battle lines

There are many ways to go wrong in writing a political poem, but the number is no greater than those encountered in writing a love poem.


press press pull

Each line a lever in that strange contraption called a poem.


passing fancy

Engaged in a language dalliance.


the fruit

The Fruit

This is how I want the poem to be:
trembling with light, coarse with earth,
murmuring with waters and with wind.

—Eugénio de Andrade, 28 Portuguese Poets (Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2015), translated by Richard Zenith and Alexis Levtin.

Os Frutos

Assim eu queria o poema:
frementa de luz, áspero de terra,
rumoroso de águas e de vento.


hard cases

He wrote poems with words that don’t fit well into poems.


nth sense

Poetry is a human sensory faculty as yet not fully understood.


late bloomer

Sometimes one of the best poets of a previous century only emerges in the next. [Thinking of the Frost.]


giant killer

A haiku that could humble a poem of a hundred lines.


minimal inventory

Practical Philosophy
     Baruch Spinoza, by profession a lens-grinder, spent the last years of his life in lodgings on the Pavilion Gracht, in the Hague, most of his time in one room, often taking his meals there, and sometimes not leaving it for several days when he was at work on a project. His first biographer listed his final possessions: “The inventory of a true philosopher. Some small books, some engravings, a few lenses and the instruments to polish them.” His desk, containing letters and unpublished works, was sent to his publisher in Amsterdam.
     A poem is a glass, through which light is conveyed to us.

—Susan Howe, “Vagrancy in the Park,” The Quarry (New Directions, 2015).


high bar

When asked: “Do people still read poetry?” “Some do,” I said, “but only the smart ones.”


wrapping paper

He saved drafts of poems and used the sheets to wrap small gifts.


slack structure

Lines sag when the words don’t have weight.


poison cup

When form falsifies content.


amorphous couch

The poet tends to get too comfortable in the inchoate.


make mountainous

For hours and days on end he [Cézanne] sought out ways to make unintelligible the obvious, and to find for things easily understood an inexplicable basis. As time went by, a secret watchfulness settled in his eyes from so much precise circling of contours that became for him edges of a mystery. An entire quiet lifetime he spent fighting inaudibly and, one might be tempted to say, with nobility, to make mountainous—if such a paraphrase might suffice—the frame of things.

—Robert Walser, “A Discussion of a Picture,” Looking at Pictures (Christine Burgin/New Directions, 2015), translated by Lydia Davis.


higher calling

Frustrated with my poetry, I decided to remake myself into the proverbial ‘ideal reader’.


line too far

A fifteenth line was called for, so it wasn’t a sonnet after all.


young and old

The young poet and old poet are both working with a similar disadvantage: One has few experiences and the other has too many memories.


each is and thus defines

It is only in poem by written poem that poetry is defined.


intensity justified

Poetry is the language of intensity. Because we are all going to die, an expression of intensity is justified.

C. D. Wright, Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil (Copper Canyon Press, ) p. 61.


personal library

Thinking back on the simple bookshelf I built in my bedroom, the couple dozen poetry books I had hardly filled one shelf, yet they seemed a great library to me.


place each word

Word by well-placed word, build me a word palace.


word slathered

You have lavished language upon me but have revealed nothing.


continuous shriek

The confessional poet’s writing style could be described as ‘scream of consciousness’.


never know exactly

Stevens in one of his last poems says he imagines as a kind of final act of nature a bird singing ‘without human meaning, without human feeling, a foreign song.’ The idea that every creature has its own reality scared poets at the beginning of the twentieth century, made some of them feel we were groping blindly---it in effect kicked us out of the comfortable anthropocentric community—but it also allowed some modern poets this sense of absolute mystery at the core of existence. It came of knowing that we would never know exactly what a bird’s experience is, or what an ant’s experience is. It has been an unhousing of the imagination, and it was brought on by the thrust of science to be at home in the world by understanding it. It said we move among great powers and mysteries and only glimpse their meanings, the meaning of what it’s like to be another creature, and therefore also the meaning of being a self, a person.

—Robert Hass, The Poetic Species: A conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass (Bellevue Literary Press, New York, 2014, p. 55-56.)


high clear sound

A train whistle and other things inherently poetic.


technical drawing

A manuscript page so heavily marked with lines and arrows he mistook it at first for a schematic or map.


yikes and yikes again

The double-horror of realizing one has accidentally plagiarized a terrible writer.


tough crowd

I like writing in a room full of books where the titled spines reprove each written word.


indirect light

An aphorism makes you squint like when a stray ray of light hits the corner of your eye.


stay alive

We tell each other stories to help each other live. That’s why I read poetry. I read poetry to stay alive. That’s why I went to poetry in the first place, that’s why I stay with it, that’s why I’ll never leave it. Because poetry alone carries the truth of “is-ness.”

—Marie Howe, BOMB 61, Fall 1997, interview by Victoria Redel.



Metaphor that is less like attachment and more like collision.


poem factory

Unfortunately he used forms as though they were molds for pouring in content and making very similar poems.


scene rendered

It’s all about the quality of the description.


vision shifted

“White writing” appeared in my art the way flowers explode over the earth at a given time. With this method I found I could paint the frenetic rhythms of the modern city, something I couldn’t even approach with Renaissance techniques. In other words, through calligraphic line I was able to catch the restless pulse of our cities today. I began working this way in England—in Devonshire in 1935—when I returned from the Orient, where I’d studied Chinese brushwork. So in gentle Devonshire during the night, when I could hear the horses breathing in the field, I painted Broadway and Welcome Hero. In the process I probably experienced the most revolutionary sensations I have ever had in art, because while one part of me was creating these two works, another part was trying to hold me back. The old and the new were in battle. It may be difficult for one who doesn’t paint to visualize the ordeal an artist goes through when his angle of vision is being shifted.

—Mark Tobey, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Modern Artists (Da Capo Press, 2000), interviews by Katherine Kuh.


become art

They say you can make art out of anything; but some things have to become art.


no outré there

A confessional poet whose life might be mistaken for that of a saint.



The lines were like a handful of straw held up to the wind.


not equal

Words have meanings and through language convey semantic sense, but in poetry there are no equal signs.


the instant, the quick

For an essential part of Lawrence’s genius was his fluency; and I mean something more literal than the ease with which he wrote: rather, the sense of direction in all the flowing change and variation in his work. This fluency has its own forms without its own conventions. It is not plottable: ear-count, finger-count and what might be called the logic of received form have nothing to do with it. What matters is the disturbance. ‘It doesn’t depend on the ear, particularly,’ he once wrote, ‘but on the sensitive soul.’ It is something that can never be laid out into a system, for it comes instead from the poet’s rigorous but open alertness…Lawrence’s controlling standard was delicacy: a constant, fluid awareness, nearer the checks of intimate talk than those of regular prosody. His poetry is not the outcome of rules and formal craftsmanship, but of a purer, more native and immediate artistic sensibility. It is poetry because it could not be otherwise.

He was well aware of what he was about. He put his case in the introduction to New Poems:

'To break the lovely form of metrical verse, and dish up the fragments as a new substance, called vers libre, this is what most of the free-versifers accomplish. They do not know that free verse has its own nature, that it is neither star nor pearl, but instantaneous like plasm…It has no finish. It has no satisfying stability, satisfying for those who like the immutable. None of this. It is the instant; the quick.'

—A. Alvarez, “Lawrence’s Poetry: A Single State of Man,” D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, Poet, Prophet (Harper and Row, 1973). Essay originally published in A. Alvarez’s The Shaping Spirit (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958).


genre hunger

Poet, be a genre eater.


flows over

Whether slight or expansive, a good poem is always a superfluity.


a way without words

He even translated the silences well.


poetry ready

A reader of poetry has responsibilities: among which are open-mindedness and a wide-ranging education.


term limit

Nothing can be done to make a word like ‘rancid’ become a lovely vocable.


two halves

“You’re published now,” I told her, “in your eyes, your whole air,
so your poem is half of the truth, and the other half is the reader.”

—Mona Van Duyn, “An Essay on Criticism,” Merciful Disguises: Published and Unpublished Poems (Atheneum, 1973)


field awareness

He was deft with line breaks, like a wide receiver who knows how to test the edge of the field but always keeps two feet in bounds.


once over lightly

He thought revision meant fixing the punctuation and cleaning up typos.


stone steps

When reading a poem I want to feel as though I’m coming down stone steps, with some grand edifice at my back.


soft spots

The reader kept falling through the ellipses.


used to these stories

“Remember the pears, they were so green,
and the avocados, like guitars, honey-golden, and
the asparagus, like a lion’s rainy mane, and…”

Our mouths water. Their mouths water,
I am used to these stories. I am used to the land
barren, bitten and aflame with lies. I am used to
our faces in this new wild dispassionate light.
I learned this from my musician friends, from
years waging futile wars with poetry until
I could no longer think of anything else.

Juan Felipe Herrera, “I Walk Back Nowhere,” Half of the World in Light (Univ. of Arizona Press, 2008)


can't get there from here

When reading a critic I like the feeling that I’ll never catch up.


image and noun

Nouns are the shadows of the ideal forms (images).


polar response

Just another poem I could either tear apart or take at face value.


cage sport

Words that will resist the fetters of sense while they forge linkages of sound.


idea of a bird

The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense his life,—large-brained, large-lunged, hot, ecstatic, his frame charged with buoyancy and his heart with song. The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds,—how many human aspirations are realized in their free, holiday-lives, and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song!

John Burroughs, The Writings of John Burroughs: Birds and poets, with other papers (Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1904)


no there there

A poet must learn to shun inspiration toward trivial purposes.


authoritative voice

Poet, be a sergeant major: Bark orders until the reader falls in line.


hello, hello, can anyone hear me

The poet must presume an audience because none is assured.


lays it on

Poetry may be doublespeak and sometimes triple- and quadruple-speak.