ad hoc

Seldom serial, his poems were ad hoc.


experience, interpretation, opinion

Interpretation is the revenge of the intellectual upon art.—Susan Sontag

Someone posted the above quote without a reference. Likely it comes from Sontag’s great essay “Against Interpretation.” However, I do want to quibble with her statement. Of course 'experience' should be regarded as being of a higher order than 'interpretation'. But then one realizes in the dialog with others how odd and even cockamamie experience can be, which drags experience down to the level of opinion. (Opinion being what we all have, as the saying goes.) So I think there are smart people (call them intellectuals, if you will) who we should look to for interpretation. Not that we must accept their interpretations at face value, but they give us something worthy with which to argue over, and challenge us to refine our own thinking about the work/art.


fallen leaves

When I was raking leaves I started to think about all the poetry books published in the past year.


outwit the writer

One hopes that what is written is a bit smarter than the writer.



Like perfect counterweights, the words in balance along the poetic line.


textus fugit

Lives are fleeting and so are all but a few literary texts.


pen at hand

When asked, “Have you got a pen?”—he replied, “Yes, I’m a poet, I always have a pen.”


accuracy, spontaneity, mystery

Accuracy is the essence in any consideration of Bishop’s poetry. Those of her poems which fail…do so more often than not because they’re imprecise in matters of tone and feeling. The Library of America volume includes an untitled and fragmentary essay on poetry, tentatively dated to ‘the late 1950s - early 1960s,’ in which Bishop states that the three qualities she prizes most in poetry are ‘Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery’ (the italics are hers). To illustrate these qualities, she gives examples from George Herbert, Hopkins and Baudelaire, as well as from Auden, Lowell, Moore and Dylan Thomas. She might have included much of her own work; accuracy, spontaneity and mystery are perhaps its most distinctive traits, and in spontaneity – or rather, the illusion of spontaneity – she seems to surpass most of those she cites. Spontaneity is, of course, the slipperiest of the three. None of the poets she singles out in the essay is ‘spontaneous’, in any usual sense, nor was Bishop herself. It was the effect of spontaneity she admired…

—Eric Ormsby, “Ancient Chills,” Fine Incisions: Essays on Poetry and Place (The Porcupine Quill, 2011)


turn it over

The Talmud records that Ben Bag-Bag, a scholar and disciple of Hillel, counseled:
   “Turn it over and turn it over, for all is therein”
The ‘it’ is the Torah, but the same could be said of reading and studying a great poem.


blurbs denied

If you’re not embarrassed by your blurbs, you’re undeserving of such praise.


only abyss below

Often a poem must end with the bottom dropping out—and the reader must try to enjoy the free-fall without screaming too much.


about poems

It’s about the poems not where they were published.


not on the same page

Two poets were talking about the value of reading, how it informed their work, and probably they were reading entirely different books.


tell me what you know

I want your poem to tell me how much you know about poetry.


intensely dismal poem

    In a letter from Florence Hardy, mentioning her husband [Thomas] is at his desk:
    Writing an intensely dismal poem with great spirits.

—David Markson, Vanishing Point (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004)


substitution of terms

When you see a good move, look for a better one.
Emanuel Lasker

When you write a good line, look for a better one.


under the hood

Emotion being the poem’s motor.


revision's end

It was while revising the poem you realized it wasn’t worth the effort.


vehicle language

In a poem, language is the vehicle and not the road, nor its destination.


safe for now

It’s a good thing you put that copyright mark next to your name beneath the poem, otherwise poets would be lined up to plagiarize your masterpiece.


wasn't it

Vivaldi Years

I lay forever, didn’t I, behind those old windows,
listening to Bach and resurrecting my life.
I slept sometimes for thirty or forty minutes
while the violins shrieked and the cellos trembled.
It was a crazy youth, wasn’t it, letting
my mind soar like that, giving myself
up to poetry the way I did.
It was a little like Goethe’s, wasn’t it,
a little like Eugene O’Neill’s, one joyous
sadness after another. That was the everlasting
life, wasn’t it. The true world without end.

Gerald Stern, Paradise Poems (1984)


prose all along

Whether or not cast in meter and/or rhyme, if the lines are readable, then they’re prose.


hardly a trail

A poem may reveal almost nothing of its path: a broken twig, a stone disturbed, with little else to follow.


not safe

The poetry workshop should not be a safe space. They’re talking about your poem, not you.


against story

Story is what can be taken out of the fiction and made into a movie. Story is what you tell people when they embarrass you by asking what your novel is about. Story is what you do to clean up life and make God into a good burgher who manages the world like a business. History is often written as a story so that it can seem to have a purpose, to be on its way somewhere; because stories deny that life is no more than an endlessly muddled middle; they beg each length of it to have a beginning and end like a ballgame or a banquet. Stories are sneaky justifications.

—William Gass, “Finding a Form,” Finding A Form: Essays (Knopf, 1996)


not undertanding

One can misunderstand a poem in a thousand ways. That’s okay, that’s what it means to try to read poetry.


no time

The best poems are atemporal.


intent vs. use

An author may write with intent but it’s good to remember what matters to the reader is use.


small check

Even during the times when he was making hundreds of thousands per year, it pleased him to get $200 for doing a reading or $50 for a published poem.


thousand yard stare

You can recognize a writer by the way s/he stares off into space.


rid of convention

We evaluate artists by how much they are able to rid themselves of convention, to change history. Well, I don't know of anyone since Pollock who has altered the form or the language of painting as much as he did.

—Richard Serra (1998)


barrel of the bat

The last line was like Babe Ruth’s ‘called shot’: He all but said it was coming and then with one swing of a line, he delivered.


course and not conclusion

Lead you readers forward but let them draw their own conclusions.


find a translation

One of the biggest mistakes I made early in my reading life was to pass over the foreign words and phrases I encountered. My loss. Now I pause and get at least a rough or partial translation. Of course now the web makes things easier. In any case, my reading has been deepened by taking the time to find a translation.


word from nowhere

The improbable word that makes possible the whole poem.


poetic asides

There are poems one wants to publish that aren’t the poems one wants to be known for.


for want of a pen

Sometimes I think I became a writer solely because I love holding a nice pen.


substitution of terms

Anyone who thinks they can talk about quantum theory without feeling dizzy hasn't yet understood the first thing about it.
—Niels Bohr

Anyone who thinks they can talk about poetry without feeling dizzy hasn’t yet understood the first thing about it.


writing studio

     The unimaginably cramped cell in which St. John of the Cross was once imprisoned for months, beaten repeatedly and virtually starved, but where he nonetheless managed to compose some of his finest verses.
     In a building that no longer exists—but can still be seen in El Greco’s View of Toledo.

—David Markson, The Last Novel (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007)


write the room

A prose poet knows how to ‘write’ the room.


sleight of letters

The word is the alphabet’s prestidigitation.


bohemians at the gate

Bohemination: When the neighborhood becomes filled with artists and poets, and the panhandlers are driven out for lack of prospects with money in their pockets.



There is no form equal to this content, it must be allowed to spill without container or spout.


train whistle

A line of poetry that was a train whistle far off in the night.


crossing boundaries

Those visual aspects of Ramón’s prose are of paramount importance: temporal qualities are subordinated to the spatial predilections of the author. That is why very little “happens” in his fiction. It bears pointing out in passing, that painting crosses national as well as artistic boundaries much more easily than does literature.

Aphorisms: Ramón Gómez de la Serna, selected and translated from the texts entitled greguerias, with a critical introduction by Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth (Latin American Literary Review Press, 1989)


ready for it

Poet, don’t just pull another epiphany out of the hat.


fussy too much

There is such a thing as fussy revision that matters not when it comes to the reader's experience.


light verse ahead

Playing to pop culture can only lead to light verse.


hounded by form

Poet, form will keep coming for you.


without emotion or argument

Writing wherein nothing is at stake either emotionally or in terms of argument.


not equal

Remember that no poem is equal to a life.


three-legged stool

I’ve always felt that Rilke stands with one foot in the nineteenth century and other planted in the twenty-first. I’ve sometimes thought of him, especially in The Elegies as the poetic leg of a three-legged stool—the other two being Einstein and Freud/Jung.

—Art Beck, Etudes: A Rilke Recital, Translations and Commentary (Shanti Arts Publishing, 2021)

[Quote encountered in a review of the above book in Wally Swist’s A Writer’s Statement of Beauty (Shanti Arts Publishing, 2022)]


figures dancing

Reading a poem and thinking that the printed letters are figures dancing.


supplied beyond demand

The modest demand for poetry books faces an amplest supply.


sum of a story

The sum of any story is the impact of its content plus the quality of the imparting narration.


lines configured as a web

The poet tries to make consecutive horizontal lines configure themselves as a web in the mind.


seedy exactitude

Philip Larkin in his capacity as librarian at Hull University came into Bertram Rota [London bookseller], looking for copies of his own early books for the university collections. This struck me as a self-flagellatory exercise….If sometimes I label him “The Bard of Impotence” this is not to say he was not a good poet, a paragon of seedy exactitude, but that his oeuvre exudes impotence, whether it be his own, this country’s, or both together. Despair becomes its own comfort zone, which may explain his immense appeal to the happily depressed masses. When I offered him a copy of his first book, The North Ship (1945), for £200 he balked at the price, saying, ‘What, for that piece of rubbish!’ The librarian left with his satchel empty. The poet, on the other hand, would have thought the book less rubbishy had it been a tenth the price?

—Marius Kociejowski, A Factotum in the Book Trade: a memoir (Biblioasis, 2022) (87)


line denies line

A poem in which the first line denied the title and each line after repudiated the prior.


peep show

Publishing one’s poem is a way to be seen, but it’s a tiny peephole with nary an eye passing by.


cadence cascade

Not regular meter but the cadence of a stream passing over stones.


by the line

The editors of the haiku magazine decided to pay their contributors—by the line.


eat it or read it

From the book review of SUPER-INFINITE: The Transformations of John Donne, by Katherine Rundell:

Rundell’s own style can dazzle, though at times the wit feels a bit strained, as when she describes Donne’s unreadable tract “Pseudo-Martyr” as “so dense it would be swifter to eat it than to read it."

I can think of a poem or two that one might say was "so dense it would be swifter to eat it than to read it."


take only what you need

He never applied for artist fellowships or grants. His day job provided money enough, so why compete with those who needed the extra income.


multum in parvo

A poem of modest length but majestic in scope.


not sticky

He’s published a dozen books and not one poem sticks in the public consciousness.


failures in poetry

I am not sure what I hope for. I feel I am
doing my best. It reminds me of when I was
sixteen dreaming of Lorca, the gentle trees outside
and the creek. Perhaps poetry replaces something
in me that others receive more naturally.
Perhaps my happiness proves a weakness in my life.
Even my failures in poetry please me.

—Linda Gregg, from “The Letter,” Sacraments of Desire (Graywolf Press, 1991)

[n.b.: Linda Gregg born on September 9.]


lenticular card

The first draft often contains another poem embedded therein, or even more than one poem partly hidden within. It’s like one of those lenticular flicker cards you used to get from a Cracker Jack box. You look at the card and you see an image, but turn the card only slightly, and a whole new image will appear.


song to poem

Poet, listen to beautiful songs and the poems will follow.


numbers game

Often the author’s bio will tout how many books published as if that counted when it comes to art.


either direction

He wrote the poem frontwards and then backwards, and it worked either way.


gift horse pass by

Give the awards to those who need them. Others will find rewards in the work itself.


call it style

He thought that if he was bad at some aspects of writing, those errors might manifest themselves as a kind of style.


struck by a chisel or ax

All edifices of art need to be built upon thought’s solid foundation.

If it’s not a poem, no matter what form it’s in, it’s not a poem.

Deep eclectic thought, rendered through easily apprehended language, creates poetry of the highest order.

I live: I sing.

It’s natural that poets thirst for some kind of a constitution: In addition to ensuring the people’s daily bread as well as their well-being, a country must safeguard its art from destruction.

If, while writing, your work feels forced, when it is read by others, it will feel even more forced.

What are the secrets for writing poetry?
—With naïve and honest eyes, look at the world, and convey what you comprehend and what you feel through the simplest forms of language.

The beauty inherent in poetry is the luminance of humanity’s upward-striving spirit expressed entirely through the poet’s passion. This kind of luminance not only glitters and splashes like embers from a fire in darkness, but also shoots out like sparks from a rock struck by a chisel or ax.

—Ai Qing, “Excerpts from the Notebooks,” Selected Poems (Crown, 2021), translated by Robert Dorsett

[n.b.: Ai Qing was the father of the artist Ai Weiwei. Ai Qing was a poet and dissident imprisoned for resisting the totalitarian regime in China.]


margin width

All poets are marginalized, but some have wider margins to write/work in.


it goes like this

He recited the poem from bad memory and somehow managed to improve upon the composition.


two-way street

One can only hold the critic to account when he quotes from the text on which he expounds.


in the foothills

In the foothills of Parnassus you’ll see fires burning at night. Places where poets had stopped to camp, left with nothing to burn but their books.


three realms

The finest writing is for the voice. There are several good, not to say decisive, reasons for this. No word is a word by itself. Every word is multiple, and not simply because there are homonyms and homophones hanging around, pretending to be friends. A word is made of sounds. A word is made of marks. A word is made of little muscle movements in the throat which accompany our interior speech—that invisible, inaudible, yet clearly heard interior talk of which Samuel Beckett made himself the master. So there are two spoken tongues to set against the one we write. And if we allow the written word to stand for the spoken one, and the silent speech to precede both, then the written word works in three realms at once, not just one.

—William H. Gass, “Finding a Form,” Finding A Form: Essays (Knopf, 1996)


commercially viable poet

Strange pairing: A poet with an agent.


bad fit

In art, it takes courage to be incongruous.


stand in

These days it may be worth it to hire a model for your author photo.


right wrong word

The word you worry about using may be the one that makes the poem work. Turns out it is the right wrong word.


loose sheets

I haven’t got a manuscript. I have only a pile of poems.


prose buttress

A foot/headnote to a poem is but a prose buttress. Ideally free-standing the poem should be.


take off our wings

To Grazyna, from Starachowice
You see poetry as pure sublimity, eternity, sighs and moans—in quantities unrivaled even by fin de siècle nameday parties for young ladies. Such flourishes go nowhere with contemporary readers, say, even your nearest and dearest will, upon hearing a single sentence, glance panic-stricken at their interlocutor and suddenly recall urgent errands in town. So, shall we take off our wings and try writing on foot?

—Wislawa Szymborska, How to Start Writing (and When to Stop) (New Directions, 2021), translated by Clare Cavanagh

[n.b.: From a collection of pieces that Szymborska wrote in her regular column called Literary Mailbox in the Polish journal Literary Life.]


totally emily

The Emily Dickinson industry—is a thing.


search me

He was not the kind of poet whose poem you’d carry in your pocket.


reverent rings

It was a book I revered and kept nearby. You could tell by the cover which was stained by rings from coffee mugs and wine glasses.



Plagiarism is major theft, while parody is a lesser poet picking the pocket of a master.


keep your bowstring taut

Poet, pull line after line from your quiver and let the arrows fly.


place and experience

When I read "Epic” by Patrick Kavanagh for the first time, I realized that documenting seemingly insignificant events and objects—buses included—are neither ridiculous nor melodramatic. The more I studied his poems and essays, the more I revered how Kavanagh sought to develop a praxis that is both inclusive and individual: not solely concerned with audience and legacy, but more aligned with place and experience.

—Roan Ellis-O’Neill, Hold Open the Door: The Ireland Chair of Poetry Commemorative Anthology 2022 (University College of Dublin Press), edited by M. McCann, S. Meline, N. Zak/Aria Eipe, M. Prince, and F. Ormsby.



There is slippage in all poems, the language has its limits. It's like working on a sign-board with a bucket of moveable type. You're never sure if you'll be able to fit all the letters together properly and you're unsure whether or not you have the letters needed to make all the words you want to display (or say).


ignored or eclipsed

Maybe it’s not that certain poets get neglected; perhaps it’s a matter of a few poets garnering too much attention and praise.


paper tomb

In the internet age, books are where poems go to die.


tech heavy, content light

So called technical innovations in one’s writing are often cover for a lack of compelling content.


facile appraisal

He was one to judge a book by the author photo.


perceptions rearranged

As far as I see it, a poem has business to exist, really, if there's a reasonable chance that somebody may have his perceptions rearranged by having read it or having used it. The poem is always capable of being a subversive agent, psychologically, sensuously, however you like.

Roy Fisher, Interviews Through Time and Selected Prose (Shearsman Books, 2000), p. 64.


language cobbler

Louis Zukofsky, raised on the Lower East Side, was a cobbler of language. I don’t think he ever looked up or arose from his station to speak fully, freely. I see him with his head down over a bench (his desk), piecing various parts of language together.


wellings up

Poets who will never be known by a single poem, or handful of anthology pieces. Their work was too diffuse, and only welled up memorably here and there within the oeuvre.


carries well

The wonder of poetry: made of words, and thus so portable.



At the poetry reading they were all holding up lighters
and calling out for me to read “Free Bird.” I went flapping
through pages of my book, but I couldn't find that poem.


defied without end

No definition of poetry is needed. Each poem defines itself. Then the next poem defies that definition.


my office

I have spent many hundreds of hours shooting [a basketball] on this court, with its view of the Bay and Oakland hills beyond. One day the view was mysteriously obliterated and my eyes burned, as it turned out by ash from the terrible Oakland hills fire.

There is nowhere that I am more at my ease than in this place, shooting. If I have a poem that I’m working on, I will roll it over and over again in my head, like a child rolling a marble between his fingers, feeling the texture and weight of each syllable. You may think me immodest, but I have done some of my best work up here on Corona Heights, that’s what this place is called. You might say this is my office. Call me a wastrel, if you like.

—August Kleinzahler, Sallies, Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs: Selected Prose 2000-2016 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)


distill and spill

Poets of distill and poets of spill it all.


lap poem

As the workshop leader proceeded around the table, I thought I could hear the woman beside me tearing up her copies in her lap. And when he called her turn to present a poem, she lifted the scraps of paper from her lap and let them fall on the table in a pile.


touching bottom

Written in letters that could touch bottom.


wrong words

When he proudly showed me his erasure poem, I said he’d erased the wrong words.


paying for it

By the time he got his manuscript accepted, he figured he’d spent enough on entry and reading fees to have self-published the book in a first edition hardback of 1000 copies.


second ending

When the poem ends on an expected note, try adding just one more line but one that comes to rest at a slight angle to what was said before.

Example from the ending of Al Purdy’s “"The Last Picture in the World”:

            almost sculpture
   except that it's alive
   brooding immobile permanent
   for half an hour
   a blue heron
   and it occurs to me
   that if I were to die at this moment
   that picture would accompany me
   wherever I am going
   for part of the way

Notice how easily the poet may have settled for the ending “wherever I am going,” but the addition of the phrase “for part of the way,” undercuts the certainty and leaves the poem in a less measurable state.



The poet knew he was on his way when his book sold in the tens of tens.


fee for fee

Are the major presses just trading permission fees back and forth?


blank and expectant

It was one of those lovely blank notebooks you just knew you could write great things in.


shaker austerity

…there is, probably unintentionally, something of the Shaker austerity in [Niedecker’s] work, what Jonathan Williams describes in this poem, circa 1959, as “a lovely sound, put together with hand-tooled pegs”:

     My friend tree
     I sawed you down
     but I must attend
     an older friend
     the sun

Niedecker’s work emphasizes proportion, line, simplicity. The spaces between words and lines, usually emphasized in the typography, lineation, and enjambments, functioned for Niedecker as a reminder of the silence from which the poems emerged, by which they were pervaded, and to which they returned.

—August Kleinzahler, Sallies, Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs: Selected Prose, 2000-2018 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)


cards play themselves

In poker, when the cards are laid on the table, we say ‘the cards play themselves’: no interpretation needed to determine who has the better hand. So it should be in book reviewing—quote heavily from the book, and let the lines themselves show their relative value.


odd man in

Often Dante gets inserted in a list/lineage of English poets.


parts of the whole

A lyric poem retains its wholeness; while the long poem is known by its lyric parts.


not debut

After a first book published late in life, the poet corrected the interviewer: This is not a ‘debut’ collection, this is the best I could do to date.


repetition or insistence

Gertrude Stein once declared that ‘there is no such thing as repetition’—a surprising pronouncement form a writer whose most enduring line of poetry is a loop of intoxicating repetitions: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’. Stein distinguished the idea of repetition from insistence; in poetry, she suggested, only the latter was possible. By this logic, each time a word or phrase repeats, it lands with a different inflection. Stein’s ‘rose’ line is a perfect case in point; it begins with Rose as a proper name, which then blossoms into the flower itself, and ultimately suggests the past tense verb, ‘arose’. Stein’s string of roses has been often interpreted as an affirmation of reality over metaphor—a rose is a rose, and nothing more—but she also saw it as an intensifier, one that manifested the rose in all its vividness. ‘I think in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years’, Stein later wrote of her famous line in Four in America.

—Sarah Holland-Batt, “Repetition and Rhetoric: On Michael Sharkey,” Fishing for Lightning (University of Queensland Press, 2021).


note struck by an adjective

Every adjective creates a tone when applied to a noun.


new epithets

A line from André Gide’s Marshlands: “Find new epithets for ______.” Good advice.


welcome emptiness

How I enjoyed these ‘open field’ poems; especially welcome were the blank spaces in between phrases and fragments.


bird by its name

When you say ‘bird’ in a poem, think what kind of bird. When you say ‘tree’, think what kind of tree. And if it matters, and it should, then use the specific name.


act to narrative

The instant you admit any action whatever, no matter how simple, you admit some suggestion of what went before the action and of what is to follow it and of the cause and intention of the action—that is, you admit some element, however slight, of story.

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


annoying innovation

The poet was doing something innovative with typography—it was annoying to read.


all eyes

The poet walked into the room and all eyes were on her; and her eyes took them all in, because looking was prelude to language.


poetical failure

The most common failure of beginning poets is that they think poetry should be poetical.

art is

Art alters nature.


at talent's limit

In the end I want to feel that I made the most of my limited gifts


unable to suffer further

The critic had wanted to write a scathing review but, being a person of character, he was unable to do so—realizing he’d closed the book only a few pages in.



Wide-eyed, ready for anything, I’m trying to read like a young person again.


swim out

        'The English language
belongs to us. You are raking at dead fires,

rehearsing the old whinges at your age.
That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,
infantile, like this peasant pilgrimage.

You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it's time to swim

out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements,

elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.'

—Seamus Heaney (in the voice of James Joyce), Station Island (1984)


trace story

In the briefest lyric there’s the hint of narrative.


grand steps

Like steps up to a palace door, you know by the first few lines you’ve entered the realm of a poem.


first things

A poem establishes itself first in language and then you get what it’s about.


bad blurb

I confess I couldn’t wait to get to the end of this story. I had to skip ahead many pages to get to that comforting sigh of the book closing.


prose poem is

I would have placed emphasis on the subversive character of prose poetry. For me, it is a kind of writing determined to prove that there’s poetry beyond verse and its rules. Most often it has an informal, playful air, like the rapid, unfinished caricatures left behind on café napkins. Prose poetry depends on a collision of two impulses, those for poetry and those for prose, and it can either have a quiet meditative air or feel like a performance in a three-ring circus.

—Charles Simic, "Essay on the Prose Poem," delivered on June 1, 2010 at The Poetry Festival in Rotterdam.


open to

One open to the wiles of language.


yadda yadda yaddo

A writer who took pride in having done the full circuit of residencies and retreats.


two not three

Terza rima: A sequence of interrupted couplets.



The title was just a coat-hook, a thing to hang a poem on.


content / style

Content of a high order needs little style.


doing the same thing

I don’t dismiss a poet for being prolific, but I am suspect of rote output.


wasted words

Poet, write through the necessary word-waste.


comes with the territory

It’s rare to find a formal poem that doesn’t sound stilted in places.


block off the chip

The book I ordered, a study of the fragment in literature, arrived today. Turns out it’s over four-hundred pages.


blood to poem

Hard for the word to travel from blood to poem.

—Yannis Ritsos, Monochords (Tavern Books, 2017), translated by Paul Merchant.


no absolutes

There are no absolutes when it comes to language.


around the corner

Poet, write a line that can look around
the corner.


know how

Knowing things makes for better writing: connections multiply, metaphors arise easily.


not part way

Don’t start this poem unless you mean to finish it.


poor poet

Poor poet. (One who earns no income from poetry writing.)
Poor poet. (One who writes inferior poetry.)
Poor poet. (An expression of sympathy for one who struggles to write superior poems.)


foreign language

A work of art, like a foreign language, is closed to us until we learn to read it. Meaning is latent, seemingly hidden. There is also the illusion that the meaning is concealed. A work of art is a structure of signs, each meaningful. It follows that a work of art has one meaning only. For an explicator to blur an artist’s meaning, or to be blind to his achievement, is a kind of treason, a betrayal. The arrogance of insisting that a work of art means what you think it means is a mistake that closes off curiosity, perception, the adventure of discovery.

—Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook (David Zwirner Books, n.d.)



important poetry

When one reads enough poems, one learns the important entry points to the universe.


words with holes

All words have holes in them.


sound subject

Sometimes the subject is the sound.


learned and declaiming

It’s not hard these days to be known as an intellectual poet.


first principle

The first principle of architectural beauty is that the essential lines of a construction be determined by a perfect appropriateness to its use.

—Gustave Eiffel

The first principle of poetic beauty is that the essential lines of a construction be determined by a perfect appropriateness to its effect.


no outer limit

Language itself is perhaps the only limit on what poetry can be, and sometimes I’m not sure that even that boundary holds.


poorer for it

Many who enter the trade come to think that poetry should be spelled “poorertry”


prose poetry defined

Lines that yearn for the roominess enjoyed by sentences in a paragraph.


anaphora and more

Do I repeat myself? Very well, then I repeat myself, I am many, I contain multiples.


not de-prosed

Adding a metrical lilt to your lines and hanging some rhymes at the line endings, doesn’t de-prose your poetry. The prose remains despite the meter and rhyme.


made with feeling

Joan Mitchell:

“I carry my landscapes around with me.”

“Painting is made with feeling. One has to have the guts to feel and love outside oneself.”

“The solitude that I find in my studio is one of plenitude. I am enough for myself. I live fully there.”

[Quotes I copied off cards at the Joan Mitchell retrospective exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Arts]


stunning cover

That four-color cover does nothing to enhance the text inside.


getting to great

You don’t just get to read great poetry. There’s a bit more to getting it.


not numbers that count

Among poets, one’s popularity runs inverse to one’s respect among one’s peers.


title wave

Just the titles of Wallace Stevens’ poems put to shame the entire output of many other poets.


never know enough

We don't know enough, we'll never know.
Oh happy Homer, taking the stars and the Gods for granted.

—Robinson Jeffers, "The Epic Stars"


counter the common

Often poets write against popular sentiment and the common viewpoint.


poem's apotheosis

Being printed as a letterpress broadside is the apotheosis of the poem.


fair question

What is the quality of your audience?


good people to know

They were good bourgeois bohemians.


far sound

A poem that was a far-off sound.


latent images

In a good photograph, latent in the image are many days and years both behind and ahead of the picture.


a certain relation

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.

—Susan Sontag, “On Photography” (1977)

To write a poem is to appropriate the thing written about. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.


flummery perfumery

You would think by now that the ink of blurbs would be infused with scratch-n-sniff perfumes.


asking the wrong questions

I thought more highly of him as a poet before he interviewed another poet.


obscure in their own way

The authors I most love are obscure in different senses of that word.


home poem

The childhood home is the first poem. Poets should not give in and go back home too easily or too often.


didn't come out that way

After reading the blurb, I thought, he probably means what he says as praise.


chop chop

This or that critic, as a way of calling a poem basic, often balks at its being “just prose chopped up into lines.” Reader, this statement may sound radical at first, but it couldn’t be more obvious. Poetry is just prose chopped up into lines. I mean this to be final, categorical, and no slight to poetry.

—Elisa Gabbert, “What Poetry Is,” The Word Pretty (Black Ocean, 2018)


name and calling

Until someone else calls you a poet, don’t think of yourself as one.


end happens

The end of a poem happens; you can’t try to explain the end.


questioned line

Interrogate each line you write: Could it be twisted or steered away from common diction?


read it to me

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


what is given and withheld

Within a few lines you know what you’re going to get from the poem, and what will not be disclosed. After that, all there is to do is relax.


discouraging the biographer

Documents relating to Cavafy’s life are scarce. He seldom kept a journal, and very few of his own letters have survived. His life was rather uneventful, and his remarks on his poems are generally unhelpful, while the observations recorded in his sporadic journal entries are seldom of great interest. His poem ‘Hidden’, which he wrote in 1908 but never published, is particularly discouraging for the biographer:

   From what I did and what I said
   let them not seek to find who I was.

—Peter Mackridge, introduction to Robert Liddell’s Cavafy: A Critical Biography (Duckbacks, 1974).


least and slight

He was afraid he’d become one of those poets who could compose something from the least wisp of thought, a slight wind brushing the skin.


why read poetry

Reason #449 to read poetry: Poetry is a repository of knowledge about our world.


two peas

The avant-garde has its own formalism.


start and finish

It was a great first line because of the poem or story that followed.


small step

Poet, all those primers and guidebooks will only take you so far.


sit down and grind

E. A. Robinson: “I don’t have trances, furors or ecstasies. My poetic spells are of the most prosaic sort. I just sit down and grind it out and use a trifle more tobacco than is good for me.”

Quoted in Geoffrey Grigson's The Private Art: A Poetry Note-Book (Allision & Busby, 1982), in the section “Fish Crows and nightingales,” 103.


to stem the tide

Day after day, I will write the same poem in the sand, allowing the tide to erase it. Until I get it right, and then even the tide dare not touch it.



talking to oneself

Some poets eventually talk on and on to themselves.

[Thinking of Ammons’ late books.]


content control

Content is revised by selection and highlight.


annotated copy

How does one make so many thoughtful notes in the margins, mark the key passages, underline so many sentences, and then let the book go, so that it may find its way into my hands.


gross vehicle weight

No line without one weighted word.


same poem


When Trakl crossed over, the angels
accused him of the same poem
again and again. He held up
the face God gave him
and showed them the deep and lovely
line a single, recurring tear,
sliding earthward,
carved on a stone cheek.

—Gregory Orr, The Caged Owl: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2002)


makes a noise

You should hear a snap when you break a line.


stanza break

He would break his lines, but would never leave space between lines. That blank space was abyss.


a teacher's limits

Even with Rilke as a mentor, and with the benefit of his stirring advice, Kappus didn’t make it as a poet or artist.


one poem printed

Every poet should have one poem printed as a letterpress broadside.


no nails

When the materials were available, they commissioned a contractor to build a three-story mission house exactly like the one that had been destroyed by fire. In the compound, carpenters cut timbers, gouged mortises, shaped tenons, whittled scores of wooden pegs and bored holes for them, until all the parts for the house were in a neat pile; then, in three days, they put the whole thing together,...without any nails as all.

—John Hersey, Hiroshima: A new edition with a final chapter written 40 years after the explosion, (Knopf, 1985), 85.


only names now

They are names only now, in that sad slow almost silent ten years that precedes a poet’s death.


family language

Prose and poetry are the language’s siblings. That they would share resemblance should surprise no one.


too much order

There is something about too close attention to metrics that tilts to science and away from art.


no game

He spoke of poetry as a form of play. I hope I’m not picked for that game.


reading to the limit

Once he believed he could read till he found the reason for all thing—read till it all fell in place.


inch by inch

So aesthetics is what connects one to matters of fact. It is anti-ideal, it is materialistic. It implies no approval, but respect for things as they are. America inch by inch. This has nothing to do with evaluation or usefulness.

—Fairfield Porter, “Letters to Claire and Robert White.” Parenthèse, No. 4, 212.

[Quoted in Douglas Crase's AMERIFIL.TXT (U. of Michigan, 1996)]



There are authors who I say to myself, I’d rather see the movie than read the book.


nothing irregular here

The meter was regular and the poetry regular too.


he put the me in memorial

In memory of my friend the departed poet, I will read two of my poems about him.


no course charted

It’s common for poets to say they have no idea where their poems are going when they start writing them, and one can readily see this is true by the poems themselves.


you stumble on them

Everywhere we seek the Absolute, and always we find only things.

Fragment No. 1; Variant: We seek the absolute everywhere and only ever find things. - Blüthenstaub (1798).


you can't make it up

News report headlines often offer whole poems:
Missing Houston man's body found in his car trunk in Dallas.


pure and imperfect

A poem that was absolutely pure in all its imperfections.


disappearing title

One of those titles that dissipate the moment the poem is read.


gifted lines

I couldn’t think of anything on my own,
so I offer you these lines by others.


just say it

“In this essay I propose to study the development of...,” is an example of what makes academic essays insufferable.


bright star

An image that could blot the sun.


three lines away

One is always three lines away from getting it all said, once and for all.
Actually, I usually write about whatever swims into my mind. And since I’m always, unlike Heraclitus, sinking in some water, it’s usually the same fish that swim in—ghostfish, deathfish, firefish, whatever can rise to the top.
Unless you love the music of words, you are merely a pamphleteer.
I think the absence of people in my poems enhances their presence in the objects and the landscapes.
More often than not, the title is all a poem needs of narrative structure.
Poetry is an exile’s art. Anyone who writes it seriously, writes from an exile’s point of view.
We write approximations.

—Charles Wright, “Halflife: A commonplace notebook” in Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews 1977-87 (U. of Michigan Press, 1988)


invisible influence

The first time the actors rehearsed the scene in the bedroom, the bureaus were empty props. The director had them fill the drawers with their own underwear, bras, socks, jeans, t-shirts and such. In the next rehearsal, though none of the clothes were visible, the two actors lived the scene.


feeding the web's maw

There is no poem so lacking in intellectual nourishment that the internet will not eat it.


might be both

No easy answer: Was that a poem or a dream you just told me?


careful where you step

The droppings of poets were all about. Someone must have been feeding them prompts again.


would move the world

The line that was an Archimedean lever.


dark star moments

To feel the center of a poem, one has to have felt the significance of all of the poem’s moments, moments of lesser as well as greater intensity that nevertheless are crucial to the poem’s structure and cumulative power. […]

The center can occur anywhere in the poem. It can be a phrase or a stanza, or it may reveal its energy in the gap between stanzas. It can be a moment where the poem’s tension is most palpably enacted, where the poem’s time frames or layers interact simultaneously, where the texture of the poem undergoes significant variation, where the poem contradicts itself, or where the poem seem to quicken and gather itself in a passage that acts as a kind of net. The center is where the reader feels most powerfully the sensations of the poem’s theme. And nearly always, the center contains a pivot or surprise that gives the whole poem simultaneously light and darkness, hence considerable range.

I call these moments “dark star” moments, after an image in a beautifully crafted poem by James Tate titled Consumed. This poem manages, through apparently conventional rhetorical gestures of question and answer, elaboration on that answer and then conclusion, to catapult the reader into a state of uncertainty that is bracing, absolute, and utterly resistant to paraphrase:

Consumed by James Tate

—Leslie Ullman, “A ‘Dark Star’ Passes Through It,” Library of Small Happiness (Three: A Taos Press, 2017)



one and many

In order to say something insightful about any one poem, you need to have read enough others.


shared reading

Not to explain the poem, not to know the poem exactly, yet still trying to find a shared reading of the poem, however imperfect or partial.


old marquee

Like on the marquee of a closed-down theater, letters had tilted, slipped down or fallen entirely from the title.


to reveal the real

Using the imagination not for sake of pure fancy, but to better apprehend reality, to look inside or to glimpse the seldom seen sides of things.


turn back

Nowhere in Larkin’s poems are the adverse and the negated more apparent than in his exit strategies—those terminating gestures at the end of his poems that regularly turn their backs on the reader, offer a blank stare or open a window onto nothingness. ‘Un-,’ ‘not,’ ‘non,’ ‘no,’ ‘never,’ ‘nothing,’ ‘nowhere’ and other isotopes of the same linguistic element are present in his last lines, time and time again. ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere’, from ‘I Remember, I Remember’, could have been the poster child for this lecture, but there are dozens more such endings, and this from a relatively modest output…

—Simon Armitage, A Vertical Art: Oxford Lectures (Faber, 2021)


get lost

The reverie that one must get lost in before anything is revealed.


stone room

A stanza that is a room made of stone.


image test

Is it an image or an idle detail?