stay alive

We tell each other stories to help each other live. That’s why I read poetry. I read poetry to stay alive. That’s why I went to poetry in the first place, that’s why I stay with it, that’s why I’ll never leave it. Because poetry alone carries the truth of “is-ness.”

—Marie Howe, BOMB 61, Fall 1997, interview by Victoria Redel.



Metaphor that is less like attachment and more like collision.


poem factory

Unfortunately he used forms as though they were molds for pouring in content and making very similar poems.


scene rendered

It’s all about the quality of the description.


vision shifted

“White writing” appeared in my art the way flowers explode over the earth at a given time. With this method I found I could paint the frenetic rhythms of the modern city, something I couldn’t even approach with Renaissance techniques. In other words, through calligraphic line I was able to catch the restless pulse of our cities today. I began working this way in England—in Devonshire in 1935—when I returned from the Orient, where I’d studied Chinese brushwork. So in gentle Devonshire during the night, when I could hear the horses breathing in the field, I painted Broadway and Welcome Hero. In the process I probably experienced the most revolutionary sensations I have ever had in art, because while one part of me was creating these two works, another part was trying to hold me back. The old and the new were in battle. It may be difficult for one who doesn’t paint to visualize the ordeal an artist goes through when his angle of vision is being shifted.

—Mark Tobey, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Modern Artists (Da Capo Press, 2000), interviews by Katherine Kuh.


become art

They say you can make art out of anything; but some things have to become art.


no outré there

A confessional poet whose life might be mistaken for that of a saint.



The lines were like a handful of straw held up to the wind.


not equal

Words have meanings and through language convey semantic sense, but in poetry there are no equal signs.


the instant, the quick

For an essential part of Lawrence’s genius was his fluency; and I mean something more literal than the ease with which he wrote: rather, the sense of direction in all the flowing change and variation in his work. This fluency has its own forms without its own conventions. It is not plottable: ear-count, finger-count and what might be called the logic of received form have nothing to do with it. What matters is the disturbance. ‘It doesn’t depend on the ear, particularly,’ he once wrote, ‘but on the sensitive soul.’ It is something that can never be laid out into a system, for it comes instead from the poet’s rigorous but open alertness…Lawrence’s controlling standard was delicacy: a constant, fluid awareness, nearer the checks of intimate talk than those of regular prosody. His poetry is not the outcome of rules and formal craftsmanship, but of a purer, more native and immediate artistic sensibility. It is poetry because it could not be otherwise.

He was well aware of what he was about. He put his case in the introduction to New Poems:

'To break the lovely form of metrical verse, and dish up the fragments as a new substance, called vers libre, this is what most of the free-versifers accomplish. They do not know that free verse has its own nature, that it is neither star nor pearl, but instantaneous like plasm…It has no finish. It has no satisfying stability, satisfying for those who like the immutable. None of this. It is the instant; the quick.'

—A. Alvarez, “Lawrence’s Poetry: A Single State of Man,” D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, Poet, Prophet (Harper and Row, 1973). Essay originally published in A. Alvarez’s The Shaping Spirit (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958).


genre hunger

Poet, be a genre eater.


flows over

Whether slight or expansive, a good poem is always a superfluity.


a way without words

He even translated the silences well.


poetry ready

A reader of poetry has responsibilities: among which are open-mindedness and a wide-ranging education.


term limit

Nothing can be done to make a word like ‘rancid’ become a lovely vocable.


two halves

“You’re published now,” I told her, “in your eyes, your whole air,
so your poem is half of the truth, and the other half is the reader.”

—Mona Van Duyn, “An Essay on Criticism,” Merciful Disguises: Published and Unpublished Poems (Atheneum, 1973)


field awareness

He was deft with line breaks, like a wide receiver who knows how to test the edge of the field but always keeps two feet in bounds.


once over lightly

He thought revision meant fixing the punctuation and cleaning up typos.


stone steps

When reading a poem I want to feel as though I’m coming down stone steps, with some grand edifice at my back.


soft spots

The reader kept falling through the ellipses.


used to these stories

“Remember the pears, they were so green,
and the avocados, like guitars, honey-golden, and
the asparagus, like a lion’s rainy mane, and…”

Our mouths water. Their mouths water,
I am used to these stories. I am used to the land
barren, bitten and aflame with lies. I am used to
our faces in this new wild dispassionate light.
I learned this from my musician friends, from
years waging futile wars with poetry until
I could no longer think of anything else.

Juan Felipe Herrera, “I Walk Back Nowhere,” Half of the World in Light (Univ. of Arizona Press, 2008)


can't get there from here

When reading a critic I like the feeling that I’ll never catch up.


image and noun

Nouns are the shadows of the ideal forms (images).


polar response

Just another poem I could either tear apart or take at face value.


cage sport

Words that will resist the fetters of sense while they forge linkages of sound.


idea of a bird

The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense his life,—large-brained, large-lunged, hot, ecstatic, his frame charged with buoyancy and his heart with song. The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds,—how many human aspirations are realized in their free, holiday-lives, and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song!

John Burroughs, The Writings of John Burroughs: Birds and poets, with other papers (Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1904)


no there there

A poet must learn to shun inspiration toward trivial purposes.


authoritative voice

Poet, be a sergeant major: Bark orders until the reader falls in line.


hello, hello, can anyone hear me

The poet must presume an audience because none is assured.


lays it on

Poetry may be doublespeak and sometimes triple- and quadruple-speak.


poetry as a foreign language

Taking ‘Poetry 101’ in college should fulfill a student’s foreign language requirement.


unseen it hits you

A line break should be like a glass door you don’t see and just walk into.

[Paraphrase of what poet Bruce Cohen said at our workshop group tonight.]


tradition in process

Eliot writes that obtaining the tradition “involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to any one who would continue to be a poet beyond his twentieth-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” He saw the past “altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” The canon is steadily undergoing formation, both vertically and—more recently—horizontally. The future will applaud our generation’s widening the stream. We must not, however, as we widen the course of the canon, make its bed shallow. Despite the labor necessary to appreciate them, those dead white guys are great. Sometimes in spite of themselves. Sometimes, I suspect, not even knowing, before they wrote the work, the truth the work reveals.

Too often we ignore the fact that tradition is process. Believing that tradition is created in retrospect, we search tirelessly for the great but unpublished black lesbian poet of the seventeenth century. Perhaps someday someone will find her, and that discovery will force us to make new maps of the literary landscape. What will be changed, however, is not the landscape of the seventeenth century, but that of the generation that discovers her. For tradition, as process, is formed as we go forward. There is no doubling back, no taking that other fork in the road, no rewinding the tape.

Marilyn Nelson Waniek, “Owning the Masters,” The Gettysburg Review (Spring, 1995)



long road to the deep north

The best writing teachers don’t teach shortcuts.


irritable reaching after justification

I’ve noticed that poets whose work is nowhere near as clear and as comprehensible as Keats’ poetry, will often cite his ‘negative capability’ in their own defense.


sounds not chosen

If the poetry of X was music,
So that it came to him of its own,
Without understanding, out of the wall

Or in the ceiling, in sounds not chosen...

—Wallace Stevens, "The Creations of Sound"

Tonight was the Twentieth Wallace Stevens Birthday Bash at the Hartford Public Library. Guest speaker Lisa Goldfarb's talk was entitled Accents, Syllables, and Sounds: How Wallace Stevens Transforms Us into Musical Readers.


audio test

You’ll know if the poem’s refrain bears repeating once you read the poem aloud.


make way for others

Written poetry is worth reading once, and then should be destroyed. Let the dead poets make way for others. Then we might even come to see that it is our veneration for what has already been created, however beautiful and valid it may be, that petrifies us.

—Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double (Grove Press, 1958), translated by Mary Caroline Richards.


take a disliking to

Try to write the kind of poem you’re disinclined to like.


poetry made manifest

Seeing Galway Kinnell read his poems wearing an Irish cable knit sweater at Arrowhead, Melville’s house in the Berkshires, circa 1985.


poets on earth

When they were known only as poets to you, they were your gods, but once you knew them as people they were after all people who wrote poems.


resilient design

Even if in typesetting two or three lines got dropped the integrity of the poem would not be damaged.


numbers game

Sonneteers are numerologists convinced of the magical power of fourteen.


could end anywhere

Once the poem has established itself, any late line can be a last line.


begin in wonder

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle tells us that through wonder (thaumazein) “people both now begin and in the first began to philosophize.” Earlier, in Plato’s Theaetatus we learn that “wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” Both poetry and philosophy intersect in their desire for the essence or source of things.

Mark Irwin, “Poetry and Originality: Have You Been There Before?” The Writer’s Chronicle, Vol. 48, Number 2, Oct./Nov. 2015


literal leeway

Poets will always allow themselves to be less literal than they would otherwise condone as readers of others’ writings.


light verse poet

Smitten by meter; overly fond of form.


you are here

Using place names: like dropping a section of the earth into the poem.


time poet

A poet companionable to our times.


end in sight

Always a bad sign in reading a book when you find yourself flipping ahead to see how many pages to the end.


always hungry

These, then, are Robinson’s kinds of originality, of poetic value—all of them subtle and half hidden, muffled and disturbing, answering little but asking those questions that are unpardonable, unforgettable, and necessary.

It is curious and wonderful that this scholarly, intelligent, childlike, tormented New England stoic, “always hungry for the nameless,” always putting in the reader’s mouth “some word that hurts your tongue,” useless for anything but his art, protected by hardier friends all his life, but enormously courageous and utterly dedicated (he once told Chard Powers Smith at the very end of his life, “I could never have done anything but write poetry”), should have brought off what in its quiet, searching, laborious way is one of the most remarkable accomplishments of modern poetry.

—James Dickey, “Edward Arlington Robinson,” Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now (Ecco Press, 1981)


plain wrapper

A publisher who was trying to bring back the boring book cover.

[Thinking of Wave Books]


write through

I must write even when I cannot write.


multiple moons

Certainly a planet with two or three moons would have better poets living on it than our own.


ghost words

The ghost of what was stripped away in revision still haunts your reading of the poem.


leaping junk to junk

How do these seemingly disparate elements weld together? What makes this part or that fit where they do? How does a steel beam fit into its place in David Smith’s sculpture? How do images, and memories they engender, fit into our histories? In his “Conversation about Dante,” Osip Mandelstam notes, “One has to run across the whole width of the river, jammed with mobile Chinese junks sailing in various directions. This is how the meaning of poetic speech is created. Its route cannot be reconstructed by interrogating the boatmen: they will not tell how and why we were leaping from junk to junk.” These mysterious instabilities of making then coalesce into a poem, into this poem.

—James McCorkle, ”The Making of a Poem,” Poems and Their Making: A Conversation (Etruscan Press, 2015), moderated by Philip Brady.


second to last

He sent his manuscript with twenty bucks only to find out he was runner-up for The Last Unpublished Poet on Earth Prize.


then and now

The poem transcends its occasion and becomes a new event.


life force

The book of poems was so good you believed at any moment it would animate, turn into a kind of bird, and fly from your hands.


reality check

The conceptual poet strays at his own risk into the real world.

[Thinking of Kenneth Goldsmith]


line tension

The first letter steps out slowly onto the tightrope of the ruled-line paper.


fair fare

The poem was language on a stick. For your delectation or as confection, but nothing more than that.


slips through the cracks

Even the poets who try to evade completely the real world that collides with and pushes us—that, despite ourselves, humiliates and uplifts us—cannot avoid the way that the thin melody of popular song slips in through the cracks in their poems.

—Jorge Carrera Andrade, Micrograms (Wave Books, 2011)*, translated by Alejandro De Acosta and Joshua Beckman.

*Originally published in Tokyo in 1940


poet of a certain age

He no longer made an effort to complete poems that were without an emotional impulse behind them.


end anywhere

He didn’t write discrete poems. Each poem ended in some random moment of dailiness: a bathroom break, the kettle singing on the stove, a Jehovah’s Witness knocking at the door, the trash wheeled out to the street, falling asleep in a chair, etc.



too easy

Another comfort-zone poem.


precise song

George Oppen wrote, in his great poem “Route,” “If having come so far we shall have / Song // Let it be small enough.” I take this less to mean that our human capacity for song is (or should be) diminished than that it should, in a time of crisis and violence, be particular. Almost anything is beautiful if particular enough—something Oppen, in his relentless quest for precision and specificity, well knew.

—G. C. Waldrep, Poems and Their Making: A Conversation (Etruscan Press, 2015), moderated by Philip Brady.


pieces of their mind

In post-modern poetry disjecta membra is substituted for subject matter.


singular admirer

The joy in knowing well one poem in the poet’s oeuvre that others seemed to overlook.


no outlet

You knew at the turn, the line was going to be a dead-end. Still, you had to drive to the very end, get out and look around.


polished away

When craft is pressed to an extreme that gleam that was the thing’s original light becomes a sheen


measure of the man

He wanted to show me his wine rack, but I was more interested in seeing his bookcase.


god-given line

Graciously the gods give us the first line for nothing, but it is up to us to furnish a second that harmonizes with it and not be unworthy of its supernatural elder brother. All the resources of experience and of intelligence are hardly enough to make it comparable to the verse which came to us as a gift.

—Paul Valéry, Au sujet d’Adonis (1920), translation by Louise Varèse.


stuck there

Laughs leave the body, lighter than air; choked sobs stick inside the throat forever.


perfect prospect

A poem that has many ways to go wrong.


vulture visit

After a poem is left for dead, it’s still possible to pick through the corpse for some bones and morsels.


laboring oar

In Homer’s lines we can still hear the oar-strokes upon open seas


muse of fire

O for a muse of fire, that would ascend
   The brightest heaven of invention...

—William Shakespeare, Henry V, "Prologue"

[I visited the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC yesterday.]



those who come after

Let us praise the après-garde, those who come after with brooms & dustpans, sweeping up the debris left behind when others blasted forward, salvaging this scrap & that bit, making simple things from their leavings.


out past the breakers

An epic poem is oceanic, each line another wave.

[Thinking of Olson. Nod to Homer, of course.]


one and done

He blamed his good memory for not rereading more good books…but is it because there are so many unread books still ahead of him, or could it even be envy?


an inch from stopping

What’s annoying about literary criticism is that it judges something that cannot change.

Nothing is more entertaining than the fate awaiting human beings who are determined to hide, to flee from others. Neither Valéry nor Rimbaud nor Lawrence would have managed to become so universally well-known so quickly had they desired such fame. Imitate them, you young people in quest of great glory. And if no one seeks you out, don’t weep because you’ve succeeded where geniuses have failed. I’ll not say another word.

A writer is always merely the ghostwriter of the child who’s already seen everything.

You always write only an inch away from stopping to speak.

A poet has no memory. But is one.

It’s not in order to be read that you write. It’s in order to be experienced, a little.

We should read a poem only in Braille. With our fingertips.

The poet is the one who accepts to be the attentive slave of what goes on beyond him.

In poetry, the poem is the least thing.

Words that open like oysters.

—Georges Perros, Paper Collage (Seagull Books, 2015), translated from the French by John Taylor.


three variants

There are three kinds of aphorists: The aphorist pure, who composes his/her brief utterances for effect. The aphorist embedded, whose aperçus arise here and there within prose or poetry. The aphorist accidental, who often uncorks a good one in casual speech recounted by others.


can't go there

When the urge to experiment is the urge to evade experience.


straw nail

Think of the poetic line as that straw they say in a hurricane can be driven into a telephone pole.


not impossible

In a note to himself while working on The Maximus Poems, Charles Olson wrote: "It's all right to be difficult, but you can't be impossible."

[Yesterday on a short birthday trip I went to Gloucester MA for the first time and the first thing I did was to find the house where Charles Olson once lived and wrote his poems.]


safe harbor

Tired of pobiz, I turn to Thomas Merton.

[Thomas Merton lectures].


attica, attica...

Sometimes you work on a poem for so long you feel you’re staring out of a cage.


just sing

Let there be singing…singing will always aid one’s poetry.



A novel in verse is merely a novelty.


game playing

It may not help a poet to be good at word games.


tomb poem

The poem was a mausoleum of dead poets’ influences.


other kind of hero

Hölderlin’s heroism is splendid because it is free from pride and devoid of confidence in victory. All he is aware of is his mission, the summons from the invisible world; he believes in his calling, but has no assurance of success. He is forever vulnerable…It is the feeling that he is foredoomed to destruction, that a menacing shadow dogs his footsteps, which makes his persistence in his chosen course so courageous. The reader must not think that Hölderlin’s faith in poesy as the profoundest meaning of life implies a like belief in his own poetic gifts. As regards these latter he remained humble-minded…Yet for all this personal modesty, for all this sensitiveness, he had a will of steel to animate his devotion to poesy, to fortify him for self-immolation. “My dear friend,” he writes to one of his intimates, “when will people come to see that in our case the greatest force is the most modest in its manifestations, and that the divine message (when it issues from us) is always uttered with humility and sadness?” His heroism was not that of the warrior, not the heroism of triumphant force; it was the heroism of the martyr who is ready, nay, glad, to suffer for the unseen, to perish on behalf of an ideal.

—Stefan Zweig, “Hölderlin,” The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche (Pushkin Press, 2012) translated by Eden and Cedar Paul.


satellite attention

Forever my mind will orbit this poem, ever unable to penetrate its atmosphere.


the quick and the dead

A clever poet is never a poet.


it's all out there

Most ambitious poems show their flaws before they demonstrate their merits.


step into space

Poet, your first line should feel like a skydiver’s step out of an airplane.


trusted structure

The first line like a sturdy lintel above the house’s doorway.


missing person

Teaching the Ape to Write Poems

They didn't have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
"You look like a god sitting there.
Why don't you try writing something?"

James Tate (1943-2015)


not seeing out

Too many poems are mirrors when they should be windows.


on time rime

Those expected rhymes that arrived on time.



speak up

The only danger to poetry is the reticence and silence of poets.

—Eavan Boland, "Letter to a Young Woman Poet," American Poetry Review (May/June 1997).


critic v. artist

An art learned only from books or earned by the trials of making.


write without

The root of most bad poetry is the eagerness of poets to write even without something important to write about.



All good sentences naturally resist enjambment.


new world everywhere you turn

To a poet every word is a wonder.


time lapse

Browsing through old anthologies should be enough to humble even the proudest poet. Not only because a few great poems remain…but because so many names have evaporated in time.


intimate and total

…in the best lyrics, that is: in the poems of love and deprivation and mourning—the art of communication seems on the one hand private or intimate; and on the other hand, total. It is private and intimate in the sense that Hardy seems to speak very clearly but only to himself, or only to a single reader, whereas most nineteenth-century poets speak as though to a large public, more or less authoritatively. This is obviously true of Wordsworth and Tennyson. Speaking as to a large public normally involves some falsification of tone, some shifting of the poetic persona. We have the sense with Hardy that the poetry has been little modified by the implicit existence of readers, or by the likelihood publication. Many of Hardy’s early poems went long unpublished; some were saved for the very last volumes in the 1920’s.

—Albert J. Guerard, “The Illusion of Simplicity,” Thomas Hardy (New Directions, 1964)


love over

A love poem must have an undercurrent of loss.


marked not marred

Often I’ll pull down a poetry book from our local library’s shelf only to find its pages marked by a prior reader. But I don’t mind reading through another avid reader’s scratched window.



The poem absolute, above all other human utterances.


one more question

I’m all for some Socratic doubt in a poem, but this poet had a question mark in every other line. Did the poet want the reader to write the poem by giving all the answers?


chugging forward

Powered by anaphora the poem was a locomotive of insistent locutions.


shapely fountain

Yeats said that he wrote in form because if he didn’t he wouldn’t know when to stop. Like Samuel Beckett I prefer the word ‘shape’ to ‘form.’ At Trinity [College Dublin] during a course on Aristotle’s Poetics our Greek professor W. B. Stanford told us to come back the following week with our own definition of poetry. Mine was: ‘If prose is a river, then poetry’s a fountain.’ I still feel that’s pretty good because it suggests that ‘form’ (or ‘shape’) is releasing rather than constraining. The fountain is shapely and at the same time free-flowing.

—Michael Longley, “A Jovial Hullabaloo,” One Wide Expanse (The Poet's Chair: Writings from the Ireland Chair of Poetry, University College Dublin Press, 2015)


escape artist

The confessional poem is a ‘Houdini box’ from which the self emerges gasping. To gasps of the audience…and then to their rising applause, for having transcended such distress.


matter of interest

Poetry, as other object matter, is after all for the interested people.

—Louis Zukofsky, preface to A Test of Poetry (1948)

[Poetry after all, one might add, is for interesting people.]


dorothy and emily

Dialogue from the film, The Wizard of Oz (1939)...

   Oz: I am Oz—the Great and Powerful. Who are you? Who are you?!

   Dorothy: If you please, I am Dorothy—the small and meek.


   Poetry: I am Poetry—the Great and Powerful. Who are you? Who are you?!

   Dickinson: If you please, I am Emily—the small and meek.

[You know how this story ends.]


knows the difference

I’m fine so long as the poet knows he’s writing prose in poetry lines.


not poetry itself

We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.

—Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (1958), lectures delivered at University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Winter 1955-56.

We have to remember that what we observe is not poetry itself, but poetry exposed to our method of questioning.


mark making

Stone, paper, pixels, air, mind…poems will try to fix upon anything


small conundrum

A poem so simple it must be misunderstood.



The poetic line: a dragline in the universe.


hot prospect

Some critics are like baseball scouts looking for the kid with the sinking fastball. Only instead of sitting along the left field line in an almost empty minor league stadium, they scour the pages of nearly unread literary magazines.


audible line

Meant to be uttered, a line that resisted ink.


own the moment

Each week to find that moment that opens, widens out into a poem.


against the sunset

In the “Evening Walk,” composed partly at school, partly in college vacations, he notices how the boughs and leaves of the oak darken and come out when seen against the sunset. “I recollect distinctly,” [Wordsworth] says nearly fifty years afterwards, “the very spot where this first struck me. It was on the way between Hawkshead and Ambleside, and gave me extreme pleasure. The moment was important in my poetical history; for I date from it my consciousness of the infinite variety of natural appearances, which had been unnoticed by the poets of any age or country, so far as I was acquainted with them; and I made a resolution to supply in some degree the deficiency. I could not have been at the time above fourteen years of age.”
It would be hardly too much to say that there is not a single image in his whole works which he had not observed with his own eyes. And perhaps no poet since Homer has introduced into poetry, directly from nature, more facts and images which had not before been noted in books.

—J. C. Shairp, Studies in Poetry and Philosophy (Hurd and Houghton, 1872).


unfit to print

This poem is shredder ready.


not enough there there

The content is suspect when you realize you couldn’t write the poem any better than you did.


ink over utterance

A spoken word artist who wasn’t up to his tattoos.


pancaked structure

There were some good phrases in the poem, but they seemed like distressed cries coming from a collapsed building


freedom in form

There is such a complete freedom now-a-days in respect to technique that I am rather inclined to disregard form so long as I am free and can express myself freely. I don't know of anything, respecting form, that makes much difference. The essential thing in form is to be free in whatever form is used. A free form does not assure freedom. As a form, it is just one more form. So that it comes to this, I suppose, that I believe in freedom regardless of form.

—Wallace Stevens, "A Note on Poetry," Opus Posthumous (Knopf, 1957).


poem above me

The poem should stand above the poet’s force of personality.


sentence sense

With a sixth sense for sentence structure, a poet who could dispense with punctuation.


mistake proof

Blunders, once recognized, become the poem’s building blocks.


library of unfinished books

Many books started, some finished—some deserving of being set aside, others casualties of restlessness or lack of attention.


for the stars

Dorn launched Duncan's May 7 [1969] reading with a generous introduction and Duncan in turn treated the audience to a performance of his Passages poems. Graduate student Don Byrd remembered the event well: "...There were perhaps 300 people at the reading; it went on for nearly three hours. Somewhere in the midst of the apocalyptic passages, he stopped and said, 'Some times people ask me why, if I believe this, I bother to write poetry. I write poetry for the fucking stars.'"

Robert Duncan, quoted in Lisa Jarnot's Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography (Univ. of California Press, 2012).


new word, new world

Consider this neologism: “dianamic.” Not dynamic; not dialectic…but to fuse the two words into a new one. Think of dianamic when considering the poems of Wallace Stevens, with his ongoing struggle between imagination (the life of the mind) and reality (a being in the physical world). Dianamic is not the division between two elements, two ideologies, two aesthetics; it's the forces and the flux acting between the two.


we have a runner

In the end, all you want is your poem to be running through their heads.


snatched up

She had struggled with the poem over several years, only to have it taken in a week by the first journal she sent it to.


freer speech

The poet is never strictly speaking.


one not many

Most poets don’t realize it’s the poem not the book that matters.


human things

For our ancestors, a house, a fountain, even clothing, a coat, was much more intimate. Each thing, almost, was a vessel in which what was human found and defined itself.

Now, from America, empty, indifferent things sweep in—pretend things, life-traps…A house, in the American sense, an American apple, a grapevine, bears no relation to the hope and contemplation which our ancestors informed and beheld them.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, letter to Witold Hulewicz, Nov. 13, 1925, quoted in A Year With Rilke (Harper Collins, 2009), translated and edited by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows.


rough edge

The right margin of line endings competing with the deckle edge of the page.


middle game

There are poets who can start strong. There are poet who finish with a flourish. But as in chess, it’s the middle game, when complications multiple almost endlessly, where poems are made or lost.


bared teeth

The strong consonants gave teeth, bite to the poem.


wood splitter

A poem that could drive a wedge into the side of the thickest anthology.


they live on

Dante’s great poem (Commedia) gives a more complete picture of individual men than had been ever before achieved by any single known writer, poet, or historian. On our way through the three realms, several hundred individuals appear before our eyes, men of all times, past and present, young and old, of all classes and professions, of every imaginable social and moral standing. Some of them famous in history; others were so in Dante’s life, but now are known only to very few. Others have never been famous. All these men and women are so strikingly real, so concrete, there is such a correspondence between mind and body and behavior, such an intimate relation between their character and their fate, that the unmistakable peculiarity of each individual emerges with incomparable and often terrifying and poignant vigor. Some are given a whole canto, others only a few lines. But almost all of these individual profiles are unforgettable. They live in our imagination. We do not know and are not able to verify, except in a few cases, if Dante’s portraits correspond to reality. But the realism of a poet is not that of a photographer; it is the identity of his own vision with its expression. We here are concerned with the energy of his vision and the power of his voice. No one before him had probed so deeply into the identity of individual character and individual fate.

—Erich Auerbach, “The Three Traits of Dante’s Poetry,” Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach (Princeton U. Press, 2014), edited by James I. Porter, translated by Jane O. Newman.



much ado

When at last read, the poem seemed an afterthought to the long-winded and over-explanatory introduction which preceded it.


image of note

Really, must I grieve it all again
a second time, and why tonight
of all the nights, and just
as I’m about to raise, with the
blissful others, my

glass to the silvery, liquid
chandelier above us?

—Laura Kasischke, “Champagne


hostile environment

Many species of words died out during his Darwinian revisions.


poem is maw

People fear poetry because it engulfs all other forms of language. Poetry is the ever voracious text.


known unknown

To twist Stevens’ assertion: The poet must resist celebrity almost successfully.


metaphor multiplies

The thread of a poem turns out to be a rhizome.


line limit

If the prose poem goes too far it’s because poetry is so held back by the tether of the line.


seizes the whole machine

I know I have a poem if I am moved in the first draft. By moved I mean choking in spots. If I don’t have this feeling I throw it away. I have, in the past, wasted months on work that began with an idea, an idea alone. Now I know, for myself at least, to let go at that point. If the first draft isn’t nerved by an emotion I didn’t know I felt, it isn’t going to be governed by any ideas I didn’t already understand before I wrote the poem. I always think of Frost saying, “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” He adds, of course, “no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” There can be something like tears blazing all over notions; ideas are vastly and deeply part of the body. A good idea seizes the whole machine. A new idea makes you physically afraid, your body changes. Hope is lodged in your skin, in your cellwork. I cannot even begin to understand the division commonly drawn (and honestly experienced by many people) between thought and emotion.

—Jorie Graham, “Pleasure,’ Singular Voices: American Poetry Today (Avon Book, 1985), edited by Stephen Berg.


cultural essence

Some say fewer people are reading poetry these days. I think of us who do as the perfect distillate in a culture that requires much evaporation.


investment grade

To know a good poem is to own a lifetime annuity.


secondary source

They often quoted his ars poetica but could hardly recall his poems. [Thinking of Archibald MacLeish]


list resisted

After about 5 items into a list it’s no longer a poetic device, it’s a poet’s tic.


moment of performance

I used to be an opera singer and have, therefore, experienced what it means to have to do your very best at one specific moment. That’s what performers have to do; one of the pleasures of being a poet is that poets don’t. A couple of my poems about performance are included in this book (“The Later Mother,” about a daughter and her dying mother, is the other and might be labelled with the phrase, “in the performance of her duties.”), but I have many more—about tightrope walkers, a man who walks through fire, an orchestra conductor, etc. Performance, I believe, is a metaphor for those moments we all face when we make crucial decisions quickly, using all the abilities we possess, perhaps even summoning some we didn’t know, until that moment of necessity, we had. In that moment our capacities are heightened, as in each successful poem our perceptions are heightened so that we can recognize and delight in something which previously had been just beyond our grasp.

—Cynthia Macdonald, Poetspeak: in their work, about their work (Bradbury Press, 1983), a selection by Paul Janeczko.


these words

And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.

Revelation 21:5, King James Version


venn diagram

The universal set of poetry now encompasses any kind of text. Therefore each reader is required to draw the circle of his/her own subset.


conversion experience

The day the minister mistook the collected Dickinson for his Bible.


it's all in there

The poem as a cabinet of curiosities.


hush money

Poets who never made much money until they were offered money not to write so much.


new word

All the other letters should stagger backwards or scatter with each new word dropped into the poem.


what have you done

James Joyce is supposed to have said that certain of Verlaine’s poems, among them the short best-loved ones, were the greatest poems ever written. The haunting sensitivity and disarming simplicity of Il pleut dans mon coeur, La lune blanche, Chason d’automne, Colloque sentimental, Le ceil est par-dessus le toit, etc., are to me unequaled.

I have before me two photos of Verlaine at the Café Francois 1er. From one I have done several drawings and paintings. In that photo Verlaine is leaning back with his head against the edge of the top of the bench on which he is sitting. He is staring upward into space, dreaming. No one else is visible in the café. He looks relaxed, not wanting for anything. Whatever was going to happen has happened.

Qu’a-tu fait ô toi que voilà
Pleurant sans cesse
Dis, qu’as-tu fait, toi que voilà,
De ta jeunesse?

Robert De Niro, “Corot, Verlaine and Greta Garbo, or The Melancholy Syndrome,” Tracks, a journal of artists’ writings, Vol. 1, No. 3, Fall 1975, edited by Herbert George.

* "What have you done, you, weeping there
            Your endless tears?
Tell me, what have you done, you there,
            With youth’s best years?"

—Paul Verlaine, “Above the roof the sky is fair…” translated by Norman R. Shapiro, One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (U. of Chicago Press, 1999).


on the sideline

Trust that critic who has no claim on being an artist.


passing strange

The attraction of the poem was that it could not be immediately recognized as such.


speed writing

Often we recognize poetry by its language speed.


tight titles

Too many titles are tight-lipped, offering but a word or two.


worth breath

Say something worth breath.

—Yusef Komunyakaa, from “Safe Subjects,” Copacetic (Wesleyan U. Press, 1984)

I love the raw lyricism of the blues. Its mystery and conciseness. I admire and cherish how the blues singer attempts to avoid abstraction; he makes me remember that balance and rhythm keep our lives almost whole. The essence of mood is also important here. Mood becomes a directive; it becomes the bridge that connects us to who we are philosophically and poetically. Emotional texture is drawn from the aesthetics of insinuation and nuance. But to do this well the poet must have a sense of history

—Yusef Komunyakaa, from “Forces that Move the Spirit: Duende and Blues,” commentary accompanying the poem “Safe Subjects,” in What Will Suffice: Contemporary Poets on the Art of Poetry (Gibbs-Smith, 1999), edited by Christopher Buckley and Christopher Merrill.


poems from the prehistoric

Now when I watch old footage of poets using typewriters I feel like I’m seeing poems made with stone tools.


no hardcopy

To think of a digital Dickinson, her poems locked away in some scrapped hard drive.


singularly ignored

Your poetry has avoided influence but I’m afraid it has escaped interest as well.


made out of mist

A poem accomplished however implausible in its conception.


one line elegy

The mailbox shines calmly: what is written cannot be taken back.

Tomas Tranströmer, “Late May,” translated by Robert Bly


enemy me

P.S.: You have said that being a very good craftsman is a problem for you as a poet. How is this so?

Wright: Because my chief enemy in poetry is glibness. My family background is partly Irish, and this mean many things, but linguistically it means that it is too easy to talk sometimes. I keep thinking of Horace's idea which Byron so accurately expressed in a letter to Murray: "Easy writing is damned hard reading." I suffer from glibness. I speak and write too easily. Stanley Kunitz has been a master of mine, and he tells me that he suffers from the same problem. His books are very short, as mine are, and he has struggled and struggled to strip them down. There are poets, I have no doubt, who achieve some kind of natural gift, the difficulty that one needs. Because whatever else poetry is, it is a struggle, and the enemy, the deadly enemy of poetry, is glibness. And that is why I have struggled to strip my poems down.

—James Wright, in a 1972 interview with Peter Stitt, James Wright: A Profile (Logbridge-Rhodes, Inc., 1988) edited by Frank Graziano and Peter Stitt.


image inside

The psyche has an internal projector of remembered images.


fled sentencing

It was one of those sentences happened upon in prose that you recognize immediately as a line of fugitive poetry.


page turned

An anthology of poems that had fallen out of the anthologies.


witnesses for the defense

There was no framed diploma on the wall of his office. But sometimes he would run a finger bumping along the spines of the books in his personal library. He thought these authors, though most long dead, must vouch for him.


four elements

In the first place his poem must be deeply conceived, and be unvaryingly self-consistent. Then he must take pains to temper all with variety (varietas), for there is no worse mistake than to glut your hearer before you are done with him. What then are the dishes which would create distaste rather than pleasure? The third poetic quality is found in but few writers, and is what I would term vividness (efficacia);….By vividness I mean a certain potency and force in thought and language which compels one to be a willing listener. The fourth is winsomeness (suavitas), which tempers the ardency of this last quality, of itself inclined to be harsh. Insight and foresight (prudentia), variety, vividness, and winsomeness, these, then, are the supreme poetic qualities.

—Giulio Cesare Scaligero (1484-1558), “The Four Attributes of the Poet,” Select Translations from Scaliger's Poetics (H. Holt, 1905), translated Frederick Morgan Padelford


nothing comes from nothing

The efficacy of any revision depends solely on having a solid core to work with.


singular thing

The sonnet is a stand-alone poem. It should never be impressed as a stanza in sequence.


important poem

A poem that was a monument in the collective consciousness.


ring wrong

His rhymes were unexpected, but in that bad way of being right by sound but off in tone or out of sorts with the diction.


desire finds its object

Soliloquies. Arias. Father-son dramatic agon. Symphonies—whatever we crave to experience over and over as we discover what art can be. Love buries these ghost-forms within us. Forms are the language of desire before desire has found its object.

—Frank Birdart, “Thinking Through Form,” Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms (U. of Michigan Press, 1996), edited by David Lehman.


me me how about me

Too many poets are of and only for the self.


well-matched forces

Written in a way that alternates seamlessly between control and flow.



foothold on the heights

It was not just a book, it was a step on to Parnassus.


ready for I

...I'm just really beginning to let myself say "I" because I feel that now I can do it without the kind of crudity with which some people who have just begun to write poetry write about their feelings.

I always feel that what…people should be doing, if they really want to be poets, is writing objectively. Writing about a chair, a tree outside their window. So much more of themselves really would get into the poem, than when they just say “I.” The “I-ness” doesn’t come across, because it’s too crude…For instance, the objective earlier poems of William Carlos Williams (who, in the ripeness of old age has been saying “I” in quite a different way) say so much more than what they superficially appear to be saying. They’re quite objective little descriptions of this and that, and yet, especially when one adds them together, they say a great deal about the man. In a much deeper more impressive way than if he if he’d spent the same years describing his emotions.

—Denise Levertov, in an interview with David Ossman, The Sullen Art (Corinth Books, 1963), interviews with modern American poets.


fail better

When a poem fails and you don’t know why, it’s worth saving the pieces and starting over.


line, angle, speed & show factor

You could watch his line 'drift' as he headed into the turn.


never mine

The poem you admire because you wish you’d written it. The poem you admire because you know you never could’ve written it.


so shall you be judged

This poem will be on your permanent record.


mischievous poetry

Give praise with children
           chanting their skip-rope rhymes,
A poetry not in books, a vagrant mischievous poetry
Living wild on the streets through generations
           of children.

—Anne Porter, from “A List of Praises,” An Altogether Different Language: Poems 1934-1994 (Zoland Books, 1994)


not on the surface

Dredge the psyche for your deep images.


good book

Closing a good book…clasping one’s hands as though to pray.


neither here nor there

Do your poems begin in the world or do they begin in the word?


exponentially experiential

A poem should gather force from experience and release that force through language.


long flight

Reading the talk poet’s book all the way through was similar to getting stuck in an airplane seat next to an idle chatterer on a three-hour flight.


sublimity of the spectacle

…imagine the stars, undiminished in number, without losing any of their astronomical significance and divine immutability, marshalled in geometrical patterns; say in a Latin cross, with the words In hoc signo vinces in a scroll around them. The beauty of the illumination would be perhaps increased, and its import, practical, religious, cosmic, would surely be a little plainer; but where would be the sublimity of the spectacle? [And he answers.] Irretrievably lost.

—George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty (Scribners, 1896).


happy painstaking

When I read the poem I thought what good fortune to have been the medieval scribe appointed to copy out this poem in a fine script.


room full of ghosts

The necessary arrogance of youth: “I look at those names in the anthology, and it just makes me sad. It's like a room full of ghosts."

From Oliver Stone’s film Any Given Sunday...
The young quarterback, Willie Beaman, after glancing at photos of past football greats, says: “I look at those pictures on the wall, and it just makes me sad. It’s like a room full of ghosts.”


discursively grounded

Digressions that however far-reaching never lose touch of the stem theme.



Digressions that seemed to go on branching off effortlessly and endlessly.


big one that didn't get away

Even to be a minor poet one must pull off one major poem.


income gap

My plan was to make a living by writing poetry. But I had a back-up plan of buying a lottery ticket each week.


won't change the world

Qualcuno mi ha detto
che certo le mie poesie
non cambieranno il mondo.

Io rispondo che certo si
le mie poesie
non cambieranno il mondo.


Someone told me
of course my poems
won’t change the world.

I say yes of course
my poems
won’t change the world.

[Translation by Gini Alhadeff.]

– Patrizia Cavalli, My Poems Won’t Change the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), edited by Gini Alhadeff


luscious lines

A layer cake poem.


top heavy

A title that tips the poem’s hand.


pomp of the procession

The poem as a triumphal march of words.



Six fragments in search of a poem. [after Pirandello]


eyes to nerves

Images that flash upon the eyes but fail to infiltrate the nervous system.


asyntactic time and emotion

It makes sense that this change of syntax would lure such feelings out of hiding. The conjunctions I was avoiding signal the operations of the rational mind; they communicate judgment, discernment, a comprehension of the relationships among things. They are words we use after the fact, when we have figured something out. In forging relationships between things (because of this, that; after that, this), they imply a kind of narrative, a sequence of events in time; the absence of such conjunctions allows for utterances in which time seems to be arrested and in which multiple—even contradictory—experiences can exist simultaneously, without explanation or resolution. What is free to come rushing into a sentence, then, is not understanding but bewilderment, astonishment, anxiety, grief and love.

—Chris Forhan, “Without Although, Without Because: Syntax and Buried Memory,” The Rag-Picker’s Guide to Poetry (U. of Michigan Press, 2013), Eleanor Wilner and Maurice Manning, editors.


deflategate: please squeeze harder

Reading through various poetry books one wishes that more poets preferred their books with less air in them.


flight granted

Imagination exists only by the grace of experience.



Not just sprinkled on; images ingrained in the lines.


love solved

There is little that a good love poem cannot solve.


a door and a window

My sense of the poem is rather classic. I think of a beginning, a middle and an end. I don't believe in open form. A poem may be open, but then it doesn't have form. Merely to stop a poem is not to end it. I don't want to suggest that I believe in neat little resolutions. To put a logical cap on a poem is to suffocate its original impulse. Just as the truly great piece of architecture moves beyond itself into its environment, into the landscape and the sky, so the kind of poetic closure that interests me bleeds out of its ending into the whole universe of feeling and thought. I like an ending that's both a door and a window.

—Stanley Kunitz, "The Art of Poetry No. 29," an interview by Chris Busa, The Paris Review (Spring 1982, No. 83)


fitted lines

Like in a New England stone wall, the rough edges of words will be what makes them fit together.


words without import

Wordplay and other forms of pseudo-poetry.



In a poem the aphorism is best when it comes sotto voce.


didn't see that coming

The best images are those you thought beneath notice.


experimental me

One suspects he spends more energy asserting his experimental stance than actually writing anything one would recognize as being outside the pattern and practice of contemporary poetry.


everything a door

Everything is a door
all one needs is the light push of thought
Something's about to happen
               said one of us


Everything is a door
              everything a bridge
now we are walking on the other bank
down there look runs the river of centuries
the river of signs
There look runs the river of stars
embracing splitting joining again
they speak to each other in a language of fire
their struggles and loves
are creations and destructions of entire worlds

—Octavio Paz, "Clear Nights" from Salamander, in The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987 (New Directions, 1987) edited by Eliot Weinberger.


covered bridges

Poetry and covered bridges and other anachronistic but beautiful things.


official sanction

A poet who spoke of publication as though a kind of imprimatur.


brick by brick

Each stanza a brick in the architecture of the poem.


uncorralable lines

A poetry no critic could contain by prose alone.


it hovers forever there

Time seen through the image is time lost from view. Being and time are quite different. The image shimmers eternal, when it has outstripped being and time.

—René Char, “Leaves of Hypnos,” Furor and Mystery & Other Writings (Black Widow Press, 2010), translated by May Ann Caws and Nancy Cline.


critical respect

At least acknowledge its accomplishment on its own terms, before denigrating what it is based on your aesthetics.


uneven ends

The ragged right edge of the poem is reminder of our art’s imperfection.


affective force

Only emotion will enliven the lines.


boing and begin again

Your eyes leapt up to the first line at the instant the poem was finished, certain it must be reread.