e. e. cummings in paris

In a concluding section called “Parisian Epilogue,” Rascoe recounts an evening spent in Paris when he and his wife were introduced by Lewis Galantière to Archibald MacLeish, MacLieish’s wife and to E. E. Cummings. Perhaps fueled by a few cognacs, Cummings went on quite an engaging verbal tear that evening. Then, as the night was wrapping up:

     The illuminated disk in the tower of Gare St. Lazare said one-thirty, and I was a rag from listening; but Cummings wanted to go somewhere and dance.
     “Count me out!” said Galantière, “I have to be at work at nine in the morning. Paris for you fellows is a pleasure resort. For me it’s where I earn my living.”
     “It’s funny I never thought of that,” said Cummings. “Somehow you never seem to associate Paris and a job. Think of having a job in Paris! What a quaint idea! But having a job anywhere would be a quaint idea for me, least of all in Paris. Did I say an idea? Why, it would be a godsend! Do you know where I can get a job, any little job—in Paris, Andalusia, New York, or Hong-Kong? I hereby apply for any job that may be floating around. All I require of the job is that it shall not be eleemosynary. It must pay me enough for a bed, cognac and cheese—and, oh, yes! a ticket fortnightly for the Bal Tabarin and two sous for the vestiaire. Vestiaires must live. Two sous for the vestiaire. That’s all I ask."

—Burton Rascoe, A Bookman’s Daybook (Horace Liveright, Inc., 1929)


fall in

Often when writing longhand the letters stagger into the harsh light of the page.


large container

The margins of the poem are the universe.


conditions favorable to life

Like a habitable planet a good poem should have an atmosphere and weather.


seen, heard, felt, tasted...

The best images were sensed—they couldn’t have been imagined.


destined and undetermined

The first line felt fated and yet could lead anywhere.


at the kitchen table

I have a great affection for the picture of Emily Bronte's loaves rising, but am fonder of Tsvetaeva, one daughter living, one daughter dead, clearing a defiant space on the kitchen table. To be torn apart by births or revolutions or both, and survive at least for a time, is a prerequisite for the fullest genuine genius to flower.

Medbh McGuckian, from Delighting the Heart: A Notebook by Women Writers (Women’s Press, 1989), edited by Susan Sellers


making bad choices

If the plagiarist had real talent she would have stolen a better poem.

[News link.]


no going back

When you have written an important poem it’s hard to write an ordinary poem.


not going there

An aging writer should resist at every turn writing about death.


improbable power

Tiny poem with the power of an atom.



fragment transcendent

The close relationship between the Romantic conception of literature and the fragment was most explicitly articulated in the work of Friedrich Schlegel and other German Romantic writers based in and around the university town of Jena from the end of eighteenth to beginning to nineteenth century. For instance, Friedrich Schlegel declares: ‘There is so much poetry and yet there is nothing more rare than a poem!’ This is due to the vast quantity of poetical sketches, studies, fragments, tendencies, ruins, and raw materials’*.

—Ben Grant, The Aphorism and Other Short Forms (Routledge, 2016)

*Philosophical Fragments by Friedrich Schlegel, translated by Peter Firchow, Minneapolis, London, University of Minnesota Press, 1991.


ahead unknown

Artists and poets tend not to belief in predestination.


not for free

A poem the poet had paid for.


forever forms

You can see a strange kind of Neoplatonism propounded by certain crackpot defenders of poetic forms. They have come to believe that certain poetic forms are ideal forms, immutable and outside of time.


powerful image

The most powerful image of my emotional life is something I had repressed and one of my sisters lately reminded me of. It was when my little brother, who was two and a half years younger than I, died at eighteen months. My mother some days later found his footprint in the yard and tried to build something over it to keep the wind from blowing it away. That’s the most powerful image I’ve ever known.

—A. R. Ammons, Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews, and Dialogues (U. of Michigan Press, 1996), edited by Zofia Barr.


bad piano

The poet often feels like some poor composer who has bought a beaten piano from a closed bar. A few of the keys stick and a couple when struck make no sound at all. For those he must hear the sound in his head.


much too much

Sometimes life gives one too much to write about.


language believer

A poet never loses faith with language.


portrait of an author

The magazine he most wanted to publish in, he didn’t subscribe to.

If he went to a poetry reading it was because he was the featured reader, or the featured reader was someone important he hoped to introduce himself to after the reading.

When he was published in a literary magazine, he turned straightaway to his own poem, checking it for typos…then immediately closed the magazine.

Next thing to do, right after getting that publishing credit, was to update his c.v.

For an author photo, he pushed the limit, sending a photo two decades old.

His books all seemed to be published by different publishers; perhaps each editor was one and done.

His bio listed all his prizes and publications down to the most obscure and the earliest ones in his career.

In his apartment, the only books he owned, at least the only ones visible on bookshelves, were his own.


first concern

Whether the assessment is positive or negative, the critic’s first task is to make the reader care.


taps and scratches

Poetry, for me, has always been bound up with this unease, fueled by contingency toward forms that will transcend it, as involved with silence as it is with sound.

There is a passage in the writings of Simone Weil that has long been important to me. In the passage, Weil describes two prisoners who are in solitary confinement next to each other. Between them is a stone wall. Over a period of time — and I think we have to imagine it as a very long time — they find a way to communicate using taps and scratches. The wall is what separates them, but it is also the only means they have of communicating. “It is the same with us and God,” she says. “Every separation is a link.”

—Christian Wiman, “Gazing into the Abyss,” The American Scholar, Summer 2007.


given space

As I read these poems I began to enjoy more and more their blank areas.


lit from within

An image illuminated by its own light.


near perfect if not true

Even as misremembered, the line was near perfect.


right kind of wrong

A poem that was the right kind of wrong, making its missteps due to its leaps or when getting to close to an edge.


act of survival

Because those poems that move me are enactments of discovery, not retellings. In those poems that change me the speaker is most often the protagonist, not the narrator. The narrator knows he will survive the poem. The protagonist never knows if he will even make it to the end; the poem itself becomes the act of survival, the act of flailing and probing, an open desire for grace or change. I think this is what Stevens meant when he said the poem is the act of the mind in the process of finding what will suffice. Not having found what will….

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


better left unsaid

The only way to have said it better would have been to just to think it, to not have uttered it at all.


further persuaded

Each line needs only to persuade the reader to read the next.


old songs

Old poems, old songs…how to let them go?


got the once-over

Nothing worse could be said of a poem than it was all artifice and surface.


steel grace

I append the translation by J. U. Nicolson (The Complete Works of François Villon). I find Mr. Nicolson’s rendering of this poem more satisfactory than D. G. Rossetti’s or John Payne’s, both of whom make the poem too “musical,” destroying its natural diction which was Villon’s great quality, and both of whom make the poem too sentimental. Villon has sweetness in him and love of beauty, even piety; but his grace is a steel-like hardness; he is never, except perhaps in the Ballade of Grosse Margot, sentimental. Swinburne understood Villon perfectly, and he did several excellent translations but he did not translate the Dead Ladies:

    Say where, not in what land, may be
    Flora the Roman? Where remain
    Fair Archippa’s charms, and she—
    Thaïs—in beauty so germaine?
    Echo, calling afar, in vain,
    Over the rivers and the marshes wan,
    Lovelier once than girls profane?
    But where are the snows of the last year gone?

Burton Rascoe, Titans of Literature (Blue Ribbon Books, Inc., 1932)


typo byproduct

If you haven’t suffered a bad typo, you’ve not published enough. To a publisher: If you haven't let slip an egregious typo, you're not publishing enough.


page eater

A codex book uneasily digested by a digital device.


fascist poetics

Pound’s fascism should have been evident by the certainties in which he propounded his poetics.


throws light upon illusionist

We need critics because poets and writers, like magicians, are reluctant to divulge the mechanics behind their tricks.


art of time and place

The true work of art...is not the work of the individual artist. It is time and it is place, as these perfect themselves.

—Wallace Stevens, Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (Vintage, 1965).

[Last evening was the twenty-third annual Wallace Stevens Birthday Bash. Cole Swensen was the speaker and her presentation was titled, "Perhaps the Truth Depends." She took us on a journey of quotes and pictures related to Stevens' habit of walking, plus some related history of walking poets.]


singular path

Cut your own idiosyncratic path through literature.


false front

That false-front description that relies on expected adjectives.


chalk lettering

A poem so transitory it should be written in chalk.


case made

Every poem that is written is a defense of poetry.


colorful icing

A title that was cake decoration.


coming home

“But it took him a long time / finally to make up his mind to go home.” That’s the last line and a half of Bishop’s “The Prodigal.” Home, of course, is mutable, like any word or concept. But not indefinitely so. We learn from poetry of the gradual balancing of language on the exact midpoint between it-could-be-anything and it-can-only-be-this. I want to ask in this essay if I’m a poet, if that’s my “home”—but I think, for me, it’s still too early to know.

—Valerie Cornell, “On Being Unable to Read,” By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2000), edited by Molly McQuade.


first sight

First sight, best sight. To describe with new eyes.


no answer

A last line has no answer.


stand-up stanza

A single stanza can set a poem bolt upright.



mental link

Metaphor as mind-rhyme.


invitation to a voyage

The ideal place to teach creative writing is a used book store, says my friend Vava Hristić.
My hunch that language is inadequate when speaking about experience is really a religious idea, what they call negative theology.
Poetry tries to bridge the abyss lying between the name and the thing. That language is a problem is no news to poets.
A New Hampshire high school student reading an ancient Chinese poem and being moved—A theory of literature that cannot account for that commonplace miracle is worthless.
For Emily Dickinson every philosophical idea was a potential lover. Metaphysics is the realm of eternal seduction of the spirit by ideas.
Seeing the familiar with new eyes, that quintessential idea of modern art and literature, the exile and immigrant experience daily.
A poem is an invitation to a voyage. As in life, we travel to see fresh sights.

—Charles Simic, The Poet’s Notebook (WW Norton & Co., 1995), edited by Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tall and David Weiss.


place or prop

For Wallace Stevens place names were just props in the staging of the poem; they’re not real places.


sidestep the missteps

Part of the ‘anxiety of influence’ relates to the effort not to repeat the errors of the precursors.


among us

They lived among us, yet we didn’t know our poets.


trunks and foliage

Beyond the words, beyond the woods.


before he was anything

My father, before he was anything else, was a poet. He regarded this vocation, as he records in the notebooks, as some “mission from G-d.” (The hyphen indicated his reverence to the deity; his reluctance to write out the divine the name, even in English, is an old Jewish custom and is further evidence of the fidelity that he mixed with his freedom.) “Religion, teachers, women, drugs, the road, fame, money…nothing gets me high and offers relief from the suffering like blackening pages, writing.” This statement of purpose was also a statement of regret: he offered his literary consecration as an explanation for what he felt was poor fatherhood, failed relationships, and inattention to his finances and health. I am reminded of one of his lesser-known songs (and one of my favorites): “I came so far for beauty, I left so much behind.” But not far enough, apparently: in his view he hadn’t left enough. And this book, he knew, was to be his last offering.

Foreword by Andrew Cohen to The Flame: poems, notebooks, lyrics, drawings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018) by Leonard Cohen.



The publicity described him as a ‘professional poet’.


no such thing

The prosiest of poets are the first to reject the prose poem.


verse arises

And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again. For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not until they have turned to blood within us, to glance, to gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - not until then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge [1910] (Dalkey Archive Press, 2008), translated by Burton Pike.


small knowing group

Rather have a cabal than an audience.


line limit

If this line keeps going on, ranging forward, loping along, it will soon reach the limit of the margin and become prose.


time (un)bound

The perfect poem is both of its time and absolutely outside of time.


first image

An image everyone missed until this moment.


by your hands

Poet, don’t accept the form, shape it.


great and simple images

A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

—Albert Camus, Selected Essays and Notebooks (Penguin, 1979), translated by Philip Thody.


poetics of the political

It’s the poetics in a political poem that make it matter.


line by line

Lines that advance and lines that reinforce.


join the ranks

The least you could do after giving up on being a writer, is to become a serious reader.


new and abused

I had to give him credit for titling his book, New & Rejected Poems.


what is time, what is poetry

For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.

—Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book XI (ca. 400 CE)

For what is poetry? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than poetry? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is poetry? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.


apart from process

I know he wrote a lot of poetry, but did he write any poems? There being a difference.


conditional audience

An educated and experienced readership is the necessary and sufficient condition for great poetry.


retrospective advantage

Often when someone longs for ‘the spirit of the past’, they forget that spirit was a critical distillate made during a successive age.


breezy poem

How To Write A Breezy Poem
     by Charles “Chuck” Calabreze

1. Begin with “Because,” “When,” or “If.”

2. Mention two strangers. Describe in detail.

3. Tell where you’re watching from.

4. Create a simile involving a household pet.

5. Make a tentative philosophical observation.

6. Take back tentative philosophical observation.

7. Confess that you’ve lied about 1 & 2.

8. Change the subject entirely. Or write a series of similes involving various pop culture icons. Extra credit: Drop names of TV shows seen only on Nick at Nite.

9. Say what you’re really doing (i.e. writing a poem).

10. Confess that you don’t really know what you’re doing.

11. Tell what you’d rather be doing.

12. Write a brief passage proving that you’re not a capital ‘P’ poet (e.g., T.S. Eliot)

13. Further undermine your authority by impugning your motives. (Hint: reduce them to something base and trivial.)

14. Invent a simile or two or three using common kitchen appliances or objects.

15. Mention a friend’s marital or dating problems. Extra credit: Mention your married friend’s dating problems.

16. Make list of events beginning with “After.”

17. Make tentative psychological observation.

18. Take back tentative psychological observation.

19. Rapidly change the subject to avoid implication of 16.

20. Return to the strangers. Begin line “I swear.”

21. Envy something about the strangers. Example: Unselfconsciousness.

22. Mention an obscure rock ‘n’ roll band.

23. Praise the band extravagantly.

24. Change the subject again.

26. Apologize to the reader.

25. End with slightly obtuse but trivial observation grounded in everyday routine. If possible, be witty.

[Originally appeared in Countermeasures #3]


given to

A poet given to prose.


after gombrich

Art is made by artists and by the critics who recognize it in all its itness.


pointed texts

Documentary poetics: Utilizing found poetry for its political aspect.


more is less

What does it mean that after about five books you’ve not published a Selected? Then there was the poet who touted her twelve books of poems…by now shouldn’t you be announcing a New & Selected or a Collected?


vigilant elite

Always the literati must call out the lappers-up of the light popular.


art is

It is changing.

It has order.

It has variety.

It affects other things.

It is affected by other things.

It doesn’t have a specific place.

It doesn’t have a specific time.

Its boundaries are not fixed.

It may go unnoticed.

Part of it may also be part of something else.

Some of it is familiar.

Some of it is strange.

Some of it is unknown.

Knowing of it changes it.

To know of it is to be part of it.

Robert Barry 1970

[Robert Barry: An artist book (Karl Kerber Verlag – Bielfeld, 1986), edited by Erich Franz. Image: a typewritten single sheet of paper.]


literary collaborators

A manifesto makes room for the aphorism. The aphorism is made for a manifesto.


poem-eating contest

Nothing wrong with preferring bite-sized poetry, but you must test the limits of your appetite from time to time with long poems.


hearse chaser

I’m sorry that I only read your work when you were dead.


first to mine

In the course of one's reading, it's nice to think, even if it’s not true, that I’ve been first to mine this gemstone quotation.


single motion

He composed a line in a single motion, like an archer taking an arrow from a quiver.


floated promiscuously along

The difference, then, between the poetry of a poet, and the poetry of a cultivated but not naturally poetical mind is that in the latter, with however bright a halo of feeling the thought may be surrounded and glorified, the thought itself is still the conspicuous object; while the poetry of a poet is Feeling itself, employing Thought only as the medium of its utterance. In the one feeling waits upon thought; in the other, thought upon feeling. The one writer has a distinct aim, common to him with any other didactic author; he desires to convey the thought and he conveys it clothed in the feelings which it excites in himself, or which he deems most appropriate to it. The other merely pours forth the overflowing of his feelings; and all the thoughts which those feelings suggest are floated promiscuously along the stream.

J. S. Mill, “The Two Kinds of Poetry,” Essays on Poetry (U. of South Carolina Press, 1976), edited by F. Parvin Sharpless


midden of broken things

A fragment gathers with others of its kind.


words as medium

Not so much a poet as a text artist.


hard back

Reader, be a breaker of books.


prison argot

The critics of that school feared they’d invented a prison argot.


reading series guideline

The organizer of the reading series posted on his website one guideline under the heading “Requirement to be a scheduled Reader”: 1. Do you attend these readings? If ‘No’, go away. If ‘Yes', tell me about yourself and what you’ve been writing.


sentences comment

34. When an artist learns his craft too well he makes slick art.

35. These sentences comment on art, but are not art.

—Sol Lewitt, Sentences on Conceptual Art"

[First published in 0-9 (New York), 1969, and Art-Language (England), May 1969]


resist the list

Don’t allow your reading list to be dictated: Hunt it, find it, make it your own.


acrostic composed



situational awareness

A poet recognizes immediately the ‘con’ in lexicon.


beauty blinded

This light, this landscape (Poros, Greece), these days start to threaten me seriously. I close the shutters so I can work. I must protect myself from beauty...You feel your brain emptying and lightening; the long day absorbs it. Today I understood why Homer was blind; if he had had eyes he wouldn't have written anything.

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


figure of speech fugue

A poem that throbs with its tropes.


poem as bookcase

Loaded with literary allusions, each line of the poem was like a bookshelf.


playing long odds

He was prone to playing the long odds, so he quit his job, borrowed $50K and bet on getting an MFA in Creative Writing.


audience disconnect

After the poet concluded the reading with her most harrowing of poems, the audience smiled and clapped heartily as though to prompt an encore.


false dualities

Beware nevertheless of false dualities: classical and romantic, real and ideal, reason and instinct, mind and matter, male and female—all should be merged into each other (as a Taoists merged their Yin and Yang in the Tao) and should be regarded as two aspects of one idea. […]

Yet ridiculous as may seem the dualities in conflict at a given time, it does not follow that dualism is a worthless process. The river of truth is always splitting up into arms that reunite. Islanded between them, the inhabitants argue for a lifetime as to which is the mainstream.

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


mind pain

As when reading an article on the latest subatomic theory, a good poem should hurt your brain.


quiet but not empty space

Poet, strain the words from silence.


book as handheld device

Your poetry being printed only makes it more portable, not more important.


just passing through

We call them passages because we are unlikely to pass our eyes over them again.


brokedown horses

A bright critic who hitched his wagon (note: dead metaphor) to the wrong authors.


intrinsic solitude

Stranded on this distant land where spaceships don’t pass nor ever will, lost on this speck of sand far from all commercial routes of the universe, I’m condemned to share the intrinsic solitude of its inhabitants, people incapable of communicating with a tool less unwieldy and impenetrable than language. I use it to send coded messages that only other castaways, those they call poets, can understand.

—Ana Maria Shua, translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan, Short Circuits: Aphorisms, Fragments, and Literary Anomalies (Schaffner Press, 2018), edited by James Lough and Alex Stein.


what happens underground

Model for a poem: rabbit warren.


big data

The day may be coming when canonicity is measured by tallying Google searches.


poem event

Had the ability to make the reading of a poem an event.


take it from the top

With I-beam lines…the poet was building a skyscraper from the sky down.


loving and severe spirit

Among the many senses that modern painters have lost, we must number the sense of architecture. The edifice accompanying the human figure, whether alone or in a group, whether in a scene from life or in an historical drama, was a great concern of the ancients. They applied themselves to it with loving and severe spirit, studying and perfecting the laws of perspective. A landscape enclosed in the arch of a portico or in the square or rectangle of a window acquires a greater metaphysical value, because it is solidified and isolated from the surrounding space. Architecture completes nature. It marks an advance of human intellect in the field of metaphysical discoveries.

—Giorgio De Chirico, “The Sense of Architecture,” Artists on Art (Pantheon Books, 1945)


good listening

Summer evening, lying back on the grass, listening to poetry.

[Listening to Tracy K. Smith at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival]


afraid of having said

You have a right to write about nothing, as I have a right to skip reading what you’ve written.


smell test

The anthology smelled of solicited work.


poems that move people

One’s occasional poems garner the sincerest praise.


standards set

The standards you hold yourself to are too high to write anything. Your standards to write anything are too low.


rescued from formlessness

The poet’s relationship to her poetry has, it seems to me—and I am not speaking only of Emily Dickinson—a twofold nature. Poetic language—the poem on paper—is a concretization of the poetry of the world at large, the self, and the forces within the self; and those forces are rescued from formlessness, clarified, and integrated in the act of writing poems. But there is a more ancient concept of the poet, which is that she is endowed to speak for those who do not have the gift of language, or to see for those who—for whatever reasons—are less conscious of what they are living through. It is as though the risks of the poet’s existence can be put to some use beyond her own survival.

—Adrienne Rich, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry (Graywolf, 2000), edited by Molly McQuade.


turn of phrase

On the back of April 2017 issue of Poetry, as advert/blurb, there were two lines by Rae Armantrout…   
             Where there’s smoke
             there are mirrors.
An often employed trope of hers, it seemed. Take a common expression and give it a twist...make a wry turn on a well-worn phrase. (Charles Bernstein has done the same.) Often Armantrout makes a poem of a succession of this device. However, when I read the poems inside the issue, I was glad to see she didn’t overuse the device.


declaration not an answer

A manifesto arises, it is not solicited.

[A manifesto lives on impulse. It is not as slow to develop as a project.]


the great explainer

“There are a few words and references in this poem you should know…” Please don't. If I was reading the poem on the page I'd have to experience it without your elucidations. If need be, I'm capable of going back through, using various resources available to me, and working out what may have gotten by me.


frost warning

Frost was the imModernist poet.


not so bad really

She wrote not a review but an excuse for the poetry.


miracle worker

There are no miracles, there is only what you make.

Tamara de Lempicka


more truly and more strange

A poet welcomes language anomalies into his writing


word worker

Poetry not as a hobby but as obsession.


market in action

If you want to gauge the current esteem (and value) of poets, those dead and some older living ones, then peruse the pages of a rare book dealer’s sales catalog. Is the name even there, and what kind of prices are listed for the books and other collectible literary material?


not feeling it

As with the illusive ‘cold fusion’, more energy is imputed to the line break than can actually be measured.


burying the undertaker

A poem was read at the memorial for the critic who’d declared that poetry was dead.


great emotions

The poet makes [humankind] realize how great are the great emotions which they, in a smaller way, have already experienced.

— G. K. Chesterton, The Soul of Wit: G. K. Chesterton on William Shakespeare (Dover Publications, 2012)


outside looking on

A poet on the periphery…where else would s/he be?


what is not said

Reticence is a resource of poetry.


in the thick of things

Often in the presence of other art, or one might say under the pressure of other art, poetry arises.


head on a block

The reader was not tall. The podium was high, wooden and wide. A little head bouncing atop a butcher block was what the audience saw.


shells or gems

Erotic poems, gnomic poems on erotic themes, as we see, rather than love poems. At first glance, we may even wonder if love for anyone in particular appears in these poems: either Cavafy experienced it very little or he has been discretely silent in its regard. On a closer look, however, almost nothing is missing: encounter and parting, desire slaked or unappeased, tenderness or satiety—is this not what remains of every erotic life once it has passed into the crucible of memory? Yet it is evident, too, that clarity of vision, refusal to overestimate, hence wisdom, but not less perhaps the differences in condition and age, and probably the venality of certain experiences, afford the lover a kind of retrospective detachment in the course of the hottest pursuits or the most ardent carnal joys. Doubtless, too, the poem’s slow crystallization, in Cavafy’s case, tends to distance him from the immediate shock, to confirm presence only in the form of memory, at a distance where the voice, so to speak, no longer carries, for in this poetry where “I” and “he” contend for primacy, “you,” the beloved addressed is singularly absent. We are at the antipodes of ardor, of passion, in the realm of the most egocentric concentration and the most avaricious hoarding. Consequently the gesture of the poet and of the lover handling his memories is not so different from that of the collector of precious or fragile objects, shells or gems, or even of the numismatist bending over his handful of pure profiles accompanied by a number and a date, those numbers and dates for which Cavafy’s shows an almost superstitious predilection. Beloved object.

—Marguerite Yourcenar, “A Critical Introduction to Cavafy,” The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984), translated by Richard Howard.


hold your tongue

In a workshop if one person is always the first speak, then he/she sets the trajectory of the discussion. Don’t be first to speak all the time.


all special poets

After its chapbook competition, the press announced the winner. And in the same announcement, it listed a small group of runners-up. [Fine.] Then the press listed a larger group of finalists. Then it listed a similar group of semifinalists! [Wow.] Then the press went on to thank all the other poets who had submitted their chapbooks (and paid their fee) but didn't get mentioned in the long list of poets who were runners-up, finalists, and even semifinalists.


end of it

That poet gets credit for reaching a boundary condition. But that’s it.


cheap talk

"The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter."

Dashiell Hammett's detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1930)

The cheaper the critic, the gaudier the patter.


found one

He published but one poem in the last year, and it was a found poem.


sweet sounding things

Avoid a poetry that would whisper sweet nothings in your ear.


noticing and noting

Good criticism is a knowledgeable noticing, with a flair for noting.


category error

He aspired to translate music into language.


slight angle to universe

They turn and see a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe…He may be prevailed upon to begin a sentence—an immense complicated shapely sentence, full of parentheses that never get mixed and of reservations that really do reserve, a sentence that moves with logic to its foreseen end, yet to an end that is always more vivid and thrilling than one foresaw. Sometimes the sentence is finished in the street, sometimes the traffic murders it, sometimes it lasts into the flat. It deals with the tricky behavior of the Emperor Alexius Comnenus in 1096, or with olives, their possibilities and price, or with the fortunes of friends, or George Eliot, or with the dialects of the interior of a Asia Minor. It is delivered with equal ease in Greek, English, or French. And despite its intellectual richness and human outlook, despite the matured charity of its judgments, one feels that it too stands at a slight angle to the universe: it is the sentence of a poet…

E. M. Forster’s description of C. P. Cavafy, related in Marguerite Yourcenar’s “A Critical Introduction to Cavafy,” The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984)


extended description

The image failed because it took too many words to render.


true poets

I was talking about the troubadour poets. She must have misheard me, because she said, “I too find many poets ‘true but dour'."


there and not there

The poet’s influences were evident but not scarring.


rockstar poet

There are about one-hundred rockstar poets. Rockstars in the sense that they could command a good paycheck for a reading at a university auditorium or local arts center; not in the sense that they could fill even the lower tier in a small civic arena.


figure a poem makes

The poem assumed a steady unshakeable stance on the page.


density and sparkle

Without discussing the merits or demerits of Fires, I would like to say that the almost excessive expressionism of these poems still seems to me to be of a form of natural and needed confession, a legitimate effort to portray the full complexity and passion of an emotion. This tendency, persisting and reemerging at all times in literature, in spite of wise puristic or classical restrictions, stubbornly, maybe nightmarishly, tries to create an entirely poetic language, one in which each word, loaded with maximum meaning, would reveal its hidden significance in the way phosphorescences of stones are revealed under certain lights. The poet always wants to put feelings or ideas in concrete forms, in forms that may become in themselves precious (the very term is revealing), like those gems that owe their density and sparkle to the almost unbearable pressures and temperature they’ve been through.

Marguerite Yourcenar, Fires (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981)


preface too much

After his long introduction, I muttered, ‘Methinks thou doth preface too much’.


finer points

The members of the workshop were much too comfortable using power tools, when precision instruments were called for.


good ingredients

After a good meal, all at the table agreed the recipe was a kind of poem.


it matters more

Always matter before manner.


not common literary property

I get so pissed-off at the plain-talk people—who claim that Whitman wrote street talk and that William Carlos Williams let it all hang out—that I forget the beautiful art of simplicity. When I read a stretch of short, simple, powerful things by Jack Gilbert, I remember how utterly moving plainness can be: “Divorce”:

Woke up suddenly thinking I heard crying.
Rushed through the dark house.
Stopped, remembering. Stood looking
out at the bright moonlight on concrete.

Everything is there: exact adequacy, intelligence that withholds comment, and the luck (or vision) of the natural symbol. There is also that invaluable thing—with luck you hit on it fives times in fifty years of writing—when you say something that everyone has experienced (waking up feeling, not knowing why) which is not common literary property.

—Donald Hall, The Poet’s Notebook: Excerpts form Notebooks of Contemporary American Poets (W.W. Norton, 1995), edited by Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tall and David Weiss.


looking up

A poet waits on a tongue of fire to settle over his head.

Acts 2:1
1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.

2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

3 And there appeared unto them separated tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.


cadaver explained

All in the workshop concurred the poem was dead. What followed was an autopsy of the poem.


under construction

They need to build new wings on the edifice of the canon.


escape artist

Form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini.

— Paul Muldoon, The Irish Times, 19 April 2003


coins, stamps, poems

When a coin is misstruck or a postage stamp misprinted, it accrues more value. But a typo in a book of poems is always seen as a diminishment.


not going anywhere

A poem secure in the canon solely on aesthetic grounds.


not it

That's not it: It’s never it…art is never quite it.


deficient text

The poem lacked vitamin V…vocabulary.


extremity's small room


I want a poem which is made of compression, passion, precision, symmetry, & disruption.

I want a poetry which is fetishistic, a-Moral, obsessive, erotic, a poetry of Commission, a poem of pre-meditation, beneath (not above) the law, with malice aforethought. I want a poem of omission. [“Omissions are not accidents,” said Marianne Moore.] That which is withheld on the page is equal in importance to that which is Held.

Lucie Brock-Broido, from “Myself a Kangaroo among the Beauties,” By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2000).


broken thing

In poetry, sometimes a sentence is too much, and only a fragment will do.


difficult passage

Poet, make barricade lines.


vanishes into thin air

A poem of fancy slips easily into the ether.


capital noun

Remember the power of proper nouns. Starting with a capital letter, they raise the poem above the level of generic imagery.


precise and reticent

Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling, for as soon as the mind responds and connects with the thing the feeling shows in the words; this is how poetry enters deeply into us.

—Wei T'ai, Poems of the Late Tang (NYRB Classics, 2008), A. C. Graham, translator.


too well represented

Any poet with an agent will likely be forgotten in the next generation.


test for poetry

Will the poem follow you? Will the poem affix itself to you? Will the poem inflect the course of your life?


build up and tear down

Poetry has always had its makers and its breakers.


linear entity

The poetic line resists the fetish for a sentence.


kitchens and backyards

I once asked Irish poet Eavan Boland whether Patrick Kavanagh, the unconventional Irish peasant poet, had helped her as a woman writer in a tradition pretty much devoid of women. She answered in terms similar to mine. Kavanagh had been a crucial guide, she said, because of “his fierce attachment to the devalued parts of his experience and a sense of the meaning of that devaluation within a society.” Kavanagh made poetry of hay and potatoes; in a sense he gave her “permission” to make poetry of the life inside kitchens and backyards.

Deborah Tall, Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition (W.W. Norton & Co., 1993), edited and with introduction by Sharon Bryan


not exempt

Even the avant-garde must write within a tradition.


standing alone

The poem was made of single line/sentence stanzas, each of which called too much attention to itself, standing self-importantly in open space.


sight in a cold light

Keen attention must at times be unkind.


sad words

All poems are laments for what remains unexpressed by means of language.


late to the party

Woe’s me—born just a little too late for the crest of formal poetry that rose in the 1950s, so that my stuff didn’t begin to appear till the great stampede out of traditional form was on. So I came to the poetry scene like some guest who shows up just when the party is ending, the punchbowl drained, the streamers all tromped to the floor.

—X. J. Kennedy, notebook entry from The Poet’s Notebook: Excerpts form Notebooks of Contemporary American Poets (W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), edited by Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tall and David Weiss.


reward system

Poetry needs to have so many prizes and awards, otherwise its undertaking would be of uncertain value.


dialed up the volume

A poet who wrote for the bullhorn.


real light

The real is a light that dispels.


sound links

The poem as an echoic chain.


rule to judge

When, after having read a work, loftier thoughts arise in your mind and noble and heartfelt feelings animate you, do not look for any other rule to judge it by; it is fine and written in a masterly manner.

La Bruyère, Characters (Oxford U. Press, 1962), translated by Henri Van Laun.


ups and downs

He wrote his dissertation on the variations in iambic modulation.


not the territory

The poem is not the territory.

[Apologies to Alfred Korzybski.]


sense of arrival

To think not of the poem ending but to think of the poem arriving.


free the poets

I noticed that The Poetry Project’s reading space has prison bars on the windows.



Someone who wrote poems, not books.


safe house

Threatened or fugitive words will always find sanctuary within poems.


but would it take

A grafted-on line.


speck or flash

I begin my pictures under the effect of a shock that makes me escape from reality. The cause of this shock may be a tiny thread sticking up from the canvas, a falling drop of water, or print made by my finger on the shining surface of a table.

In any case, I need a point of departure, even if only a speck of dust or flash of light. This form produces a series of things, one giving birth to another.

And so a single thread can set a world in motion. I come to a world from something considered dead. And when I give it a title, it becomes even more alive.

Joan Miró, I Work Like a Gardener (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017), compiled by Yvon Taillandier, preface by Robert Lubar.


coat peg

The first line wasn’t special; more like a coat peg, just something to hang the poem on.


poetry not poem

One could recognize the poetry in the language, even if no poem emerged from the language.

[Thinking of Lucie Brock-Broido's poetry.]


living in brooklyn

I could often tell when it was a poet at the door. They tend to knock in five-beat intervals.


deep presence

That poetry is one of humankind’s primal urges.


possibly political

Does politics inform your art? I’m not interested in agitprop. However, I think ambiguity can be read in a number of ways. I decided to show Descension—a whirlpool I created nearly five years ago—in Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2017 to draw attention to a certain state of America. I did not declare it. Otherwise the work is enslaved to a political context and has no bigger life.

Why is that? The best work has numerous layers of meaning. We see it in great poetry, like W.H. Auden’s 1947 poem The Age of Anxiety, where the war was never described. The Age of Anxiety could be this age, it could be all ages—the poem lives on by not being banal.

Anish Kapoor, “5 Questions,” Time, February 12, 2018, interview by Tara John.


I know (of) it well

There are long poems that are read and there are long poems that have reputations but aren’t read.


sharp demarcation

A line that was like razor wire. It would be hard to get over.


it all makes sense now

Poets create then critics come after to construct a poetics.



rickety answer

but what is poetry anyway?
More than one rickety answer
has tumbled since that question first was raised.
But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that
like a redemptive handrail.

—Wislawa Szymborska, from "Some Like Poetry," translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.


poet unbound

The translator has more responsibility than the poet has.


covering the waterfront

I know all of the poets except the ones I don’t know.


first translation

Language is a translation of life and the world.


uses of poetry

Sitting at a café table, I noticed a poetry book had been jammed under one leg to keep the table from wobbling.


poetry god

It was said of him that no one knew more about poetry than he did.


all art is sensual

But all art is sensual and poetry particularly so. It is directly, that is, of the senses, and since the senses do not exist without an object for their employment all art is necessarily objective. It doesn't declaim or explain, it presents.

—William Carlos Williams, The Collected Earlier Poems of William Carlos Williams (New Directions, 1951)


poem in brackets

The ideal reader would be able to “bracket” (as Husserl theorized) the poem, and thus experience it as a singular and pure phenomenon


wholly new

He showed me his revision but I could detect no provenance from the prior poem.


vantage point

Never stoop to slap the popular. Wave to it from above as it passes by.


nearly invisible

She was so much an identity poet she managed to make herself anonymous.


sacred spider

Mallarmé described himself as a “sacred spider,” the inventor of a “marvelous lacework,” The appearance of “On Toss of the Dice” thus colluded, in its lacy lack of transitions, with the Lumière brother’s cinématagraphe, which had burst upon the world late December 1895 and was barely up and running before Mallarmé began his optical oeuvre. Bravely conceived and fiercely written against the long tradition of verbal poetry, “One Toss of the Dice” marked a great shift in the direction of the visuality of our own era, with still and moving projections, hand-held personal data devices, monitors, and screens.

—R. Howard Bloch, One Toss of the Dice: The Incredible Story of How a Poem Made Us Modern (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017)


walt and emily

Whitman the empathetic ego at large. Dickinson the introspective ego writ large.


abc and abs

A young poet was invited into the basement of an older poet, and upon seeing a letterpress there, asked what kind of exercise equipment it was.


source images

An image that draws upon a history of related images.


aged out

If an artist lives past about age 80, the assumption is that s/he is already dead. Which is to say that the creative life is assumed dead even if the artist isn’t.


not accustomed

When Parra’s lines seem disconnected, it is because they are connected in a supralogical way in which we are not accustomed to seeing things. When the conventions of cause-and-result seem to be outraged, they are.

—Miller Williams, introduction to Emergency Poems (New Directions, 1972) by Nicanor Parra, translated by Miller Williams


not the marrying kind

The couplet rimes were a bad match: One was turning in circles at the altar, and the other forgot the ring.


rough to read

So much suffering in those lines, you felt it was written with claw marks.


of no matter

The poetry was not up to a level where critical attention would be worthwhile.

[Thinking of Instagram and Twitter poets.]


mosaic array

The poem as a mosaic of well-placed words.


my roller coaster


For half a century
Poetry was the paradise
Of the solemn fool.
Until I came along
And built my roller coaster.

Go up, if you feel like it.
It's not my fault if you come down
Bleeding from your nose and mouth.

by Nicanor Parra, Poems and Antipoems (New Directions, 1966), translated by Miller Williams

[I changed this post because I realized in 2016 I'd posted the same poem, "Young Poets." Not that a good poem, one I've memorized since my youth, shouldn't be posted twice or thrice or a trillion times, but I'm trying not repeat myself. Parra, for me, is one of the unique poets.]


green space

A nature poem good enough to be named a state park or protected green space.


mind the gap

A poem complete in its conception is necessarily compromised in composition.


inflection point

A book of poems that if it didn’t change the course of poetry, at least inflected it.


and another

Successive drafts have a point of diminishing returns.


shows promise

Sometimes it’s enough that reading a poem makes you want to read another or the next one.


implies another mark

     Every time I set up a blank canvas or a blank piece of paper, I experience the same feeling—queasiness, something approaching panic, and a profound lack of self-belief. There are a limitless number of marks that could be made, and almost all of them will be mistakes. That is, they will set up a logic which will lead the picture to banality or pointless mimicry. For every mark implies another. Will that circle be repeated or answered by different shape? Will it be a sun, a plate, a face? That stuttering horizontal line—it’s the sea isn’t it? Or if it’s not, you’d better work hard and fast to make that clear. And so on.
     One of the reasons painters tend to develop a signature style and stick to it is that this helps answer the original panic. Some people will always begin with an image at the centre of the picture plane. It seems that Picasso mostly does this---a face, a bird, a group of figures, will shoulder themselves out of the centre, and the lines will press away to the edges of the paper or canvas. Other painters think very hard about edges, and work inwards. Oddly, because his pictures mostly involve a central shimmering block of colours, I think Mark Rothko probably painted that way. But an initial, bold decision about how to break up the picture surface, and—to put it banally—what will go where, helps any painter get going. And once you have a way in, you are likely to use it again and again; and that way in will hugely influence what’s going to happen next.

—Andrew Marr, A Short Book About Painting (Quadrille Publishing Ltd, 2017)


ride the breath

Less inspire and more spur.


orts, scraps and fragments

A collected poems was just published. In time the sweepings of the famous poet’s fragments and unfinished work will be published.

peer review

A poet-critic who was a little too politic.


interchangeable counterparts

Titles and last lines are more alike than different. Typically both try to do too much.


meteor strike

To drop an improbable word within a line a poetry.


invisible hand

A poet is the reverse of a chess-player. He not only doesn’t see the piece and the board, he doesn’t see his own hand—which indeed may not be there.

—Marina Tsvetaeva, from title essay of Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 2010), introduced and translated by Angela Livingstone, p. 153.


secured rooms

When I first heard of blockchain technology, I immediately thought of a strong poem in stanzas.


alt audience

Her poems would only appeal to an uncommon reader.


scale and duration

Pure technical mastery on a large scale or over a long period always commands admiration.


carriage return

Old enough to remember the manual typewriter and the sound of the carriage return bar, throwing the line back against the wall of the left margin, where it would once more have to fight its way forward.



A language like English will always try to eat the choicest parts of foreign languages.