matter of interest

Poetry, as other object matter, is after all for the interested people.

—Louis Zukofsky, preface to A Test of Poetry (1948)

[Poetry after all, one might add, is for interesting people.]


dorothy and emily

Dialogue from the film, The Wizard of Oz (1939)...

   Oz: I am Oz—the Great and Powerful. Who are you? Who are you?!

   Dorothy: If you please, I am Dorothy—the small and meek.


   Poetry: I am Poetry—the Great and Powerful. Who are you? Who are you?!

   Dickinson: If you please, I am Emily—the small and meek.

[You know how this story ends.]


knows the difference

I’m fine so long as the poet knows he’s writing prose in poetry lines.


not poetry itself

We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.

—Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (1958), lectures delivered at University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Winter 1955-56.

We have to remember that what we observe is not poetry itself, but poetry exposed to our method of questioning.


mark making

Stone, paper, pixels, air, mind…poems will try to fix upon anything


small conundrum

A poem so simple it must be misunderstood.



The poetic line: a dragline in the universe.


hot prospect

Some critics are like baseball scouts looking for the kid with the sinking fastball. Only instead of sitting along the left field line in an almost empty minor league stadium, they scour the pages of nearly unread literary magazines.


audible line

Meant to be uttered, a line that resisted ink.


own the moment

Each week to find that moment that opens, widens out into a poem.


against the sunset

In the “Evening Walk,” composed partly at school, partly in college vacations, he notices how the boughs and leaves of the oak darken and come out when seen against the sunset. “I recollect distinctly,” [Wordsworth] says nearly fifty years afterwards, “the very spot where this first struck me. It was on the way between Hawkshead and Ambleside, and gave me extreme pleasure. The moment was important in my poetical history; for I date from it my consciousness of the infinite variety of natural appearances, which had been unnoticed by the poets of any age or country, so far as I was acquainted with them; and I made a resolution to supply in some degree the deficiency. I could not have been at the time above fourteen years of age.”
It would be hardly too much to say that there is not a single image in his whole works which he had not observed with his own eyes. And perhaps no poet since Homer has introduced into poetry, directly from nature, more facts and images which had not before been noted in books.

—J. C. Shairp, Studies in Poetry and Philosophy (Hurd and Houghton, 1872).


unfit to print

This poem is shredder ready.


not enough there there

The content is suspect when you realize you couldn’t write the poem any better than you did.


ink over utterance

A spoken word artist who wasn’t up to his tattoos.


pancaked structure

There were some good phrases in the poem, but they seemed like distressed cries coming from a collapsed building


freedom in form

There is such a complete freedom now-a-days in respect to technique that I am rather inclined to disregard form so long as I am free and can express myself freely. I don't know of anything, respecting form, that makes much difference. The essential thing in form is to be free in whatever form is used. A free form does not assure freedom. As a form, it is just one more form. So that it comes to this, I suppose, that I believe in freedom regardless of form.

—Wallace Stevens, "A Note on Poetry," Opus Posthumous (Knopf, 1957).


poem above me

The poem should stand above the poet’s force of personality.


sentence sense

With a sixth sense for sentence structure, a poet who could dispense with punctuation.


mistake proof

Blunders, once recognized, become the poem’s building blocks.


library of unfinished books

Many books started, some finished—some deserving of being set aside, others casualties of restlessness or lack of attention.


for the stars

Dorn launched Duncan's May 7 [1969] reading with a generous introduction and Duncan in turn treated the audience to a performance of his Passages poems. Graduate student Don Byrd remembered the event well: "...There were perhaps 300 people at the reading; it went on for nearly three hours. Somewhere in the midst of the apocalyptic passages, he stopped and said, 'Some times people ask me why, if I believe this, I bother to write poetry. I write poetry for the fucking stars.'"

Robert Duncan, quoted in Lisa Jarnot's Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography (Univ. of California Press, 2012).


new word, new world

Consider this neologism: “dianamic.” Not dynamic; not dialectic…but to fuse the two words into a new one. Think of dianamic when considering the poems of Wallace Stevens, with his ongoing struggle between imagination (the life of the mind) and reality (a being in the physical world). Dianamic is not the division between two elements, two ideologies, two aesthetics; it's the forces and the flux acting between the two.


we have a runner

In the end, all you want is your poem to be running through their heads.


snatched up

She had struggled with the poem over several years, only to have it taken in a week by the first journal she sent it to.


freer speech

The poet is never strictly speaking.


one not many

Most poets don’t realize it’s the poem not the book that matters.


human things

For our ancestors, a house, a fountain, even clothing, a coat, was much more intimate. Each thing, almost, was a vessel in which what was human found and defined itself.

Now, from America, empty, indifferent things sweep in—pretend things, life-traps…A house, in the American sense, an American apple, a grapevine, bears no relation to the hope and contemplation which our ancestors informed and beheld them.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, letter to Witold Hulewicz, Nov. 13, 1925, quoted in A Year With Rilke (Harper Collins, 2009), translated and edited by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows.


rough edge

The right margin of line endings competing with the deckle edge of the page.


middle game

There are poets who can start strong. There are poet who finish with a flourish. But as in chess, it’s the middle game, when complications multiple almost endlessly, where poems are made or lost.


bared teeth

The strong consonants gave teeth, bite to the poem.


wood splitter

A poem that could drive a wedge into the side of the thickest anthology.


they live on

Dante’s great poem (Commedia) gives a more complete picture of individual men than had been ever before achieved by any single known writer, poet, or historian. On our way through the three realms, several hundred individuals appear before our eyes, men of all times, past and present, young and old, of all classes and professions, of every imaginable social and moral standing. Some of them famous in history; others were so in Dante’s life, but now are known only to very few. Others have never been famous. All these men and women are so strikingly real, so concrete, there is such a correspondence between mind and body and behavior, such an intimate relation between their character and their fate, that the unmistakable peculiarity of each individual emerges with incomparable and often terrifying and poignant vigor. Some are given a whole canto, others only a few lines. But almost all of these individual profiles are unforgettable. They live in our imagination. We do not know and are not able to verify, except in a few cases, if Dante’s portraits correspond to reality. But the realism of a poet is not that of a photographer; it is the identity of his own vision with its expression. We here are concerned with the energy of his vision and the power of his voice. No one before him had probed so deeply into the identity of individual character and individual fate.

—Erich Auerbach, “The Three Traits of Dante’s Poetry,” Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach (Princeton U. Press, 2014), edited by James I. Porter, translated by Jane O. Newman.



much ado

When at last read, the poem seemed an afterthought to the long-winded and over-explanatory introduction which preceded it.


image of note

Really, must I grieve it all again
a second time, and why tonight
of all the nights, and just
as I’m about to raise, with the
blissful others, my

glass to the silvery, liquid
chandelier above us?

—Laura Kasischke, “Champagne


hostile environment

Many species of words died out during his Darwinian revisions.


poem is maw

People fear poetry because it engulfs all other forms of language. Poetry is the ever voracious text.


known unknown

To twist Stevens’ assertion: The poet must resist celebrity almost successfully.


metaphor multiplies

The thread of a poem turns out to be a rhizome.


line limit

If the prose poem goes too far it’s because poetry is so held back by the tether of the line.


seizes the whole machine

I know I have a poem if I am moved in the first draft. By moved I mean choking in spots. If I don’t have this feeling I throw it away. I have, in the past, wasted months on work that began with an idea, an idea alone. Now I know, for myself at least, to let go at that point. If the first draft isn’t nerved by an emotion I didn’t know I felt, it isn’t going to be governed by any ideas I didn’t already understand before I wrote the poem. I always think of Frost saying, “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” He adds, of course, “no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” There can be something like tears blazing all over notions; ideas are vastly and deeply part of the body. A good idea seizes the whole machine. A new idea makes you physically afraid, your body changes. Hope is lodged in your skin, in your cellwork. I cannot even begin to understand the division commonly drawn (and honestly experienced by many people) between thought and emotion.

—Jorie Graham, “Pleasure,’ Singular Voices: American Poetry Today (Avon Book, 1985)


cultural essence

Some say fewer people are reading poetry these days. I think of us who do as the perfect distillate in a culture that requires much evaporation.


investment grade

To know a good poem is to own a lifetime annuity.


secondary source

They often quoted his ars poetica but could hardly recall his poems. [Thinking of Archibald MacLeish]


list resisted

After about 5 items into a list it’s no longer a poetic device, it’s a poet’s tic.


moment of performance

I used to be an opera singer and have, therefore, experienced what it means to have to do your very best at one specific moment. That’s what performers have to do; one of the pleasures of being a poet is that poets don’t. A couple of my poems about performance are included in this book (“The Later Mother,” about a daughter and her dying mother, is the other and might be labelled with the phrase, “in the performance of her duties.”), but I have many more—about tightrope walkers, a man who walks through fire, an orchestra conductor, etc. Performance, I believe, is a metaphor for those moments we all face when we make crucial decisions quickly, using all the abilities we possess, perhaps even summoning some we didn’t know, until that moment of necessity, we had. In that moment our capacities are heightened, as in each successful poem our perceptions are heightened so that we can recognize and delight in something which previously had been just beyond our grasp.

—Cynthia Macdonald, Poetspeak: in their work, about their work (Bradbury Press, 1983), a selection by Paul Janeczko.


these words

And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.

Revelation 21:5, King James Version


venn diagram

The universal set of poetry now encompasses any kind of text. Therefore each reader is required to draw the circle of his/her own subset.


conversion experience

The day the minister mistook the collected Dickinson for his Bible.


it's all in there

The poem as a cabinet of curiosities.


hush money

Poets who never made much money until they offered not to write so much for money.


new word

All the other letters should stagger backwards or scatter with each new word dropped into the poem.


what have you done

James Joyce is supposed to have said that certain of Verlaine’s poems, among them the short best-loved ones, were the greatest poems ever written. The haunting sensitivity and disarming simplicity of Il pleut dans mon coeur, La lune blanche, Chason d’automne, Colloque sentimental, Le ceil est par-dessus le toit, etc., are to me unequaled.

I have before me two photos of Verlaine at the Café Francois 1er. From one I have done several drawings and paintings. In that photo Verlaine is leaning back with his head against the edge of the top of the bench on which he is sitting. He is staring upward into space, dreaming. No one else is visible in the café. He looks relaxed, not wanting for anything. Whatever was going to happen has happened.

Qu’a-tu fait ô toi que voilà
Pleurant sans cesse
Dis, qu’as-tu fait, toi que voilà,
De ta jeunesse?

Robert De Niro, “Corot, Verlaine and Greta Garbo, or The Melancholy Syndrome,” Tracks, a journal of artists’ writings, Vol. 1, No. 3, Fall 1975, edited by Herbert George.

* "What have you done, you, weeping there
            Your endless tears?
Tell me, what have you done, you there,
            With youth’s best years?"

—Paul Verlaine, “Above the roof the sky is fair…” translated by Norman R. Shapiro, One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (U. of Chicago Press, 1999).


on the sideline

Trust that critic who has no claim on being an artist.


passing strange

The attraction of the poem was that it could not be immediately recognized as such.


speed writing

Often we recognize poetry by its language speed.


tight titles

Too many titles are tight-lipped, offering but a word or two.


worth breath

Say something worth breath.

—Yusef Komunyakaa, from “Safe Subjects,” Copacetic (Wesleyan U. Press, 1984)

I love the raw lyricism of the blues. Its mystery and conciseness. I admire and cherish how the blues singer attempts to avoid abstraction; he makes me remember that balance and rhythm keep our lives almost whole. The essence of mood is also important here. Mood becomes a directive; it becomes the bridge that connects us to who we are philosophically and poetically. Emotional texture is drawn from the aesthetics of insinuation and nuance. But to do this well the poet must have a sense of history

—Yusef Komunyakaa, from “Forces that Move the Spirit: Duende and Blues,” commentary accompanying the poem “Safe Subjects,” in What Will Suffice: Contemporary Poets on the Art of Poetry (Gibbs-Smith, 1999), edited by Christopher Buckley and Christopher Merrill.


poems from the prehistoric

Now when I watch old footage of poets using typewriters I feel like I’m seeing poems made with stone tools.


no hardcopy

To think of a digital Dickinson, her poems locked away in some scrapped hard drive.