cards play themselves

In poker, 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?