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.