scholarship or sensibility

Distinguishing between a criticism based on scholarship or one relying on sensibility.


follow the leader

That phenomenon of a workshop when the poets start writing poems in the manner of the group’s leader or its most distinguished voice.


numerical clutter

Annoying to read poems made of brief entries—a phrase, a sentence or two—that have been separated into numbered sections. The numbers serve no function other than division, where blank space or at most an asterisk would suffice.


communication in depth

Dickey offers a provocative definition of poetry in the discussion of Alun Lewis: “It’s not ‘literature’; it’s that human communication in depth that the best poetry is.” To say that a poet is great is not to praise indiscriminately. “Human communication in depth” can miss the mark. Dickey cautions the audience during the session on William Butler Yeats: “There are small writers that you can like without equivocation or without reservation, but I think there are no great writers that you have no reservation about whether or not you like them. Toward the end of this volume in the lecture on Dylan Thomas, he identifies two of his choices for greatness: “Of the great original users of the English language, who brought something truly original to the use of English in poetry, the two finest, the most original in whole canon of English poetry, are Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas…But of the two, the more original is Dylan Thomas.”

Quoted in James Dickey: Classes on Modern Poets and the Art of Poetry (U. of S. Carolina Press, 2004), edited by Donald J. Greiner


less of the same

You have written and published a dozen books and you are almost unknown among fellow poets, not to mention any greater audience. Is it not time to slow down, to re-set, and to see if you can find a strain of poetry that will be recognized?


is it your move or mine

I played chess for long hours with Jack Gilbert without saying anything of consequence.


not this way or that

No one way to write a true poem.


judge unknown

He knew he was out of his times when he couldn’t recognize the name of the poet judging a major prize.


airhead editor

Speaking about poetics and essays about poetry, the new editor said she was 'against five-syllable words'. Someone unable to lift her head, to strain her neck to look beyond the barrier of what she knows. Does 'responsibility' have too many syllables?


itinerant poet

A Cure for Poetry

Seven wealthy towns contend for Homer dead,
Thro’ which the living Homer begg’d his bread.

(Anonymous; after the Latin of George Buchanan)

[Quoted in The Faber Book of Epigrams and Epitaphs (Faber & Faber, Ltd., 1977), edited by Geoffrey Grigson]


different reasons

Philosophers and poets are fond of the aphorism for different reasons.


responsible reader

It’s not all on the writer—the reader too has responsibilities to the text.


echo form

Two people walk into a poetry reading late, while the reader is reciting her pantoum. The guy says to his date, 'Gosh, there's a terrible echo in this room'.


good parenting

The parents grew concerned finding that their teenage son was reading poetry books, so they purchased many new video game titles for him.


to make of or to listen to

Poets who are not so much makers as they are listeners.


come up for air

In poetry the right margin is not like in a swimming pool, where the swimmer must make a turn against a wall. The line ends where the swimmer in open water comes up for air.


head turning sentence

An aphorism should turn a head.


words in the night

I was in Buenos Aires recently (I know, ‘Don’t cry for me…’). The trip gave me a chance to reread Merwin’s translations of the ‘aphorisms’ of Antonio Porchia (1886-1968). I put quote-marks around the word aphorisms because Porchia objected to being called an aphorist. An Italian immigrant to Argentina, he opened a print shop with his brother, and struggled to make a living in his adopted country, all the while refining his short writings. He published one book, Voices, in several editions. He was never fully embraced by the Argentine literati. But as Merwin says in his intro, “Shortly before his death he had been recorded reading from his Voices, and for some time after he died his voice was used by a Buenos Aires radio station, each night as it signed off. In Porchia’s slow, deep utterance…"

Before I travelled my road I was my road.

One lives in hope of becoming a memory.

He who tells the truth says almost nothing.

A wing is neither heaven nor earth.

The world understands nothing but words, and you come into it with almost none.

When there is no treasure to show, night is the treasure.

It is a long time now since I asked heaven for anything , and still my arms have not come down.

It is easier for me to see everything as one thing than to see one thing as one thing.

A large heart can be filled with very little.

He who has made a thousand things and he who has made none, both feel the same desire to make something.

Night is a world lit by itself.

What words say does not last. The words last. Because words are always the same, and what they say is never the same.

The important and unimportant are the same only at the start.

—Antonio Porchia, Voices (Cooper Canyon, 2003) by Antonio Porchia, translation by W. S. Merwin.


no more me

We await the poems that will come after personal and family content are exhausted.


equal levels

Artists should realize the political is no more worthy than the aesthetic of elevation.


in buenos aires

First stanza of Jorge Luis Borges' "Poem about Gifts"...

   Let none think that I by tear or reproach make light
   Of this manifesting the mastery
   Of God, who with excelling irony
   Gives me at once both books and night.

[Borges blind or near so at this point, from Dreamtigers by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

The old Biblioteca Nacional where Borges served as director from 1955 to 1973.