alpha & omega

The urpoem in the last poem.


noun as adjective

Using a noun as an adjective to good effect. [Thinking Dylan Thomas]


neutral surface

Paper as support, its own materiality is usually ignored. So the sense of a neutral surface that can accommodate any mark seems an ideal way of communicating freedom. At the same time printed material has the capacity to repeat itself endlessly and linked to distribution or manifestos—even freedom however idiosyncratic and inscrutable. And this tension is what surfaces and transforms the amnesia of the paper into a tension between the drawn and the printed. The mark and the letter.

Ellen Gallagher, interview by Jessica Morgan (Institute of Contemporary Art in association with D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2001)


can-do words

The poem was a language hack.


more room

Stanza means ‘room’, but strive to make each one a great hall or a basilica.


running ahead

Poetry is the forerunner to a future language.


dream ladder

Poet, let your lines be a Jacob’s ladder lowered down the page.


shapely figure

Just the shape of a poem on the page has an attractiveness prose cannot match.


one and the world

What I find extremely interesting is that only those poets who are aware of the “solitary mind” and remain faithful to their personal fate (which makes their return to the solitary mind inevitable) while keeping a place within the “banquet,” only those poets produce works at which we stare in wonder. Yet if they cut themselves off from the world of the “banquet” and withdraw into the solitary mind alone, their works mysteriously lose power.

Between the will which seeks to participate in the world of the “banquet” (the world of the collective spiritual body) and the will which seeks to devote itself purely to the self (the world of the solitary mind) there is tension. As long as this tension is present the works which the poets produce give off their highest luster.

—Ōoka Makoto, The Colors of Poetry: Essays in Classical Japanese Poetry (Katydid Books, 1991), translated by Thomas V. Lento.


ear candy

A plain villanelle: one without that line tart or sweet to the ear on first hearing.


word is

Unlike in prose, the poem will never turn its back on what the word is in terms of sight and sound.


bubble blurbs

Blurbs are like bubbles, little effusive bursts that the author hopes will buoy the book.


make of the fragments

John Ashbery ends his poem “Street Musicians” with these lines:

      Our question of a place of origin hangs
      Like smoke: how we picnicked in pine forests,
      In coves with the water always seeping up, and left
      Our trash, sperm and excrement everywhere, smeared
      On the landscape, to make of us what we could.

We make of the fragments of self a form that holds, briefly—that’s the poem—then we watch it shatter again—which is, I suppose, that space that the poem fooled us into believing we’d left behind us, for a time, world of fragmented selves, hard truths, glinting ambiguities to be negotiated, navigated through as we make our disoriented way forward, or what we have to believe is forward. Like being mapless in tough territory, and knowing, somewhere inside, we’d choose this life, and this one only, if in fact we could choose.

—Carl Phillips, "Beautiful Dreamer," The Art of Daring (Graywolf Press, 2014)


head case

If you memorize enough poems madness is sure to ensue.


not ready yet

Every time you tried to print out the poem the paper jammed in the printer, until you were forced to revise it before trying again.


world love

A political poem is a love poem to the world.


evenly lit

An outtake from The New York Times obit of the poet Mark Strand:

To critics who complained that his poems, with their emphasis on death, despair and dissolution, were too dark, he replied, “I find them evenly lit.”


willed lines

Let will summons the lines that inspiration was unable to call forth.


anger management

Call my poem a ‘text’ one more time and I’ll knock your teeth out.


wear and tear reader

He didn’t just read poems he wore them out.


pattern language

A pattern that matters.


some words on a page

I want to give you
something I’ve made

some words on a page—as if
to say 'Here are some blue beads’

or, 'Here's a bright red leaf I found on
the sidewalk” (because

to find is to choose, and choice
is made).

—Denise Levertov, “The Rights,” Here & Now (1957), reprinted in the Collected Earlier Poems 1940–1960 (New Directions, 1979)


eternal question

To explore the tradition or to try to explode it?


cross purposes

A poem that insists on translation even as it resists one at every turn.


utterance not to be undone

The line that is a lie. Yet resists strikethrough utterly.


singular event

That point in composing when you know no poem is going to be like this one.


spare change

The poet always has one more word in his pocket.


time and the visible

Painting is the art which reminds us that time and the visible come into being together, as a pair. The place of their coming into being is the human mind, which can coordinate events into a time sequence and appearances into a world seen. With this coming into being of time and the visible, a dialogue between presence and absence begins. We all live this dialogue.

—John Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso (Vintage, 1993)


type parameter

Bad typography can damage the text, but good/fancy typography cannot appreciably improve it.


well behaved

Perhaps the poem was too polite.


novel idea

Somehow early on the aphorist realized a novel was out of the question.


new poetry

To go back to that time when one was discovering a new passage, a new poet, almost every day.


landscape and weather

By 1969 Richard Hugo had completed his third and even his fourth book of poems. As we must expect, it is the Northwest poems which conduct Hugo’s trial by landscape, his arraignment by weather, to a further pitch of excruciation: the menace of place is acknowledged to correspond to destructive energies in the self….

—Richard Howard, “Richard Hugo: Why Track Down Unity When The Diffuse Is So Exacting?,” Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (Atheneum, 1980)


part of the whole

A good political poem manages to make the specific events that provoked it part of an ongoing universal struggle.


prayed poetry

He didn't read the poems so much as he prayed them.


gender gerrymandering

Remember that time you picked up an anthology and three-quarters of the poets included were women. No, because it didn’t happen. It’s either a 100% women, as in a specifically woman-centric antholology, or it’s well under 50% women.


category error

All the better because it wouldn’t be a poem.


candid kind

Last night we had the Nineteenth Wallace Stevens Birthday Bash at the Hartford Public Library. The guest speaker was Maureen N. McLane and she gave a wonderful talk. One of the poems featured in her talk was section III from "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction." An excerpt:

     The poem refreshes life so that we share,
     For a moment, the first idea . . . It satisfies
     Belief in an immaculate beginning

     And sends us, winged by an unconscious will,
     To an immaculate end. We move between these points:
     From that ever-early candor to its late plural

     And the candor of them is the strong exhilaration
     Of what we feel from what we think, of thought
     Beating in the heart, as if blood newly came,

     An elixir, an excitation, a pure power.
     The poem, through candor, brings back a power again
     That gives a candid kind to everything.


unprejudiced observation

[Bϋchner] believed that the poet must strive to imitate reality, instead of improving upon and thereby distorting it, as do idealistic poets, who create mere puppets devoid of life. The individual, no matter how insignificant or unattractive, must take precedence over philosophical abstractions.
Bϋchner’s concept of beauty appears to be based upon unaffected sincerity among human beings and upon a Goethean perception of nature as an endless metamorphosis of forms and images that art can never fully capture nor transmit. Unprejudiced observation, he insists, leaves one open to an infinity of sensory impressions and human truths.

—Georg Bϋchner, “Bϋchner on Aesthetics,” Woyzeck and other Writings (Suhrkamp/Insel Publishers, 1982), edited by Henry J. Schmidt


teaching moment

In its reading the poem enacts a heuristic.


presidential library

Visiting Mt. Vernon last Sunday, the tour guide was heard to say that George Washington’s library was filled with books on science, military history, and poetry.


defiant end

When a poem defies an ending it’s perhaps finished.


organizing principle

He would spend many hours arranging each poem within a book, but a collected poems by convention is just one book after another in chronological sequence.


language x-ray

To view poetry as the skeleton of prose.


occupational disease

And we must at all costs avoid over-simplification, which one might be tempted to call the occupational disease of philosophers if it were not their occupation.

—J. L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words (Harvard U. Press, 1962)

And we must at all costs avoid over-elaboration, which one might be tempted to call the occupational disease of poets if it were not their occupation.


parasite adjectives

There are many dangerous adjectives, being naturally parasitic of certain nouns.


stop sign

In order not to fear the period, the writer must think of it as a way station or jumping off place.


not domesticated

She respected words, treating them like they were wild animals.


essential reins

Imagination, like wild horses, pulls hard and fast under the reins of reality.


elder influence

Influence follows, but seldom comes from those who came after.


sound architecture

One very often finds that in a Moore poem every phrase is load-bearing. This is sound architecture, the weight brilliantly distributed.

—Maureen N. McLane, “My Marianne Moore,” My Poets (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012)


hidden in the negative space

All the words and passages cut away from the poem form a shadow poem that seems to stalk the final draft.


intermittent narrator

The journal is only the form of memoir I can abide, being piecemeal, fragmentary, sequential only in fits & starts, like life.


low bar

The only writer I ever knew who actually washed out of his MFA.


lesser editions

Book collectors seek nearly unread first editions. I love finding a dog-eared, beaten, heavily marked edition. I know then I’m in good company.


poetry's province

Poetry claims all texts not immediately recognized as such.


strong pair

Compound words: The power of coupled words that rivals metaphor.


poet within the poet

What is probably new and startling in the work of Dylan Thomas is that, in dragging into light his versions of “the hidden causes” which he mentions, he has given an articulate voice to other parts of the body than the romantic heart—to the glands and the nerves, that is—and has, in considerable measure, freed them from the poetically sterile reason.
Although he is suitably interested in most phases of life, his impulse comes primarily from within his own body. He is the poet within the poet, and is generally dependent upon no externalities for his subject. This, then, I would say, is one of his main contributions to poetry: he has given voices and eyes to the part of the being which had formerly been dumb and blind; he has given the body a poetic aura…

—Henry Treece, Dylan Thomas: Dog Among the Fairies (Lindsay Drummond Ltd., 1949)


pace coleridge

Available words in the only possible order that would be a poem.


pristine copy

I saw an inscribed copy of your book at the Goodwill. It was in excellent (likely unread) condition, I must say.


bird nest

She built her poem as a bird builds its nest, with strands of this & that found at large in the world.


32 feet per second per second

Are the gaps in the poem capable of being bridged by the mind or are they meant to be moments of mental free fall?


recycled crit

The kind of criticism that recycles familiar quotes and formulaic clichés of poetics, and thus uncovers nothing original, gives us nothing from which to learn.


one conversation

     Much has the human experienced.
     Named many of the heavenly ones,
     Since we have been a conversation
     And can hear from one another.*

From these verses, let us first select one that immediately fits into the context so far: “Since we have been a conversation…” We—human beings—are a conversation. Human Being is grounded in language; but first properly occurs in conversation. This, however, is just one way in which language takes place; language is only essential as conversation.
Yet Hölderlin says: “Since we have been a conversation and can hear from one another.” Being able to hear is not merely a consequence of speaking with one another, but is instead the condition for this. Even being able to hear is itself in turn based upon the possibility of the word, and needs it. Being able to talk and being able to hear are equally originary. We are a conversation—and that means we are able to hear from one another. We are a conversation, and that also always means: We are one conversation.

—Martin Heidegger, “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry,” Heidegger Reader (Indiana University Press, 2009)

*lines from an unfinished poem by Hölderlin


come from afar

To be a poet from another planet.


less is more

A perfect short poem that could‘ve been written on the lint from one’s pocket.


no mean feat

Capable poets all struggling to be consequential.


gods gone to ground

The more you know of the masters the less you are impressed.


amoebic ambit

With an amoebic ambit, my love of art is capacious, not being one who draws or respects lines as boundaries.


to fill the silence

Many individual voices rise again in the dusk. Yeats dead, Pound silenced, Eliot lost to the theatre, Thomas gone before his time—it is the hour of the twittering machines. We listen to them as we drink our martinis or smoke a cigarette, and for an hour or two we feel content. Then the night comes and there is no voice to fill the silence. That is not as used to be. Poetry used to be in speech, in transaction, in worship; at the banquet, before the battle, in the moment of birth and burial. Why is poetry no longer our daily bread? We have to search for an answer to this question, and the search leads us to the foundations of our society. We have the poetry we deserve, just as we have the painting we deserve, the music we deserve; and if it is fragmented, personal, spasmodic, we have only to look around us to see the satanic chaos through which nevertheless a few voices have penetrated. The voices are pitched high and may sometimes sound discordant; but the image they convey has crystalline brightness and hardness, and cannot be shrouded.

—Herbert Read, “The Image in Modern English Poetry,” The Tenth Muse (Horizon Press, 1957)


desperate apotheosis

The apotheosis of Romantic poetry came after the age was over in the form of Dylan Thomas. An apotheosis is often that desperate late flowering.


it's like uhmm

Aspire to a style that can’t be adequately described.


somehow fits

Somehow a poem makes human experience conform to the meager means of the word.


stream of story and theme

The same stories and themes follow us because we as a society are constantly breaking camp and moving on.


locked in line

If you can relax your mind, you’ll find that line.


both philatelist and pirate

He wrote his poems against the gravity of language. Images, therefore, speak in his poetry solely on his behalf.


He was almost a philatelist with words. (He saw, long before we did, the fact that the boundaries of language are the boundaries of the world.)


A man of the Golden Age. “Poeta pirata est,” he would say?

From “Oktay Rifat

—Ilhan Berk, Selected Poems by Ilhan Berk (Talisman House, 2004), edited and translation by Önder Otçu.


image for the ages

The underside of any good image is an archetype.


unfortunate pub date

His book was released in the fall of 2001, while the world was otherwise occupied.


more than was asked

A poet who had smart answers to even the daft questions posed by the interviewer.


meditation train

However discursive/recursive, a meditation must retain its momentum.

under the hull

Reading a beautiful but obscure poem, like gliding over a shimmery surface trying to read the weeds swaying in the currents below.


lithic in their singleness

There are certain poems I have long thought of as “pebbles”: small, a little intractable, lithic in their singleness of perception. Like an actual pebble, cold until warmed by an exterior heat source; like an actual pebble, unwavering in outlook and replete in simple thusness. The conception of this term, I’m sure, bows more than a little in the direction of Zbigniew Herbert’s famous poem; but I recognized the type long before reading his “Pebble”…

—Jane Hirshfield, “Skipping Stones,” Circumference is My Business: Poets on Influence and Mastery (Paul Dry Books, 2001), edited by Stephen Berg.


trapdoor word

Just when he thought he’d painted himself into a corner with his style, he found an unexpected word, and through that trapdoor he escaped.


chance audience

Not to write for a requisite audience; but to welcome an audience by chance.


low coverage area

A high ratio of white space to printed text. [Scientific definition of a poem.]


remaining words

Don't be afraid to forget some words. Nor worry if they don't come to you. There are too many words for the purposes of a poet.


mythic figure

The common reader and other mythological creatures.


timing and spacing

The English language is like a broad river on whose bank a few patient anglers are sitting, while, higher up, the stream is being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck. The English language has, in fact, so contracted to our own littleness that it is no longer possible to make a good book out of words alone. A writer must concentrate on his vocabulary but must also depend on the order, the timing and spacing of his words, and try to arrange them in a form which is seemingly artless, yet perfectly proportioned. He must let a hiatus suggest that which language will no longer accomplish. Words today are like the shells and rope of seaweed which a child brings home glistening from the beach and which in an hour have lost their lustre.

—Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus (Persea Press, 1981; first published in Curwen Press in 1944)


under the influence

That fine line between riffing off, and ripping off.


the stacks

They say it’s the age of the end of the book. Yet, at major libraries, you have to show your bona fides, then fill out a form and wait for someone to retrieve that book you wanted from the stacks.


didactic art

All good art is didactic. In that good art moves us or it makes us think, and thus it shapes our lives. Bad art is art without influence over its intended audience.


poets' opinions

Poets can’t be trusted when it comes to their opinions of their contemporaries. Their lack of distance causes deafness to rival voices or results in a chummy humming in tune.


city of words

Poetry is a city of words, a complex heterogeneity that functions both as its parts and as a whole. It’s full of systems—metaphoric, symbolic, sonic—analogous to the sewage, electrical, and transportation systems that animate a city. You look at a jagged skyline, and see the ragged right margin; you read through the quick shifts of much contemporary poetry, and think of a busy intersection in which your view is cut off by a bus one moment, then opened up the next, and then filled with a crowd crossing the street the next.

—Cole Swenson, "Poetry City," Identity Theory, (Oct. 26, 2004, identitytheory.com)


nor song nor poem

The poem will never be as simple as the song. The song will never be as nuanced as the poem.


writer's retreat

She got a small grant that allowed her to live for a year and to write. At the end of it, she felt a low-wage job may have been a better move for her writing.


imaginative limit

Imagination at its height forgets (or ignores) reality, and in that moment it fails utterly.


parasite found

A poet is one who’d rather find a tick on his body than a typo in his published poem.


no beginning and no end

A poet who fell in love with her process at the peril of all else.


nothing is safe

A poet is one for whom the whole world is metaphor fodder.


created an equivalent

I simply function when I take a picture. I do not photograph with preconceived notions about life. I put down what I have to say when I must. That is my role, according to my own way of feeling it. Perhaps it is beyond feeling.

What is of greatest importance is to hold a moment, to record something so completely that those who see it will relive an equivalent* of what has been expressed.


I want solely to make an image of what I have seen, not of what it means to me. It is only after I have created an equivalent of what moved me that I can begin to think about its significance.

Shapes, as such, do not interest me unless they happen to be an outer equivalent of something already taking form within me. To many, shapes matter in their own right. As I see it, this has nothing to do with photography, but with the merely literary or pictorial.

—Alfred Stieglitz, quoted by Dorothy Norman in Alfred Stieglitz (The History of Photography Series, Aperture, Inc., 1976).

*After 1922 Stieglitz used the term "Equivalents" to describe his photographic series of clouds.


go at it like that

Like words gouged into stone with fingernails.


slave labor language

Language easily becomes enslaved by falling into its habitual and customary means of expression. The poet breaks those word chains.


everything mien

A poet who scoffs at the uncontainability of the cosmos.


little pieces

A long poem that lives on by its excerpts.


silent tribute

Cavafy was as reticent and decorous in conversation as he was outspoken in his poetry—some things, he said, needed art to make them beautiful. But it is related that if a beautiful face showed itself in his house, he paid it the silent tribute of lighting another candle.

—Robert Liddell, “Studies in Genius, VII – Cavafy,” Horizon, Vol XVIII, 105, 1948.



It takes more than regular meter to give a heartbeat to a poem.


image machine

Perhaps the ascendance of the camera pushed painting to explore abstraction.


poetry third

The secret of being a great poet lies in having an abiding interest in the world and in humankind, and not in one’s attention to poetry.


obsessed or possessed

If only this poem would let me alone so that I might live.


mind the gap

Recall that audio admonishment inside the London Underground, ‘Mind the gap’: A metaphor’s power is ‘the gap’; and the mind must leap that gap.


embrace the anarchic

To make life...to create interest and vividness, it is necessary to break form, to distort pattern, to change the nature of our civilization. In order to create it is necessary to destroy; and the agent of destruction in society is the poet. I believe that the poet is necessarily an anarchist, and that he must oppose all organized conceptions of the State, not only those which we inherit from the past, but equally those which are imposed on people in the name of the future.

—Herbert Read, Poetry and Anarchism (Faber and Faber, 1938)


broken box

A poem is a genre wrecking literary instrument.


derived value

Perhaps the poem is a derivative product; its value pegged to human experience.


executable file

It may show up attached as .doc or .pdf, but a poem is really an .exe file.


ropes that rub

Paradox is apt to strike the poet as metaphor.


cased the joint

He cased the poem thoroughly like a good critic always does.


exploded world

Critics talking about ‘supertechnology’ and ‘the mediated eye’ in the seventies and eighties couldn’t know they were living in the Stone Age.


subtleties of the game

Gradually, in what at first had been purely mechanical repetitions of the championship matches, an artistic, pleasurable understanding began to awaken in me. I learned to understand the subtleties of the game [chess], the tricks and ruses of attack and defense, I grasped the technique of thinking ahead, combination, counter-attack, and soon I could recognize the personal style of every grandmaster as infallibly from his own way of playing a game as you can identify a poet’s verses from only a few lines.

—Stefan Zweig, Chess (Penguin Mini Modern Classics, 2011: Copyright Stephan Zweig 1943; translation copyright by Anthea Bell, 2006)


twenty-six tones

A whole alphabet of musical notes.


numbing mumble

Academic speak lacking the least spark of insight.


catching glories

10. Poetry catches the sheen and sound of glory in the here-and-now—in, between and among words, and between words and phenomena. That is to say, in the words themselves and also at all their borders and interfaces—with each other (when two); with one another (when more than two); and with the non-linguistic universe that is both ‘out there’ and ‘in here’, which is itself by definition not only the source of glory but also ineffable and speechless.

11. “Poetry catches…” This catching includes all senses and contexts of the English verb: (i) unwittingly, as one catches something contagious (e.g. laughing, yawning, a more or, unfortunately, a virus); (ii) whether by chance or conscious effort, as one catches something that is not necessarily obvious (e.g. a hint, a clue, an undertone, an implication, a suggestion, a purport, an intention, a meaning); (iii) deliberately, as one catches something thrown or dropped, before it lands elsewhere (e.g. a ball, a leaf); (iv) equally deliberately, as one catches a creature that one has been searching for or hunting (a lion, a fish, a butterfly); (v) or as one can be caught unawares (in a situation, by a memory), etc.

12. So catching glory or catching glories is not a bad definition of what poetry does. And is.

—Richard Berengarten, “On Poetry and Catching Glories,” Imagems 1 (Shearsman Books, 2013)



Perhaps the model of a good MFA program would be a kind of revolving hub, centered around a workshop set spinning with its aesthetic energy, generating critical friction, throwing off sparks—those MFA graduates who start their own creative fires across the cultural landscape.


first art

The joy to think that our art originates in the era of the earliest human speech.


uneasy relations

Translation is a negotiation between fidelity and the lust to know the other.


to know by echo

Critics: Literary latecomers with all the answers.


profligate pages

To publish prolifically is an act of disrespect toward the art of poetry.


infallible test

In poetry, in which every line, every phrase, may pass the ordeal of deliberation and deliberate choice, it is possible, and barely possible, to attain that ultimatum which I have ventured to propose as the infallible test of a blameless style; namely: its untranslatableness in words of the same language without injury to the meaning.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817), ch. 22


fidget word

The one word that wouldn’t sit still in the poem.


first forty-eight

In the first 24, in the first 48. Like the hours after a crime, these early words are so important to solving the poem.


therefore iamb

When people asked if he was a formalist poet, he’d answer: “I amb.”


more light

So often in a writer’s photo it’s a wan person holed up in a little room, hunched over a typewriter or keyboard, with a shelf of books where a window should be.


big head

One of those titles that was smarter by half than the poem itself.


revision resistant

The problem was that the poem couldn’t be improved upon.


candy words

Nouns and verbs are sustenance. But ah, the confection of certain adjectives.


in silence and solitude

Poetry and letters
Persist in silence and solitude.

—Tu Fu, "Night in the House by the River," translated by Kenneth Rexroth, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese (New Directions, 1956)


team player

He was happy to be a minor member of a well-known group.


stray strong

The line that strays is always the strongest one.


go small

The image was symbolic when it needed to be specific.


flavor and texture

To speak the poem would give mouthfuls of pleasure as though eating a fine meal.


back and forth

The poem as the site of reciprocity between the impulse of emotion and the shaping force of language.


are you ready yet

Some poems would engage you no matter when encountered; other poems must await that moment in your life that has opened you to them.



And then I had always liked the old miracle and morality plays in which no word has any ambiguity at all. I don’t like ambiguity. I suppose it’s all right if the ambiguous things a work means are interesting and exciting, but often they’re not.

—Kenneth Koch, "A Conversation with Kenneth Koch," Field: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, Number 7, Fall 1972.


dignified literary death

His aspiration was to be the last person ever crushed by a bookcase having fallen on him.


note totems

When scholarship becomes ritualistic practice, it’s all about getting the footnotes right.


more about the dead

Critics so out of touch with the contemporary they just go on elaborating obituaries.


operative emotion

Some enjoy American musicals with their transparent songs of love, joy and loss. Others prefer operas for, even as those foreign words wash over them on the level of sense, the sounds fill them with emotion.


no way to say

There’s no word for that.


brussels lace

     My work, whatever form it may take, is seen as mischief, as lawlessness, as an accident. But that’s how I like it, so I agree. I subscribe to it with both hands.
      It is a question of how you look at it. What I prize in the doughnut is the hole. But what about the dough of the doughnut? You can gobble up the doughnut, but the hole will still be there.
      Real work is Brussels lace, the main thing in it is what holds the pattern up: air, punctures, truancy.

—Osip Mandelstam, "Fourth Prose," The Noise of Time: Selected Prose (Northwestern Univ. Press, 1993), translated by Clarence Brown.


word grist

Mouth and tongue, mortar and pestle: Break down the words into syllable and phoneme.


in the service of art

Perhaps I’m less an artist, and more a servant of the art.


wild one

Poet, when they go vogue, you go rogue.


linear feet

A poet’s life measured in linear feet in the university library archive.


believable beginning

Advice to the creative writer: Start with the credible.


loose control

One of those studied tossed off poems.


that poetry

That poetry remains a broad permission.

That poetry is a controlled vocabulary for what fails to come to market.

That poetry is open to faithless arguments.

That poetry is a wilderness prior to philosophy.

That poetry is endlessly establishing conditions for fair use.

That within the poem a coming to terms may also mean a refusal to concede.

That the poem will not suffer its camouflage.

That the ‘voice of the poet’ is essentially an argument.

[A selection from a grouping indexed as 'key: SUSPENDED JUDGMENTS']

—A Maxwell, Peeping Mot (Apogee Press, 2013)


song gathers round

A song issues forth as sound waves: circles that widen outward so as to gather round, to draw close the far-flung members of the tribe.


wait it out

You could try to write more poems or you could just wait, trusting that some good ones will well up.


held time

The joy and sadness of an art like photography that arrests time.


poem made of ideas

I enjoyed reading the poetry prompt and thinking of a poem that might come from it...one I'd never write.


knowing more than one can say

As a critical writer, she feigned ignorance because sometimes that’s easier to admit than to accept one’s inability to articulate.


best unkept secret

Richard Howard, in an open address, criticized the establishment of National Poetry Month as a betrayal of “the best kept secret of all”—poetry. Every April, since the establishment of National Poetry Month, I receive a call from my local library or high school, asking if I will participate in a reading. How about November? I always ask, and the answer is always the same: People aren’t interested then; April is the month poetry goes public.

April is the cruelest month.
The secret of poetry is cruelty.

—Mary Ruefle, “On Secrets,” Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (Wave Books, 2012)


dark wood

Why is it that each day it seems I awaken within a dark wood and yet I’ve never once embarked on composing a ‘Divine Comedy’?


reader too familiar

As he pretended to read, you noticed all the poems were recited from memory. Perhaps if he’d punctuated his reading with some remembered lines from other poets, you wouldn’t so distrust him as someone too familiar with his own writing.


winning ways

Contests, prizes and awards...the art of writing reduced to winning.


unplanned trip

The scheme of the poem, the dream of the poem.


few words we have to say

All I want is to speak simply; for this grace I pray.
For we have loaded even the song with so many kinds of music
That gradually it sinks.
And our art we so decorated that beneath the gilt
Its face is eaten away.
And it is now time for us to say the few words we have to say
Because tomorrow our soul sets sail.

George Seferis, from “An Old Man on the River Bank,” George Seferis: Poems (Little, Brown and Company, 1964), translated by Rex Warner.


sense of an ending

Should the poem end with ‘thus…’, or with ‘and yet…’?


pound for pound the best poetics

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

—Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (1929)

The safest general characterization of the Modernist poetic tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Pound.


one-sided conversation

I got buttonholed by another talk poet today…couldn’t get a word (or even a thought) in edgewise.


more than carry over

A metaphor must be exploratory, not explanatory.


easy listening

When I slipped into the prose writer’s car, why did I know he’d be tuned to Easy 101.1.


unsure of its surroundings

Often a poetic line is composed in the form of a statement only to be put down on the page tentatively, as though a question.


accurate and modest

Elizabeth Bishop is spectacular in being unspectacular. Why has no one ever thought of this, one asks oneself; why not be accurate and modest.

—Marianne Moore, in a review of Bishop's North & South (Houghton Mifflin, 1946), The Nation (Sept. 29, 1946).


mouth making

Bring a basketful of words, and some spittle for paste.


rules-based writing

A poet teaching composition is dangerous to both student and teacher.


fewer markers

To avoid punctuation he would write the long way around.


half and half

Reading his criticism, I thought to myself: Half deft, half daft.


voices and visions

Sometimes vision involves hearing things.


cover calvacade

Some many books and so few poems.



The practiced reticence of her last lines.


contrarian poetics

A poet in a running argument with the world. [Thinking of Alan Dugan.]


plagiarist's curse

We must pity the plagiarists. For they’re forced to steal second-rate texts in order to escape immediate detection. And thankfully the truly great texts, the treasures of the age, some laying open for all to see, are unknown by anyone.


uncorrected sight

Never let craft eclipse vision.


shaken awake

The purpose of art is to shake us from the stupor of the ordinary. Sometimes it does that by offering an extraordinary view of the ordinary.


accident prone

One should not be afraid of accidents occurring in one’s art as accidents happen only to those who are engaged in accidents. (103)


Composition is a design personified, a design not mechanically perfect but emotionally perfect. A design is of an evocative nature. Design that is magic. In a perfect composition shapes excluded and shapes included are equally important. (104)

John D. Graham, System and Dialectics of Art (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1971), annotated from unpublished writings and critical introduction by Marcia Epstein Allentuck.


higher school

Poets ranked according to the prestige of the institutions where they taught.


image energy

An image is made manifest in language but its force comes from experience.


memory of perfection

I would like my work to be recognized in the classic tradition (Coptic, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese), as representing the Ideal in the mind. Classical art cannot possibly be eclectic. One must see the Ideal in one’s own mind. It is like a memory of perfection.


I used to paint mountains here in New Mexico and I thought
my mountains looked like ant hills
I saw the plains driving out of New Mexico and I thought
the plain had it
just the plane
If you draw a diagonal, that’s loose at both ends
I don’t like circles—too expanding
When I draw horizontals
you see this big plane and you have a certain feeling like
you’re expanding over the plane
Anything can be painted without representation

—Agnes Martin, “The Untroubled Mind,” Writings/Schriften (Kuntzmuseum Winterthur/ Edition Cantz, 1992), edited by Herausgegeben von Dieter Schwarz

[Today Google's landing page featured a painting by Agnes Martin, to honor the 102nd anniversary of her birth.]


serious fun

A poetics of insouciance.

[Thinking of James Tate.]


title trouble

Two titles that should never appear above a poem: “Untitled” and “Poem.”


like windblown leaves

Will all your poems be uncollected?


fire in the hole

Perhaps people have trouble understanding poetry because so often a good poem is trying to explode its genre.


patience to see

Unimaginable how much patience is needed to see the simplest things. How much patience I need to write a single verse.

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


from the desk of the editor #4

You've heard that Eskimos have a dozen words for snow;
we editors have at least a couple dozen for ‘No’.


important marker

A title should be more than a file tab.


first script

No neatly printed page can equal the beauty of handwritten lines in a notebook.


lit up

Each word illuminated from within by allusion.


scraped panels

In a 1995 New Yorker magazine profile of Mr. York, Calvin Tomkins said he was perhaps “the most highly admired unknown artist in America.” He described a shy man who avoided anyone connected to the art world, who worked slowly and who was perpetually dissatisfied with his work, prone to scraping down his wood panels and starting over.

Ms. Langdale said Mr. York usually wrapped his paintings in brown paper and mailed them to the gallery. She said that when one arrived, unannounced and “practically still wet,” she often felt that Mr. York “had to get it out of the house in order not to destroy it.”

—Roberta Smith, "Albert York, Reclusive Landscape Painter, Dies at 80"
The New York Times obituary, published: October 31, 2009



Version by version the vision made manifest.


art's remuneration

One of those artists who thought the world owed him a living without proof of his worth.


window blinds

Most poems are windows, though the text sometimes blocks the view.


from the desk of the editor #3

Know that no one has read as many first few lines as you.


found objects

My poems (in the beginning) are like a table on which one places interesting things one has found on one's walks: a pebble, a rusty nail, a strangely shaped root, the corner of a torn photograph, etc. ... where after months of looking at them and thinking about them daily, certain surprising relationships, which hint at meanings, begin to appear. These objets trouvés of poetry are, of course, bits of language. The poem is the place where one hears what the language is really saying, where the full meaning of words begins to emerge. That's not quite right! It's not so much what the words mean that is crucial, but rather, what they show and reveal.

—Charles Simic, "Notes on Poetry and Philosophy," Wonderful Words, Silent Truth (Poets on Poetry series, U. of Michigan Press, 1990)


from the desk of the editor #2

Don’t say you’d like to see more of his/her work. If the writer is ready s/he doesn’t need your encouragement.


base matter

Inspiration remains hoped for, but so often art begins in the material of medium.


from the desk of the editor #1

A rejection slip that shows weakness will be responded to viciously by the rejected writer.


slighter verse

Auden with his frequent lapses into vers de société.


logic use

…where Donne uses “logic” he regularly uses it to justify illogical positions. He employs it to overthrow a conventional position or to “prove” an essentially illogical one.

—Cleanth Brooks, “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” The Well Wrought Urn (A Harvest Book/Harcourt, Brace, 1947).


shadow metaphor

Each rhyme pair was a shadow metaphor in the poem.


enjambment mojo

Nothing is more fetishized in free verse poetics than enjambment.


step and breath

Poetry that is not palliative, not a cure for pain and loss; rather it is a course, a way forward if only by the step of a next breath speaking a word.


poetry's lowest life-form

The poet (usually a bad one) who reads at an open mike then leaves before the last reader has had his/her say.


transitions matter

The organization and diction of a poem are completely dependent upon one another, and you should not be troubled if your first attempts to sort out the two elements are not successful. The distinction between the two is a real one, and you will soon begin to discover it yourself. You will see that organization resides not so much in the words themselves as in the transitions that separate words, clauses, sentences, and stanzas from one another. When the poet is in control of his medium, these transitions are decidedly meaningful.

—James McMichael, The Style of a Short Poem (Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1967)


word borders

The margins of the page: invisible fence?


desire path

Despite structure or tradition, the poetic line is a desire path.


it's alive

For a dead thing, poetry sure is a bulging, brimming, humming, oozing, teeming, squiggling and generally astir thing.


many motives

For most people the only motive of poetry is emotion. For the poet, emotion is but one of many motives.


negative space

Poetry is a verbal means to a nonverbal source. It is a motion to no-motion, to the still point of contemplation and deep realization. Its knowledges are all negative and, therefore, more positive than any knowledge. Nothing that can be said about it in words is worth saying.

—A. R. Ammons, “A Poem Is a Walk,” Claims for Poetry (U. of Michigan Press, 1983), ed. Donald Hall, 8.


replete with repetition

Enough already of the anaphora.


genre disregard

Many of the poems he loved tried to shrug off the mantle of being poetry.


propped up

One of those books filled with insipid writing prompts for the uninspired.


photo portal

It was that kind of photograph you could step into and begin making a poem of what you experienced therein.


silence is the invisible kingdom

Silence in poetry is the place where words come from. The space between an event and that event becoming a poem. Silence stands at the gate, at the opening of the field. Silence gives substance to poems the way death does in life. It is the invisible parts of the poetry. It is the invisibility of what is about to appear. Like a king of the play who is invisible, held back in the wings to build up the tension. The invisible all around us in this world without our seeing it until the poem speaks. The invisible and the silence go hand and hand in poetry. Like the night train pounding through the dark town in Texas as the dogs bark. Silence is emptiness just a little afterwards. Silence is what’s invisible until the poem makes it visible. There is a huge silence built up by implication. The silence that fills up our metaphors, pretending one thing and meaning the invisible other. It is the silence of Basho's haiku. It is what's invisible in the fragments of Emily Dickinson. Silence is the invisible kingdom that the poet makes us see.

(Jack Gilbert writes this and pushes the paper across the table to Linda Gregg.)

[The above is something handwritten by Jack Gilbert late in his life. It was transcribed by me in a phone conversation with Linda Gregg, 01-30-14.]


trash poem

A merz poem: A poem constructed of words and phrases most poets would consider clearly unpoetic or just cultural trash.


no turning point

Prose poet: one whose lines run but won’t turn.


not mine

I found a poem in one of my old notebooks written by someone I hardly knew.


objects at rest

     It is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels, and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest. From them flow contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all troubled lyricists. The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic, at times, pathetic at others, of such things—all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.
     In them one sees the confused impurity of the human condition, the massing of things, the use and disuse of substances, footprints and fingerprints, the abiding presence of the human engulfing all artifacts, inside and out.
     Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand’s obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law and beyond it.

—Pablo Neruda, “Toward an Impure Poetry,” Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970 (Grove Press, 1983), translated by Ben Belitt.


extra punctuation

Poetry, as opposed to prose, has two additional means of punctuation: the line break and the space.


pressed flowers

The flowers were more preserved than the pages of verse in which they were pressed.


corporeal punishment

The last line felt like being spanked.


importantly missing

Don't be afraid to forget some of the words. Nor worry if they don't come to you.



A line the rest of the poem could never live up to.


winged creatures

At night all the books I haven’t read lift from their perches in the bookcases and fly up, pages flapping wildly, fly up the stairway to my bedroom, they fly about my head at night, they try to disturb my sleep with the shame of their flapping pages. Waking in the morning, often I find one, splayed open where it has fallen upon the bedcovers.


who have loved beautiful things

And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.

―Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Little Brown and Co., 2013)

[The painting: The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (1622-1654)]


timing device

He would try to get at least the outline of the poem down before the tea kettle whistled.


hearing things

He gave the poem a close reading for the ear.


hard case

The poem was not obscure, it was obdurate; made of poetic material impervious to casual reading.


engaging tongue and ear

Tonight I read Yeats aloud for about an hour, and I shall do this. An hour in the morning and an hour at night. Up to the inventing of Caxton’s press, and for most people long after that, all reading was done aloud….Eliot says the best thing a poet can do is read aloud poetry as much as he can….Silent reading only employs the parts of the brain which are used for vision. Not all the brain. This means a silent reader’s literary sense becomes detached from the motor parts and the audio parts of the brain which are used in reading aloud—tongue and ear.

—Ted Hughes in a letter to Sylvia Plath, The Letters of Ted Hughes (Farrar and Giroux, 1956), selected and edited by Christopher Reid.


odd old bricks

A hundred years hence will all those author photos with backdrops of bookcases seem like the writers were posing in front of ruins?


stitching it together

The alphabet is your sewing kit.


life-giving skill

The critic can only do an autopsy of the poem. In the act of revision, the poet must have the skill and confidence of a surgeon holding the living organs of a poem in his/her hands.


hurray-hurray, step right up...

Blurb writers and other carnival barkers of literature.



The creator dreams of a kindred mind called a reader.