music box

The poem as music box.


make it stop

And the calliope played on: Kalliope, the muse of epic poetry.


save a life

Poetry can save one’s life, and it need not be from trauma; it may be as simple as opening one to the world through language.


one and done

There is art you are grateful to have experienced but wouldn’t want to own. There are poems you’re grateful to have read but wouldn’t read again.


poem in mind

In the mind the poem has its essence before the first word is written.


alt aesthetic

Not everyone need accept your aesthetic.

six-hundred coffee-houses

The Viennese café was the quintessential meeting place of the city, a well-upholstered extension of the public sphere. As one historian of this era writes, the Viennese café ‘was an institution of a special kind…a sort of democratic club, for discussion, writing and playing cards’. There were about 600 of these coffee-houses in the imperial capital in 1900. Some Viennese conducted most of their work in cafés, often alternating between two or three favorites in a day. One businessman was said to have had his hours printed on his cards thus:

          From 2 to 4 o’clock — Café Landtmann
          From 4 to 5 o’clock — Café Rebhuhn
          From 5 to 6 o’clock — Café Herrenhof

—Richard Cockett, Vienna: How the City of Ideas Created the Modern World (Yale U Press, 2023) p 15


me poets

When you spend time on social media with other poets you realize how needy they are.


text excerpt is enough

I’m suspect of any book that needs a trailer to promote itself. Save your fancy visuals, a short text excerpt will do.


bookend critics

I think of Perloff and Vendler as bookend critics, standing each on opposite sides of a shelf marked 'modern and contemporary poetry'.


chatter not matter

Language as communication interests me more than language as material.


full of bluster

Young poets have to be full of bluster about what they are doing; otherwise they’d have no confidence to keep writing.

—Charles Simic "The Great Poets’ Brawl of ’68," New York Review of Books, April 23, 2014


form and content

The postcard being the perfect format for the haiku form.


what works for me

Except for authors expressing what works for themselves, I’m not in favor of writer’s advice.


mime poet

His use of language left so much unsaid you felt he missed his calling as a mime.


under blurbed

Turns out the gathered blurbs were not fulsome enough to please the publisher.


not easy even in three lines

A short as it is, in just three lines, there are thousands of ways to go wrong in writing a haiku.


stages of experience

First the poetry startled you, then it enthralled you, then by study you became aware of its faults and limitations—but still you admired this poetry.


what is

Tu Fu is far from being a philosophical poet in the ordinary sense, yet no Chinese poetry embodies more fully the Chinese sense of the unbreakable wholeness of reality. The quality is the quantity; the value is the fact. The metaphor, the symbols are not conclusions drawn from images, they are the images themselves in concrete relationship.
The concept of the poetic situation is itself a major factor in almost all Chinese poems of any period. Chinese poets are not rhetorical; they do not talk about the material of poetry or philosophize abstractly about life—they present a scene and an action. “The north wind tears the banana leaves.” It is South China in the autumn. “A lonely goose flies south across the setting sun.” Autumn again, and evening. “Smoke rises from the rose jade animal to the painted rafters.” A palace. “She toys idly with the strings of an inlaid lute.” A concubine. “Suddenly one snaps beneath her jeweled fingers.” She is tense and tired of waiting for her master. This is not the subject matter, but it is certainly the method, of almost all the poets of the modern, international idiom, whether Pierre Reverdy or Francis Jammes, Edwin Muir or William Carlos Williams, Quasimodo or the early, and to my taste best, poems of Rilke.
If Isaiah is the greatest of all religious poets, then Tu Fu is irreligious. But to me his is the only religion likely to survive….It can be understood and appreciated only by the application of what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life.” What is, is what is holy.

—Kenneth Rexroth, “Tu Fu, Poems,” Classics Revisted (New Directions, 1986)


stay humble

Picking up an old poetry anthology, and perusing its contents page: A few names still known, but many more gone from contemporary consciousness.


where social doesn't mean self

I dream of a social media site where the poets talk about what they’re reading and say very little about their own publications or events.


the innumerable lost

Being asked to contribute an essay to a book of forgotten or neglected poets—it’s not a small number to choose from.


you can make this stuff up

Oulipo: mechanical prompts that produce dopey texts.


secrets of beauty

I have just seen at Picasso’s house a drawing on a large canvas that depicts a mass grave. It was as if the drawing was deepened by innumerable lines that the painter had previously erased. These lines bear witness to a search—not for a better line, but for the only line that will do.

Poetry is not holy just because it speaks of things that are holy. Poetry is not beautiful just because it speaks of things that are beautiful. If we are asked why it is beautiful and holy, we must answer as Joan of Arc did when she had been interrogated for too long:
“Next question.”

Beauty is lame. Poetry is lame. It is from a struggle with the angel that the poet emerges—limping. This limp is what gives the poet his charm.

The masses can love a poet only by misunderstanding him.

Poetry works like lightning. Lightning strips a shepherd bare and carries his clothes several miles away. It imprints on a ploughman’s shoulder the photograph of a young girl. It can obliterate a wall and leave a tulle curtain untouched. In short, it creates unusual things. The poet’s strikes are no more premeditated than lightning.

A poet should be recognizable not by his style but by the way in which he looks at things.

At first a poet is not read at all. Then he is read badly. Then he becomes a classic, and habit prevents him from being read. Eventually, he retains his few early lovers for eternity.

A poet must not refuse honours, but he must see to it that no one thinks of offering them to him. If they are offered to him, it is because he has done something wrong. He must then accept the honours he is offered as a punishment.
This is what Erik Satie meant when he said, “It is not enough to refuse The Legion of Honour; you have not to deserve it.

All beautiful writing is automatic.

A poet’s laziness, waiting for voices: a dangerous attitude. It means that he isn’t doing what he needs in order to make the voices speak to him.

I used to use a detective agency’s advertisement to describe the figure of the poet: “Sees everything, hears everything, nobody suspects a thing.”

A poet never has enough freedom. Everything that he hoards turns against him. He is fortunate if somebody plunders him, dupes him, abandons him, ransacks his house, and drives him out of his home.

The poet has a truth of his own that people mistake for a lie. The poet is a lie that tells the truth.

The poet uses ornamentation to win people over and to seduce his readers. One day the ornamentation will fall away.

A poem always unravels too quickly. You have to tie and retie it firmly.

Seriousness that imposes: Never believe it. Never confuse it with gravity.

The canvas hates to be painted. The colours hate serving the painter, the paper hates the poem, and the ink hates us. What remains of these struggles is a battlefield, a famous date, a hero’s testimony.

Éluard’s clear water reflected the nature of his soul and so lovingly deformed it. Those who imitate him can only reflect a reflection.

Poetry is ill-served by people who live with their feet on the ground while wanting to look like dreamers. Poetry walks with one foot in life and one foot in death. That’s why I call it lame, and it is by its lameness that I recognize it.

I have noticed that one must write countless pages before a single word strikes a chord with a reader, or a single detail is remembered. The truth is that people will pass judgement on our house on as slight a basis as the catch on the door. This observation give me a sense of vertigo that makes me lazy.

Why do these thoughts come to me, to someone who is so reluctant to write? It’s probably because—having broken down in a street in Orléans—I am writing them on the move, in a third-class carriage that keeps jogging me. I reconnect with this dear work [of writing] on the endpapers of books, on the backs of envelopes, on tablecloths: a marvellous discomfort that stimulates the mind.*

—Jean Cocteau, selections from Secrets of Beauty (Eris, 2024; based on Éditions Gallimard, 2013), translated by Juliet Powys, with an introduction by Pierre Caizergues.

*The introduction states that this book of thoughts was composed in March 1945 on a journey back to Paris from the town of Anjouin. The car in which Cocteau was traveling broke down and was towed into Orléans, where he then took a train to Paris.


almost a solicitation

When a poet gets a “No, thanks,” rejection, he ignores the ‘no’ and clings to that ‘thanks’ and thinks the editor is saying in code, ‘Send me something again soon’.


building materials

From solitude and silence, the poet erects a home.


less is more

A shortened life magnifies the poet’s output.


attention and ardor

To read poetry requires attention and ardor.


avant light

Many of her poems were avant-garde versions of light verse.


black sounds

In his 1930 essay, “The Duende: Theory and Divertissement,” Lorca wrote: “All that has black sounds has duende…. The black sounds are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the fertile silt that gives us the very substance of art.” Lorca goes on to describe the three forces—the Angel, the Muse, and the Duende—that “everyone senses and no philosopher explains.”

According to Lorca, when the Angel sees death on the way he flies in slow circles and “weaves tears of narcissus and ice.” When the Muse sees death, she closes the door. But the Duende “will not approach at all if he does not see the possibility of death.” Lorca writes: “Everywhere else, death is an end.” Death’s possibility—the necessity of its proximity—is that which makes art human and alive.

The omnipresent loom of death—the body and its dangers, the heart and its constancy of harm—is what makes the poetry of Thomas James so powerful. So ubiquitous is this power of “black sounds” that—according to a student who, in earnest, made a list of Thomas’ touchstones, his word-hoard, his lexicon (such easy prey—moon, stone, bone, wound)—over a dozen instances of the word “dark” appear in this one book. But Lorca wrote, after all, that poems are works of art that have been “baptized in dark water.”

—Lucie Brock-Broido, Introduction to Letters to a Stranger (Graywolf Press, 2008) by Thomas James.


missile strikethrough

When writing, you’ll notice that certain words seem to be looking over their shoulders, certain that at any minute a strikethrough was about to hit them.


form is

He believed that form was the well-described thing.


language system

Analyzing the poem as a language system.


bored through

I was bored by your poem…no, what I mean to say, is that your poem bored through me.


speaking from beyond

Poets are eager to become mouthpieces for the dead.


lyric audacity

‘Where did this fat, good-natured officer…get such astounding lyric audacity, the mark of a great poet?’ wrote Leo Tolstoy of Afanasy Fet.


[Afanasy Fet’s] poetic credo he summed up in a few words: ‘Anyone who cannot throw himself head-first from the seventh storey with the unshakable belief that he will be borne up on the air is no poet.’ The fixing of a moment in eternity (‘I look straight from time into eternity’)—the fixing in perpetual stillness of an accidental, transient, elusive moment of the soul, of some everyday detail—is the characteristic texture of his poetry:

     This leaf that has withered and fallen
     Burns with eternal gold in song.


Lyric audacity is the key to the musicality in Fet’s poetry. Not the communication of meaning, but the inculcation of a mood. Feeling abolishes logic. Fet wrote: ‘Poetry and music are not just related, they are inseparable. All enduring works of poetry, from the Old Testament to Goethe to Pushkin, are essentially musical—songs, harmony--, also truth. I have always been drawn away from the explicit sphere of words to the indeterminate sphere of music, and have gone as far as my strength allowed.’ Tchaikovsky wrote of Fet: ‘I think his poetry is marvellous…At his best, Fet oversteps the bounds of poetry and strides boldly into our terrain. Fet often reminds me of Beethoven.’


Each poem has its own melody, its rhythmic profile, which is repeated in no other. ‘Seeking to re-create the harmony of truth, the poetic spirit automatically hits on the appropriate musical structure…No musical mood, no work of art’, wrote Fet.

—“The Poetry of Afanasy Fet” by Yevgeny Vinokurov, an essay, which formed the introduction to a Russian edition of Afanasy Fet’s selected poems (1976), translated by Maxwell Shorter.

Afanasy Fet: I have come to you to greet you, selected poems translated by James Greene. Introduction by Harold Gifford and an essay by Yevgeny Vinokurov (Angel Press, 1982).


marvels enough

A kind of poetry that I resisted on many levels yet there were marvels enough in the language to engage me, to keep me reading.


lyric spark

The poem may be directed to an other or a beloved, yet the self remains the lyric spark.


anaphora and other refrains

Do I repeat myself, yes, I contain multiples. [tweaking Whitman]


poet me

A poet with all the self-satisfaction you’d expect of an egotist on display.


gambit without the game

The small poem is a flash, a gesture, a gambit without the game that follows. There’s no room for landscape here, or easeful reflection, but there is the opportunity for humor and poignancy. And this minimalist practice has its masters.

—Billy Collins, Afterword to Musical Tables (Random House, 2022)


the way in

Through poetic imagery we experience immanence.


chastened reader

Lately what I’ve been reading shames me enough not to write. And that’s a good thing.


unexpected inevitable

The last line should at first be unexpected but then be inevitable.


bodily function

I don’t write until I feel a physical necessity to commit a feeling or a notion to text. Writing as a bodily function.


amid alien circumstances

The substance of the late poetry is, then, the emotion of the Poet as Poet (in the romantic sense) when faced with modern times, when forced to exist and to practice his art in the circumstances of the last forty years. . . . Yeats shifted from the effort to write the “poetic” poetry of the nineties to the concern, as poet, with what it was to be a poet amid the alien circumstances of his age. That is why he is so often, in his later poetry, writing about the artists, scholars, and beautiful women he has known, and their unfortunate lives. . . . The will to seek one’s opposite, the doctrine that one must seek one’s anti-self, is at once the method by means of which Yeats found his genuine and peculiar theme, and one more example of the concern with acting a part which flows from the obsession with Art. The result has been a group of poems which will be known as long as the English language exists.

—Delmore Schwartz, “The Poet as Poet” (1939), Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz, (U. of Chicago Press, 1970), edited by Donald A. Dike and David H. Zucker


seriously seated

Like avid gamers, writers try to avoid being AFK (away from the keyboard).


by comparison

AI generated poetry makes flarf poetry look like poetic genius.


few stitches

To be permitted a few stitches in literature’s great tapestry.


a book set aside

He'd set aside the book about a decade ago and just today picked it up again as though nothing had happened in between.


programmed plagiarist

Isn’t writing a poem via an AI assist just a special case of plagiarism?


personal music

I learned, from Edwin [Denby], that each phrase was an object and that word order was plastic; that each word used all of its space and so had to fill it; that each line floated as well as connected; and that where a sentence stopped and another began was ambiguous, like in speech. I learned that one could place personal suffering in a context that might be communal as of persons or communal as of objects and actions and words—either one worked as community. I thus learned a scale one was being along that began with oneself and others in one’s apartment and proceeded out onto the street and into the imaginary space of painting and ballet on up into the sky above tall buildings, all inside one and one inside it. I learned not to fear the sound of personal peculiarities in poetry, personal “music,” that that’s what the poems would finally be made of.

—Alice Notley, “Intersections with Edwin’s Lines,” Telling the Truth as It Comes Up: Selected Talks & Essays 1991-2018 (The Song Cave, 2023)


reading together

The beauty of reading literary criticism is that you get to read together with another engaged and thoughtful person, and no matter that the arguments are necessarily unresolved.


brief dip

A book he could tell early on he would not read in full.


two types

A memory hoarder v. an experience giver.


the wrong word

A word may be mildly inapposite and do more damage to the piece than a word that is wildly out of keeping with the whole.



no chance

One of the sad things, I have come to think, about making Literature an academic subject is that it doesn’t really give poetry a chance. What poetry has to offer us isn’t easily handled in examinations; everything else about it—formal aspects, tendencies, sources, biographical indications…the trivia, the incidentals of the enterprise—alack, most distractingly, are.

I. A. Richards, "The Future of Reading," The Written Word (Newbury House Publishers, 1971)


book count

One of those poets who had more published books than readers.


slash and burn

I think the best poets get more satisfaction from striking whole lines and stanzas than from the composition of same.


no performance required

Performance cannot enhance a good poem but it may elevate a lesser one.


tripping hazard

Tripped up by the poem's title.


mystery first

In the composition of poetry mystery must be foremost and then mastery follows after.


colossus means

A colossal heroism: order of excess, triumph over formlessness: “For the primitive Greek, colossus does not mean size, but figuration, a little doll could be colossal if it achieved its figuration, if it triumphed over the formlessness. A superior order of excess, a new creationist order of man and of the gods.” (“Homenaje a René Portocarrero,” 1962). To conceive formlessness, according to Lezama, means following the trace of becoming that goes “from a nebula to the cosmos.” More than imposing a form on the formlessness, a sense of finality, we must crown it, capture it without stopping it, and allow it to reach its best sense at the moment it escapes.

—from the introduction to A Poetic Order of Excess: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Green Integer Press, 2019) by José Lezama Lima, edited and translated by James Irby and Jorge Brioso


fall out

I don’t fall in line with 5-7-5, but I won’t resist a haiku that happens to fall out into that pattern.


respect the blank page

Poet, have respect for the blank page.


no pets

He had no pets but many beloved books.


killer lines

Killer first line. Killer final line. The rest of the poem will fall into place.