each word

In a poem, each word has to be right and contribute to the whole; in a story only every sentence. In a novel only every page.

Alison Laurie, Real People (Penguin, 1978)

more fully in verse

Poetry. Perhaps I can express more fully in verse ideas and emotions which run counter to the inert crystallized opinions—hard as rock—which the vast body of men have vested interests in supporting.

—Thomas Hardy
[Notebook entry, 17 October 1896]

poems of anonymous

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)

no echoes

Slowly from nice neat letters;
doing things well
is more important than doing them.


Wake up singers!
Time for the echoes to end
and the voices to begin.


Quarreler, boxer
fight it out with the wind.
It’s not the fundamental I
that the poet is searching for
but the essential you.

—Antonio Machado, There is No Road (White Pine Press, 2003), Mary G. Berg and Dennis Maloney translators.

bars of gold thrown ringing

[Commenting on a stanza from Shelley’s poem “Laon and Cyntha"]

The rhythm is varied and troubled, and the lines, which are in Spenser like bars of gold thrown ringing one upon another, are broken capriciously. Nor is the meaning the less an aspiration of the indolent muses, for it wanders hither and thither at the beckoning of fancy. It is now busy with a meteor and now with throbbing blood that is fire, and with a mist that is a swoon and a sleep that is life. It is bound together by the vaguest suggestion, while Spenser’s verse is always rushing on to some preordained thought.

—W. B. Yeats, “Edmund Spenser,” Selected Criticism and Prose (Macmillian, 1980)

incurable and infectious malady

“As you will," said the barber; "but what are we to do with these little books that are left?"

"These must be, not chivalry, but poetry," said the curate; and opening one he saw it was the "Diana" of Jorge de Montemayor, and, supposing all the others to be of the same sort, "these," he said, "do not deserve to be burned like the others, for they neither do nor can do the mischief the books of chivalry have done, being books of entertainment that can hurt no one."

"Ah, senor!" said the niece, "your worship had better order these to be burned as well as the others; for it would be no wonder if, after being cured of his chivalry disorder, my uncle, by reading these, took a fancy to turn shepherd and range the woods and fields singing and piping; or, what would be still worse, to turn poet, which they say is an incurable and infectious malady."

Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605), Chapter VI: “Of the diverting and important scrutiny which the curate and the barber made in the library of our ingenious gentleman”

tale not teller

Source of Lawrence's oft-quoted remark: ‘Never trust the teller, trust the tale’ or ‘Trust the tale, not the teller’

The artist usually sets out—or used to—to point a moral and adorn a tale. The tale, however, points the other way as a rule. Two blankly opposing morals, the artist's and the tale's. Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.

—D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (Thomas Seltzer, Inc., 1923), p. 3.

creative drive

Parker Kaufman speaking about his father, Beat poet Bob Kaufman:

"It's frustrating when everyone's telling you, 'How dare you talk back to your dad? He's a genius,' " Parker says. "Meanwhile, it's O.K. for him to sleep on the sofa all day, drinking beer and smoking four packs of cigarettes."

Children of the Beats by Daniel Pinchbeck
Nov. 5, 1995, The New York Times Magazine

[And When I Die, I Won't Stay Dead, documentary about Bob Kaufman]

better than silence

I am working and trying to deserve the privilege of speaking, writing, and knowing perfectly well that the only words which really deserve to exist are words better than silence, but it’s not easy to find these words. Because language is such a word. The language of silence seems to be much more powerful. It’s a great challenge. That’s why I go on working and working, looking for words, chasing words.

—Eduardo Galeano, interview by Robert Birnbaum, published July 18, 2006 on Identity Theory

stands at the boundary

There is no doubt of the fact that “Cavafy stands at the boundary where poetry strips herself in order” (as I have said elsewhere) “to become prose.” No one has ever gone farther in this direction. He is the most anti-poetic (or a-poetic) poet I know.

—George Seferis, “Cavafy and Eliot—A Comparison,” On the Greek Style (Little Brown, 1966), trans. by Rex Warner.

light to see by

The poem…is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see—and what we see is life.

—Robert Penn Warren, Saturday Review (March 22, 1958)

entre nous

OBSCURITY, A PRODUCT OF TWO FACTORS. If my mind is richer, more rapid, freer, more disciplined than yours, neither you nor I can do anything about it.

—Paul Valéry, The Art of Poetry (Vintage, 1961), trans. by Denise Folliot.

hearing it read

Strolling across the University of California, Santa Barbara campus one afternoon, poet and professor Kenneth Rexroth saw one of his students lying on the grass. “What are you doing?,” he asked. “Oh, I’m reading a book of poetry,” the student replied. “How can you be reading poetry?” Rexroth queried. “I don’t hear anything.”

Quoted from Mira Rosenthal’s “The Self Made Strange: On Translating Tomasz Różycki’s ‘Iterations',” Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets (Southern Illinois U. Press, 2010), edited by Blas Falconer, Beth Martinelli, and Helena Mesa.

greater lyric

I begin to understand how a critic like [Ivor] Winters can argue that the brief lyric may be greater than a complete tragedy, since the lyric can hope for perfection, an unflawed wholeness and unity.

—Donald Justice, “On the Purity of Style,” Platonic Scripts (U. of Michigan Press, 1984)

portion of its lost heart

Though she may never compose an epic or a tragic drama in five acts, the woman poet has a singular role and precarious destiny. And, at the moment, in a time lacking in truth and certainty and filled with anguish and despair, no woman should be shamefaced in attempting to give back to the world, through her work, a portion of its lost heart.

―Louise Bogan "The Heart and the Lyre," essay (1947).

solo voice

All poetry is of the nature of soliloquy.

John Stuart Mill, “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties,” The Crayon, vol. 7, no. 4, 1860.

noisy insect

A quotation is not an excerpt. A quotation is a cicada. It is part of its nature never to quiet down.

—Osip Madelstam, “Conversation about Dante,” Selected Poems (New York Review of Books, 2004), translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin.

good soup

Je vis de bonne soupe, et non de beau langage.

Molière's Les Femmes Savantes (The Learned Ladies)

[I live on good soup, and not beautiful language.]

she says

Say it.     Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.

—Muriel Rukeyser, from “The Speed of Darkness, Out of Silence: Selected Poems (TriQuarterly Books, 1992)

wild flower

When we talk of wild poetry, we sometimes forget the parallel of wild flowers. They exist to show that a thing may be more modest and delicate for being wild.

—G. K. Chesterton, Chaucer (1932), Collected Works Vol. XVIII

dark passage

[Poetry’s] alleged obscurity is due not to its own nature, which is to enlighten, but to the darkness which it explores, and must explore: the dark of the soul herself and the dark of the mystery which envelops human existence.

—St-John Perse, essay entitled "On Poetry," translation by W.H. Auden, St. John Perse: Collected Poems (Princeton U. Press, 1971)

tear in half

Almost the only thing I still like nowadays is this process of scraping away. No more stylistic gewgaws. Tear yourself in half or else take the finished poem and tear that in half.

(April 15, 1937, Letters to Marcel Béalu)

—Max Jacob, Hesitant Fire, Selected Prose of Max Jacob (U. of Nebraska Press, 1991), translated and edited by Moishe Black and Maria Green.

the rest is literature

Let music be, more of it and always!
Let your verse be the thing in motion
Which one feels who flees from an altering soul,
Towards other skies to other loves.

Let your verse be the happy occurrence,
Somehow within the restless morning wind,
Which goes about smelling of mint and thyme...
And all the rest is literature.

—Paul Verlaine, "Art Poétique," translation by Eli Siegel

tissue of quotations

We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author/God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture.

—Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” (1968), Image-Music-Text (London: Fontana Press, 1977), trans. S. Heath.

imagination and madness

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles, like a poem. He avowedly preferred the black discs of draughts, because they were more like the mere black dots on a diagram.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

grasp the words

Rem tene, verba sequentur: grasp the subject, and the words will follow. This, I believe, is the opposite of what happens with poetry, which is more a case of verba tene, res sequenter: grasp the words, and the subject will follow.

—Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose

right noun

Almost any noun is better alone than chaperoned if it’s the right noun, and very few can stand two adjectives. ‘Unsettled dream’ is stronger than ‘unsettled white dream’.

—Ezra Pound, in letter to Parker Tyler, May 1935.

no key

     Someone said to me about Pasternak’s poems: ‘Splendid poems when you explain them all like that, but they need a key supplied with them.’
     No, not supply a key to the poems (dreams), but the poems themselves are a key to understanding everything. But from understanding to accepting there isn’t just a step, there is no step at all; to understand is to accept, there is no other understanding, any other understanding is non-understanding. Not in vain does the French comprendre mean both ‘understand’ and ‘encompass’—that is, ‘accept’ and ‘include’.

—Marina Tsvetaeva, from title essay of Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 2010), introduced and translated by Angela Livingstone, p. 173.

begins in conflict

A poet's life begins in conflict with the whole of existence.

—Søren Kierkegaard

corner of your eye

Poetry is the kind of thing you have to see from the corner of your eye. You can be too well prepared for poetry. A conscientious interest in it is worse than no interest at all....It's like a very faint star. If you look straight at it you can't see it, but if you look a little to one side it is there.

—William Stafford, Writing the Australian Crawl (U. of Michigan Press, 1978)

small worlds

Kleinkunst in German refers to a so-called art of small forms, “little art,” in other words.
By “small forms” in literature, we generally understand various types of prose works of short length. These might include short stories, sketches, anecdotes, essays, reviews, feuilletons, and aphorisms. They were, to be sure, cultivated at a time when large novels, full-length plays, and fine poetry of every hue and stamp were being written...But the modernist upheaval in the arts beginning at the turn of the century [19 to 20th] created a climate of experimentation and innovation of far-reaching consequences for all literary creativity. Structural and linguistic transformations of conventional literary genres, from novel to poem, was also accompanied by a spurning of these genres by writers who were attracted to, and sought to make their niche in, the emerging world of literary small forms.

The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits, 1890-1938 (Purdue U. Press, 1993) by Harold B. Segel

only ear

Have I still ears? Am I only ear, and nothing else besides?

—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science. (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882).




An integral

Lower limit speech

Upper limit music

—Louis Zukofsky

scope in a single subject

One of the most daring paradoxical minds, Lucian of Samosata, defined, as early as the second century AD, the concept of creation. In discussing a painting by the Greek master Zeuxis, he justified the singularity of the masterpiece, which is not only a token of skills, but has as much to do with the expression of a vision: “There are no doubt qualities in the painting which evade analysis by a mere amateur, and yet involve supreme craftsmanship—such things as precision of line, perfect mastery of the palette, clever brushwork, management of shadow, perspective, proportion, and relation of part to the whole; but I leave that to the professionals whose business it is to appreciate it; what strikes me especially about Zeuxis is the manifold scope which he has found for his extraordinary skill, in a single subject.”

—Lucian of Samosata, “Zeuxis and Antiochus,” Works of Lucian, Vol. II (Clarendon Press, 1905), translated by H. W. Fowler.

[Quote found in Donatien Grau’s The Age of Creation (Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2015)]

dead color

When I saw Degas again, he happened to have a box of pastels in his hand, and was spreading them out on a board in front of the window. Seeing me watching him:
—I take all the color out of them that I can, by putting them in the sun.
—But what do you use, then to get colors of such brightness?
—Dead color, Monsieur.

Ambroise Vollard (1886-1939, an important French art dealer) recounting Paul Cézanne's conversation with Edgar Degas.

[n.b.: quote was encountered yesterday as the epigraph to a limited edition of Charles Wright's poetry called Dead Color (Meadow Press for Charles Seluzicki, Fine Books, Salem OR, 1980)]

joyce's motto

I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile, and cunning.

—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).

injured poem

Once the poem is released, how little the poet owns it, or, indeed, matters to the poem. The poem has always been injured by the poet. Never, by man or woman, has it been fully released to its potential. Christopher Marlowe spoke for every poet when he wrote long ago in “Tamburlaine the Great” (and this is my favorite statement of what happens to a poem between its conception and its execution):

    If all the pens that ever poets held
    Had fed the feeling of their masters’ thoughts,
    And every sweetness that inspir’d their hearts,
    Their minds, and muses on admired themes;
    If all the heavenly quintessence they still
    From their immortal flowers of poesy,
    Wherein, as in a mirror, we perceive
    The highest reaches of a human wit;
    If these had made one poem’s period,
    And all combin’d in beauty’s worthiness,
    Yet should there hover in their restless minds
    One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least,
    Which into words no virtue can digest.

Always, the struggle is to help the poem release itself from things it cannot, in various stages, do without: publishers, editors, critics, funds, sponsors. Always the effort must be to shift the emphasis back to where it belongs, to the poem, which, though injured and subjected to the thousand ills print is heir to, must escape and survive.

—Josephine Jacobsen, “From Anne to Marianne: Some Women in American Poetry,” Two Lectures (The Library of Congress pamphlet, 1973)


Everything since Homer has improved, except poetry.

—Giacomo Leopardi, “Zibaldone di pensieri” (Poetry: November 1, 2010) translated from the Italian by W.S. Di Piero.

return to song

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

—Bob Dylan, "Desolation Row"

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016

the truth is

"The truth is like poetry—And most people fucking hate poetry," (Overheard in a Washington D.C. bar) quoted by Michael Lewis in The Big Short.