wherever the end

The last lines of almost any poem, because they are the ending, will by default seem a grand summing up or a reaching for epiphany. Had the last few lines been anywhere else in the poem they’d be seen as much less portentous.


fragile construct

Too fragile for its flaws, perhaps you were wise not to revise the piece.



Block: The page a snowfield, deep and unmarked to the far edge.


not a hill or a tree

Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or a tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is the most the definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.

—Georgia O’Keeffe, 1977

[Quote encountered today at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, NM.]


finish it

The poem that wouldn’t give up on me.


first marks

No line is harder to write than the first line in a new notebook.



Think of the crumpled poem as the creator’s fist going down swinging.


petting zoo

It was the kind of workshop that is more of a petting zoo for new poems.


step-ladders and demon-traps

Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-setting—the step-ladders, and demon-traps—the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of literary histrio.

—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition,” 1846, 19th Century American Writers on Writing (Trinity U. Press, 2010) , edited by Brenda Wineapple


stand clear

Sometimes the content is so inherently poetic that all the poet must do is to keep the language from getting in the way of the telling.


no room for pseudonym

Put your name on a poem: The poem is your name.



Poet, detonate denotation!


house to house

Two weeks before Christmas, a group of poets went out ‘caroling’ their poems. Some doors were slammed, but many homes welcomed them.


come who may

An accidental audience is all the poet can hope for.


sharp rebound

Complex and subtle interests, which the mind spins for itself may occupy art and poetry or our own spirits for a time; but sooner or later they come back with a sharp rebound to the simple elementary passions—anger, desire, regret, pity, and fear; and what corresponds to them in the sensuous world—bare, abstract, fire, water, air, tears, sleep, silence, and what De Quincey has called the ‘glory of motion’. [99]

—Walter Pater, “Aesthetic Poetry,” Essays on Literature and Art (J.M Dent & Sons, 1973)


skyline features

A few poems in the book stood like skyscrapers against other low-rise structures.


through or over

As a medium or as the messenger are two ways the poet can carry out her/his social mission.


aphoristic aphrodisiac

The villanelle: a form made to order for the aphorist.


hop along

The meter felt a little off kilter; it was a line with a limp.


off the rails

When a poem is going too fast and is about to come off the rails (the line), let it.


writing jail

Joan Simon: …What’s ahead?

Jenny Holzer: Trying to write something again. I haven’t locked myself up recently. As soon as I finish the next round of public pieces—in Europe and the US—I have to go to writing jail.

Joan Simon: The artists that have fed into your thinking are an extremely diverse lot. Among the earliest is writer, artist and printer William Blake.

Jenny Holzer: When I read Songs of Innocence (1779-c. 1800), for the first time I was entirely convinced that there was good in the world, including people.

Joan Simon: And his illustrations?

Jenny Holzer: I liked the fact that Blake was able to have the text and images inhabit the same space.

Joan Simon: Was there any one poem in particular?

Jenny Holzer: There is a lamb poem with just one little sinister turn that mentions a neck.

Joan Simon: ‘Little Lamb / Here I am, / Come and lick, / My white neck.’

Jenny Holzer: That’s the one. Then from Songs of Experience:

     If thought is life
     And strength and breath
     And the want
     Of thought is death.

Jenny Holzer and Joan Simon in Conversation, June 1997, New York”
pressPlay: contemporary artists in conversation (Phaidon Press, 2005)


good in a room

The sonnet is the right form for frustrated interior decorators.


nothing but now

In a poem the temporal collapses into the universal now.


if you build it

How to build an anthology truly representative of a century of poets/poetry:
  A. Pick your poets first; then select their best and most representative poems.
  B. Ordered by increasing level of difficulty, identify and select:
    1) Primary: Important figures of enduring reputation and influence. Generally speaking, they are already well-represented in other anthologies or critical histories of the century.
    2) Secondary: Though their reputations and influence may have waned considerably over the years, figures who were important during a period of time. They set off a trend / fashion that during a certain time (generally at least a decade) garnered much attention and critical interest.
    3) Comprehensive: (related to #2) Figures who are representative of a school/movement¸ however fleeting was its influence, which is important to filling out the entire picture of the century’s poetry.
    4) Corrective: Figures whose inclusion will help to correct a bias caused by a general lack of publishing opportunities and attention, resulting primarily from ignorance or neglect by the dominant cultural and critical powers.

Footnote: Don't be cheap and beg if you have to, but don't omit someone important (Ginsberg/Plath) due to steep reprint fees. Solicit donations from major organizations like The Poetry Foundation, Academy of American Poets, etc. You only have one chance to get it right.


dangerous business

Poet, be a sapper of the psyche.


fall left or right

Language is alive. For the poet, each word represents sounds and meaning; the music of meaning is shaped by words that fall left or right of a single word. Each word is an increment of the whole. Perhaps we are drawn to poetry because the language vibrates (is an action), and we seem to search still for a language that will keep us whole.

—Yusef Komunyakaa, “Kit & Caboodle,” The Eye of the Poet (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002)


slowly closing in

Each translation by virtue of its errors makes the next translation closer to right.


twist of phrase

And a very taxing syntax it was.


bad advice

The poet must avoid the kind of writing guidance that leads to composing competent prose.



Metaphor is the metaphysics of words.


good tailor

Like a good tailor who fashions a suit that fits one man (or even two) resplendently; and an overcoat that might suit two or three—thus for me might my poems be made ‘to fit’, in one case (or perhaps in two or three). This comparison is somewhat deprecatory (only in a superficial sense); but it is, I think, accurate and reassuring. If my poems do not fit in a general sense, then they fit in a particular sense. This is no small matter. Their truth is, in this fashion, guaranteed.

—C.P. Cavafy, Selected Prose Works (U. of Michigan Press, 2010), translated by Peter Jeffreys


means more

Meaning doesn’t wear out, it deepens and becomes more nuanced.


not known as poetry

It’s promising when at first a piece of writing is not recognized as being poetry.


not horizon but waterfall

The notion of ‘line’ in Chinese, Korean and Japanese poetry can’t be scanning a horizon, rather it must be watching a waterfall.


words at play

The poem was a sound playground.


leaning late

Last night was the 16th Wallace Stevens Birthday Bash featuring Robert Pinsky reading the poetry of Wallace Stevens.

"The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm" was one of the poems Pinsky chose to discuss at length. Here are a few lines:

    The words were spoken as if there was no book,
    Except that the reader leaned above the page,

    Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
    The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

    The summer night is like a perfection of thought.


follows no wave

The poem is oblivious to fashion.


skips a generation

In the era of word processing software, the poet faced with a protracted power outage reverts to longhand as though the machine age, represented by the typewriter, never happened.

(n.b.: on the fifth night without power.)


removed from spoken language

The value of the language of poetry is directly proportional to its being removed from the spoken language. This is what common people cannot understand, since they do not want to accept the fact that a poet endeavors to express only the unutterable.

—Vicente Huidobro, “Poetry,” lecture delivered at El Ateneo de Madrid, 1921, The Poet is a Little God (Xenos Books, 1990), translated by Jorge García Gόmez.


the breaks

A linebreak as a means to semantic attention or syntactic surprise.


written tune

The poem being all music and no gist, made me wonder whether it would have been better whistled rather than written.


inadvertent advert

So often listed in poets' bios, more poets knew the name of the literary magazine than ever read the magazine itself.


frail reasoning

Much of the poetics one hears about ‘the line’ amounts to grasping at straw.


color drained from them

Words go wan before experience.


walk and talk

I was from German and Scandinavian working farmer/logger/fisherman world of pre-WWII Puget Sound, Allen from the New York City Immigrant Left. We met in a backyard in Berkeley, and again in Kenneth Rexroth's wood-floored apartment in the foggy Avenues zone of San Francisco...We argued a lot and were not easy on each other. I made him walk more, and he made me talk more. It was good for both of us.

—Gary Snyder, introduction to The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder (Counterpoint, 2008)


stay with it

To reveal the mystery within the real without resorting to metaphor.


greasy and slick

Slathered with unctuous blurbs, the book felt uncomfortably sticky to the touch.


stress no less

When you say this is ‘blank verse’, are you talking only about the poem’s meter?


could hear it coming

You could drop that noisy last line like a bad muffler.


no feet


Don’t ask me to write with my feet
He replied
When they accused him of being too intellectual

—Nicanor Parra, “XXIX,” After-Dinner Declarations (Host Publications, 2008), translated by Dave Oliphant


dangerous crossing

The poem could only cross this line at its own peril.


craft's limit

Where and when the resources of craft run out, art must sustain.


no family resemblance

Everywhere critics keep finding heirs to the childless Whitman and Dickinson.


rogue prose

The poem as reprobate prose.


flickering effects

Like Constable, Tomlinson admires accidents because they are governed by laws, however difficult to fathom (just as his poetry careens between seeming laxness and the occasional inevitability of rhyme and meter); he most values the peculiar combination of revelation and concealment brought about by changes of light in a landscape. The pleasure of seeing and then rendering, whether in paint or in language, the unstable, flickering effects in an external scene “discovers” (his word) one’s true identity, allowing the artist to become himself only during the moments when he is actively engaged in reproducing his passive observations. What we see uncovers what we are; what we are defines what we discover. By using as an epigraph to his poem Constable’s own inquiry into the relation between science and painting (“May not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?”), Tomlinson implicitly asks whether landscape poems might not constitute equivalent experiments.

—Willard Spiegelman, “Just Looking: Charles Tomlinson and the ‘Labour of Observation’,” How Poets See The World: The art of description in contemporary poetry (Oxford U. Press, 2005)


mind museum

Looking at paintings/photographs helps one fill a mind museum of fine images.


follows the money

After his death, the poet’s reputation slipped in proportion to the fewer pages in major anthologies carrying his work, which in turn was a result of the hefty fees his rights holders asked for permission to reprint his poems.


block poem

The poem was a block of words and where it was placed it stood firm.


reader's perogative

When one reads a lot it should not be a surprise, or even a source of consternation, when one’s words happen to echo those of others. A reader doesn't worry when his own words go so far as to paraphrase or to inadvertently plagiarize the words of other writers.


kept his plates fair

We Followers saw things from Whistler’s standpoint. If he etched a plate, we had to etch it almost exactly on Whistlerian lines. If Whistler kept his plates fair, ours were so fair that they could scarcely be seen. If Whistler adopted economy of means using the fewest possible lines, we became so nervous that we could scarcely touch the plate lest we should overelaborate.

—Mortimer Menpes, Whistler As I Knew Him (Hol Arts Book, 2009)


for the very first time

As the conceptualist explained the various ideas behind his project, we nodded and pretended to be discovering these notions for the first time.


the power to cow

The function of a blurb is to so overpraise the book that any reader would feel ashamed at being underwhelmed upon reading the book.


ambit and order

Romantic in scope, classical in construction.


night entries

Was it a good or bad thing that writing in his journal helped him fall asleep?


resonant space

I have chosen the second path, the path of encounter between inner and outer. What is important in this kind of art is to limit the parts of the work I make, accept the parts I do not make, and create a dynamic relationship in which these aspects both interpenetrate and repel each other. I hope that this relationship will lead to the opening up of a poetic, critical, and transcendent space.

I call this art yohaku—emptiness (resonant space).

What I mean by yohaku is not simply the space that is left vacant in the paintings of many painters. Such a space is lacking in reality. For example, if a drum is struck, the sound reverberates into empty space. The space of this vibration, including the drum, is what I call yohaku.

—Lee Ufan, “Yohaku—Emptiness,” The Art of Encounter (Lisson Gallery, 2004)

[Marking Infinity exhibit at the Guggenheim.]


bear pit

The workshop group was trying to tame the poem when they should have been provoking it with sharp sticks.


carriage return

If you were born before about 1965, and you were a young writer, then your typewriter probably holds a similar status to that of your first girl/boyfriend.


dither and drone

The poem’s fragments buzzed around my head like flies. I never felt I would be harmed by them or that I could catch them and hold them, but I had the urge to swat them down just to make them stop their incessant dither and drone.


wrong message

Bad backdrop for a poetry reader: A door with a red glowing EXIT sign over it.


not passing through

But the poet does not write chiefly for his own generation; he must therefore write about permanent things, or things that are permanent because they are perpetually renewed, like grass and humanity. The most important part of a poem is the subject; and permanence is the one essential element in the subject of poetry.

—Robinson Jeffers, fragment "Preface" to Continent's End


don't look back

Not a good sign that line by line I felt the words vanishing behind me.


more is more

I'm against opulent poetry just as I'm against opulent houses.


safe for now

In my notebook, I established a ‘rescue pound’ for abused and neglected words.


making magic

All the magic in the making.


hard looks

What you look hard at seems to look hard at you, hence the true and false instress of nature.

—Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Journals of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford U. Press, 1959, p. 204) edited by H. House and G. Storey


seemed close enough to touch

The critics were small cold and stony satellites perpetually orbiting that great green and blue planet that was the poet.



The poem seemed to have some life while it was passed around in typescript, while under consideration, and as yet subject to revision. But once the poem was published that was the last seen of it.


can't stop this

A poet too bad to ever be blocked.



The rhymes were too close: Like Siamese twins, sometimes one must suffer for the vitality of the other.


their language

They are speaking to one another. Whether you know
Their language or not is immaterial. They know yours.

Poof poof poof!
Sorrow dissolves in the chicken fat of daylight, the horns
Of taxicabs, a fat, old patzer standing at the street corner puffing
On a stogie, a poet clairvoyant with passion thrusting a piece
Of paper into a friend’s hand. Read this read this read this!

—Baron Wormser, “For the Yiddish Poets,” Scattered Chapters: New & Selected Poems (Sarabande Books, 2008)


careless with words

Are you too careless with language to be poet? Then again, that may be why you are a poet.


worse than being heckled

Oscar Wilde quipped that ‘a poet can survive anything but a misprint’. A corollary could be that a poetry reader can survive anything other than a noisy espresso machine.



How is it this online magazine ceased publication before I knew it existed?


literary milling

Whether it was a press or book mill, I couldn’t tell.


marble statue

Each of these new poems stands and prevails as a marble statue, a pure form in itself, delineated on all sides and locked into its own permanent contours, as the soul is locked into its mortal body. These poems—I shall only refer to the “Panther” and the “Carousel”—are carved out of the clumsy cold stone of their daylight brightness, like clear cameos, transparent only to the eye of the mind—structures of piercing hardness unknown heretofore in the German Lyric, the victory of knowing objectivity over the mere idea, the triumph, the ultimate triumph of language turned into total plasticity. Every single object stands there in its own immovable gravity...

—Stefan Zweig, Farewell to Rilke (Friends of the Daniel Reed Library, State University College, Fredonia NY, 1975), translated by Marion Sonnenfeld.

[Rainer Maria Rilke fans should scare up a copy of this pamphlet. It’s hagiography but of the highest form. Stefan Zweig is a beautiful prose stylist, and this was his memorial oration for Rilke delivered in Munich in 1927.]


grand manner

If you are going to get grandiose be expansive to the point of comic exaggeration or else be extravagant in the generosity of your vision.


sane over strange

I favor a poetry that proves itself sane over the poetry that is patently strange.


not literature per se

What Blake was writing was his universe.


missing matter

A poem that seems to have three times as many words than it has.


carpet paradigm

We can see the farthest development of Glasgow painting in the work of Edward Hornel, George Henry and David Gauld around 1889-90…In these canvases a fine line was trodden between decoration and narrative, and between a deep pictorial space and the shallow colour field. As one German critic noted, these works ‘approach the border where painting ends and the Persian carpet begins.

[….] we are concerned with a greater degree of abstraction and with the growing autonomy of pictorial elements and decorative motifs. This principle of convergence has been called the ‘carpet paradigm’. By the mid-1880s, for a painting to be likened to a carpet or tapestry was, in Post-Impressionist circles, a singular point of praise.

—David Brett, C. R. Mackintosh, The Poetics of Workmanship (Harvard Univ. Press, 1992)


belief system

For a poet language is creed.


sleep derived

You call it a dream poem, but aren’t they all?


one's time as poet

Perhaps one is a poet only for that brief duration when the new poem is read aloud.


before color

He was a visionary in black & white, sometimes sepia.


poet before philosopher

Here Coleridge encounters, in thoroughly existential fashion, anxiety itself. He cannot pin down this anxiety, cannot attach it to any definite object, event, or person; it is the revelation of void or non-being:

  A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
    A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
    Which find no natural outlet, no relief,
      In words, or sight, or tear—

All the German idealism, with which poor Coleridge’s head was crammed had nothing to say to him about this experience; it did not even provide the terms necessary for its philosophic comprehension. Kierkegaard had no yet introduced the analysis of dread into philosophy. Coleridge the poet, however, saw and knew before Coleridge the philosopher.

—William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study of Existential Philosophy (Anchor Books/Random House, 1962)


poet's statement

A convention of art exhibits is for the artist to write an ‘artist’s statement’ to accompany the work being shown. Often the document is only a couple paragraphs in length and it explains (or tries to explain) the artist’s motives and thought process behind the work being presented. Given that artists, visual by nature, must struggle to produce even these short tracts, I think that poets would be well served if they composed similar documents to be included with each new book of poems.


shaker poem

Spare in design, elemental in material, and elegant in its function: a Shaker poem.


sonic mechanics

The gears of rhythm driving the chain of thought.


tabula rasa reader

If you're averse to a particular kind of poetry, set aside your aesthetic predilections, if you are in sympathy with a particular kind of poetry, set aside your artistic competitiveness, and read the work on its own terms, with due care and attention.


revolution of dreams

Because the mechanistic imagery I had used so far had begun to horrify me, and certainly contradicted in intent and almost in coloration what I wanted to do next, it suggests that a new imagery must be found, less like a crustacean’s shell. But to change one’s images is like trying to revolutionize one’s dreams. It can’t be done overnight. Nor can it be effected by will. I find one entry reading: “Something seems to have been broken in me last year, like a spring breaking…What broke…is perhaps the sense that you can build your life by choice. Now I think you build it out of necessities—and that is all you can do is answer these necessities in the decentest way possible…I am trying to learn to lead a decent life and not want to be a great person and, at the same time, know what I have the human right to draw the line at.”

—Jane Cooper, “Nothing Has Been Used in the Manufacture of This Poetry That Could Have Been Used in the Manufacture of Bread,” essay in The Flashboat: Poems Collected and Reclaimed (Norton, 2000)


go then

If it’s too difficult for you, don’t bother reading poetry. It’s not like we’ll miss a little less audience.


accidental poem

The titles on the contents page formed a poem that could be read with interest.


breaker of words

Poet, be a cowboy in the rodeo of words. Ride them but let their wildness show.


broken beauty

A test for beauty: Could it be beautiful broken into pieces…or fallen into a state of ruin?


balance of terror

A poem rests, barely, on a single line
a kind of balance of terror
humans must hold out their arms
and endure this balance—
a moment’s dizziness
will tilt your whole life

—Tamura Ryuichi, the opening stanza of “Perhaps a Great Poem,” Tamura Ryuichi: On the Life & Work of a 20th Century Master, edited by Takako Lento & Wayne Miller (Pleiades Press, 2011)


trick of the trade

Set out only a few chairs for the poetry reading. This will condense the audience into a tight cluster, and if more chairs must be set up before the start of the reading, it will feel like an overflow event.


until the name alone would suffice

The length of a poet’s bio is in inverse relationship to the size of her/his reputation.


exit solo

Sad as it is to say, a great poet of love is dying alone. [Berkeley, CA]


empty cage

The poem was a finely constructed cage, but the door was unclasped and the bird within had flown.


spaces between

What is important is what cannot be said, the white space between the words.

—Max Frisch

(Quote encountered in Marco Breuer's Line of Sight installation at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.)


standing room only

Even though they are comfortably seated, one should read to his/her audience as though they were being forced to stand for the entire proceeding.


allegience at large

The poem as a flag for no nation.


supply-side economics

Often it seems we are producing more & more poetry books (in print & digital media) yet we’re failing to increase readership for this mass of material.


from poetry expect poetry

How little divides us finally from Longinus and his classic work on the sublime, written in the early years of our era. The literary encyclopedia reminds us that the sublime is not a formal feature of a work and can’t be defined by way of rhetorical categories. It is instead “a spark that leaps from the soul of the writer to the soul of the reader.” Has so much really changed? Don’t we still wait greedily for that spark?

Surely we don’t go to poetry for sarcasm or irony, for critical distance, learned dialectics or clever jokes. These worthy qualities and forms perform splendidly in their proper place—in an essay, a scholarly tract, a broadside in an opposition newspaper. In poetry, though, we seek the vision, the fire, the flame that accompanies spiritual revelation. In short, from poetry we expect poetry.

—Adam Zagajewski, title essay, A Defense of Ardor (FSG, 2002), translated by Clare Cavanaugh


palace or cell

Being locked inside one language, I’m glad that English is a sprawling palace, its rooms furnished with things collected from many nations, and not a small prison cell, spare and well-swept.


framed for attention

Art begins by framing for attention. The framing can be physical of course, as in the traditional picture frame or mural, or in sculpture the negative space around the object provides a frame, or the art may be framed in the sense of being captured on film/video, or it may be framed by the venue in which it takes place as in installation art or performance art, even landscape/cityscape art is framed for presentation to a random passer-by. Art that is framed asks for and awaits our attention, which is to say it seeks audience, however small or insular, and ultimately art, thus framed, seeks appreciation. And it is appreciation, by even a small group, that closes the circle and makes art of what was proffered by the framing.


as in chess

Will the first line be a quiet opening or a gambit?


landmarks in passing

A critic who was like a literary tour guide; a bit too glib when more glamour was called for.


no inert fact

There is nothing in the real world which is merely an inert fact. Every reality is there for feeling: it promotes feeling; and it is felt.

—Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, eds. David Ray Griffin and Donald Sherburne (The Free Press, 1978, p. 310), lecture delivered in 1927.


rhetorical question

Why not write about the rhombus?


for want of form

When the words came pouring out of him, for want of form, he grasped for cups, buckets & pans.


dead poet pinned down

It won’t be long before the annotated Bukowski is released.


another monsterpiece

Too many who haven’t the content or the temperament for the task, think to be a major poet means they must write a poem of epic length.


with nothing to bring

if representative form has value, it is as form, not as representation. The representative element in a work of art may or may not be harmful; always is irrelevant. For, to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its affairs, no familiarity with its emotions.

—Clive Bell, Art (Oxford U. Press, 1987, p. 25)

[Of course, one might ask, "What choice have we? It's not as though we can set aside all prior experience before we address a work of art."]


unexpected delight

When reading a book in a field far removed from poetry, I often begin by flipping to the index to see if there are any references to the word ‘poet’ or ‘poetry’. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised.


the x-ray and the acetylene torch

Criticism is analytic; while theory is synthetic.


waste land the sequel

“The Waste Land 2” was not quite as compelling. It borrowed some of the glory but lacked the energy of the original.

[See iPad app]

This just in: Many who downloaded the app complained to Apple when they realized "The Waste Land" was not a video game in which zombies and alien lifeforms could be blasted into colorful pixels.


translation machine

Always the same handful of poets are translated again & again: How many Rilkes, Lorcas, Rimbauds, etc., do we need?

[Thinking of Ashbery's recent Rimbaud]


outside in

Only when the outside is in us can it start to become material for the poem. But again, this is only a beginning, because the outside world enters everyone and not only into poets, and within each of us is that same labyrinth of paths, of which few are taken, often the same ones.

—Joan Margarit, New Letters to a Young Poet (Swan Isle Press, 2011), translated by Christopher Maurer



A poem of many plies of mediation.


severed vitals

Lines cut from its middle, an act of harakiri for the poem, and it was like the whole body folded over and collapsed.


cat people

Poets living with house cats always invoking lions.


nail driven

Fear of the period; its finality, that last nail driven.


god knows

When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant—God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means.

—Robert Browning, as quoted by G. K. Chesterton in his biography Robert Browning (MacMillan, 1903)


communiqués of the insomniac

In the morning at the café I noticed someone’s finger had traced a text, perhaps a poem, on the dew-covered tabletop.


tested by the text

A reader of poetry is a serious and savvy character; has to be.


thread or read

Breaking the block: Read until you find a thread. Better yet, read until your head explodes.



Poetic image: That thing which would go unnoticed except to an untrained eye.


lily light

    Light lily lily light light lily light

    Lightli ly

    Outline stones for the wind

    All creatures come
    To mind to oneness

Light first and last, and lilies and lights along the way. The alleyway, in just that way and just that order, pleasured my eyes. Of course it was a happiness to say. “Only the lull I like” wrote Whitman. If I can see it, it must be moving; and when I see it, I am moving too. The lull is not a pause. The lull is an ensemble underway, and as I found, anything I might say would be an adverb. [157]

Donald Revell, The Art of Attention (Graywolf Press, 2007)



One of those literary degenerates still hooked on the paper book.


not for nothing said

The poem as an expression of consequence.


bookcase or box

This is not a book for my bookcase, but for the box to be donated to a local booksale.



You could say about the poem’s ending that which too often occurs at a steeplechase race: The horse fell at the last fence.


not as an acrobat

Rexroth calls an "anthropological religion" the basis for his poetry. He has written that the anthropologist Edward Sapir was “the only person I have ever met who thoroughly understood what I dreamed of doing with poetry. Out of anthropology, psychology, and linguistics he had developed a kind of philosophy of interpersonal communion and communication.” Certainly there is a striking resemblance between Rexroth’s thought and that of Sapir, who, for example,…thought that the best poetic style “allows the artist’s personality to be as a presence, not as an acrobat,” because such artists fit “their deep intuition to the provincial accents of their daily speech” rather than weave “a private technical art fabric of their own.”

—Morgan Gibson, Kenneth Rexroth (Twayne Publishers, 1972)

(Edward Sapir’s words quoted from Language: an Introduction to the Study of Speech, 1921)


emotional leakage

Only the relatively simple forms (e.g., sonnet, villanelle) can be vessels for our psychic impulses. They retain the lyric aspect. While elaborate forms (crown of sonnets, sestina, etc.) leak emotion in direct proportion to the complexity of their structure.


responding in kind

Each reader answers the poem according to his/her own nature. (after Confucius)


solo style

The mark of a great poet is that the work is such that it cannot set off a style. Some may imitate its most superficial aspects, but the work begins and ends with that poet.


new poet laureate

On May 11, 2011, by proclamation, I was appointed to the honorary position of ‘Poet Laureate of the Town of West Hartford’ (CT). This being my official report of my first week on the job—

I asked the Town Council to annex the City of Hartford (which has no poet laureate) so that my realm might be expanded. [Declined]

I asked that a tiara of emeralds be crafted in the model of a laurel wreath, or, if funds were not available for such jewelry, that fresh laurels could be delivered to my house each week, so that my headdress will always be fresh & green as I go about town reciting poetry to the populace. [Declined]

I asked that a small area in the town library be designated as “Poet’s Corner,” and that this area should be appointed with a lounge chair of Danish design, reserved for my person, and in which I will, from time to time, ensconce myself, so that I may read or write as the spirit moves me, and should I be in need of refreshment, a member of the library staff would be given leave to bring me a Starbucks’ latte. [Declined]

Undeterred by these setbacks, I am determined to dispatch my duties with dignity and panache.


prompt and circumstance

A poetry writing prompt: A word game designed to draw out bad poetry that would otherwise arise by natural means.


blank look

In this poem the blank spaces are just empty space.


individual, intelligible, inner need

The absence of any one of these conditions excludes a work form the category of art and relegates it to that of art's counterfeits. If the work does not transmit the artist's peculiarity of feeling and is therefore not individual, if it is unintelligibly expressed, or if it has not proceeded from the author's inner need for expression - it is not a work of art. If all these conditions are present, even in the smallest degree, then the work, even if a weak one, is yet a work of art.

—Leo Tolstoy, "What Is Art?" (translation by Alymer Maude, 1899)


stiff competition

It was a warm spring evening, the door was propped open behind the speaker at the poetry reading, and throughout her reading birds could be heard singing in the background.


word horde

A poet who was obviously a word collector.


that once were lives

All those poems locked away in unread books: silent graves.


steinian query or proposition

Poetry or prose or prose or poetry or poetry or prose.


not meteorological facts

The aim of a lyric poem in which occur the words ‘sunshine’ and ‘clouds,’ is not to inform us of certain meteorological facts, but to express certain feelings of the poet and to excite similar feelings in us. A lyric poem has no assertional sense, no theoretical sense, it does not contain knowledge.

—Rudolf Carnap, Philosophy and Logical Syntax (lectures delivered at the University of London, 1934)


said but not read

At the poetry reading he said very intelligent and interesting things before each poem. But when a poem was read: "That's it? That's the whole thing?"

I once heard Joseph Langland recount a student reading he attended (at Amherst?) when Robert Frost was in the audience: A young fellow came to the podium and gave an elaborate explanation of the poem he was about to read. Then the young poet read his rather short poem. Frost piped up: "Young man, you said a better poem than you read."


critical scope

Be a critic possessed of a capacious poetics.


memoir broken into lines

Apparently you believe your narrative history merits my attention, but I come to poetry for more than memoir broken into lines.


not easy beauty

One will tell me, perhaps, that there are great beauties which make themselves felt to everyone; for example, those that one calls particularly the beauties of sentiment. I reply first that, although everybody feels certain beauties, not everybody feels them equally. Secondly, there are a great many beauties, and some of them the highest, which are only felt by persons of great intellectual accomplishment. As for the sentiments, they are accessible to everybody only when they are simple and simply expressed. If they are a bit composite, or rendered with finesse and elegance, they escape the multitude, and sometimes they even appear to them to be false.

—l’Abbé N. C. J. Trublet, Essais sur divers sujets de littérature et de morale (Amsterdam, 1755), quoted in The Aesthetic Thought of the French Enlightenment (U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1971) by Francis X. J. Coleman


requisite forms

Fixed forms for those who need them.


inside and out

A poetry insider is a society outsider.


skinny volumes

Because I’m a poet, I have read many thin books and a few big fat ones.


not going anywhere

Critic-proof: the words impervious and entirely set in their ways.


absolute and mortal


Its nature is to look
                               both absolute and mortal
as if a boy had passed through
or the imprint of his foot
                                        had been preserved
                   under the ash of Herculaneum.

—Carl Rakosi, The Collected Poems of Carl Rakosi (National Poetry Foundation, 1986), p. 186


where did that come from

An anomalous element that comes to define the poem.


standing stones

Sometimes I see headstones standing in cemeteries and they remind me of books displayed in bookstore windows.


a dolphin swims under a rainbow

the haiku journal editor
openly admits his bias against
'dolphins' and 'rainbows'


speak for themselves

As we say in a hand of poker, ‘the cards speak for themselves’, and so it should be with a poem, the words should speak for themselves.


imperial interference

Haiku eschews metaphor, simile, or personification. Nothing is like something else in most well-realized haiku. As Bashô said, “Learn of a pine from a pine.” Learn, that is, what a pine tree is, not what it is like—one supposes this is what Bashô meant. This avoidance of metaphor or simile arises, I feel, from the poet’s need to render directly and concretely the vision he has had, and only that vision. Almost he seems to aim at the paring down of his medium to the absolute minimum, so that the least words stand between the reader and the experience! The result can be what Babette Deutsch has called a “naked poem” as she noted in speaking of the art of William Carlos Williams: “Not merely rhyme and metre but sometimes metaphor itself became an imperial interference between him and the sun.”

—Kenneth Yasuda, The Japanese Haiku (Chas. L. Tuttle & Co, 1957)


big box

A prose poem: big box o’ words.


lashing the unruly waters

Those lines of poetry lashing forth with great fury. The poet like Xerxes having the Hellespont whipped with chains, to no avail.


edgy performance

He was so avant-garde he went straight to the edge of the proscenium and fell off the stage into the crowd.


sleepy head

Those first few lines were still wiping the sleep from their eyes.


writing thaw

It was wonderfully warm & pleasant & the cockerels crowed just as in a spring day at home—I felt the winter breaking up in me & if I had been at home I should have tried to write poetry.

—Henry David Thoreau, manuscript volume 18 of the Journals


stepping stones

A critic walks on the backs of writers across the waters of discourse.


heroic couplets

Is it just me, or is there an echo in here?


idols of the lexicon

Avoid all false idols, like words.


don't look back

A line so good the one that followed was looking over its shoulder.


moral compass

“I can’t imagine an immoral person bothering with poetry," [Lucien Stryk] shoots back, “and by ‘immoral,’ I’m not talking about trivialities. I mean in the largest sense, in the way the person relates to the world, his spirit. In the poets that affect me, there is always that element of desire and hope.”

I thirsted for seasons,
dragging a leaden shadow
into nothingness. Now,

as fire meets ice, I see.

[from “Lake Down”]

—Lucien Stryk, quoted by Susan Porterfield in “Poetry and Lentil Soup: A Profile of Lucien Stryk,” the afterword of Where We Are: Selected Poems and Zen Translations (Skoob Books, LTD, London, 1997) by Lucien Stryk


obscure science

The science in the poem was used superficially as metaphor; which is to say that only a handful of people in the world could understand the underlying concept. So it is that the obscurity of the poet is the obscurity of the scientist.


document runner

Poet, be a courier to eternity.


mind music

Only semantic connection can create the ‘music of thought’.


unsure reader

Some poets read their poems flawlessly, with gusto and verve. Others read with hesitancy and uncertainty, stumbling over words, as though the poem was still composing itself. I respect the poet who reads with suspicion of what has been written.


highest ideality

[T]he function of poetry, like that of science, can only be fulfilled by the conception of harmonies that become clearer as they grow richer. As the chance note that comes to be supported by a melody becomes in that melody determinate and necessary, and as the melody, when woven into a harmony, is explicated in that harmony and fixed beyond recall; so the single emotion, the fortuitous dream, launched by the poet into the world of recognizable and immortal forms, looks in that world for its ideal supports and affinities. It must find them or else be blown back among the ghosts. The highest ideality is the comprehension of the real. Poetry is not at its best when it depicts a further possible experience, but when it initiates us, by feigning something which as an experience is impossible, into the meaning of the experience which we have actually had.

—George Santayana, “The Elements and Function of Poetry,” Aesthetics and the Arts (McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968), edited by Lee A. Jacobus


mind weld

The psychic acetylene that fuses one thing to another.


surrounding material

Generally there is a third more material than is needed in the first draft. Think of a model airplane kit: The wing, once separated from the surrounding material, is all the wing needed to lift the aircraft.


all bow down

The sovereign line.


aggregating grandeur

A parade, a pageant, a triumph, as the poem proceeded.


real relationship

Classified ad for print-on-demand (POD) poetry book: “Lonely file in cyberspace seeks physical relationship with illusory reader.”


emphasis needed

[Hopkins’] inventiveness worked…in the main line which the adjectival poets had established. Keats’s carved, wing’d, hid, faded, unseen, moss’d, became Hopkins’ carved, winged, dogged, cursed, freckled, fetched, plumed, in all a somewhat rarer lot; and Keats’s eager-eyed, hot-blooded, half-anguished, deep-delved, purple-stained, wild-ridged, became Hopkins’ more complicated and special carrier-witted, scroll-leaved, whirl-wind-swivelled, else-minded, heart-forsook, care-coiled, bell-swarmed, dapple-dawn-drawn, no-man-fathomed, five-lived, rarest-veined. The change is not one, as far as I can see, toward greater metaphysical farfetchedness but rather is an intensification of quality statement, an emphasis on the special perceivable nature of things, the physical sense of whirlwind, leaf, care, bell qualities. Emphasis is just what Hopkins said, in his early essay on “Poetic Diction,” the accented past participle is good for. Poetry needs more emphasis of all sorts he said there, more 18th Century liveliness, more 19th Century vividness to make mere flat “Parnassian” descriptiveness come alive.
Hopkins, like Ruskin, was a notebook sketcher and painter, by nature as by convention a wordpainter. When he was in a hurry and had little to say of the day that was closing, if it were fine he often wrote Fine in his Journal, but often Bright.

—Josephine Miles, “The Sweet and Lovely Language,” Gerard Manley Hopkins by the Kenyon Critics (New Directions, 1945)


not utilitarian

Poetry as impractical language.


music and muscle

It was a poem with many tongue holds.


humble thing

Poet, be proud of that humble thing you have made from the poor material we call language.


blood trail

A poem that left a blood trail back to the poet.


close sailing

You cannot say it all, in poetry. Where you cannot say it all, you are stinted irremediably in how seriously you can speak. There is that something of lightness in the poetic presentation of themes, be they of the uttermost of inspiring seriousness. The verbal versatility that bejewels the process of poem-making, by requisition, produces an almost continual close sailing to the wind of word-play. The use of metaphor, its tempting relief to the mind so often at a loss for the immediate right provision for the fixed, patterned, poetic word-course, becomes a chronic virtue of permitted caprice of statement.

—Laura (Riding) Jackson, ”Reading for the University of Florida Library (1975),” from “The Failure of Poetry: Selection from the Manuscripts,” edited by John Nolan (Chelsea #69, 2000).


not a matter of modulation

A poem that could be whispered just as well as shouted.


duly noted

By the novelty of his work, the poet had secured for himself a footnote in any overview of literature of the times. For some poets, I’m afraid, that’s all they aspire to.


traveling call

If one could be called for ‘traveling’ in metrical poetry, he would have been called for steps.


low bar

Of all the arts, poetry has the least barrier to entry, which is part of its attraction. One of the problems with poetry is that the barrier to entry is so low.


telltale childlike qualities

“Like a woman,” said Rilke, without fearing that the comparison would demean him. He has been called the poet of the child and the woman. He understood us better than the sensualists. It has been said that he who gets too close to an object ceases to see it. The memory of his own childhood helped him to love children. Does not the hardening that ruins us come when we forget this? Rilke remembered the child with marvelous tenderness, and this freed him from the monstrous condition of being entirely adult, absolute man or woman, without the golden fringe of telltale childlike qualities, without the elvish sands of a five-year old explorer swirling in the chambers of an old heart.

—Gabriela Mistral, “An Invitation to the Work of Rainer Maria Rilke”, A Gabriela Mistral Reader (White Pine Press, 1993), translated by Maria Giachetti and edited by Marjorie Agosin


uncommon speech

The poem as the spectacular vernacular.


cover up

Poems are not buttressed for being pressed between glossy covers.


sound sleeper

Inured by clamor and din, sometimes it is the nearly silent things that startle and wake us.


no things but in ideas

Mallarmé famously admonished Degas by saying that poems are not made of ideas, they are made of words. In turn the conceptualists have refuted Mallarmé by making poems out of ideas.


sign of the times

The young poet came up to the open mike holding nothing. At first I thought she must be a slam poet who had committed her work to memory. Then she took out her iphone/droid and she started reading from the device.


obedience not invention

Now I believe that much of the work on the poem called “Ghost Ship” amounted to obedience, not invention: obedience, that is, to the preexistent poetry of the ordinary word. To cure—to have a care for—poetry is to keep its elements, the words on the tongue, the symbols of our acts, alive—by suspicion, and attention.

—Mary Kinzie, "The Cure of Poetry," The Cure of Poetry in the Age of Prose: Moral Essays on the Poet’s Calling (U. of Chicago Press, 1993)


chin up

A first line so strong that one can feel the whole poem straining to get its chin up over the bar.


make your mark

After the reading, the poet was asked to sign a copy of his book, the remainder mark clearly visible along the edge of its pages.


lazy man's load

The line was trying to carry a ‘lazy man’s load’ of allusions.


ingredients label

I’m in favor a federal legislation mandating an Ingredients Label on the back of all poetry books in lieu of blurbs. The most frequently used words could be listed: ‘Moon: 13; Cow: 11; Grass: 8; Light: 6; all others 5 or less instances'. And each text would be analyzed for content: ‘Poeticisms: 14%; Imagery: 11%; Tropes: 7%; Internal Rhyme: 2.7% ; and other rhetorical or quasi-poetic matter and filler'.


closed to some

So many poems are shaped like doors; and some really are.


poetry in its own way

I am perfectly willing to admit that it is not the best or the most poetical form of poetry, and that it is very far indeed from the forms that I myself like best. But one of the cries which a critic should never be tired of uttering, whether in the streets or in the wilderness, is that nothing is bad merely because it is different from another thing which is good, and that in this world there is no equality or fixed standard to which everything must be cut down or stretched out. The best rhetorical poetry of the eighteenth century is not the best poetry, but it is poetry in its own way, exhibiting the glow, the rush, the passion, which strict prose cannot, and which poetry can, give.

—George Saintsbury, “Eighteenth Century Poetry,” A Saintsbury Miscellany (Oxford U. Press, 1947)



Poetry books are made thin so you can slip one under your true love’s door.


never enough

Why are so many poets unhappy with poetry?



voices carry

The human voice will carry any poem a little farther than its text.


summons to the mountain

Let the canon come to me.


sacrilege change

[Charles] Lamb then came to Oxbridge perhaps a hundred years ago. Certainly he wrote an essay—the name escapes me—about the manuscript of one of Milton’s poems which he saw here. It was Lycidas perhaps, and Lamb wrote how it shocked him to think it possible that any word in Lycidas could have been different from what it is. To think of Milton changing words in that poem seemed to him a sort of sacrilege. This led me to remember what I could of Lycidas and to amuse myself with guessing which word it could have been that Milton had altered, and why. —Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)


my odd book club

Being a book reader and not a collector, I have never minded that readers before me have marked the pages. As long as they are not too demonstrative, to the point of occluding the text, with their underlinings, checkmarks and margin notes, then I’m happy to have shared a book with other minds, some still living and others long dead.


memory or imagination

Poetry torn/born between the urge to memorialize and the desire to imagine.


theory poets

Those theory people who have infiltrated poetry without the ability to feel.


more or less clearly

Robinson will not say anything in such a way as to make the responsibility for choice his own rather than the reader’s. He will simply render the situation and leave us to judge it, for all of Robinson’s poems presuppose an outside world of critics and judges, of ourselves, people who see and observe more or less clearly.

—Louis A. Coxe, “E. A. Robinson: The Lost Tradition,” Appreciation of E. A. Robinson (Colby College Press, 1969)


now what

You get credit for getting there first. But then one must find a way forward.


protective structure

A poem so obviously structured it was like receiving a gift still in its crate.


closed in upon

Was that a close reading or a closed reading of the poem?


different readers, alternate lines

Reading his commonplace book, I discovered we had read many of the same books, yet lines he had chosen to quote I’d passed over without notice.


substition of terms: two bricks, two words

Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.

—Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (New York Herald Tribune, 28 Jun 1959)

Poetry starts when you carefully put two words together. There it begins.


just nubs

The stunted lines.


inspired listening

One can entertain any beliefs one likes with regard to the sources of poetry, but whether it is God-given, daemonically inspired or willed by self, one has to be a poet before one can write poetry; if one is not a poet one merely entertains these beliefs and nothing more. Whether one deals with religious or poetic inspiration, with Grace or with any other manifestation of extraordinary power, ‘the spirit bloweth where it listeth’, and in order to hear, one must be capable of listening and of attention.

—Joseph Chiari, Realism and Imagination (Barrie & Rockliff. London. 1966)


this then and not that

A poet who unfailingly knew what to say and when to say it, and most of all what should be left unsaid.


kayak tongue

Let your kayak tongue drop into the rapids of speech.


buoyed on the great body

Is it that from the great ocean of the oeuvre a few canonical poems float to the top, or is it that a great body of work will buoy a few poems that we hold on to?


from on high

It wasn’t just inspiration, it was a download from heaven.


bring a heavy thing


i know

i can bring

every heavy thing


—Mairéad Byrne (originally posted to her blog Heaven on 6-1-2008)


blinds drawn

Ruled paper: That window with the blinds drawn.


unhurried hand

It was the kind of poem one felt had been written in pen, in longhand.


desciption's diminishing returns

With detail and description there is always the law of diminishing returns: At a certain point the language becomes an intricate, often beautiful, damask that occludes all beneath its surface.


we have a runner

Why are you writing like you’re running away from yourself?


inner and then more

All great poems...by the way they colonize and amplify and enhance the music of our own inner voices, of consciousness and conscience, ask us to be greater than we are, and if we read them well even show us how to begin.

—C. K. Williams, On Whitman (Princeton U. Press, 2010)


well layered language

A sonnet of fourteen-ply strength.



The poem you had in mind must often remain there.


not there at first glance

To shape the universal theme into a particular form (case) that one will not at first recognize, but will come to realize upon reflection.

pastoral not paradisal

The kind of pastoral poetry in which one might come upon some shotgun shells lying in the grass.