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.