test for poetry

Will the poem follow you? Will the poem affix itself to you? Will the poem inflect the course of your life?


build up and tear down

Poetry has always had its makers and its breakers.


linear entity

The poetic line resists the fetish for a sentence.


kitchens and backyards

I once asked Irish poet Eavan Boland whether Patrick Kavanaugh, the unconventional Irish peasant poet, had helped her as a woman writer in a tradition pretty much devoid of women. She answered in terms similar to mine. Kavanaugh had been a crucial guide, she said, because of “his fierce attachment to the devalued parts of his experience and a sense of the meaning of that devaluation within a society.” Kavanaugh made poetry of hay and potatoes; in a sense he gave her “permission” to make poetry of the life inside kitchens and backyards.

Deborah Tall, Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition (W.W. Norton & Co., 1993), edited and with introduction by Sharon Bryan


not exempt

Even the avant-garde must write within a tradition.


standing alone

The poem was made of single line/sentence stanzas, each of which called too much attention to itself, standing self-importantly in open space.


sight in a cold light

Keen attention must at times be unkind.


sad words

All poems are laments for what remains unexpressed by means of language.


late to the party

Woe’s me—born just a little too late for the crest of formal poetry that rose in the 1950s, so that my stuff didn’t begin to appear till the great stampede out of traditional form was on. So I came to the poetry scene like some guest who shows up just when the party is ending, the punchbowl drained, the streamers all tromped to the floor.

—X. J. Kennedy, notebook entry from The Poet’s Notebook: Excerpts form Notebooks of Contemporary American Poets (W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), edited by Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tall and David Weiss.


reward system

Poetry needs to have so many prizes and awards, otherwise its undertaking would be of uncertain value.



real light

The real is a light that dispels.


sound links

The poem as an echoic chain.


rule to judge

When, after having read a work, loftier thoughts arise in your mind and noble and heartfelt feelings animate you, do not look for any other rule to judge it by; it is fine and written in a masterly manner.

La Bruyère, Characters (Oxford U. Press, 1962), translated by Henri Van Laun.


ups and downs

He wrote his dissertation on the variations in iambic modulation.



sense of arrival

To think not of the poem ending but to think of the poem arriving.


free the poets

I noticed that The Poetry Project’s reading space has prison bars on the windows.



Someone who wrote poems, not books.


safe house

Threatened or fugitive words will always find sanctuary within poems.



speck or flash

I begin my pictures under the effect of a shock that makes me escape from reality. The cause of this shock may be a tiny thread sticking up from the canvas, a falling drop of water, or print made by my finger on the shining surface of a table.

In any case, I need a point of departure, even if only a speck of dust or flash of light. This form produces a series of things, one giving birth to another.

And so a single thread can set a world in motion. I come to a world from something considered dead. And when I give it a title, it becomes even more alive.

Joan Miró, I Work Like a Gardener (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017), compiled by Yvon Taillandier, preface by Robert Lubar.


coat peg

The first line wasn’t special; more like a coat peg, just something to hang the poem on.


poetry not poem

One could recognize the poetry in the language, even if no poem emerged from the language.

[Thinking of Lucie Brock-Broido's poetry.]


living in brooklyn

I could often tell when it was a poet at the door. They tend to knock in five-beat intervals.


deep presence

That poetry is one of humankind’s primal urges.


possibly political

Does politics inform your art? I’m not interested in agitprop. However, I think ambiguity can be read in a number of ways. I decided to show Descension—a whirlpool I created nearly five years ago—in Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2017 to draw attention to a certain state of America. I did not declare it. Otherwise the work is enslaved to a political context and has no bigger life.

Why is that? The best work has numerous layers of meaning. We see it in great poetry, like W.H. Auden’s 1947 poem The Age of Anxiety, where the war was never described. The Age of Anxiety could be this age, it could be all ages—the poem lives on by not being banal.

Anish Kapoor, “5 Questions,” Time, February 12, 2018, interview by Tara John.


I know (of) it well

There are long poems that are read and there are long poems that have reputations but aren’t read.


sharp demarcation

A line that was like razor wire. It would be hard to get over.


it all makes sense now

Poets create then critics come after to construct a poetics.


rickety answer

but what is poetry anyway?
More than one rickety answer
has tumbled since that question first was raised.
But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that
like a redemptive handrail.

—Wislawa Szymborska, from "Some Like Poetry," translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.


poet unbound

The translator has more responsibility than the poet has.


covering the waterfront

I know all of the poets except the ones I don’t know.


first translation

Language is a translation of life and the world.


uses of poetry

Sitting at a café table, I noticed a poetry book had been jammed under one leg to keep the table from wobbling.


poetry god

It was said of him that no one knew more about poetry than he did.


all art is sensual

But all art is sensual and poetry particularly so. It is directly, that is, of the senses, and since the senses do not exist without an object for their employment all art is necessarily objective. It doesn't declaim or explain, it presents.

—William Carlos Williams, The Collected Earlier Poems of William Carlos Williams (New Directions, 1951)


poem in brackets

The ideal reader would be able to “bracket” (as Husserl theorized) the poem, and thus experience it as a singular and pure phenomenon


wholly new

He showed me his revision but I could detect no provenance from the prior poem.


vantage point

Never stoop to slap the popular. Wave to it from above as it passes by.


nearly invisible

She was so much an identity poet she managed to make herself anonymous.


sacred spider

Mallarmé described himself as a “sacred spider,” the inventor of a “marvelous lacework,” The appearance of “On Toss of the Dice” thus colluded, in its lacy lack of transitions, with the Lumière brother’s cinématagraphe, which had burst upon the world late December 1895 and was barely up and running before Mallarmé began his optical oeuvre. Bravely conceived and fiercely written against the long tradition of verbal poetry, “One Toss of the Dice” marked a great shift in the direction of the visuality of our own era, with still and moving projections, hand-held personal data devices, monitors, and screens.

—R. Howard Bloch, One Toss of the Dice: The Incredible Story of How a Poem Made Us Modern (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017)


walt and emily

Whitman the empathetic ego at large. Dickinson the introspective ego writ large.


abc and abs

A young poet was invited into the basement of an older poet, and upon seeing a letterpress there, asked what kind of exercise equipment it was.


source images

An image that draws upon a history of related images.


aged out

If an artist lives past about age 80, the assumption is that s/he is already dead. Which is to say that the creative life is assumed dead even if the artist isn’t.


not accustomed

When Parra’s lines seem disconnected, it is because they are connected in a supralogical way in which we are not accustomed to seeing things. When the conventions of cause-and-result seem to be outraged, they are.

—Miller Williams, introduction to Emergency Poems (New Directions, 1972) by Nicanor Parra, translated by Miller Williams


not the marrying kind

The couplet rimes were a bad match: One was turning in circles at the altar, and the other forgot the ring.


rough to read

So much suffering in those lines, you felt it was written with claw marks.


of no matter

The poetry was not up to a level where critical attention would be worthwhile.

[Thinking of Instagram and Twitter poets.]


mosaic array

The poem as a mosaic of well-placed words.


my roller coaster


For half a century
Poetry was the paradise
Of the solemn fool.
Until I came along
And built my roller coaster.

Go up, if you feel like it.
It's not my fault if you come down
Bleeding from your nose and mouth.

by Nicanor Parra, Poems and Antipoems (New Directions, 1966), translated by Miller Williams

[I changed this post because I realized in 2016 I'd posted the same poem, "Young Poets." Not that a good poem, one I've memorized since my youth, shouldn't be posted twice or thrice or a trillion times, but I'm trying not repeat myself. Parra, for me, is one of the unique poets.]


green space

A nature poem good enough to be named a state park or protected green space.


mind the gap

A poem complete in its conception is necessarily compromised in composition.


inflection point

A book of poems that if it didn’t change the course of poetry, at least inflected it.


and another

Successive drafts have a point of diminishing returns.


shows promise

Sometimes it’s enough that reading a poem makes you want to read another or the next one.


implies another mark

     Every time I set up a blank canvas or a blank piece of paper, I experience the same feeling—queasiness, something approaching panic, and a profound lack of self-belief. There are a limitless number of marks that could be made, and almost all of them will be mistakes. That is, they will set up a logic which will lead the picture to banality or pointless mimicry. For every mark implies another. Will that circle be repeated or answered by different shape? Will it be a sun, a plate, a face? That stuttering horizontal line—it’s the sea isn’t it? Or if it’s not, you’d better work hard and fast to make that clear. And so on.
     One of the reasons painters tend to develop a signature style and stick to it is that this helps answer the original panic. Some people will always begin with an image at the centre of the picture plane. It seems that Picasso mostly does this---a face, a bird, a group of figures, will shoulder themselves out of the centre, and the lines will press away to the edges of the paper or canvas. Other painters think very hard about edges, and work inwards. Oddly, because his pictures mostly involve a central shimmering block of colours, I think Mark Rothko probably painted that way. But an initial, bold decision about how to break up the picture surface, and—to put it banally—what will go where, helps any painter get going. And once you have a way in, you are likely to use it again and again; and that way in will hugely influence what’s going to happen next.

—Andrew Marr, A Short Book About Painting (Quadrille Publishing Ltd, 2017)