà vu all over again." But everyone should write one (and I mean that...just once is more than enough).


series of quotes

In time a good book will become a series of quotes.


resplendent poetry

Words dynamically arrayed—resplendent poetry. (thinking of Olson)


rope ladder

Climbing on words like a rope ladder, the poem must proceed by itself and complete itself. It is not that easy, slowly, very slowly.

—George Seferis, A Poet’s Journal: Days of 1945-1951, The Belknap Press (Harvard U. Press), 1974, translated by Athan Anagnostopoulos


avant-garde tradition

He was steeped in the avant-garde tradition.


pace and modulation

The most important tools of a reader are pace and modulation.


word bounty

My mind moved like a combine through those lines, harvesting a bounty of words.


spa patois

A poet luxuriates in obscure lexicons.


all we can be sure of

     The only danger is not going far enough…we are speaking here of the human spirit. If we go deep enough, we reach the common life, the shared experience of man, the world of possibility.
     If we do not go deep, if we live and write half-way, there are obscurity, vulgarity, the slang of fashion, and several kinds of death.
     All we can be sure of is that our art has life in time, it serves human meaning, it blazes on the night of the spirit; all we can be sure of is that at our most subjective we are universal; all we can be sure of is the profound flow of our living tides of meaning, the river meeting the sea in eternal relationship, in a dance of power, in a dance of love.

—Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry, Wm. Morrow & Co., 1974, pp. 201-202


falls off quickly from there

No middle ground: Poetry is either a quasi-religious experience or it is light verse.



A poet should aspire to a state of irrelevance. That’s where the art occurs.


to usurp the author

The attraction of critical theory: One can usurp the place of the author without having had to produce a primary text.


bad general

Like a bad general, the poet kept ordering wave upon wave of his lines against my mind’s redoubt.


a large undertaking

For the poet phrasemaking is tantamount to the tomb-making of the Pharaohs of Egypt.


boatload of quotes

When he was working on his study of German tragedy, he boasted a collection of “over 600 quotations very systematically and clearly arranged”; like the later notebooks, this collection was more than an accumulation of excerpts intended to facilitate the writing of the study but constituted the main work, with the writing as something secondary. The main work consisted in tearing fragments out of their context and arranging them afresh in such a way that they illustrated one another and were able to prove their raison d’être in a free-floating state, as it were. It definitely was a sort of surrealistic montage. Benjamin’s idea of producing a work consisting entirely of quotations, one that was mounted so masterfully that it could dispense with any accompanying text, may strike one as whimsical in the extreme and self-destructive to boot, but it was not, any more than were the contemporaneous surrealistic experiments which arose from similar impulses.

--Hannah Arendt, introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (Schocken Books, 1969)


Valentine's sentiment

To write a love poem is to live fully.


superimpose and infuse

The image is superimposed over its archetype. It’s the archetype that infuses an image with a numinous glow.


livin' large, po style

The poetry mogul drove up in his ten-year-old Volvo.


surreal issue

How many dream poems are the surreal issue of insomnia?


lump poems

Poems are lumps—physical entities. This does not mean, of course, that they are not about something—the complete dependence of all the paths, the threads, time-space, History, the Social. And the more unrestrainedly the poet gives himself up to the materiality, the more precisely these lumps give off the quality of his conscious effort, of his opinions and ideas. Which is far more interesting than the opinions and ideas themselves—only physical submission shows how long the succession is, demonstrates their real drama.

—Per Kirkeby, “Painterly Poetry,” Selected Essays from Bravura (Van Abbemuseum, 1982), tranlated by Peter Shield.



The perfect poem is as streamlined as the tongue.


straining to entertain

The poet thought that by being a clown the work would somehow show itself better. If the people laughed, if they bought books, if they went home happy, that was enough.


world poet

A poet whose work can’t be translated is a poet not worth translating. The work would have to be so idiomatic or idiosyncratic that it cannot convey the universally human aspects of what poetry is and which can always be carried over language to language. In other words, the poet is not a ‘world poet’ in any sense that would make the work worth translating.


poetic forms: sestina

Sestina: six words repeated till depletion.


tea leafs

Try as we might, some “impurities” will remain in the poem’s final draft; but they are like tea leafs at the bottom of the cup, recalling the flavor’s origin, and, could we read them, telling us our fortune.

—Alfred Corn, The Pith Helmet (Cummington Press, 1992)


spoken word

The poem was full-throated, and full-throttle.


arranged marriage

Sometimes one senses the rime was an arranged marriage. One feels forced relations between the words.


of snakes and flowers

Only a bad poet hides a snake motif under a flowery style…

—Vladimír Holan, "In the Dance Hall"


resist, though they insist

Sometimes a poet must resist the insistence of words.


prose v. poetry

Why is that prose writers don’t seem to dither over the ways prose differs from poetry?


bleed through

As I was reading I could feel the lines bleeding through into memory.


uncovering oppressions

[Poetry] is the last possible domain in which we could preserve by language what we commonly deem to be reliable cognitive commonplaces, and last to appeal to solid, everyday perceptions. Poetry does not seek to negate these props. But it uncovers the oppressions of naïve experience and the stale pool of confirming constancies. (49)

—Justus Buchler, The Main of Light (Oxford Univ. Press, 1974)


nice coasters

Poetry books are not those large format, heavily illustrated coffee-table books. However, these slim volumes do make for nice coasters on the coffee table.


nuance, not new instance

To find the nuance in an emotion/notion, rather than a new instance of artifice. Too often the avant-garde is interested in the latter. Their magazines are full of language gadgetry, like the latest Sharper Image catalog, they have bought into the capitalist fetish for the new thing-a-ma-jig or the slick design of an otherwise common device.


image of note

From Frost's "Birches"...
                  once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

I've always loved this strange yet apt simile. The length or extension of what follows the 'like' is what makes it work.


everything always singing

Some people are afflicted by tinnitus, an annoying ringing constantly in the ears. For the poet everything is singing. She constantly hears a singing wherever she goes in the world.


mind's midden

The fragments and discards left in my old notebook: the mind’s midden.


salvage operation

I could salvage only a few words and phrases from the wreckage of the poem.


no parthenon

it is not the Parthenon
but a Vuillard small
as an Adam’s apple
where pain mounts and falls

—Frank O’Hara, Stones, 1957-60, a collaboration of lithographs by Larry Rivers & Frank O’Hara


latent in everything

A poem is latent in everything. The humblest of acts or least of things will yield the most extravagant find.


metaphysics of language

Poetry is the metaphysics of language.


blasted into little pieces

Prior to The Great War (WWI), Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis put out their Vorticist magazine aggressively called BLAST. After the war they were publishing in The Little Review. The titles of the two publications are telling: Nothing like the reality of trench warfare to put one’s art into perspective.


pun of the day

After reading his florid poem, he asked, “Can this poem be fixed?” “No,” I said, “it’s too badly baroque.”


landscape into language

If I sit by a pond to write, my poem shimmers like the water’s surface. If I sit by the river and write, then its flow carries over into my language. When I write on the mountainside, I make a poem with a wide ambit.


galley slave

Degas on Manet:

Manet is in despair because he cannot paint atrocious paintings…and be fêted and decorated; he is an artist not by inclination but by force. He's a galley slave chained to the oar.

Quoted in The Paintings of Manet by Nathanial Harris (Mallard Press 1989)


solar plexus

A poem is the solar plexus of speech.


stepping stone

Each book a stepping stone to another.


destabilizing influence

Insert a word that will subtly destabilize the line and thus enliven it.


drawer of treasure or dream

As I read the poem it was as though I was slowly sliding open a drawer full of treasure or dream.


hit by a rock

You can do a lot with educated eyes. What I mean by “educated” is simply how pictures, among other things, can teach you about how to see, and what’s visible when you look hard enough or most openly. At a certain point, past the shock of seeing, you want to do something about it. That’s what makes an artist begin being an artist in the first place. At one time or another you get hit like with a rock. I have a theory that the course of anyone’s artistic life is determined largely by the attempt to retrieve that original rock, or what the painters used to call The Dream. [14]

—Bill Berskon, “Poetry and Painting,” Sudden Address (Cuneiform Press 2007)