thought for the new year

There is a lot of nasty stuff in life which comes breaking up our ecstasy, our inheritance. People should read more poetry and dream their dreams.

—Muriel Spark, A Good Comb: The Sayings of Muriel Spark (New Directions, 2020), edited by Penelope Jardine


cosmic index

Just reading the book’s index delighted me with its far-flung references.


act / object

Is it an act or object?

[This is not a question you can ask of the poem.]


critical concern

The critic worried that after his take-down of the Apollonian poet he might be smitten with donkey ears.


tepid praise

I’m mildly interested in that kind of poetry, but not wildly.



The poem you will write.


teaching poets

You can be too good a teacher-poet: One begins being thought of as a better teacher but a lesser poet.


should end well

The main thing about a story is that it should end well, and perhaps it is not too much to say that a story’s ending casts its voice, color, tone and shade over the whole work.

—Muriel Spark, The Informed Air (New Directions, reprint 2018)


blindspot words

Words one has a blindspot for; for example, in my case: perspicuity.


bars not spines

He began to look upon the spines of the unread books as prison bars.


polyhedron box

The ‘box’ we call poetry is a polyhedron still building out new spaces.


bear with me

I think the poet decided to write a very long poem to test who among his readers were beyond discouragement.



Like any first words on the page, a title is a place to get started. The title shouldn't be considered sacred like a totem...it can be discarded at the whim of whatever words follow.


belongs neither

For [Luce] Irigaray, a philosophy that is also a wisdom of love requires a speech which is not ‘authoritarian’ or ‘pedagogical’. Instead, it should have as its aim the production of a ‘sharing’ between the speaker and the listener. When this occurs: ‘between the two something exists that belongs neither to the one nor to the other, nor moreover to any word. And this something must, in part, remain indeterminate’.

—Ben Grant, The Aphorism and Other Short Forms (Routledge, 2016) [quoted sections above come from Luce Irigaray’s The Way of Love (London and New York Continuum, 2002), translation by Heidi Bostic and Stephen Pluhàcek.]


thus spoken

Specifics accrue to the speaker's authority.


some go this way, some the other

A fork in one’s life: religion or art.


mood bias

Paying more attention to how my mood may influence my reaction to a work of art.


pooh pooh who are you

She was dismissive of Frost’s poetry…ha, ha (last laugh?).

[Thinking of Lisa Jarnot]


through poetry

Poetry, for me, has been a slow education. In the seductiveness of patterned sound. In sensory imagery as a relatively direct mode of thought. In the cryptic encoding and decoding of experience. Ultimately in the exhilarating and unexpected transmission of thought, fact, and feeling that are not only made possible through poetry, but are irrepressible in it.

—Roo Borson, Counterclaims: Poets and Poetries, Talking Back (Dalkey Archive Press, 2020)



A work of art that had no afterlife beyond the death of its creator.


it's all there

He reached a point where it was enough to compose the poem in his mind—no need to write it down.


literary props

His was a house stager’s library.


prompted by prufrock

In the barroom the men come and go
Talking of DiMaggio.


not alive until

One day, poetry saved my life.


its roots in language

The ontology of poetry is inextricably rooted in language itself.


didn't know that

Something I just learned today: The ‘literary piano’ was an early nickname for the typewriter.

[Later I heard the term 'alphabet piano' which I like even better.]


prose resolve

The prose we write about poems must try not to shrivel before the poems we write.

—Frank Bidart, Counterclaims: Poets and Poetries, Talking Back (Dalkey Archive Press, 2020), edited by H. L. Hix.


poem evident

A poem is evidence of human presence…no less than a fossilized footprint on a riverbank from prehistoric times.


far fort

A poet stationed at the outpost of a college town otherwise surrounded by hostiles.


so long longhand

Will I ever again return to writing longhand, and the pleasure of seeing the letters unfold slowly into words across the page. Nothing written can be taken back without crossing-out.


advantage poet

Philosophers and poets are both familiar with the power of the aphorism. Poets have an advantage because they’re not worried about justifying their assertions.


older and shorter

Variation on Pascal: If I was older I’d have written you a shorter poem.


no echoes

Slowly from nice neat letters;
doing things well
is more important than doing them.


Wake up singers!
Time for the echoes to end
and the voices to begin.


Quarreler, boxer
fight it out with the wind.
It’s not the fundamental I
that the poet is searching for
but the essential you.

—Antonio Machado, There is No Road (White Pine Press, 2003), Mary G. Berg and Dennis Maloney translators.


free from mirrors

In the spare and luminous language of Machado, we find extraordinary sensitivity to place and landscape, as well as a genuine feeling for local folklore and for song as a living tradition from which to learn. His poetry is not the poetry of closed rooms but that of the open air. Many of his poem were written as the result of long walks through towns and hillsides. He often entered the inner world by first penetrating the outer world of landscapes and objects. “It is,” Machado said, “in the solitude of the countryside that a man ceases to live with mirrors.”

From the preface by Mary G. Berg and Dennis Maloney to There is No Road (White Pine Press, 2003) by Antonio Machado.


no horizon

A poem in which you could see forever.


no limit

Writing at its best will not admit its limits in language.


dies in order to rise

In a certain sense the act of writing dies in print, then awaits resurrection by audience reaction.


dream imagination

One value of dreams is that they build confidence in the power of our imaginations.


escaped pen

Writing in bed: Too much scrabbling about the bedclothes searching for my pen.


close but not long

For a poet, all reading is close reading—which may explain why some of them have such difficulty getting through novels.

—Peter Robinson, Spirit of the Stair: Selected Aphorisms (Shearsman Books Ltd., 2009)


apology for political poetry

Someone will always be making apologies for political poetry.


drop zone

A poet doesn’t sit down to write so much as s/he must parachute over unknown territory.


spirit word

Isn’t the word ‘poem’ a spirit in the world?


let me tell you

Gamblers will let slip news of their recent winnings while being stoic and tight-lipped as regards to their long losing streaks, and it’s the same with writers and their acceptances against the larger accumulation of rejection slips.


posed poiesis

In Stevens’ poems all the important questions about poetry are posed.


etch in light

There is no way you can not have a poetics
no matter what you do: plumber, baker, teacher

you do it in the consciousness of making
or not making yr world
you have a poetics: you step into the world
like a suit of readymade clothes

or you etch in light
your firmament spills into the shape of your room
the shape of the poem, of yr body, of yr loves

—Diane di Prima, from "Rant"


naming rights

With his writing and publishing not going well, he hatched a scheme to begin copyrighting the works of Anonymous as his own.


no need to reach

When you observe common things closely they have an emphatic quality, a thusness that is like a charge around them and which is both beautiful and satisfying. To see the way the corners of the room meet or the light bounces off a floorboard is enough of a reason for life. Painters understand that the interesting object is the round glass, the box, the rusty down-pipe and that there is no need to reach for a meaning beyond what is visible. By their beauty, objects bring the eye of beholder into contact with infinity.

—John Tarrant, Bring Me the Rhinoceros (Shambhala Publications, 2008)


hey let's hangout and do art

For most artists isn’t collaboration a way to kill time between doing one’s own work.


things seen or heard

He didn’t write poems so much as he faithfully recorded what he saw and heard.


better in time

Among the dangerous notions is ‘the progress of the arts’.


word order

In Gertrude Stein’s writing the words are rather plain and generic while the rhetoric is particular when it’s not peculiar.


things therein

A poem that was a cabinet of curiosities


formerly acquainted with

He had a falling out with his ideal reader.


known rivers

I looked out the window of the Pullman at the great muddy river flowing down toward the heart of the South, and I began to think what that river, the old Mississippi, had meant to Negroes in the past—how to be sold down the river was the worst fate that could overtake a slave in times of bondage. Then I remembered reading how Abraham Lincoln had made a trip down the Mississippi on a raft to New Orleans, and how he had seen slavery at its worst, and had decided within himself that it should be removed from American life. Then I began to think about other rivers in our past—the Congo, and the Niger, and the Nile in Africa—and the thought came to me: “I’ve known rivers,” and I put it down on the back of an envelope I had in my pocket, and within the space of ten or fifteen minutes, as the train gathered speed in the dusk, I had written the poem, which I called “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

—Langston Hughes, The Big Sea, in The Langston Hughes Reader (G. Braziller, 1958).


local fame

He was famous in a group of about ten poets.


line lance

Poet, give spur to your charger and lower your line like a lance.


dancer, follow my lead

The poem should always be asking the reader to step up.


spill into silence

Epigraph for a commonplace book: Pity those with prodigious memories, for they have no need to record the gems found when reading, and when their lives are over their mind troves will spill into silence.


against foie gras

One’s notebook should not be force-fed.


coldest thing I ever felt

Sometimes I hear him typing, and often I hear a woodpecker and think it is he. He loves to canoe, and has been in the water, swimming slowly around for a time with a smile on his face, and remarking very gently after a bit, “Why Fairfield. It’s the coldest thing I ever felt.

—Fairfield Porter, “To Frank O’Hara, Aug 1 1955,” quoted in John T. Spike, Fairfield Porter: An American Classic (New York, Harry Abrams, 1992), 120.

[I encountered this quote in Douglas Crase’s AMERIFIL.TXT: A Commonplace Book (The Univ. of Michigan Press, 1996)]


until it turns

A poetic line begins but doesn’t have a known end, until it turns.


notes and chords

If language is our instrument, the words and phrases are our notes and chords.

[This cannot be a new thought.]


much greater thing

Almost every artist overestimates the impact and the influence of his/her art.


brain drain

After the Enlightenment the exegetes fled from the Bible to literature; hence we have scholarly critics.


image of note

    The mussel flats ooze out,
    And now the barnacles, embossed,
    Stacked rocks are pedestals for strangers,
    For my own strange sons,
    Scraping in the pools,
    Imperiling their pure reflections.

Anne Stevenson, from "With My Sons at Boarhills."


first rule of criticism

A critic must not corrupt the text with invented material.


body before book

He was still young enough to prefer taking someone’s body to bed rather than a book.


quote from the blue

With quoted entries ranging from the obscure to the random, it was an ‘uncommonplace book’.



Bad blurb: This book is the perfect bedside companion.


undisturbed philistine

[Printed on the complimentary bookmark from Blackwell’s, 50, 51 Broad Street, Oxford]
The famous Bookshop where generations of undergraduates and graduates, poets and philistines alike, have browsed to their hearts’ content undisturbed.
—The Sunday Times [no date given]

n.b.: I first read ‘philosophers’ for ‘philistines’ in the quote above. Attracting ‘poets and philosophers alike’ would be a better bit of advertising for the bookshop. What good is a browsed book that cannot disturb a philistine?


critic types

A thug critic, a theory critic, a thiswayandorthat critic.


cut through

It was no caesura, it was a scissor’s cut through the line.


play no favorites

No word held higher than another.


preferred experience

It was a poem I’d rather have read to me, than have had to read myself.


classically defined

‘Classical qualities, classical form’ are easy words to say. What exactly do they mean? They imply an idea of excellence; they imply also clearness, sobriety, the art of composition; they mean, finally, that reason, rather than imagination and sensibility, presides over the execution of the work, and that the writer dominates his material.

Jules Lemaître, “Guy De Maupassant,” Literary Impressions (Kennikat Press, 1971)


laid out in there

Old anthology with a charnel house for a contents page.


no rain

Block: Why will the letters not rain over the desert blankness of the page?


pressed poetry

Oppression makes poets. In the land of perfect liberty songs are not pressed out of the heart.

—Elia Peattie (8/14/96: 8)

[Emerson: Poems are expedients to get bread. (paraphrase)]


preferred if not perfect

As a critic he knew not to expect perfect, but he knew what to prefer.


against whiplash

Perhaps a prose poet gets tired of being jerked around by linebreaks.


wag and shrug

The poet shrugs as the grammarian wags a finger.


poetry speaking

Certain words when you come upon them in a poem signal this is poetic writing.


like a burr

An aphorism
should be
like a burr:
and leave
a little soreness

Irving Layton, "Aphs," The Whole Bloody Bird: Obs, Aphs & Pomes (1969)


out of order

One who put art ahead of life, and then was dead.


turn at the cliff's edge

A good line of poetry creates an uneasy expectation if not a cliffhanger.


well said newly seen

An aphorism shouldn’t be (as Pope put it) ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well express'd’; for however ‘well expressed’, it will not move us unless the words convey a novel way of seeing an important aspect of the world or our existence.


nonce upon a time

Poems that are half-told tales, interrupted narratives, improbable parables, or stories that lose their way.


was flying

Bruno, I've spent my life looking for that door to finally open in my music. Just anything, a crack...I remember in New York, one night...A red dress. Yes, red, and it looked great on her. So, one night we were with Miles and Hal...we'd been going over the same stuff for an hour I think, just us, so happy...Miles played something so beautiful it almost knocks me off my chair, and then I was off, I closed my eyes, and I was flying, Bruno, I swear to you I was flying...I could hear myself as if it was from very far away but inside myself...

—Julio Cortázar, “The Pursuer” The Jazz Fiction Anthology (Indiana U. Press, 2009), edited by Sascha Feinstein and David Rife, translation by Sandra Kingery.


in bits and pieces

An anecdotal poetics: The way he talked about poetry via remarks and vignettes.

[Thinking of Jack Gilbert]


known unknown

The poet always knows more about the poem than you do.


postcard poets

Browsing an old postcard site using the search word ‘poet’ I found that Russia had by far the greatest number of poet postcards. A little window into how certain cultures value poetry.


be quoted or die

Literary fame is measured by being oft-quoted.


more renown

One of those poets who thought by publishing so much, renown would follow.


avoided drawing

A poet who alluded when it was time to illustrate.


ruling passion

Since the age of fifteen poetry has been my ruling passion and I have never intentionally undertaken any tasks or formed any relationship that seem inconsistent with poetic principles; which has sometimes won me the reputation of an eccentric. Prose has been my livelihood, but I have used it as a means of sharpening my sense of the altogether different nature of poetry, and the themes that I chose are always linked in my mind with outstanding poetic problems.

—Robert Graves, The White Goddess (Faber & Faber, 1948)


meter was his métier

He could scan a line of poetry with his eyes closed.


part way

He was a writer who didn’t finish things.



One of those old white poets who grew a Whitmanic beard in the last years of his life.

[Thinking of John Berryman, Hayden Carruth, Donald Hall, etc.]


after the storm

That line fell across the page like a downed tree,
and it took out some powerlines with it.


against which

Perhaps what is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and am not able to express) is the background against which whatever I could express has its meaning.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), translated by P. Winch, p 16.


poem that lives

A poem lives by its memorable lines and the reader’s feel for the worth of its whole.



If a good poet is using prose it's being used toward some purpose or for some effect. Poetry is the ur-genre: It takes and uses whatever resources the language offers. And when the language is lacking resources, poetry may well create a few more elements no one knew were there.


of leaves and fascicles

Nineteenth century America produced just two preeminent poets, Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).

Walt self-published his books and was a great self-promoter, to the point of publishing reviews in newspapers of his own books. Walt had the goods and knew he had them: Walt’s poetry was expansive and innovative, pressing particularly on the boundary of poetry and prose, and putting equal pressure on the mores of his times. His poetry (Leaves of Grass) was published in several editions. He sunk his teeth into the times, and at the time of his death, the literary world had grudgingly caught up to Walt. His Leaves inexhaustible.

Emily was not known in her lifetime. Note that her dates fit within Whitman’s. Though she wrote many poems, she published only a handful of them. Her style was eccentric and her thinking was bold. If her poems were published in the state they were written, most readers of her day would be appalled or nonplused by them. Emily took pains to preserve her poems; tied up in tidy fascicles stored in a bureau drawer. Then she asked her sister Lavinia to destroy them upon her death. That didn’t happen and Emily's poems, surviving well-meaning but intrusive editing, eventually were recognized.

In time we’ll know who were the most important poets of twentieth century America. There are contenders but will it be as few as two?


and many others

How does it feel to be “And Many Others”?: Anthologies that list (on the back cover or in ads) only some of the contributors.


unappreciated crap

Poetry, The New Yorker, APR, The Paris Review, et al, they’re all publishing crap. But not my crap.


fail better

There are failed poems that should be published in the state in which they were abandoned. Many a tidy and finished poem shouldn’t stand to be published shoulder to shoulder with a glorious mess.


two ways

[From 1996 interview with Ralph Adamo and John Biguenet published in the New Orleans Review]

Allen Ginsberg and I used argue about aesthetics a lot. Every week he had a new idea. Usually hopelessly wrong. One time we were talking about spontaneous poetry, and he said, “Well, you believe what I believe, which is that an artist is a person who makes things.” He doesn’t submit to voices speaking, I said. You hear voices thinking, you write it down, but I am in charge of the poem. You might let the horse run for a while , but you tell it which direction to go, because if you don’t , the horse will eat all day. I believe in the horse. I believe in listening to the horse, but I’m riding the horse. And Allen said, “You’re afraid to release your poetry from your control. You're afraid, let me see,” he said. “Write some poems that way.” So I wrote some poems that way. They’re in my first book. They are the only two poems in the book that I wish weren’t there. If I ever do a selected poems, those two poems certainly won’t be there.

Jack Gilbert, Interviews from the Edge: 50 Years of Conversations about Writing and Resistance (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), edited by Mark Yakich and John Biguenet, p. 205.


toss up

The judge said of the poetry books: All are equally good, and each indistinguishable from the other.


profound sip

A poem should be a tincture of the universe.


alt usage

If it’s poetry you want to write
You must pitch your Strunk & White.


squeal at the turn

You could hear the tires squeal at the turn of a line.


words aren't precious

I began to experiment with Japanese forms, particularly the tanka and the renga, because their psychological structures are alien to me and force me to work without my familiar tools, my little linguistic reflexes and logical assumptions. It’s fun to keep throwing away those familiar responses, which amount to the old way of working, and to try to do something that makes me feel like a beginner again. It’s like finger-painting—I can make lots of fast, trivial messes and crumple the cheap, ephemeral paper. Gone! No important! And every once in a while I really surprise myself, and write something that suddenly throws light on the mystery. In order to do this, I’ve had to make some rules for myself. One: don’t save drafts. I used to cling to all the false starts and apparent dead ends in case some gem might be embedded there. I still believe that the unconscious knows valuable things that I don’t, but most of what it knows is useless stuff. Two: if a line isn’t working, start again from scratch. Words aren’t precious. If I lose a promising trail, so what? Unless I’m willing to lose it, how can I get to the next one, and the next? I think I used to stop far too soon, letting whatever happened to be there on the page command my attention, instead of asking myself what could be there in its place. What is this myopia but a reflection of my self, which likes to fix broken things and which would rather not think painful, self-annihilating thoughts? Thus the third rule: there’s only one question—what is the self? Until it’s answered, keep asking it. Then, who knows?

—Chase Twichell, “To Throw Away,” Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems (Middlebury College Press, 1997), Robert Pack and Jay Parini, editors.


new species

A poem that was unfamiliar as such.


word fortress

Poet, write a stanza that stands as a word fortress.


confident line

Poet, write a line that never looks back.


get what you pay for

Most poetry events are free, so organizers can’t give a money-back guaranty.


mainly blah

The mainstream could throw up a thousand books a year just as good as this one and just as undistinguished.


solitary business

The poets find the refuse of society on their streets and derive their heroic subject from this very refuse....  One year before Baudelaire wrote "Le Vin des chiffonniers," he published a prose description of the figure: "Here we have a man whose job it is to gather the day's refuse in the capital. Everything that the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has scorned, everything it has crushed underfoot he catalogues and collects. He collates the annals of intemperance, the capharnaum of waste. He sorts things out and selects judiciously; he collects, like a miser guarding a treasure, refuse which will assume the shape of useful and gratifying objects between the jaws of the goddess Industry." This description is one extended metaphor for the poetic method, as Baudelaire practiced it. Ragpicker and poet both are concerned with refuse, and both go about their solitary business while other citizens are sleeping; they even move about the same way.

—Walter Benjamin,  Selected Writings, 4: 1938–1940 (Belnap Press, 1996), p. 48., Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, editors


deep space

Why are we so amazed by how poems are formed when the universe holds similar mysteries.

[South Pole Wall]


more in the prose

Her prose sketch of how the poem was written was more interesting than the poem itself.


one or undone

A line of poetry should have integrity or else it should unravel extravagantly.


not blocked enough

After reading a book with two-thirds too many pages of poetry, I wished that more poets complained of ‘publication block’.



In the precise particular the peculiar hides.


gauged by language

If a poet writes about nothing, his language better really be something.


not the least of it

Most of what you’ve written has never been published; that’s as it should be.


it can fly

Frank Gallo, author of Birding in Connecticut:
“Note the plain face of the female House Finch as compared to boldly patterned face of the female Purple Finch which shows a distinct white eyebrow and wide black eyeline. As with the male, the female House Finch has a longer tail, is buffy below, and has a curved culmen (upper beak) versus the short-forked tail, whiter belly, and straight culmen of the female Purple Finch.”

Sometimes the talk of birders reminds me of the distinctions made by poetry critics. ‘But the thing can fly,’ I want to say.


not yet adult

His juvenilia was more like ‘adolescencia’.


don't be that guy

After the poetry reading he asks the poet to sign his book with an obvious remainder mark.


handed a parachute

Here’s your parachute, Poet, wonderful as the charms of the chasm.

Vincente Huidobro, Preface to “Altazor,” trans. by Eliot Weinberger, Pinpoints in the Night: Essential Poems from Latin America (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), selected by Raúl Zurita and edited by Forrest Gander.


lewd or lame

Limericks are either lewd or lame.


drop dead backdrop

I swear if an author were brought before a firing squad the background would be shelves of books.


linear sense

You write word strings. A poet writes lines.


need to know, paid to know

He knew more about poetry than anyone who wasn’t getting paid to be in the know.


repeat and change

According to the critic Bob Thompson, one of the criteria of Yoruba art and sculpture is “repetition of changes.” This is significant to “For Our People” as well, for the poem does not repeat monotonously but moves unexpectedly, piling on moments and incidents authentic and sensitive to the Black experience, gathering momentum until it reaches a crescendo.

—Angela Jackson commenting on her poem “For Our People” in The Eloquent Poem (Persea Books, 2019) edited by Elise Paschen.



His favorite artist is KAWS,
doesn’t that say it all?


particle poem

A poem in which almost nothing happens: a glance, a gesture, a lilt, particle of a larger world.


tell it

Necessarily the times had shifted poetry toward rhetoric.


pamphlets, chapbooks, books

Remember that your words don’t create a recycling problem until they’re physically printed.


can you hear me

Poets in those times were too busy giving readings. In fact most of the poetry they’d ‘read’ was what they’d heard at readings.


general or particular

What has reasoning to do with Art or Painting?

The difference between a bad Artist and a Good One Is: The Bad Artist Seems to copy a Great deal. The Good One Really does copy a Great deal.

To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is Alone Distinction of Merit.

—William Blake, annotations to Sir Joshua Reynold’s Discourses.

From May to September, 1809, Blake held an exhibition of his works at the house of his brother James on Broad Street. He had advertised it with the motto, “Fit audience find tho’ few.” The catalogue was included in the half-crown admission. This exhibition was Blake’s “one great effort to secure recognition as a representative of imaginative art,” and it ended in comparative failure.

Artists on Art: From the XIV to the XX Century (Pantheon Books, 1945), edited by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves


empty space

As he was reading he found that his eyes drifted to the blank spaces.


head above

As it turned out the title was too good for this poem.


two ways to get there

A poetry of method, a poetry of material.


bi-directional imagination

Memory calls up experience in an imaginative act, while fantasy carries forth experience in an imaginative act.


no audience

Still waiting for that single Klieg to step into.



And what else is handwriting but the concentrated expression of the personality of the individual? Of all the sciences or pseudo-sciences which presume to interpret the character and destiny of man from signs, graphology is surely the one which has the soundest foundation. Handwriting is taught, and certain of its characteristics belong to the general style of the period, but the personality of the writer, if it is at all relevant, does not fail to pierce through. The same happens with art. The lesser artists show the elements common to the period in a more conspicuous manner, but no artist, no matter how original, can avoid reflecting a number of traits. In terms of handwriting one can speak of a ductus, or hand, or style of writing not only in actual handwriting, but in every form of artistic creation, which is to an even greater extent an expression, something pressed or squeezed out of the individual.

Mario Praz, Mnemosyne: The Parallel Between Literature and the Visual Arts (Princeton U. Press, 1974)


come round again

I must reread poetry because poetry always has more to reveal.


high standard

I ask only to write a poem like Leonard Cohen’s song “Famous Blue Raincoat.”


single-use product

One of those ‘exercise poems’ that should be marked ‘Please dispose of properly after use’.


stilted speech

Syllabics often make the language sound unnatural, for good or for bad.


manners or mischief

A poetry of manners, a poetry of mischief.


radar screen

It is an accuracy of vision, an account of now, an account of memory or a vision, an account of a dream, of a fiction totally imagined, described, accurately and exactly to our best ability beyond misstatement, beyond misshaping any shape of our idea. In our practice as poets, to be inaccurate becomes a real Lie. All our attention is on the page. We cannot account for the hours spent—we have only the page. A radar screen watcher works a high vigilance profession. Our attention is so intense that it is a vigilance, too.

—Laura Jensen, “Lessons in Form,” Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry (Wayne Stat U. Press, 1990), edited by James McCorkle


sum of its parts

A great first line and a fine ending, with all the chutes & ladders lines in between.


poem place

A good poem dwells in the mouth while making a home in the mind.


read to be or not to be

You have to read a lot of poetry in order to know what kind of poet you want to be...and what kind you don’t.


obscure worlds

As print litmags, always obscure, fade into archives, the online litmags blot out cyberspace.


missteps are steps

A poem that flaunted its flaws, knowing they were necessary to the whole.


eye poet

   In Miss Moore’s time…the poet found it indispensable to work directly with the printed page, which is where, and only where, his cats and trees exist.…We may say that this became possible when poets began to use typewriters. And we may note that Miss Moore has been in her lifetime: a librarian; an editor; and a teacher of typewriting: locating fragments already printed; picking and choosing; making, letter by letter, neat pages.
   Her poems are not for voice; she senses this herself reading them badly; in response to a question, she once said that she wrote them for people to look at….Moore’s cats, her fish, her pangolins and ostriches exist on the page in tension between the mechanisms of print and the presence of a person behind those mechanisms.

—Hugh Kenner, “The Experience of the Eye: Marianne Moore’s Tradition,” Modern American Poetry: Essays in Criticism (David McKay Co., 1970), edited by Jerome Mazzaro.


for whom the taco bell tolls

I don’t have enough time ahead of me on earth to read TBQ.


undo influence

Certain poets let their keen interests—be it Zen, Marxism, bird-watching, etc.—infuse their verse, and the poems suffer the influence.


eyes open and aware

Turn a line of poetry as you would turn a corner in a part of the town you don’t know.


fiction enough

By and large, poets believe the world is fiction enough. (Maybe Wallace Stevens said that already.)


stamp collecting

All science is either physics or stamp collecting.
Ernest Rutherford

All poetry is either lyric or stamp collecting.


short and sweet

It’s easier to judge longer poems. Short poems are more difficult to rank for merit.


unwieldy lines

Though written in level and even lines, unwieldy was what he was going for.


authoritative line

[One point from a list of 14 principles of composition, which he prefaces by saying, "I honestly do not know how consistent I am in using principles of composition. Certainly the compromise between eye and ear is not always the same kind of compromise. Every poem makes its own peculiar demands. Still, I will try to list a few principles by which I generally work."]

11. Don’t explain away a line which has an authority of its own, even if the line may puzzle the intellect—i.e., don’t write for people more interested in understanding a poem than experiencing it. This is not the same as being willfully difficult or obscure, which is merely tiresome.

—Peter Klappert, in “O’Connor The Bad Traveler,” Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process (Longman, 1977), edited by Alberta T. Turner


why is your face familiar

The character actor and the major poet were both trying to get recognized in the local bar. The character actor won.


back to basics

Stayed home, sewed his own clothes, wrote poems.


staid style

That staid style that shows too much conscious control over the material.



To say this poem stands for me.


worth glory

All art is religious in a sense that no artist would work unless he believed that there was something in life worth glorifying. This is what art is about.

—Henry Moore, Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations (U. of California, 2002), Alan Wilkinson, editor.


resource management

A poet prone to waste a lot of white space.


holding on

Books for some of us are handholds over the abyss.


tooth and nail

An artist and a writer lived together harmoniously while their books and artwork battled for every inch of wall space.


bio overblown

One of those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink bios trying too hard to impress.


poetry got small

Like the character Norma Desmond from the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, she was the kind of poet you could imagine responding to an interviewer who'd suggested her reputation had faded, with the line: “I am big. It’s poetry that got small.”


this is the world

Jean Cocteau said mystery exists only in precise things—people in their situations, situations in people. Because I believe the visionary life has nothing to do with a necessarily transcendent existence, I like most of the poetry I read. I believe most poets know this is the world; and when you try to lead a special life or write a special poetry, you are dancing with an imaginary partner at a meaningless dance to which you have invited yourself and no one else.

—Frank Stanford, “With the Approach of the Oak the Axeman Quakes,” Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process (Longman, 1977), edited by Alberta T. Turner


thousands of lines of me

Its critical rhetoric couched in politics and theory, language poetry was perhaps the most self-indulgent of all poetry movements.


product placement

There were so many brand names popping up in her poetry, I was certain she’d struck some product placement deals before publication.


carrying poetry

Many of us carry a few touchstone poems. Perhaps some of us live by a handful of poems.


perfect thing

Only a very short poem can be perfect. Perfect but small.


the poetic vertical

Every real poem, then, contains the element of time-stopped, time which does not obey the meter, time which we shall call vertical to distinguish it from ordinary time which sweeps past horizontally along with the wind and the waters of the stream. Whence this paradox, which we must state quite clearly: whereas prosodic time is horizontal, poetic time is vertical.

—Gaston Bachelard, “The Poetic Moment and the Metaphysical Moment,” The Right to Dream (The Dallas Institute Publications, 1988), translated by J. A. Underwood, 172.


poems first

Read the poems before you read the bio.


surfs the edge

She was a critic who could keep up.

[Thinking of Marjorie Perloff]


words before markers

Put words before reading cues (punctuation).


altar and rituals

The altar of the writing desk, and the rituals of sitting there.


obscure grasping

The poetry that comes into being as a result of the working of the creative intuition upon poetic knowledge therefore reveals both an “obscure grasping of the real” and “an obscure grasping of the soul of the poet.” Maritain calls the former the “direct” sign of a poetic act and the latter a “reverse” sign of the same act. Both signs are inextricably involved in the making of a poem.

For if at the source of the poetic act there is the experience which I have tried to describe, in which the obscure grasping of the real, resounding in the creative subjectivity, is at the same time an obscure grasping of the soul of the poet, it will be necessary that the work be made a manifestation of both at once. This work is an object, and must always maintain its consistency and its proper value as an object, and at the same time it is a sign, at once a “direct” sign of the secrets perceived in things, of their avowal, of some irrecusable verity of their nature or history, transpierced by the creative intuition, and a “reverse” sign of the substance of the poet in the art of spiritual communication and revealing itself to itself. [Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, The Situation of Poetry(Philosophical Library, 1955), p 84]

Samuel Hazo, The World within the Word: Maritain and the Poet (Franciscan U. Press, 2018)

JF: I wanted to like the book more than I did. So much muzzy metaphysics in Maritain’s poetics. Ample amounts of Maritain are quoted, full of abstract words and concepts, presented as though self-evident, but Maritain offers almost no textual evidence to buttress his assertions. Hazo provides many quotes from other authors to try to underpin Maritain’s bold but unfounded ideas. I give Hazo credit for linking Keats and Hopkins to some of Maritain’s ideas. However, the two poets, and their notions of ‘poetics’, prove to be more relevant to the creative process than any of Maritain’s grand notions.   


slack science

Critical writing using the language of science without its necessary rigor.


two poles

There are poets who come from the word, and poets who come from the world. Most poets are suspended in that strange and uneasy magnetism between those two poles.


spark, spur, start

To find something in the inchoate to get the poem started.


goes with the territory

I hardly know a poet who is not a logophile.


guiding spirits of lit

Certain writers (e.g., Dante, Shakespeare, Dickinson,...) are no longer historical literary figures, having transcended the bonds of time, they’ve become guiding spirits of literature.


ray of light

One day [Gerard Manley] Hopkins was walking down a garden pathway when he suddenly stopped, and looking down toward a spot on the ground, began to turn round on his heel. After he had been doing this for some time an alarmed gardener, thinking him slightly queer, asked him what he was doing; to which Hopkins replied that he was trying to get the “inscape” of one single piece of gravel which was caught in the sun’s ray, and which he was trying to see from all angles.

Quoted from Donald Nicholl, Recent Thought in Focus (Sheed and Ward 1952), p. 70.


exposed and open

In order to understand art, one must be exposed to art in as many of its manifestations as possible, and then one must be open to those varied experiences, in order to develop a true and abiding feeling for art.


a poem contends

As soon as it's made, a poem contends with formless that would erase it, that would cause it to fade into the din of background noise.


annotations mon ami

From the margin notes in the used book he was reading he recognized a kindred reader.


no longer one of us

One of those people you knew who had given up on being a poet, and who now seemed more ordinary to you.


ideal poem

I write or try to write as if convinced that, prior to my attempt, there existed a true text, a sort of Platonic script, which I had been elected to transcribe or record.

—Donald Justice, "Notes of an Outsider," Platonic Scripts (U. of Michigan Press, 1984)


books instead of toilet paper

They closed the libraries during the pandemic. Lucky for him he was a prepper when it came to hoarding books.


lyric poets and others

There are only lyric poets and poets who write other texts we call poems.


plagiarist's defense

Legal doctrine: Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Ignorance of the literature is no excuse.


write this way

Too many writing guides pointing to the same kind of good writing.


life's work

A critic who conducted us through one poem with insight and due respect.


the image

In the image, imbalance suggests movement, a movement toward balance and stability.
The image is the unlocked door between the adjoining rooms of imagination and memory.
The poem is not a system for the reproduction of images, but one for the making of images.
The image allows us to experience time as if it were a landscape.
Through the image, memory forestalls the ephemeral.

—Eric Pankey, from “The Image,” Vestiges: Notes, Responses & Essays, 1988-2018 (Parlor Press, 2019)


first poem

Remember the excitement, even thrall, of composing your first real poem, however rudimentary: the images, the turns of phrase, the surprises of diction, pattern and word sounds, etc. In a sense every poem written since is a grasping after that first experience.


paper bandages

Some poems are bandages for the wounds of the soul, the lacerations of the spirit.


text takes a backseat

Even the broadside seems to have sacrificed the simple virtues of text to visual impact.


road kill

He was so long on the poetry circuit, all he knew was being a performer.


skim off the best

The poet skims off the best of life and puts it in his work. That’s why his work is beautiful and his life is bad.

—Leo Tolstoy

[A Writer’s Commonplace Book (Michael O’Mara Books Ltd., 2006), compiled and edited by Rosemary Friedman.]


read for

Read for comprehension, and for disorientation, dislocation, and dizziness.


range of years

As a young poet he imagined himself a Rimbaud, but after twenty years at the university he’d become John Crowe Ransom.


life stories

Many people want to write poetry only if they’re allowed to tell their life stories.


wordless moment

The image, though composed of words, adds a moment of nonverbal sensing to the poem.


well-made well-worn

Often the talk of craft, the importance of craft, belies a conservative approach when it comes to art-making.


metaphor go ahead

Our metaphors go on ahead of us, they know before we do. And thank goodness for that, for if I were dependent on other ways of coming to knowledge I think I'd be a very slow study. I need something to serve as a container for emotion and idea, a vessel that can hold what's too slippery or charged or difficult to touch.

—Mark Doty, “Souls on Ice


parochial dialect

Many artists utter universals when they speak of process, composition, creation, etc.; when, at most, they should be speaking in a parochial dialect.


all marked

The dream of a perfect commonplace book wherein each page might be marked or underlined as a place to return to.


famous flaws

Flaws in a work become attributes over time: We accept and then praise the author/artist for not seeing the missteps.


stacking up

When a book gets delivered to your home before you have finished the last one ordered.


somewhere in the margins

Awake, it’s trickier business, this saying
so deliberately what we can only hope means anything.
Especially when we’re at it this late, weighing words
until they somehow seem to matter, until
we look at them again in the next day’s excruciating light
and realize mostly we stayed up all night for not nearly enough.


          And you wherever you are,
with your own frantic pages of notes to get back to,
another night drunk down to the cold bottom of the cup,
imagining an even better poem somewhere in the margins
of the best you can do right now,
you know how that one goes.

David Clewell, from “This Book Belongs to Susan Someone,” Blessings in Disguise (Viking Penguin, 1991, The National Poetry Series)

[I've been away from St. Louis for 35 years, but David was a poet I was close to in my last few years there.]


critical making

All artists are critics by means of their making certain things rather than others, and by making those things in certain ways rather than others.


not less or more

If Woolf is your source text, your erasure poem can't go wrong: Every word in the text was well tested before you came along with your eraser.


subject extent

Some poets change subject matter poem to poem; others change subject matter only after exhausting a series of poems related to a single subject.


genre renegade

I’ve never accepted that Joyce’s works are classed prose and not poetry.


soft start

The beginning was too benign.


under grandeur, grandeur under

The business of the poet and novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things.

—Thomas Hardy, from 1885 notebook; quoted in The Life of Thomas Hardy, p. 171


little done well

Most poems fail because they accomplish very well so little.


the time it took

He said he’d written the poem only today, which was true, as much as it was true that the poem had been composed over the better part of his life.


wordly love

A poet too much in love with her vocabulary.


members only

A poet who desperately wanted to join club Avant-Garde.


priceless poetry

Poetry stands in resistance to this commercial culture. It is not about acquiring material wealth; instead, it’s about human insight, genuine human connectivity, and promotes mindfulness and awakening. In that way, poetry is priceless.

—Arthur Sze, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Interview with Arthur Sze by Kenji C. Liu, Jan 26, 2020.


wait it out

He’d become much more willing to wait for a poem to come.


you say tomato

Any two people can scan the same line and disagree on the stresses.


red zone

When writing the last 20 lines of a poem, the poet is in the red zone.

[On Super Bowl LIV Sunday]


solo act

The poetry reading turned into a one-person play.


waist deep and weilding

The intrepid poet wades into language without fear.


music before content

A poet's attunement to the activity of his speech organs can trigger corresponding aural (phonic) 'ideas', in which case a poem's sound structure is tied to the poet's phonic imagination, and the sequence of speech organ movements or sequence of phonic imaginings marks the inception of poetic thinking. That's what poets mean when they say that poetry begins with sound. Schiller, for instance, would often hear "a poem's music in [his] soul first, before having a clear idea of its content" (cited in Ernest Dupré and Marcel Nathan, le langage musical: Étude medico-psychologique, 1911)

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


mind made

Imagination is not experience. Imagination is experience manqué.


six shooter

The dread of recognizing the sestina form on a page.


where to begin

Knowing there was so much of the poet to read, I found it hard to start.


poem without bounds

To write an inexhaustible poem.


woven design

A poem as intricately patterned as an oriental rug.


wrong blocks

After Harry Thurston Peck, editor of The Bookman, had reviewed Robinson's first collection, finding the author's "humor is of a grim sort, and the world is not beautiful to him, but a prison house."

[Robinson responded in the letter to Peck.] "I'm sorry to learn that I have painted myself in such lugubrious colors..." [Going on to say:]

“The world is not a prison house, but a kind of spiritual kindergarten where millions of of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.”

―Edwin Arlington Robinson, quoted in Edward Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life, by Scott Donaldson.


three too many

Is there an example of a tripartite metaphor?


audience held

One feels most like a poet in that bardic moment speaking before enrapt faces.


library of the mind

He closed his eyes and saw in his mind where all his books were, those shelved and those stacked on their sides. When he opened his eyes, he couldn’t find the one title he was looking for.


lit is

To write a singular document.


drives on

The truck-driver poet looked at each exit ramp as a possible ending before he speeded past.


wind flow

[Episodes of Eccentrics Among Haikai Poets, 1816, compiled by Takenouchi Gengen’ichi] begins its description of Sutejo this way:

    […] From a very young age, she showed signs of a poetic turn of mind. In the winter of her sixth year, she made:

       Yuki no asa ni no ji ni no ji no geta no ata
       Morning snow: figure two figure two wooden clogs marks

    Because of this, one year she received a poem from someone exalted:

       Kayahara no oshi ya suti oku tsuyu no tama
       Too good to be left in a weedy field: this drop of dew.

The original word for what’s given as “a poetic turn of mind” is fūryū, literally “wind flow”—an expression that can’t be translated to anyone’s satisfaction. It refers to a liking for things somewhat unworldly or transcendental or the object of that inclination, such as poetry. Among its synonyms is fūga, which carries a greater dose of “elegance” or “refinement.” Another synonym, fūkyō, suggests “poetic dementia.” Any haikai person must be imbued with fūryū, fūga, or fūkyō.

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


one among many

Each of us playing a small part in the poetry’s panoply.


dog-ear bookmark

The dog-eared page could mark an important passage, a run of words to return to, or it could mean a stopping place, when then where the book was closed, set aside and never opened again.


with all they have

The worst of the formalist poets are most vehemently opposed to free verse.


dark passage

You knew going in, this was a poem you’d be lucky to elucidate.


let there be dancing

When writing finally returned to Greece, in the eighth century B.C., the new Greek writing, its users, and its uses were very different. The writing was no longer an ambiguous syllabary mixed with logograms but an alphabet borrowed from the Phoenician consonantal alphabet and improved by the Greek invention of vowels. In place of lists of sheep, legible only to scribes and read only in palaces, Greek alphabetic writing from the moment of its appearance was a vehicle of poetry and humor, to be read in private homes. For instance, the first preserved example of Greek alphabetic writing, scratched onto an Athenian wine jug of about 740 B.C., is a line of poetry announcing a dancing contest: “Whoever of all dancers performs most nimbly will win this vase as a prize.”

—Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (W. W. Norton & Co., 1999)


book of spells

The fortune-teller poet thought you wouldn’t notice that her book of spells was a battered unabridged dictionary.


easy target

Like a parodist, the plagiarist should aim higher.


long view

Literature is one long poem.