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.)