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 His desk, containing letters and unpublished works, was sent to his publisher in Amsterdam.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.