wary of the way forward

When it came to advanced practices in poetry and the arts, he was avant-guarded.


white goat with ribbon & bell

Emily Dickinson had an amazing imagination, but so did her nephew, who came home from school one day in tears, having been berated by his teacher—perhaps even whacked—for having told the class about the white goat who lived in the attic. He was attacked for being a dreamer, a liar, someone who made things up. Upon hearing this, Emily was furious, beside herself with fury, and said that the teacher could come to the house and see for herself the white goat in the attic, for indeed it lived there, Emily had seen it, there it was, munching a pile of grass under the beams.

This anecdote is the only thing I remember from reading a five-hundred-plus-page biography of the poet. I am not even vaguely interested in the men, or the women, or any of that other stuff; I’m interested in the goat, whom I love as if it were mine own, and though I don’t have an attic, I have a place in my head where it can live, and go on living, as I feed it daily with mounds of fresh cut grass. Over the years, it has been given a blue ribbon round its neck, from which dangles a silver bell.

—Mary Ruefle, On Imagination (Sarabande Books, Quarternote Chapbook Series #13, 2017)


no type

A poem that resisted the stasis of the printed page.


twice removed

A poet’s poet’s poet.


slipped the system

A word that had escaped the care, custody and control of the language.


dig site

The critic approached a poem like the site of an archeological dig. Much time, care and cataloging was involved in unearthing its artifacts.


against artifice

The poets I most admire need no artifice.

[The language itself being a necessary artifice.]


well-stocked inventory

The poem was like entering a store filled floor to ceiling with racks of good words.


winslow homer

The consummate designer of the great compositions based his design upon the same acute observation that delights us in the sketches; the brilliant sketcher, though he does not carry design to its ultimate perfection, is yet always a born designer, so that almost any one of his sketches has the possibility of a great picture in it, and his slightest note is a whole, not a mere fragment.

—Kenneth Cox, What is Painting?: Winslow Homer and Other Essays (W. W. Norton, 1988).


from another room

Allusions are the like voices half-heard from adjoining rooms.


life of lyn lifshin

A curious case. The compulsion to publish so much; everything seemingly. Long ago, as an editor of a litmag, facing the onslaught of those submissions...the overstuffed envelopes would show up even as one had just rejected the last batch. There were some gems therein. But it was also absurd: Was there some warehouse, full of long tables and typewriters, where low-paid workers typed poems in the style of Lyn Lifshin? The sheaves gathered every 30 minutes, wheeled on a cart into the folding department, then on to the envelope lickers, tongues hanging out, in the sealing department. A mail bag full of envelopes left on the loading dock, addressed to dozens of far-flung little magazines.

In another era would she have made her fame as one of the Instapoets?


sing it, speak it

From a documentary on Fairport Convention, a musician quoted Martin Carthy as saying, “The worst thing you could do to a folk song is not to sing it.”

The worst thing you could do to a poem is not to speak it.


whatever is of use

Poetry takes bits and pieces from all the arts, humanities and sciences.


disadvantaged appendage

My hand looks a little helpless without a pen.


describe or explain

The subject was science, and I heard a useful distinction made between ‘describing’ and ‘explaining’. The former is more open to alternative interpretations of what the thing/phenomenon is, showing us what there is to experience. The latter is more closed, trying to say why it is and why it is the way it is.


dull edge

He’s been describing himself as being cutting-edge for so long, you would think he’d have cut through something by now.


only into this

That form may be the only vessel into which this poem may be poured.


no explanation for it

If you want to annoy a poet, explain his poetry.

—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes: Practical and Philosophical Aphorisms (Random House, 2016)


crosscut saw

The right margin is a serrated edge, and this poem is going saw you in half.


top down

Fire the CEO…meaning: drop the title.


happening in there

Psychiatry and psychology take the study of emotions seriously, but poetry is the lab of emotions.


not entirely comfortable

The kind of word that looks a little worried sitting there in a line of poetry.


that poem

The poet suspected he might have to invent a new language in order to write the poem.


our logos and the cosmos

In Heraclitus’ fragments, the structure of language, the structure of thought, and the structure of the cosmos itself are all underpinned by a hidden logos. First, there is spoken logos, which humans possess, then there is the logos of the cosmos, which is silent. The correct articulation of the former leads to the revelation of the latter.

—Andrew Hui, A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter (Princeton U. Press, 2019)


going beyond

Whether by nuance or audacity, all great poems outstrip the resources of their language.


one who knows the logos

Poet, be a language god.


fashion hound

An editor who favored the fashion of the times over that poetry which defied its times.


poet materializes

When he introduced himself as a poet, the other party nodded his head, his eyes unfocused, trying to imagine what exactly that meant.


late to the train

[Poet], on whose train all are late...

—Marina Tsvetaeva, "Poets", translated by Ilya Shambat


far shore

Sometimes the line you want to write is vaguely seen, like a far shore.


there for your protection

The Editors: Were they the gatekeepers or the quality control department?


forward regardless

A poet doesn’t stop writing because no one is paying attention.


armature inside

An image that would construct a poem around itself.



different knowing

Peter Lamarque, in his essay on ‘Poetry and Abstract Thought’, writes that readers of poetry ‘attend far more closely, and in a different way from philosophy, to the process of thought’. Such a process, rather than being one of logical connections, may be one of sound and syntax, rhythm and accent, of sense sparked by the collocations and connotations of words. For those, too, may become a form of ‘knowing’. John Gibson changes the verb when he writers, for instance, that literary works ‘represent ways of acknowledging the world rather than knowing it’. But I suggest that we should keep the idea of ‘knowing’ in play, in order to force it to include process and replay, wonder and unknowing, seeing and listening. To help us to know differently, in all the word-bound, sound-bound, rhythm-bound ways of poetic language, is what poetry, as opposed to philosophy, can offer.

—Angela Leighton, “Poetry’s Knowing,” The Philosophy of Poetry (Oxford U. Press, 2015), edited by John Gibson.


two thirds done

I thought I wasn’t very far along reading the academic book, then I realized the last third of the book was notes, bibliography and index.


worthy writer

When I come across a passage worth quoting, I’m content to be a scribe.


see through

The agon of the unfinished: I see it, I see through it, I cannot see it through.


not a blush

A writer who could not be embarrassed by anything he’d written, therefore he was destined to go unred. (sic)


strike out a path

They say that poetry dies; poetry cannot die. Had she only one human brain for her asylum she would yet endure for ages, for she would burst forth like the lava of Vesuvius and strike out a path through the most prosaic realities.

George Sand, Thoughts and Aphorisms from Her Works (Morrison & Gibb Ltd., second edition 1912), arranged by Alfred H. Hyatt


not a glance

The problem with most long poems is that the poet is never looking back.


single line

What prose masks with explanation, poetry exposes in the stroke of a line.


get ready for praise

The occasional poem: a poet’s chance to shine among his contemporaries.


path not theory

Walk this way: Bloom asked you to read this way.


things about

The poem is the cry of its occasion,
Part of the res itself and not about it.
The poet speaks the poem as it is,

Not as it was: part of the reverberation
Of a windy night as it is, when the marble statues
Are like newspapers blown by the wind. He speaks

By sight and insight as they are. There is no
Tomorrow for him. The wind will have passed by,
the statues will have gone back to be things about.

—Wallace Stevens, from “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” The Auroras of Autumn (1950)

[This afternoon was the twenty-fourth annual Wallace Stevens Birthday Bash. The guest speaker, Langdon Hammer, featured the poem “An Ordinary Evening…” in his talk entitled The Virtual Stevens.]


no time for games

These were not the days for language play.


hall of all hallows

A great library to some is a temple of immortal spirits. On another it strikes as a most melancholy charnel-house of souls.

F. H. Bradley, Aphorisms (Oxford, 1930)


low profile

Among the approved occupations after being put into witness protection is being a poet.


something that happens to you

[Alice] Neel liked quoting, with amusement, a strange remark made to her by Malcolm Cowley: “The trouble with you Alice, is you’re not romantic.” In truth, she was capital R Romantic in a very late, modern way: starched by experience. Art was not a refuge for her—she had no refuges, only respites. It was her life lived by other means, in which she enjoyed some moment-to-moment control. Rather than reflect on the preemptory realities of other people, she took them head-on, turning their force around and sending it back out. At times, every brushstroke can feel like a victory, against tall odds, of high humor fringed with deadly seriousness. Lots of celebrated twentieth-century art has seemed dated and tame lately. Not Neel’s, which, beyond being something to look at, is something that happens to you.

—Peter Schjeldahl, “Alice Neel,” Hold, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings, 1998-2018 (Abrams Press, 2019)


walk this way

It was not just meter, it felt like the poet’s footsteps.


keep coming back

At AA meetings they have a mantra used to challenge each other: Keep coming back. At poetry readings the same mantra should be thrown out to the group: Keep coming back.


belongs here

No poem can escape a critical cubby-hole.


trusting translation

Reading a translation is a matter of trust. At least one must trust that a good amount of craft and poetic sensibility went into making the translation.


fish bone

That line was like a fish bone, suddenly sticking in your throat.


just once

You were famous—infamous some might say—for never seeing a movie more than once.

That’s right.

But now that you have—

More time? I still don’t look at movies twice. It’s funny, I just feel I got it the first time. With music it’s different, although I realize that sometimes with classical works, I listen to them with great enthusiasm and excitement the first time, but I’m not drawn to listen to them again and again. Whereas with pop, it’s just the reverse. Give me Aretha singing “A Rose is Just a Rose,” and I can play it all day long. I can’t explain that.

Afterglow: A last conversation with Pauline Kael (De Capo Press, 2002), intro and interview by Francis Davis


his darlings murdered

A writer who lived off his kill fees.


near sighted

It was all close-to-home writing.


kelp diver

He had delved so deeply into the poem that he felt submerged in the text, a diver with the alphabet twisting upward around him like kelp.


mouthpiece mort

The poet presumes to speak for the dead.


star from the start

The attractive beauty of an inchoate poem.


pleasure reading

An hour won. Dryden’s Epistles read for pleasure September night windy, dark, warm, and I have read the Epistles of Dryden.

Reading these Epistles which have no connection with my work and little with my ideas, have given me a happy sense of my own leisure. Who has the necessary time and vacancy of mind to read Dryden’s Epistles for pleasure in 1927? or to copy out extracts from them into a Commonplace Book? Or to write out more often than is necessary the words: Dryden, Epistles, Dryden’s Epistles? No one but me and perhaps Siegfried Sassoon.

E.M. Forster, Commonplace Book (Stanford U. Press, 1985), edited by Philip Gardner


cruel and unusual

But for the law against cruel and unusual punishment, I’m sure many prison libraries would love to own this book of poems.


easy writer

Writers don’t fear their facility even though it’s that talent which most threatens their true work.


marking / making

A couple tables away in a café, I watched as a young woman scribbled intently in an ordinary spiral notebook…markings/makings of a new world.


carrying case

Thousands of years from Homer or Sappho and we can still carry around poems in our heads.


end or beginning

Was it the last line of this poem, or the first line of the next?


a way of truth

Thus, as Crispin says, no man can “think one thing and think it long.” At best, all man’s trivial tropes can do is reveal a way of truth. And the early Stevens sought for aphoristic techniques to make those tropes sound as fragmentary—as “trivial”—as possible.

Beverly Coyle, A Thought to be Rehearsed: Aphorism in Wallace Stevens’s Poetry (UMI Research Press, 1983)


strings and stick figures

Poet, treat the alphabet as so many puppets commanded by your hands.


after dante

In the middle of the poem which is life I found myself within a dark woods.


running short on everything

Stunted lines, stinted vocabulary.



He thought of poetry as one of the staples of life.


skeleton key

The least line of text in his hands became a skeleton key able to open a trove of associations.


condition of poetry

Interestingly, three of the major writerly features of the pieces in Tender Buttons are alliteration, rhyme, and repetition, mainstays of poetry. Are these the fixed points around which the apparent chaos of those separate words attempt to dance? Indeed, much of Stein’s difficult work inclines toward the condition of poetry…


Finally it was impossible: the meaning, the associated emotion, could not be destroyed. It could be baffled but no annihilated. Unlike the paint [re Cezanne] that became apples and mountains, or within both simply shapes on the flat inflexible surface of a canvas, words cling to their meanings. And the mind of the listener also clings to meaning. She told [interviewer Robert Bartlett] Haas:

   I took individual words and thought about them
   until I got their shape and volume complete and
   put them next to another word and at the same
   time I found out very soon that there is no such
   thing as putting them together without sense. I
   made innumerable efforts to make words write
   without sense and found it impossible. Any human
   being putting down words had to make sense
   out of them.

—Lawrence Raab, “Remarks as Literature: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein,” Why Don’t We Say What We Mean? (Tupelo Press, 2018)


go on from here or end

A poem whereby any line from here on could be either the next line or the last.


poem from nothing

It’s dangerous when you can pluck a poem out of thin air. To be able to find a poem in any situation, generated from the least stimulus.


renegade language

Poetry as lawless language.


melting into wall

The fate of the painting was, over time and by inattention, to become part of the wall upon which it was hung.


noticed or resistant to notice

Nothing is beneath notice, though some things resist being recorded.


perfectly useless concentration

What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.

[Letter from Elizabeth Bishop to Anne Stevenson]

One Art: Letters by Elizabeth Bishop, selected and edited by Robert Giroux (FSG, 1995)


nothing to work with

It was the kind of poem that didn't deserve revision. Nothing of its subject justified further effort.


astonishing turn

Another page, another chance to astonish.


words will be there

A poet is not one to ever despair of words.


pall over opening night

Sadly we must report that the playwright died in a struggle over Chekhov’s gun.


writing gewgaws

Postmodernism permits the poet to be inspired by insipid things.


ideal flower

In [Mallarmé's] preface to René Ghil’s Traité du Verbe (Treatise on the Word, 1886), he said that his aim was to perceive, beyond a real flower, the ideal flower that can never be found in this world: “Je dis: une fleur! et, hors de l’oubli où ma voix relègue aucun contour, en tant que quelque chose d’autre que les calices sus, musicalement se lève, idée même et suave, l’absente de tous bouquets” (I say: a flower! and, out of the oblivion into which my voice consigns any real shape, as something other than petals known to man, there rises, harmoniously and gently, the ideal flower itself, the one that is absent from all earthly bouquets).



goodbye to all that

In part regret and part relief, she was a person who was no longer a poet.


admired if not loved

Alexander Pope is not a poet one loves. But Pope lives on by quotable verse that sings and stings.


against fiat

Critical reputations are made on grand claims. Yet I’m suspicious of all grand claims, finding hedged hypotheses sufficient to most subjects, conjectures able to brush past any exceptions.


emcee bounce

The best open mike emcee I knew also worked as a bouncer at a blow-out bar down the street. He would cross his thick arms over his chest and make eye contact with a poet going over his time. The poet would stop mid-word and slink off the stage.


clear, real, true

There are facts that have the impact of poems.


word sounds

Let me repeat my conclusion: sounds in practical language (practical verbal thinking) don’t possess independent value, they don’t draw our attention, and we are not consciously aware of them. In poetic language (poetic verbal thinking), conversely, sounds do become the focus of our attention; they acquire independent value, and we become consciously aware of them.


Mikhail Lermontov, too, provides compelling evidence on this topic. He frequently writes of the sounds of words, separating them from their meanings. Thus, a variant of his poem “Angel” reads:

   The soul settled down amid earthly creation
   But it felt estranged in this world.
   Of one thing only it dreamed: sacred sounds,
   Their meaning it did not remember.

L. P. Yakubinsky, On Language and Poetry (Upper West Side Philosophers, 2018), translated by Michael Eskin


suit brought before

A political poem is a lawsuit brought before the court of history.


forever young song

He loved that poem inordinately, like an old song from his youth.


amateur maker

Bless and pity the amateurs in art and in poetry. So moved they are by art, they want to try to make it.


poet of a certain age

If you call poetry ‘verse’ you immediately mark yourself as retrograde.


no discrimination

What a Paradise for poets the Great World would be, if any discrimination were made between fine gold and brass.

Logan Pearsall Smith, All Trivia: A Collection of Reflections and Aphorisms (Ticknor & Fields, 1961), forward by Gore Vidal. [p 170]


shut in

What a terrible lot to realize one has been taxonomized, thereby shunted and dismissed, into a particular literary movement or mode.


fully less

A luxuriant style, ascetic only in terms of content.


category angst

Definitions and their discontents.


run over

That pang of disappointment felt when you turn a page expecting another poem, only to realize that the one you were reading hasn’t ended.


beauty can't be stopped

The setting for Linda Gregg’s poem “Fragments” is an underground subway car, late at night in the city. The speaker observes the pathos and unglamorous fatigue of the other riders. We’ve been here before, we readers, in life as well as in literature. Yet the abstract assertion in line five, when we encounter it, gathers the entire scene into a unified magnetic field:

   You can’t call the exhausted people on
   the 1 or 9 beautiful. Especially
   the drunk at the back yelling and stumbling
   and grabbing the pole gracefully just
   in time. Beauty has a strangeness.


Indeed, the poem's worldly descriptions are now changed, because they are filtered through the idea of beauty. We see that “Fragments” is making the case for a particular kind of beauty: the beauty of so-called ordinary reality, even in its most awkward, tawdry manifestations. Even in fatigue, asserts the poem, even in this flawed impoverished setting, beauty makes its appearances. Beauty cannot be stopped.

—Tony Hoagland, “Say It. Say it.” The Art of Voice (Norton, 2019)


deep seething

An important but unfinished poem, like a long dormant volcano, might erupt at any time.


true or trending

There is a real audience and a manufactured audience. The latter will not stay with the author even over her/his lifetime.


one hundred

If you can’t name one hundred poets, then you can’t say you have even partial knowledge of contemporary poetry.


serious about books

I’m not saying he was overzealous about keeping his library intact, but his bookplate featured a human skull overwritten with the words:
‘Under Penalty of Death
Return this Book to X’.


patterns and pairs

A poetry that was a matter of pattern and pairings.


above the sway of things

[Narrator: the painter Masuji Ono, grown old.]
‘Being at Takeda’s,” I told them, ‘taught me an important lesson early in my life. That while it was right to look up to teachers, it was always important to question their authority. The Takeda experience taught me never to follow the crowd blindly, but to consider carefully the direction in which I was being pushed. And if there’s one thing I’ve tried to encourage you all to do, it’s been to rise above the sway of things. To rise above the undesirable and decadent influences that have swamped us and have done so much to weaken the fibre of our nation these past ten, fifteen years.’ No doubt I was a little drunk and sounded rather grandiose, but that was the way those sessions around that corner table went.

‘Indeed, Sensei,’ someone said, ‘we must all remember that. We must all endeavor to rise above the sway of things.’

—Kazuo Ishiguro, The Artist of the Floating World (Vintage International, 1989)


title bigger than the book

The more grand and encompassing its title, the less likely it is that the anthology adequately contains the important writing of its time.


another unexpected poem

Poets say they don’t know where poems come from, right before writing another one.


meaning what

A poem of semantic antics.


shooting script

Poem as script to be enacted by the reader.


putting poets aside

And so a gathering like this of ours, when it includes such men as most of us claim to be, requires no extraneous voices, not even of the poets, whom one cannot question on the sense of what they say; when they are adduced in discussion we are generally told by some that the poet thought so and so, and by others, something different, and they go on arguing about a matter which they are powerless to determine. No, this sort of meeting is avoided by men of culture, who prefer to converse directly with each other, and to use their own way of speech in putting one another by turns to the test. It is this sort of person that I think you and I ought rather to imitate; putting the poets aside, let us hold our discussion together in our own persons, making trial of the truth and of ourselves.

—Socrates in Plato’s Protagoras (Leob classical edition, W.R.M. Lamb translation)


and it is me

I found the perfect reader for my poem, and it was me: Only I could see all the nuances, subtleties, allusions packed into the poem.


stage over page

In almost all cases hearing a poet read in person will sway me more toward his/her work.


lightly read

It was the kind of publication that had no readers except for those contributors who bothered to read their own work upon publication, checking the piece for typos.


make and mark

The artist creates, and the audience defines.


sweet disorder in the dress

Poetry will forever be too motley for dress of definition.


song elevates

At its best song elevates equally the music and the words.


no rush

He was never accused of rushing to publish.


recognizes no borders

Poetry is like a bird, it ignores all frontiers.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Quoted July 2, 1967)


ready reader

A reader of poetry must develop some tolerance for incoherence.


ars longa

Always there are writers who won’t survive their discovery phase.


crux of the matter

There must be a crux: A place in the poem where some act or scene is shown to have consequence or significance we could characterize as poetic.


brought from the world

The best poetry is found not in language but in the world; so that the poem by means of language becomes what was brought back, with consonant effect, from the world.


not ever pure

Guillén was aware that, whatever else, purely poetic poetry would be quite boring. And something more serious: it was linguistically impossible since language is by nature impure. A “pure poetry” would be one in which language had ceased to be language.

—Octavio Paz, “Jorge Guillén,” On Poets and Others (Arcade Publishing, 1986), translation by Michael Schmidt.


one way

One door: Wonder.


end and beginning

As I closed the book I sensed that a face turned from me to drift toward another reader.


line breeder

The lines seemed to breed one after another as though endless in their lineage.


words lifted on high

To be quoted is the apotheosis of anything said or written.


blake beginning to end blake

Blake began and ended in Blake.

—Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman Speaks (Library of America, 2019), edited by Brenda Wineapple

[Late in Walt Whitman’s life he had the good fortune to meet Horace Traubel. Traubel became devoted to Whitman and over a period of some years faithfully recorded Walt Whitman’s musings on a wide variety of subjects. Eventually 9 volumes of Whitman as recorded by Traubel were published, the last two volumes not published until 1966. Brenda Wineapple has distilled and organized this vast body of material into a single volume, grouping Whitman’s thoughts under headings like Reading, Leaves of Grass, Sex, History, Lincoln, My Philosophy, etc. The above remark by Whitman comes from the section “Writers.”]


mucked hand

What poker players can teach poets is that many more hands should be folded rather than played.


played close to the verse

Know that this poem will die with its secrets.


that poem again

The poem the poet was remembered by versus the poem the poet wished to be remembered by.

[Of the former, I'm thinking of Randall Jarrell and "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner".]


awaken the words

Miss Stein is bringing back life to our language by what appears, at first, to be an anarchic process. First she breaks down the predestined groups of words, their sleepy family habits; then she rebrightens them, examines their texture, and builds them into new and vital shapes.

—Edith Sitwell, Poetry and Criticism (Hogarth Essays No.11, Hogarth Press, 1925)


life stuff

Caution: Don’t try I-do-this-I-do-that poetry unless your life is like Frank O’Hara’s.


seen from a window

Sometimes finding the words is a matter of turning away from the page and looking out the window. Sometimes it requires leaving the building and going for a walk.



Each word was a well of associations.


for the ages

He said he wrote for the ages and it was true he did do a lot of readings in elder-care facilities.


world wins

It’s a given that the poem as written will never match the world as experienced.


found dance

For many days no movement came to me. And then one day came the thought: These columns which seem so straight and still are not really straight, each one curving gently from the base to the height, and each one is in flowing movement, never resting, and the movement of each is in harmony with the others. And as I thought this my arms rose slowly toward the Temple and I leaned forward—and then I knew I had found my dance, and it was a Prayer.
“The Parthenon”
I have noticed that when I introduce any innovation into my art, the music critics insult me in the same terms which they employ ten years later to honor my imitators.
"Fragments and Thoughts"

—Isadora Duncan, The Art of the Dance (Theatre Arts Books, 1969)

[This is a lovely book, nicely illustrated with drawings and photos. And I enjoyed reading Duncan’s thoughts on dance and art more generally. I was particularly interested in her emphasis on dance as natural expression (versus ballet being against nature and harming the body). However, there are a few racist notions in this book, I’m afraid.]


figure off-center

Poet, stand apart…and take your place in the world.


relative value

This one stanza was equal to a thousand other poems.


realistic demand curve

The good thing about print-on-demand is that the poet can’t imagine an audience that doesn’t exist.


prevailing wind

A poet who was a weathervane of the zeitgeist.


proper order

To write a perfect poem you would first have to invent its perfect reader.


poetry camp

Grandmother, when can I go to poetry camp?

What in the hell is poetry camp?

Where a bunch of teenage girls go into the woods to write poetry.

I know what teenage girls do in the woods and it’s not poetry.

—Marilyn Chin, from “Poetry Camp,” A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems (Norton, 2018)


prolonged second

An instant lasting centuries: To write a haiku with a long half-life.


poem made known

If it gets lodged in your throat, if you choke-up speaking it aloud, it’s a poem.


eyes open

Poet, even during sleep, don’t close your eyes.


after and late

A poet so prone to the elegiac one wondered had he ever lived.


sieve for a poem

Zazen and poetry are both studies of the mind. I find the internal pressure exerted by emotion and by a koan to be similar in surprising and unpredictable ways. Zen is a wonderful sieve through which to pour a poem. It strains out whatever's inessential.

—Chase Twichell, interview Tricycle magazine, Fall 2003.


it was

Poetry of a very high order.


speaking role

A poet who won’t be shouted down.


acute hearing

A poet hears what the universe whispers.


promise of more

It had the vague outlines of a sublime poem.

poetic setting

It didn’t matter how good the poetry was, because I was listening to poetry sitting in the shade of a tree tousled by the breeze.


chance encounter

Poetic determinism: Is that a red flag?

[graffiti encountered today in a hallway at Meow Wolf in Santa Fe]


images over ideas

In writing to [L.W.] Payne about “Domination of Black,” [Wallace Stevens] said, “I am sorry that a poem of this sort has to contain any ideas at all, because its sole purpose is to fill the mind with images… A mind that examines such a poem for its prose content gets absolutely nothing from it.”

Wallace Stevens, quoted from Letters of Wallace Stevens, in a A Thought to be Rehearsed: Aphorism in Wallace Stevens’s Poetry (UMI Research Press, 1983) by Beverly Coyle, p. 45.


spiritual practice

When he was asked his religion, he answered that he practiced Poetry.


beyond all that

Very little of what is in a grammar book or a style guide makes any difference to a poet.


time mired

One of those formalists mired in time.


thing itself

When writing a ‘thing poem’ the prop is the prompt.


known unknown

Save me from the celebrity poet: Give me the ignored poet, uneasy with attention, that’s who I want to read.


knew only the new

A great critic smitten with what’s au courant while lacking a sense for what is universal in poetry.


puzzles me most

Though scarcely a confessional poet I write about my life. Impossible not to, really, since it’s what puzzles me most. The lyric voice permits me to acknowledge that, when I write about frames, I may also be writing about my life and, conversely, though I write about what looks like my life I might as well write about any object that is both discrete and amenable, cordial and solitary. Much as any person is. Much as a frame tends to be.

Of the letters of the alphabet, only one works as a perfect frame. It is the O of the gold frame of Michelangelo’s ‘Doni Tondo’, of the mouth of Beckett’s Not I, the o of omphalos and origin, of globe and moon, of look and book, of for and good. Of open and store. Of close and lose. Of hole and whole. Of do and don’t. Of hold and go. Of no and not. Of alone and know and so and old and, yes, love.

—Vona Groarke, Four Sides Full (The Gallery Press, 2016)


x'ed libris

Dear Librarian, whenever you must unburden your shelves of some books, let me offer that I prefer to find the word WITHDRAWN stamped on the inside cover, rather than the harsher DISCARDED.


fast start

He wrote all his best poems before he was twenty.


first 4-8

By the first 4 to 8 lines the reader will be either all-in or will be looking for that exit line that lets him/her out.


pack only the essentials

A haiku travels light, through centuries.


write differently

The fundamental experience of the writer is helplessness. This does not mean to distinguish writing from being alive: it means to correct the fantasy that creative work is an ongoing record of the triumph of volition, that the writer is someone who has the good luck to be able to do what he or she wishes to do: to confidently and regularly imprint his being on a sheet of paper. But writing in not decanting of personality. And most writers spend much of their time in various kinds of torment: wanting to write, being unable to write; wanting to write differently, being unable to write differently.

—Louise Glück, Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (Ecco, 1994, p. 3)


your one life

The audacious courage by which one lives a life wholly as an artist.


ex nihilo

Why is it necessary that a fragment suggests a whole?


only the poem

Poet, never talk of publishing, speak only of poems.


after witt

Every line in the poem needn’t be equally understood; some lines you just have to pass over in silence and without question.


from everything

I took wild honey from the plants,
I took salt from the waters, I took light from the sky.
Listen, my brothers, I took poetry from everything.

—Jorge de Lima, opening lines of “The Distribution of Poetry, The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (Ecco, 2010), edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris.


decorative library

The hotel lobby had many bookshelves but the books were turned so that the spines were facing in, facing the wall, as though their titles and authors mattered not, and their purpose was merely decorative like any wall covering.


written storm

Online publishing as furor scribendi.


poem qua poem

The poem in its current state is the poem.


book bludgeon

A critic who likes to remind the reader how much better the old books are than the new ones.


glint of that unlimited vastness

Both in art and in literature, the function of the frame is fundamental. It is the frame that marks the boundary between the picture and what is outside. It allows the picture to exist, isolating it from the rest; but at the same time, it recalls—and somehow stands for—everything that remains out of the picture. I might venture a definition: we consider poetic a production in which each individual experience acquires prominence through its detachment from the general continuum, while it retains a kind of glint of that unlimited vastness.

—Italo Calvino, Letters, 1941-1985 (Princeton U. Press, 2013) selected and with an introduction by Michael Wood, translated by Martin McLaughlin



She has attracted the large audience she deserves.


make it happen

He was a poetry hustler.


too much and then more

As a poet he tended to over-describe. After reading his books you had brush the adjectives off your lap.


shadow, vibration, whiff...

The word ‘poetry’ is used as an exaltation or as an honorific in many arts. But for its practitioners poetry is just something that haunts the final piece.


weight training

Some poets are weighed down by the heavy mantle of their early awards and praise, others gain strength and seem to shrug off the burden of their notoriety.


new into old

[André] Chénier also experimented from early youth in didactic and philosophic verse, and when he commenced his Hermès in 1783 his ambition was to condense the Encyclopédie of Diderot into a poem somewhat after the manner of Lucretius. This poem was to treat of man’s position in the Universe, first in an isolated state, and then in society. It remains fragmentary, and though some of the fragments are fine, its attempt at scientific exposition approximates too closely to the manner of Erasmus Darwin to suit a modern ear. Another fragment called L’Invention sums Chénier’s Ars Poetica in the verse “Sur des pensers nouveaux, faisons des vers antiques.” ["From new thoughts, let us make antique verses"]

[1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chénier, André de]


that's it then

He had a talent for titles, but the poem itself seldom measured up.


dropped net

The poem is a net dropped into the universe.


five year mark

It took me two years to find the book, and three more before I finished reading it.


shadow world

Most superstitions are poetic.


content first

What matters to me even more than the shapeliness and the dance of language is what the poem discovers deeper down than the gracefulness and pleasures in figures of speech. I respond most to what is found out about the heart and spirit, what we can hear through the language. Best of all, of course, is when the language and other means of poetry combine with the meaning to make us experience what we understand. We are most likely to find this union by starting with the insides of a poem rather than with its surface, with its content rather than with its packaging. Too often in workshops and classrooms there is a concentration on the poem’s garments instead of its life blood.

Linda Gregg, American Poet (2001)


lector liberalis

A critic is a reader who takes liberties with the text.


path of half-truths

There are hundreds of ways for a poem to fail, but the easiest course is to falsify.


strains of thought

There was music in the meditation.


piñata poem

Sitting in the workshop hearing the others critique his poem he began to visualize them as blind-folded children flailing at the air, trying to strike the piñata in hopes it would spill some candy and trinkets at their feet.

looking past the crowd

An artist doesn’t mistake audience for achievement.


glistening still

We thought the blood thinned, our weight
lessened, that our substance was reduced
by simple happiness. The oleander is thick
with leaves and flowers because of spilled
water. Let the spirit marry the heart.
When I return naked to the stone porch,
there is no one to see me glistening.
But I look at the almond tree with its husks
cracking open in the heat. I look down
the whole mountain to the sea. Goats bleating
faintly and sometimes bells. I stand there
a long time with the sun and the quiet,
the earth moving slowly as I dry in the light.

—Linda Gregg, from "Glistening"

[My friend the poet Linda Gregg died in the early hours of yesterday.]


too late to alter

If you tried to rewrite this old poem, it would be tantamount to trying to rewrite your life.


more than a game

Dharani, in Japan, means the practice of reciting certain passages from Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit, without translation, which is said to endow the reciter with a range of virtues. “Rhetoric” (kigyo) is regarded as one of the ten evils in Buddhism as noted earlier. Shinkei, then, equated poetry with Buddhism in absolute terms, and did not even allow the suggestion that poetry may be fiction.

It may be said that the effort to find spiritual grace in poetry peaked more or less with Shinkei, a renga poet and therefore Bashō’s predecessor. At any rate, it was this tradition that affected Bashō as he strove to elevate poetry to something more than a game.

—Hiroaki Sato, On Haiku (New Directions, 2018)


hidden lines

A poem taking advantage of the camouflage afforded by the paragraph.


painted sign

A half-worn sign on a brick wall is a kind of found poem.


double or nothing

The poet said he was paid zero for his last reading, so he needed to charge me something. I offered to double what he was paid for his last reading. He went silent on the phone…I guess he was considering my offer.


sense of an ending

Sometimes the poem must end on an unsatisfying last line.


solve for x

To think of the poem as an algebraic formula that has both constants (images) and variables (metaphors).


not all but each

If it were possible to define in a phrase the place Cernuda occupies in modern Spanish-language poetry, I would say he is the poet who speaks not for all, but for each one of us who makes up the all. And he wounds us in the core of that part of each of us “which is not called glory, fortune, or ambition” but the truth of ourselves.

—Octavio Paz, On Poets and Others (Arcade Publishing, 1986), translation by Michael Schmidt.



The first line was a feint.


make quick work of

Be suspicious of what you finish easily.


twisting tolstoy

Bad poems are all alike; every good poem is good in its own way.


service first

Stop trying to save poetry and start trying to see how you might serve poetry.


the plunge

I would think of history—and the varieties of language that ride with it—as a vast resource into which one plunges with energy, comparable to sexual energy, demanding and focusing all one’s vitalities. Following this, there is a second phase, which I learned absolutely from Charles Olson: History is important only insofar as it impinges on the present. First, the plunge, the descent into hell, the near-drowning, if you wish; then the return to the surface. Because, if you drown, who cares? And if you don’t plunge, who cares?

— Paul Metcalf, “The Poet and History,” Paul Metcalf, Collected Works, Vol. III, 1987-1997 (Coffee House Press, 1997)


voice advantage

He had the kind of voice that could make pedestrian verses strut.


bottom drops out

Until it’s too late, a reader can’t be certain that a space or a pause in the poem is not an abyss.


one and same

Often narcissist and poet fail to resist synonym.


sum of its form

The fault of certain formalists is to think the poem is the sum of its formal elements.


touch of a lover

Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.

—Plato, The Republic


up to the chin

The poet wades into words unafraid of what the depths hold.


core sample

A poem that was like a core sample of one’s soul.


missed exit

As the poem proceeded you could almost see the poet glancing back at the perfect ending he’d blown by.


new idiom

Like carrying coals to Newcastle. Like bringing poets to Brooklyn.


ringing in your ears

Pantoum the bell tolls…it tolls for you and you again and again…


make a great noise

“Romanticism is the fear of looking truth in the eyes,” [Tolstoi] said last night, speaking of Balmont’s poems. Suler did not agree with him, and read some of them with great feeling, lisping in his agitation.

“That’s not poetry, Lyovushka, it’s charlatanism, nonsense, mere senseless word-spinning. Poetry is artless. When Fet wrote:
     What I will sing, I know not,
     But my song will swell within me,
he expressed the true feeling of the people about poetry. The muhzik, too, knows not what he sings; he just sings oh! and ah! and ai-da-mi! and out comes a true song, straight from the soul, as the bird sings. Your new poets do nothing but invent.


Going through the mail:
“They make a great noise, they write, and when I die—they’ll say a year after: ‘Tolstoi? Wasn’t that the Count who went in for shoe-making, and then something or other happened to him?’”

—quoted from “Lev Tolstoi,” a series of remembrances by Gorky, in Maxime Gorky: On Literature (U. of Washington Press, 1973).


drop trap

Books are just cages that get dropped over writing.


more lighght

The teacher had assigned the technique of ‘erasure’ as a means of creating a new text from an existing one. A lazy student picked Saroyan’s ‘lighght’ as his target text, and ended with ‘ghgh’ as his finished text. Of course he could be awarded nothing less than an A.


drip, drip...

A critic who believed in trickle-down literature.


page count: one

A broadside equal to a whole book.


chance meeting

Always a pleasure to encounter a secret lover of poetry.


limited but unlimited

Another point made by the Institutionalists is that poetry should try to produce its effect by suggestion rather than direct statement or description. Yen Yü said that ‘poetry that does not concern itself with principles nor falls into the trammel of words is the best’, and that great poetry ‘has limited words but unlimited meaning’. It follows that the poet should not heap up too many realistic details but attempt to capture the spirit of things with a few quick strokes of the brush.

—James J. Y. Liu, The Art of Chinese Poetry (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966)


learning to read

It wasn’t that poem by poem the book got better, rather poem by poem you read them better.


taken aback

After reading her poem in the workshop group she could hear a scuffing sound as chairs pushed back a little ways from the table.


lesser line

For years you had a line of poetry running through your mind that was, you discovered, misremembered; now the actual line seems off and less well rendered.


critique carry forward

The critique of this poem may not matter; however, that critique may inform the next poem.


didn't see that coming

Tabula rasa, facing the blank page, then ex nihilo, the wonder of the poem that comes from nowhere you saw coming.


world deprived of metaphors

The unhappy consciousness must find a way out of this tension between Hegel’s rational (and reasonable) knowledge and Job’s total refusal to accept it. Poetry, Fondane believed, was perhaps the only option left and his reasoning can be summarized as follows: There was a time when there was no split in the human consciousness between the world in which one lived and acted and this other, parallel world created by the mind in its act of reflection upon the external world. At that time human thinking was a thinking of participation. As the rational, Socratic thinking (i.e., philosophy in the traditional sense) was born and began to evolve, this thinking of participation, existential thinking (not existentialist) began to retreat and diminish. But at the point of intersection of the two, thinking of participation and philosophical reflection, poetry came into being. Poetry is, thus, the refuge of the unhappy consciousness, the refuge offered to a being engaged in the confrontation with an all-pervading and domineering rationality. But poetry cannot be practiced in a world in which the literal dominates; a world in which there is a perfect match between the signified and the signifier, a world deprived of metaphors. Unfortunately, Fondane did not have the opportunity to explore further and develop this so promising idea.

—Michael Finkenthal, Benjamin Fondane: A poet-philosopher caught between the Sunday of History and the Existential Monday (Peter Lang, 2013), 59-60.


book once owned by

Inside the cover of this book I see written the previous owner’s name, “Brett Holt.” Brett, perhaps you are dead, that would be an excuse; or you were forced by circumstance to travel light, to get rid of most of your possessions, that would be a good enough reason, otherwise I don’t know how it was you ever parted with this book.


all or nothing

Even the experts couldn’t excerpt from his work.


first flowering

No flower is so beautiful as a poet holding and reading from a first book.


known unknown

One of those poems many readers knew about but the anthologies had yet to acknowledge.


genre fluid

The work was ‘transgenre’.


in my head

The intensity and thoroughness of his formal training, coupled with years of self-schooling, enabled him to separate the process of painting into stages: a generative, conceptual phase and an executive, process-oriented one. In the first he conceived the complete work almost in its entirety, much as an experienced chess player plans a number of strategies before making a move. In the second he would paint an entire canvas quickly, so that it retained the freshness of a wonderful accident. When asked, “How can you paint a big picture so quickly?” he replied, “because I’ve already painted it in my head…Just putting it on the canvas, that’s nothing."

“Milton Avery: The Late Paintings” by Robert Hobbs, Milton Avery: The Late Paintings (Harry N. Abrams, 2001).


desperate act

Revision often feels like shooting one’s horse.



come knocking

Reading the long poem, I thought to myself, Where is that man on business from Porlock when you need him to come knocking?


against self rule

Resist the tyranny of personal narrative.


this one, this one is it

Editors roll their eyes at those perpetual revisers. The author who sends him/her a dozen drafts of a single poem or story, each one supposedly a great improvement over the prior draft. As the galleys are being typeset, one more revision arrives, so clearly better than all that came before.