goodbye to lonnie

Warning: Writing and/or reading poetry is good for your health. I urge non-poetry readers to open-mindedly browse through the pages of poetry books, especially the works of contemporary poets who amplify our daily ordinariness with craftsmanship and courage. To truly appreciate the language of poetry is to be able to come back to it again and again. Not with wisdom supplied by educators or cerebral articles addressing The Real Meaning, but a willingness to allow the senses to be stirred and nourished. Even reading poetry as a child, I never worried if I “got” it.
     Often students ask where my ideas stem from. Naively I refer to a barrage of inspirations, bowing to the commonplace and the patois of my childhood. But mostly they are guided by the opening of Zora Neale Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching God...“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” That one sentence embodies a poetry I crave to attain. In retrospect there was always a thirst, a growing growl, to tackle and nonchalantly lay down words capable of breathing on their own. At times I’m not quite sure how to start or even where a poem may end. Though the writing process often gets the better of me, I welcome the taste of language and the ability to share it with others. One’s imagination is always on the brink of something else. There’s an old saying that there’s never anybody around when you wrestle with an angel. Nonetheless, poets write because they have to…and the angels know it.
     It is rare that people actually go after the things they want to do and become in their lifetimes. Far too many wave back at their dreams. Through poetry I am able to passionately be on board with my wishes.

Lonnie Black (1958-2016), prose piece originally published in Hartford Courant's Northeast Magazine.


more is required

A poet who believed he was an activist because he’d ranted a few poems at readings.


new poetics

Every poem has the right to ask for a new poetics.

—Anna Swir, Talking to My Body (Copper Canyon Press, 1996) translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan


risked capital

A good critic is a market maker.


no promise made

A poet makes a poem not a promise. And the reader’s disappointment is of minor concern.


enough already

The poet never thinks ‘More could be said about this’.


must be something there

He went back into the old drafts for a cold case to solve.


that poetics

That the struggle of the poem is between the unmet and the undue.

That poetry is encounter science.

That the poem is that which ‘finally accumulates’.

That the belief of the poet is not satisfied by the poem.

That the vocation of poetry is toward disownership.

That poetry is the undoing of the still life.

That the poem is not “contaminated by ambivalence” but is clearly equivocal.

That poetry is not destination-based.

That where we meet the surface of the poem is where we meet the unfitting.

That the poet is a theorist of need.

That poetry remains a broad permission.

That poetry is a wilderness prior to philosophy.

That poetry is custodian to wakefulness.

That poetry is right to turn away.

That the world is replete, and repetition merely a spoken word.

That the world is never said enough.

—A Maxwell, Conversion Table (Mindmade Book, 2016)


flipping past

A cavalcade of disparate images: You have entered the age when poets have grown up not with a pen, but with a TV remote control in their hands.


trader not traitor

Traduttori traditori (“translators traitors”); no, traduttori commercianti (“translators traders”).


textbook echo

Another poem of recycled historical rage.


form in transit

Form is nothing but an instant within a transition.

—Henri Bergson

[Quoted in “Georges Jouve The Creator,” Georges Jouve: Minimalist Ceramic Works (L’Arc Seine New York Gallery, 2005) exhibition catalog.]



Make each line quotable.


too good

Blessed with a bit too much facility for the felicitous.


late remark

L'esprit de l'escalier…when reading, one might say, 'the wit of the turned page'.


talk it out, way out

The poem crossed over from talk poetry to just crazy talk.


past that matters

I asked [Akhmatova] if she would ever annotate the Poem Without a Hero: the allusions might be unintelligible to those who did not know the life it was concerned with; did she wish them to remain in darkness? She answered that when those who knew the world about which she spoke were overtaken by senility or death, the poem would die too; it would be buried with her and her century; it was not written for eternity, not even for posterity: the past alone had significance for poets—childhood most of all—those were the emotions that they wished to re-create and re-live. Vaticination, odes to the future, even Pushkin’s great epistle to Chaadaev, were a form of declamatory rhetoric, a striking of grandiose attitudes, the poet’s eye peering into a dimly discernable future, a pose which she despised.

—Isaiah Berlin, “Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak,” Isaiah Berlin: The Proper Study of Mankind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)


pang or spur

Reading for me has the unfortunate side effect of causing a pang of ignorance whenever I encounter a name, a place or an event I’m unfamiliar with. Rather than a pang, perhaps I should think of it as a spur, urging me on.


elevated speech

She spoke in such full and well-composed sentences that a conversation with her was like reading a good book.


got it second hand

The way he criticized the poem seemed like received opinion; no original work had been done on the piece.



Most academics don’t recognize university presses as a form of vanity publication.


found incomplete

There are three idealists: God, mothers and poets! They don’t seek the ideal in complicated things—they find it in the incomplete.

Peter Altenberg, “Aphorisms” Telegrams from the Soul (Archipelago Books, 2005)


no language cage

We know a great poem strains to the point of bursting the bounds of its language, but even as it does so it defies any other language to try to capture it in translation.


hard thing

Those of you who are real artists know well enough all the special advice I can give you, and in how few words it may be said—follow nature, study antiquity, make your own art, and do not steal it, grudge no expense of trouble, patience, or courage, in the striving to accomplish the hard thing you have set yourselves to do.

—William Morris, Hopes and Fears for Art (1883)


close encounters

In poetry there is almost no distinction between the real and the paranormal.


box of drafts

Do you have a book of poems?, he asked. No, I said, but I have good sized boxful of them.


usual suspects

Like police captains with few leads, translators seem to put out the call to round up the usual suspects, rather than search for a less trafficked in poetry.


sentiment for thanksgiving

The People Are a Temple

And souls are candles, each lighting the other.

—Gennady Aygi (1934-2008)

[Translation from the Russian by Peter France.]


fanning themselves

It was warm in the café, and the poets waiting for their turn to read were fanning themselves with their thin volumes.


poet world

Poet in the world, poet for the world, poet of the world, poet with the world, poet and the world, poet against the world, an uneasy navigation.


taken by surprise


Lyric embodies the desire to mean perfectly.

It takes language by surprise. (For this to be possible, there must be a general situation or condition of language which is not lyric.)

—Jan Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy (U. of Toronto Press, 1992)

[New edition of Lyric Philosophy]


everlastingly provisional

The word ‘poetry’ will always be subject to a working definition.


strongly worded

Diction is the muscle fiber of a poetic line.


source and target

After he’d read his poems, someone in the audience asked from what language the poems had been translated.


was like

A past-tense pastoral.


no narrative plan

Even narrative poets have an aversion to plot.


vicarious mastery

In practice there may be in the making of literature a great deal of one or another kind of technique, whether apparently superficial and formalistic or apparently substantial or ideological, and this technique may be deliberate or habitual or traditional. On the other hand, there may be apparently very little technique. It is never possible, in the given case, to say even roughly how much or what kinds or combinations of kinds of technique were employed until after long intimacy and absorption of the work has, by vicarious mastery, made the question artificial; for the we use the work as use other actual experience.

—R. P. Blackmur, “Notes on Four Categories in Criticism,” The Lion and the Honeycomb: Essays in Solicitude and Critique (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1955.


my excellent adventure

With a post-election pall cast over the land, I've decided to set out on an 'excellent poetry adventure'. I'm not sure I'll make it to Canada, but I'll be close when I hit Seattle...See my itinerary:

Danowski Poetry Library – Emory University (Atlanta GA)

Library of Congress – Poetry Collection (Washington DC)

Kelly Writers House – Univ. of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia PA)

Berg Collection - New York Public Library

Poets House (New York City)

Side trip to Berl’s Poetry Bookshop in Brooklyn.

Beinecke Library – Yale University (New Haven, CT)

Hay Library – Brown U. – Harris Collections (Providence RI)
Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays: Composed of approximately 250,000 volumes of American and Canadian poetry, plays, and vocal music dating from 1609 to the present day. [Special Collections Artists Books: The Hay has a very impressive collection of artists books, mainly focused on American poetry and art.]

Harris Broadsides Collection: A comprehensive collection of American poetry published in broadside format from colonial times to the present. You can search the broadsides collection digital images: http://library.brown.edu/cds/catalog/catalog.php?verb=search&task=setup&colid=58&type=basic

Woodbury Poetry Room – Harvard University (Cambridge MA)

Side trip to the Grolier Bookshop.

Charles Olson Special Collection – U of Connecticut (Storrs CT)

The Poetry Collection - University at Buffalo

Just Buffalo.

Elliston Poetry Room – U. of Cincinnati

Bingham Poetry Room – U. of Louisville

Poetry Foundation Library (Chicago IL)

Woodland Pattern (Milwaukee WI)

Gaus Collection & Little Magazines – University of Wisconsin (Madison WI)

Side trip to Innisfree Poetry Bookstore (Boulder CO)

University of Arizona Poetry Center (Tucson AZ)

Beyond Baroque (Venice CA)

Poetry Center San Francisco State U.

Side trip to City Lights Books (San Francisco CA)

Pacific Northwest:
Side trip to Open Books – (Seattle WA)

If you have some stops you think I should make, let me know.


not random

It’s not so much that you need to understand the poem but more a matter of believing that the reading experience is not intended to be random.


silent salient

One’s taste is one’s tacit manifesto.


language thrift

A good poet is never one to waste words.


go big or go home

Poets need delusions of grandeur just to persevere.


fear factor

Every once and a while a poem should scare you. Either because of its subject or because you don’t even recognize the aesthetic.


small craft

“Building Her;” at least in its particulars, describes Booth’s own early experience in woodworking, as well as his lifelong love of small sailing vessels, several of the most graceful of which were designed and built by Mace and Lon Eaton. As the boatbuilder fashions his vessel, so the poem implies, the poet pares away anything that is ornamental in his craft—to get at the essence. “That starkness,” Booth observed, “is for me a way to let objects or emotions, illuminate themselves.”

Jeanne Braham’s Available Light: Philip Booth and the Gift of Place (Bauham Publishing, 2016)


soaked up

It wasn’t long before the avant-garde movement was safely absorbed by academe.


short cut

Reading criticism saves time.


reader response

Because poems have moved you, you know that new poems, and ones yet unwritten, will.


broadcast range

If this book was a radio station it would be classified as ‘easy listening’ or ‘soft rock’.


regulatory department

The masthead of the formalist magazine listed both an editor and a compliance officer.


real seeing

Trees meant many things for Sartre: Being, mystery, the physical world, contingency. They were also a handy focus for phenomenological description. In his autobiography he also quotes something his grandmother once said to him: ‘It’s not just a question of having eyes, you have learn how to use them. Do you know what Flaubert did to the young Maupassant? He sat him down in front of a tree and gave him two hours to describe it.’ This is correct: Flaubert apparently did advise Maupassant to consider things ‘long and attentively’, saying:

There is a part of everything that remains unexplored, for we have fallen into the habit of remembering, whenever we use our eyes, what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the slightest thing contains a little that is unknown. We must find it. To describe a blazing fire or a tree in a plain, we must remain before that fire or that tree until they no longer resemble for us any other tree or any other fire.

Quoted in At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell (p. 103)


you are here

The poet who is nomad, living everywhere and nowhere, the poet who leaves home and never comes back, and the poet who stays.


order error

He put out a collected poems when a corrected poems would have been more appropriate.


lack of stickiness

Measuring the quality of a book by the number of times the mind wanders away while reading.


sirens in the distance

Ambulance chaser of in extremis moments.


not harriers

Critics who are like vultures picking over the same canon carcasses.


public and private

These two poles of outward and inward transformation are the Romantic extremes: Shelley's claim that the poets are unacknowledged legislators, Keats's cry, "oh for a life of pure sensation". Keats saw that Shelley's wish to vivify the language of noble reason, so that it would incite men to make a just world, could lead only to the surrender of hidden poetic gardens to public planners; Keats wrote poems like arbors, in which readers were invited to spend a lifetime eating imaginary nectarines from imaginary dishes.

—Stephen Spender, "Inside the Cage: Reflections on conditioned and unconditioned imagination," The Making Of A Poem (Norton, 1962)


worth the effort

The urge toward revision will tell you whether it’s a poem worth worrying over.


rival ally

Each line was both complement and competitor to the other.


larger than life

An image that magnifies reality.


coats in the closet

Poems that hang like old coats in the closets of these unopened books.


book mark

Mark my grave with a book cairn.


to suggest is the dream

To name an object is to suppress three-quarters of the enjoyment of a poem, which derives from the pleasure of step-by-step discovery; to suggest, that is the dream. It is the perfect use of this mystery that constitutes the symbol: to evoke an object little by little, so as to bring to light a state of the soul or, inversely, to choose an object and bring out of it a state of the soul through a series of unravelings.

—Stéphane Mallarmé, quoted by Jules Huret, in “Enquête sur l'Evolution littéraire,” Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology (U. of California Press, 1995), translated by Henri Dorra.



not so simple

The desire I have to astonish is offset by an attraction to the simple.


inhabited poetry

Iris Murdoch conceived of an ‘inhabited philosophy’. Likewise, I’m in favor of an inhabited poetry. Poetry as a place to explore human concerns and not wholly a space where language reigns.


write for the ear

I have spent my life in clearing out of poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing all back to the syntax that is for the ear alone.
"Write for the ear," I thought, "so that you may be instantly understood, as when actor or folk-singer stands before an audience."

—W. B. Yeats, “An Introduction for My Plays” (1937, but not published until 1961 in Essays & Introductions).

[n.b.: I went to a presentation by Deanie Rowan Blank on W.B. Yeats today at the Hartford Public Library, and this quote came up. So I ran down the source and posted it.]


name game

Pushkin without the push, Wordsworth without the word, Larkin without the lark, Ashbery without the ash,...


narrowed to error

Constraints are both opportunities for escape and discovery and pinch points where many forced errors occur.


dappled things

The only kind of poetry that is poor is poetry of one kind.


enemy of the poetic

Count me as an enemy of the overly poetic and the overtly poetic.


public property

What else are poetry and thinking than someone making his own life into public property, into a life which everyone else can live and enjoy as their own too, making his essence into directly beholdable objects of not only himself, but also of others?

—Ludwig Feurbach, Abelard and Heloise, or: The Writer and the Human (Gegensatz Press, 2012), translated with introduction by Eric v. d. Luft, with a foreword by Angela Moreira.


target exposed

The plagiarist’s target was an unknown, but after the theft was noticed for the first time.


stealing from the poor

The plagiarist is most damned by stealing from the unknown and underappreciated. The plagiarist hasn’t the guts to rip off one of the renowned, because the exposure would be swift and pitiless.


lifted lines

By deceit the plagiarist shows respect for the text.


mask donned

Poetic language often falsifies poetic content.



He had settled comfortably into believing himself one of the avant-garde.


equal letters

A correspondence between equals is of most interest.


improve the blank page

Young Poets

Write as you will
In whatever style you like
Too much blood has run under the bridge
To go on believing
That only one road is right.

In poetry everything is permitted.

With only this condition of course,
You have to improve the blank page.

—Nicanor Parra, Poems and Antipoems (New Directions, 1966), trans. by Miller Williams.


never to late

The last line thrown like a life preserver to the flailing and gasping reader.


nonce only

He had a knack for neologisms that made the existing word-stock seem ample.


time out to look up

Being driven to the dictionary by many words in a difficult poem proved to be a blessing, as it gave one time to mull over or to rest the mind, before beginning again.


language games

Be it Oulipo or the Ouija board, devices will only generate language devices.


spiced dish

In cooking the proper use of spices is important to many dishes, and so it is that poets in English should make use of foreign words and phrases to enliven their pieces.


few maxims

Clearness is the ornament of deep thought.

Obscurity is the kingdom of error.

Few maxims are true in every respect.

It is of no use to possess a lively wit if it is not of right proportion: the perfection of a clock is not to go fast, but to be accurate.

I do not approve the maxim which desires a man to know a little of everything. Superficial knowledge, knowledge without principles, is almost always useless and sometimes harmful knowledge.

The favorites of fortune and fame topple from their pedestals before our eyes without diverting us from ambition.

It is easy to criticize an author; it is difficult to appreciate him.

As there are many soldiers, and few brave ones, so there are many versifiers and almost no poets.

—Marquis de Vauvenargues (1715–1747), Selections from the Characters, Reflexions, and Maxims
Translated by Elizabeth Lee (Archibald Constable & Co., 1903)



break in the action

The longer you’ve written poems, the less you fear those periods when nothing is forthcoming.


threaded line

The line as a single thread by which one could see and feel a whole cloth.


terrifying in aspect

The Gauls are terrifying in aspect and their voices are deep and altogether harsh; when they meet together they converse with few words and in riddles, hinting darkly at things for the most part and using one word when they mean another; and they like to talk in superlatives, to the end that they may extol themselves and depreciate all other men. They are also boasters and threateners and are fond of pompous language, and yet they have sharp wits and are not without cleverness at learning.

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Book V, Loeb Classical Library, 1939.

The Poets are terrifying in aspect and their voices are deep and altogether harsh; when they meet together they converse with few words and in riddles, hinting darkly at things for the most part and using one word when they mean another; and they like to talk in superlatives, to the end that they may extol themselves and depreciate all other writers. They are also boasters and theatrical and are fond of pompous language, and yet they have sharp wits and are not without cleverness at learning.


bad habit or book addiction

Again I find myself buying books beyond my capacity to read them all.


survival of poetry

A poet’s elegy for another poet is somehow a translation of that poet or at least of a tradition, and involves some kind of transfer of powers, perhaps aggressively asserted by the survivor. In any case, the underlying question is not that of personal survival, but of the survival of poetry. If all real poetry is, as I believe, writing in the light of death, elegy is the genre which performs most consciously in that light.

—Rosanna Warren, “Sappho: Translation as Elegy,” Fables of the Self: Studies in Lyric Poetry (Norton, 2008)



The inferior poet whose work went viral is not to blame. That lame mass audience should be fully faulted.


at one remove

A professor so steeped in secondary sources, one could imagine a student leaving a poem on his desk and him not recognizing what it was.


not a word to waste

X’s bio, a poet in her thirties, begins with: “X is the author of over twenty books of poetry.”


book as home

The blurb as real estate ad: Charming yet spacious, ready to move in, well-appointed, recently renovated, with water views.


self is style

Ironic that the author of “The Death of the Author” was himself so much ‘the author’ of his own works.

[re Roland Barthes]



Language is luggage; prepare to travel.


back of the tapestry

Every artist works, like the Gobelins weavers, on the wrong side of the tapestry, and if now and then he comes around to the right side, and catches what seems a happy glow of colour, or a firm sweep of design, he must instantly retreat again, if encouraged yet still uncertain...

—Edith Wharton, "A Backward Glance," Delphi Complete Works of Edith Wharton (Delphi Classics, 4th edition, 2011)


dialect or pidgin

Poetry on some level is a dialect or a pidgin: It must be engaged almost daily and learned in order to be understood.


center of the earth

Many a great poem has accreted around the core of a single image.


three cubed

A poem is a triadic event, coinciding at a point where the poet, a world, and language meet. If any one of the three is absent from the text, the poem will be by definition insignificant.


contentious matter

Somewhere someplace there will always be someone nattering about poetry mattering (or not).


little to unlearn

[Basil Bunting’s] reading (meaning here his perusal of books) was not uncommonly wide, it was even more uncommonly exact and readily recalled. Always intense and personal his response to any writing was determined by the pleasure and interest it afford him. The absence of this factor makes the academic study of literature a hollow sham, its presence a test of character and truthfulness. Bunting’s taste was formed early: he had a lot to discover but little to unlearn. His revaluation of the canon was more radical than Pound’s and less erratic.

—Kenneth Cox, “Basil Bunting,” The Art of Language: Selected Essays by Kenneth Cox (Flood Editions, 2016), edited and introduced by Jenny Penberthy.


table setting

He’d properly set the table with the form, however no meal was served.


burn bar

A critic whose eye was like a burn bar going into a safe.


book as wallet

Like opening your wallet to find it filled with ones and fives, the book didn’t seem to carry any poems of higher denomination.


on their radar

A poem becomes a political poem when the established powers recognize it as a threat.

[Case in point: Mahmoud Darwish.]


reading the signs

I am awfully pleased with it, awfully awfully pleased with it. I don’t believe you do me more than justice but you do me a whole lot of justice…all literature is to me me, that isn’t as bad as it sounds. Some one complained that I always stopped while I was driving to read the sign posts even when I knew the road and all I could explain was that I am fond of reading…

—Gertrude Stein, letter to Edmund Wilson in response to his piece on her in Vanity Fair, Oct. 3, 1923. Quoted by Daniel Aaron in Commonplace Book, 1934-2012 (Pressed Wafer, 2015).


nature abhors a vacuum

Fortunately, the advent of the world wide web was able to absorb the increased output spurred by the creative writing MFA explosion.



Language as medium of communication is a given, but poetry reveals language as a force of nature.


O and over again

A critic whose oxygen was the Os spoken by poets.


is worth all

The poem doesn’t try to sell itself. Its improbable existence in this world gives it worth.


woman nomination night

Coming of age as a poet in the late 1950s and well into the '60s, I was not unconscious of the disdain with which aspiring women poets—and people of color—were treated. Gradually I came to realize how arduous the road to acceptance as a woman artist would be. Attitudes changed at a glacial pace. I have cited elsewhere, more than once, an event that took place in 1967. At a dinner hosted by the Poetry Society of America, Robert Lowell rose to praise Marianne Moore as the nation's best woman poet. Blessedly, Langston Hughes leapt up to assert that she was the best Negro woman poet in the country. What astonishes me is how few women today, hearing this story, appreciate the irony in it. Was she black? they ask.

—Maxine Kumin, “Metamorphosis: From Light Verse to the Poetry of Witness” (The Georgia Review, Winter 2012)


watery diarrhea

After hearing that Christian Bök had been instilling ‘poetry’ within the DNA of E. coli bacteria, I decided I’d better check the symptom list...

Symptoms can include:

   •abdominal cramping
   •sudden, severe watery diarrhea that may change to bloody stools
   •loss of appetite/nausea
   •vomiting (uncommon)

Oh...I too dislike it.


off hand

His best ‘writings’ were those things he’d said in conversation and that others had remembered and recorded.


listen up, people

Another online litmag with one of those masthead manifestos written by an editor too young to understand how much his exhortations sound like echoes.


line cutter

The first line came late.


spin off poem

A small poem spun off from a still forming, larger one.


first sight

Seeing a poem in publication pales before that moment of reading it as a largely completed draft.


good form

Fortunately we don’t need to know how bad the age is. There is something we can always be doing without reference to how good or how bad the age is. There is at least so much good in the world that it admits of form and the making of form. And not only admits of it, but calls for it. We people are thrust forward out of suggestions of form in the rolling clouds of nature. In us nature reaches its height of form and through us exceeds itself. When in doubt there is always form for us to go on with. Anyone who has achieved the least form to be sure of it, is lost to the larger excruciations. I think it must stroke faith the right way. The artist, the poet, might be expected to be the most aware of such assurance. But it is really everybody’s sanity to feel it and live by it. Fortunately, too, no forms are more engrossing, gratifying, comforting, staying than those lesser ones we throw off, like vortex rings of smoke, all our individual enterprise and needing nobody’s co-operation; a basket, a letter, a garden, a room, an idea, a picture, a poem. For those we haven’t to get a team together before we can play.

—Robert Frost, “The Letter to The Amherst Student*,” Selected Prose of Robert Frost (Collier Books, 1968), edited by Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem. *Written in 1935.


flipping through pages

A scholar whose studies could only be described as desultory.


critic as scout

Critics run ahead of us to call out warnings and to mark stopping places.


noir poetics

First case the joint with a good close reading.


red line

The genius and the hack don’t need an editor. For the rest of us that office often does good work.


work in stone

The mason stirs:
Pens are too light.
Take a chisel to write.

—Basil Bunting, “Briggflatts,” The Poems of Basil Bunting (Faber & Faber, 2016), edited by Don Share.


lined out

We must consider the fact that any poet could strike out a line of genius.


papering over

Certain poets try to paper over their deficiencies by publishing too much.


oh goody

The covers of the leading magazines for writers have captions like: “More than 100 Opportunities for Grants, Awards & Publication” and “101 Contests with Upcoming Deadlines.”


as leaves

That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.

—John Keats, letter to John Taylor (February 27, 1818)

That if publication comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.


empty passages

Opening a wormeaten book, I couldn’t help but marvel at the ribbons of silence they had carved into the text.


lay bare

The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.

—James Baldwin, "The Creative Process" in The National Cultural Center's Creative America (1962), reprinted in The Price of the Ticket (1985)


good lines

Admiring the fit and finish of the poem.



The lines like toppled statuary, fallen, broken off heads and limbs, spilled, beautiful fragments.


spirit level

The one word that is the spirit level of the line.


the living and the dead

Had he reached a tipping point where he could recall more dead poets than living ones?



from one to another

You only have so many notes, and what makes a style is how you get from one note to another.
—Dizzy Gillespie*

You only have so many words, and what makes a style is how you get from one word to another.

*Quoted in J. D. McClatchy’s Sweet Theft: A poet’s commonplace book (Counterpoint Press, 2016)


wind aware

Use the page like a sail reaching.


kinds of sight

The observer discovers, the seer creates. Mistrust the latter.


hole cloth

A poem whole was impossible. Most passages came apart during reading. Even in the middle of a line he could lose his way and fall into fragment.


symbol rule

Any image that recurs within one’s oeuvre will eventually function as symbol.


as an artist

As an artist, you should not wish to create what you don’t feel you have to create.

People who read only the Classics are sure to remain up-to-date.

There is a poet in every competent person; this comes out when they write, read, speak or listen.

Art originated in a longing for the superfluous.

The spirit of a language is revealed most clearly through its untranslatable words.

Philosophers arrive at conclusions, poets must allow theirs to develop.

The old saw “It’s always hard to begin” only applies to skills. In art nothing is harder than to end, which means at the same time to perfect.

Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Aphorisms (Ariadne Press, 1994), translated by David Scrase and Wolfgang Mieder.


weight of white

The thin line of letters trekking across the page felt an avalanche of white building over them.


job description

That former art once referred to as editing is now known by the term ‘content management’.


method and manner

The writer’s formula for composition was praised as style by the reader.


create trap

The notion that you must make things which you have no real impulse to realize.


sounds across time

But if one followed Marsh’s image [Reginald Marsh's Wooden Horses], nobility seemed to exist in art today “only in degenerate forms or in a much diminished state,” because that was now the nature of the real. For the poet too “a variation between the sound of words in one age and the sound of words in another” was itself “an instance of the pressure of reality.” Locke and Hobbes had denounced the seventeenth century for its connotative use of language, that had resulted in an era of urbane, witty poetic diction, with Pope and Swift as its chief proponents.

—Paul Mariani, The Whole Harmonium (Simon & Schuster, 2016)


measure for measure

Most poems fail based on a simple mixed measurement ratio: the material (subject, idea, story, substance) weighs less than its length in lines.


allowed to float up

Blurble: 'verb' – sound made when you lift a book and turn to the back cover.


smiling while reading

The rare joy of reading a joyful poem.


great leap

A first line that made you believe anything could happen next.


street view

Do the great poems open up new avenues or do they create blind alleys that other poets must run down?


doubly well spoken

Understood first for what it said, then afterwards admired more deeply for the manner of its expression.


the river

An archetype is something like an old watercourse along which the water of life flowed for a time, digging a deep channel for itself. The longer it flowed the deeper the channel, and the more likely it is that sooner or later the water will return.

—Carl Jung, “The Primordial Images,” Psychological Reflections, ed. Jolande Jacobi (1970).


hands off

He knew when to take his hand away from the painting.

—Pliny the Elder, Natural History

She knew when to take her hand away from the poem.


not random

The middle of the poem was so messed up you believed the poet must have a plan.


but few are chosen

In our minds many poems make themselves known, but our hearts hold and carry forward a very few.


well worn

When perusing another person’s bookcases, I always look for the tattered dust-jackets.


active border crossing

The boundary between poetry and prose, always floating and permeable, has now become vital.


near eye

At first art is archaic, the sensible form being rudely controlled by the artist's hand; it becomes, in the second stage, classical, the form being adequate to the thought, a transparent expression; last, it is decadent, the form being more than the thought, dwarfing it by usurping attention on its own account.

The peculiar temptation of technique is always to elaboration of detail; technique is at first a hope, it becomes a power, it ends in being a caprice; and always as it goes on it loses sight of the general in its rendering, and dwells with a near eye on the specific.

—George E. Woodberry, "A New Defence of Poetry," Heart of Man, and Other Papers (Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1920)


beauty beat down

A poem that beat me down with its beauty.


abounds around us

The imagist can find any number of poems hidden in plain sight.


pay dirt

The poet is a prospector finding ore in the played-out mine of time-honored themes.


power source

The word that didn’t belong in the poem is now a node of energy driving its very existence.


guard dogs

The lesser poets of the group/school are the ones most protective, even militant, in preserving its domain. Because that domain is the only thing that gives their work value.


one speaking

I’m somewhat anti-Browning. He always spoke in another character, for another character. I do not let anybody else speak a word (in my poetry, it goes without saying). I speak myself and for myself everything that is possible and that which is not. Sometimes I unconsciously recall somebody else’s phrasing and transform it into a line of poetry.

—Anna Akhmatova, “Pseudo-Memoirs,” My Half-Century: Selected Prose (Ardis Publishers, 1992), edited by and translated by Ronald Meyer.


long & short of it

If I had more time I would write a shorter letter.
—Blaise Pascal

If I had more time I would write a shorter poem.


role players

The editor selects, the critic corrects.


never apologize, never explain

A little magazine editor is often asked by a rejected author to explain the reason for his/her rejection. Which always reminds me of the line spoken by the character Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles (played by John Wayne) in the 1949 western She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: "Never apologize and never explain—it's a sign of weakness."

[She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings.]


but drowning

He was a poet of the moment. The last time I saw him he was waving.


ignores borders

The translator is a smuggler whose contraband is words.


spells, prayers, songs

The belief that words in themselves have the power to make things happen—especially words in extraordinary combinations—is one of the distinguishing features of native American thought; and it may be said that for people who share this belief a connection exists between the sacred and the verbal, or, to put it in more familiar terms, a connection between religion and poetry.

When the connection is broken, poetry begins to lose its audience. It may still be admired, but it comes to be recognized as a form of self-expression, unable to establish contact with supernatural forces. Not surprisingly, the word ‘poetry,’ as it is understood in English today, has no precise equivalent in native American languages. What are thought of by outsiders as Indian “poems” are actually spells, prayers, or words to songs.

—John Bierhorst, introduction to The Sacred Path: Spells, Prayers & Power Songs of the American Indians (Wm. Morrow & Co., 1983)


approximal readings

No one knew what the poem was about. But each reading was about right.


press on

One never finishes a perfect poem.


poetry is poetry written

The poet defines poetry in the making of the poem.


adequate containers

Words just poured out of him, and thus his books were like buckets.


reader falling behind

This process, Pushkin feels, can lead the poet to greater isolation even as the work becomes more insightful and accomplished:

He creates for himself, and if his works are still published from time to time, he encounters coldness or inattention, and he finds an echo of his sounds only in the hearts of a few admirers of poetry, who, like himself, are secluded and forgotten by the world.

Akhmatova takes this for a description of Pushkin as much as for a description of Baratynsky. "All of Pushkin's contemporaries enthusiastically recognized themselves in the hero of The Prisoner of the Caucasus," she writes, "but who would agree to recognize himself in Eugene from The Bronze Horseman?" While she doesn't overtly compare the drop in her literary reputation to the drop in Pushkin's, she draws a broad conclusion with her own situation clearly in mind: "Thus, it is not so much that poetry is static, as that the reader does not keep pace with the poet."

—Kevin Frazier, “A Posthumous Collaboration: Anna Akhmatova’s Relationship with Puskin,” review of My Half Century: Selected Prose (The Overlook Press; reprint edition 2012) by Anna Akhmatova (Ronald Meyer, trans.), bookslut, January 2013.


faces in the crowd

Some say the process of composition is the most exciting, but it pales compared to seeing a rapt audience hanging on your every word.


singular image

Seek the specific not the generic image.


contested space

One might ask: Was ever a country’s canon created from contest winners?


crazy craft

When craft transcends control and becomes obsession, it starts to get interesting again.


pure and applied

The ‘pure’ is the imagination, the ‘applied’ is the craft.


stop short

A popular form of Chinese poetry is the four-line poem called the stop-short, in which the sense is supposed to continue after the poem has stopped. But even in the longer poems that is almost universally the method. It is the hum of reverberations, after the poem has been read, that is sought for. And even such a narrative poem as Po Chü I’s Everlasting Wrong, one of the famous “long” poems of the language (though it runs only to few pages), is constructed in accordance with this instinct, and is, therefore, really a sequence of lyrics.

—Conrad Aiken, “Arthur Waley,” A Reviewer’s ABC: Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken from 1916 to the Present (Meridian Books, 1958)


loose words

The dictionary is dead. Long live the language at large.


eyes open

Each day a poet wakes with new eyes for the same world.


latticework canon

As poems multiply and lodge themselves in various media, each of us creates a latticework of connections—a poem here, a poem there, a poem over there—that will in time become one's personal canon.


influence further

A poet who can’t be influenced can’t advance.


revised horizon

He’d reached a point in his life when he had more poems in draft form than he had days left to revise and to finish them.


emotional memory

Recalling the way a work of art made me feel is often more durable than other kinds of memory. I can often remember how I felt when I read a novel, for example, without having a good recollection of its plot. What remains after looking at a painting is not an exact imprint of the image in the mind, but rather the feeling it gave me, a feeling that I sometimes must struggle to name because emotions as experienced in the body are often cruder than the words we assign to them. Visceral responses to an image, however, are inevitably avenues to meaning. It isn’t always clear why a picture affects us the way it does, but for me, pursuing that mystery is the single most fruitful way to discovery. As Henry James once wrote, “In the arts, feeling is meaning.”

—Siri Hustvedt, Mysteries of the Rectangle (Princeton Architectural Press, 2005)


bestest mostest etc

Hyberbollocks: Exaggerated nonsensical praise, often evidenced by the author’s blurbs.


word forge

Like Homer’s shield of Achilles, give me language metallurgy.

[Homer's The Iliad, Book XVIII, "The Shield of Achilles," Alexander Pope translation.]


best seller

The poet’s publisher called with some exciting news: “Your book is selling in the hundreds!”


game changer

It never occurred to me that I wasn’t going to write poetry until I read Wallace Stevens. When I was very young, reading Shakespeare and Blake and Keats, or when, in adolescence, I began reading Yeats and Eliot and Pound, my experience of reading invariably strengthened an existing sense of vocation. Because this experience, the fact that reading great poets increased my confidence, never varied, I had no reason to examine it. Then something completely different happened; then a door was shut very sharply. Reading Stevens, I felt I would never write, and because I didn’t want this to be true, I had to look more closely at those early experiences, and at the new, to find the source of the verdict.

--Louise Glück, “Invitations and Exclusions,” Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (Ecco, 1994)


digging and sifting

Less creativity and more archaeology; that is, less imagination and more psychic excavation.


figure esquisse

If there’s no word for something, we can always use others to sketch its outline.


as in love

Don’t go for the fast word. Wait for the fated word.


human document

I most admire those writers who lived to write.

[Thinking of Jim Harrison.]



I am interested in the ways language can suggest or provoke (though never surround) an endlessness.

—Heather McHugh, Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1993)


coruscating course

A long poem flecked with many lyrics.


character slide

A critic who began his career as a curmudgeon but in time became a crank.

[Thinking of Karl Shapiro.]


reflexive property

He said that poetry was difficult. Like life?, I said.


loss for words

This is a poem that should be quickly translated into a dying language.


in the end is the beginning

A gifted lyric poet who lacked only the ability to see that he was rewriting one poem.


comic turn

After modernism, formal poetry became a special case of light verse.


moving parts

Practical or sensitive form—that the artist feels relationships, i.e. weights, measures, durations, correspondences, gravities, propulsions, and cooperates to set them in motion. The physical universe has “laws” of motion and the artist is sensitive to them. Here language—as well as paint, tones struck from the string—is a “matter” of vibrations; and form has to do with the working in structures of moving parts.

—Robert Duncan, “Notes on Poetic Form,” The Poet’s Work: 29 Masters of 20th Century Poetry on the Origins and Practice of Their Work (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979) edited by Reginald Gibbons


spinning wheel

This section of your poem is just buffering.


fast talkers

An interview is a casual shortcut to exposing (for the interviewer) and to espousing (for the interviewed poet) a method and a poetics.


universal accord

Criticism tries to steady the jangly localities of taste by striking a universal chord.


horsemen pass by

The barbarians didn’t ransack the library because they didn’t know what it was.

[I realized after posting this one that I'd perhaps lifted the notion from Karl Shapiro's essay "The Poetry Wreck."]


attempts to revisit

To revise one attempts to revisit the original psychic space of the piece’s composition.


overplatoed his hand

Plato, courageous almost beyond belief, secure in his own literary powers, nevertheless appears to discard his own defensive irony when he rejects Homer in the Republic. Scholars of philosophy are not very wary in regard to Plato’s blunder, because (at their best) philosophy is for them a way of life. But Plato sought to replace Homer as the culture of Greece, which was as likely as demoting Shakespeare for the English-speaking world, Goethe for the Germans, Tolstoy for the Russians, Montaigne and Descartes for the French. I would add Walt Whitman for the New World, except that we have not yet learned how to read him, except for a handful: Thoreau, Hart Crane, Borges, Pessoa, Neruda.

—Harold Bloom, “The Greeks: Plato’s Contest with Homer,” Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (Riverhead Books, 2004)


long gone

I read the poem for a while, and then, my being unnecessary to its course, I just let it go on without me.



A poem locked in the prison of the canon.


cause of death

To a poet suicide is death by a natural cause.


money pit

Are manuscript contest entry fees and other submission fees draining the disposable income that poets have for buying poetry books?


in closing

If nothing else, the last line has pride of place.


breeze of surprise

     There are so many ways to go, the detectives know, opposition and conflict, theories drifting over and beyond one another. Things changed by the act of observation. The old laws of physics. Speed and position. Time and distance.
     They will comb through images, looking for any random detail, the breeze of surprise, a clue. The more obscure the moment, the more valuable the knowledge. There is always a chance they will spot something they already overlooked.
     They work in much the same way as poets: the search for a random word, at the right instance, making the poem itself much more precise.

—Colum McCann, Thirteen Ways of Looking (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015).



One might say the last two lines of that sonnet were ‘the odd couplet’.


public storage space

The prose poem’s great flaw is that it’s anything and all.


cast out

A poem that was read as though it were a magic spell.


personal library

I visited the reestablished Thomas Jefferson Library in the Library of Congress yesterday. Some titles have not been replaced from the original catalog. Jefferson ordered his books according to Lord Bacon's system of the subject areas: Memory, Reason, and Imagination. Jefferson used the categories "History," "Philosophy," and "Fine Arts."


ticking line

Meter is a lateral clock.


core story

The poem was a thumbnail novel.


echo chamber

That is, in poetry more than in any other verbal genre, readers bring an expectation that not only do all the elements matter down to the comma and the white space at the end of a line and between or within stanzas, but that each of those elements, no matter how widely arrayed, may tug at other elements and condition the whole. The poem is an echo chamber where we listen to the reverberations that otherwise dissolve into the white noise of anxiety.

—Lee Upton, “Poetry, Defined. Briefly.” Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy (Tupelo Press, 2012)


comedy club

I couldn’t be sure if he was a critic or a heckler.

[Thinking of William Logan.]


battle lines

There are many ways to go wrong in writing a political poem, but the number is no greater than those encountered in writing a love poem.


press press pull

Each line a lever in that strange contraption called a poem.


passing fancy

Engaged in a language dalliance.


the fruit

The Fruit

This is how I want the poem to be:
trembling with light, coarse with earth,
murmuring with waters and with wind.

—Eugénio de Andrade, 28 Portuguese Poets (Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2015), translated by Richard Zenith and Alexis Levtin.

Os Frutos

Assim eu queria o poema:
frementa de luz, áspero de terra,
rumoroso de águas e de vento.


hard cases

He wrote poems with words that don’t fit well into poems.


nth sense

Poetry is a human sensory faculty as yet not fully understood.


late bloomer

Sometimes one of the best poets of a previous century only emerges in the next.

[Thinking of the Frost.]


giant killer

A haiku that could humble a poem of a hundred lines.


minimal inventory

Practical Philosophy
     Baruch Spinoza, by profession a lens-grinder, spent the last years of his life in lodgings on the Pavilion Gracht, in the Hague, most of his time in one room, often taking his meals there, and sometimes not leaving it for several days when he was at work on a project. His first biographer listed his final possessions: “The inventory of a true philosopher. Some small books, some engravings, a few lenses and the instruments to polish them.” His desk, containing letters and unpublished works, was sent to his publisher in Amsterdam.
     A poem is a glass, through which light is conveyed to us.

—Susan Howe, “Vagrancy in the Park,” The Quarry (New Directions, 2015).


high bar

When asked: “Do people still read poetry?” “Some do,” I said, “but only the smart ones.”


wrapping paper

He saved drafts of poems and used the sheets to wrap small gifts.


slack structure

Lines sag when the words don’t have weight.


poison cup

When form falsifies content.


amorphous couch

The poet tends to get too comfortable in the inchoate.


make mountainous

For hours and days on end he [Cézanne] sought out ways to make unintelligible the obvious, and to find for things easily understood an inexplicable basis. As time went by, a secret watchfulness settled in his eyes from so much precise circling of contours that became for him edges of a mystery. An entire quiet lifetime he spent fighting inaudibly and, one might be tempted to say, with nobility, to make mountainous—if such a paraphrase might suffice—the frame of things.

—Robert Walser, “A Discussion of a Picture,” Looking at Pictures (Christine Burgin/New Directions, 2015), translated by Lydia Davis.


higher calling

Frustrated with my poetry, I decided to remake myself into the proverbial ‘ideal reader’.


line too far

A fifteenth line was called for, so it wasn’t a sonnet after all.


young and old

The young poet and old poet are both working with a similar disadvantage: One has few experiences and the other has too many memories.


each is and thus defines

It is only in poem by written poem that poetry is defined.


intensity justified

Poetry is the language of intensity. Because we are all going to die, an expression of intensity is justified.

C. D. Wright, Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil (Copper Canyon Press, ) p. 61.


personal library

Thinking back on the simple bookshelf I built in my bedroom, the couple dozen poetry books I had hardly filled one shelf, yet they seemed a great library to me.


place each word

Word by well-placed word, build me a word palace.


word slathered

You have lavished language upon me but have revealed nothing.


continuous shriek

The confessional poet’s writing style could be described as ‘scream of consciousness’.


never know exactly

Stevens in one of his last poems says he imagines as a kind of final act of nature a bird singing ‘without human meaning, without human feeling, a foreign song.’ The idea that every creature has its own reality scared poets at the beginning of the twentieth century, made some of them feel we were groping blindly---it in effect kicked us out of the comfortable anthropocentric community—but it also allowed some modern poets this sense of absolute mystery at the core of existence. It came of knowing that we would never know exactly what a bird’s experience is, or what an ant’s experience is. It has been an unhousing of the imagination, and it was brought on by the thrust of science to be at home in the world by understanding it. It said we move among great powers and mysteries and only glimpse their meanings, the meaning of what it’s like to be another creature, and therefore also the meaning of being a self, a person.

—Robert Hass, The Poetic Species: A conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass (Bellevue Literary Press, New York, 2014, p. 55-56.)


high clear sound

A train whistle and other things inherently poetic.


technical drawing

A manuscript page so heavily marked with lines and arrows he mistook it at first for a schematic or map.


yikes and yikes again

The double-horror of realizing one has accidentally plagiarized a terrible writer.


tough crowd

I like writing in a room full of books where the titled spines reprove each written word.


indirect light

An aphorism makes you squint like when a stray ray of light hits the corner of your eye.