a Poet or be with Poetry

Sit down. Be quiet. Stand still, stare hard. Listen. Breathe. Condense. Trade in mystery. Ask the questions that have no answers. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. Find an entrance or an exit. Enter, leave.

How to Be a Poet/ Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)


Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.


Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.


Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

I think that in the process of writing, all kinds of unexpected things happen that shift the poet away from his plan and that these accidents are really what we mean when we talk about poetry.

John Ashbery

What are Poems?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what poems are to me. Here’s a list of a few things:

  • spells
  • chants
  • charms
  • balms
  • prayers
  • doors/windows
  • ways in/ways out
  • trails
  • alleluias/thanks/praise
  • wonders
  • bewilderments
  • breaths
  • tracks across the snow
  • a ripple in the river, troubling the too-calm water
  • an opportunity to slow down, ruminate
  • an invitation to attend something
Interview with Arthur Sze

Poetry has a crucial role to play in our lives, society, and the world. It helps us slow down, hear clearly, see deeply, and envision what matters most in our lives. When one reads a poem, one has to pay attention to the sounds of words, to the rhythm of language, experience the dance and tension between sound and silence. A good poem communicates viscerally in the body before it’s fully understood in the mind, and, in that experience, complexities of feeling and thought can sometimes only be conveyed through poetry. I forget which Zen monk wrote,

what comes from brightness, I strike with brightness;
what comes from darkness, I strike with darkness

but here’s an example of emotional and imaginative insight, and how to proceed in the world, compressed into a few words, where each word matters. [The quote comes from 9th century Chinese master Linji Yixuan (Jp. Rinzai).] Prose can explain and lengthily articulate the meaning in those two lines, but only poetry, I think, can capture and embody the experience.

Our world today is built on various assumptions—“time is money,” for example—and we live in an age that although globally connected is not necessarily humanly connected. People work endless hours buying and selling stocks and bonds—“buy silk, sell steel”—for instance. Poetry stands in resistance to this commercial culture. It is not about acquiring material wealth; instead, it’s about human insight, genuine human connectivity, and promotes mindfulness and awakening. In that way, poetry is priceless. And, in that way, I have devoted my life to poetry for over 50 years. Poetry, for me, is about discovery, renewal, awakening, and affirming a way of living that is profound, humbling, and meaningful.

Zapruder: Poems are in dialogue with silence

One way I think about nothing is silence and absence. And I think that poems—people want to talk a lot about the difference between poems and song lyrics. You know, are song lyrics poetry, and I think the lyrics in song take place against the information of music. And they’re in dialogue with that information. But poems are in dialogue with silence. And silence and nothingness and absence are so fundamental to the physical experience of writing and reading poems for me. But nothingness also has a conceptual importance for me as a poet, which is that, you know, language—I mean, even the kind of talking that you and I are doing now—it’s so purpose driven. We want to accomplish things with our language and communicate and exchange. And that’s a beautiful thing, and that’s what language—you know, it’s a miraculous tool in that way. But what happens if you remove all that purpose and functionality from language? If you take it away and there’s a kind of absence or nothingness in your purpose of speaking, what then starts to happen? And I think what happens is poems. Because then language has a chance to move around and be intuitive and make connections and reach for the limits of experience in a way that it can’t do when you’re constantly turning it to a purpose.

 Poetry Off the Shelf podcast episode with Matthew Zapruder

poems extend the time we can spend with the impossible

Perhaps one way to think of my poems are as poems of failure. This poem is a failed poem. It cannot do the only thing I wanted to do which was open the door to my childhood home. It fails. Likewise, I think of all the poems that attempt to gather all my loved ones who have passed away as a type of failure. They can’t do what I want them to do. I can’t hug my grandparents or ride in the car with my uncle. 

There is a purpose to my failures. Just because something is impossible doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Secondly, there are moments before the poem ends where it is not a failure. In that moment before the poem ends, there is something real that can be conjured. Maybe writing is a way to extend those visitations. To extend the time we can spend with the impossible. 

Love, Language, Silence: An Interview with José Olivarez about “Promises of Gold”

what is poetry?

Found this collection of definitions of poetry in a sticky note that I created on sept 8, 2017–that was about 8 months after I started this log, about 6 months after I discovered I loved poetry, about a month and a half after I injured my knee, and 2 weeks before I could run again. I wish past Sara would have noted which awesome poetry person tweeted these definitions or where to find the essay they wrote, but she didn’t. Oh well. 

Well, here is a list of how several poets have defined what a poem is (lifted from an essay I once wrote): What a poem is: “The spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Wordsworth). “A small (or large) machine of words” (Williams). “Language that sounds better and means more” (C.D. Wright). “A verbal contraption” (Auden). “A form cut in time” (Pound). “At bottom, a criticism of life” (Matthew Arnold). “The journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air” (Carl Sandburg). “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off” (Emily Dickinson). “An empty basket; you put your life into it” (Mary Oliver). “Somebody standing up… and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment” (Galway Kinnell). “A holy thing” (Roethke). “A momentary stay against confusion” (Frost).

a poetry person on twitter/sept 2017
Poetry is not interested in giving information

“Do not forget,” Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, “that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.” [Gertrude] Stein’s poems illustrate this aphorism at every turn: she takes ordinary language—the “language of information”— and makes it strange, forcing us to be acutely aware of the way words work.

The Difference is Spreading: on Gertrude Stein
Poetry is useless

Imagine your class photograph being taken at the end of an academic year, I tell them. All of you are being disciples of the genre—some of you are seated, others standing behind them. Suddenly, just as the photographer is about to hit the shutter, a crow flies into the frame. The photographer lets the crow remain in the photo. You decide to visit your college with your family twenty years later. You go to the room where all the class photos hang on walls. And you tell your family or companions, “My class photo is easy to find. There’s a crow in it.”

All the other class photos are information. Your class photo is art. The crow didn’t study with you, and is not supposed to be in the photograph, but, because it is, the photograph has become memorable—it is different from its neighbours in that room, it is what makes it easily identifiable, and it is what I understand as the poetic: something seemingly unexpected and even useless, but something that brings in the surplus necessary to art.

I say “useless” not to pass judgment, but to report a kind of ascription to a manner of thinking and speaking whose spirit and impulse is not based on an idea of utility.

Crow, Donkey, Poet: Sumana Roy on the Useless in the Poetic

Poetry is useful

But the way I think about poetry is the way I think about my car, or my microwave, or bread. And I feel like poetry has use in my physical body. And in my spirit, in my mental being, I feel like poetry does work. The trouble is, and this is part of the reason why poetry is invaluable. You can’t put you can’t put a price tag on it the same way you can put a price tag on a microwave, or a TV, or the car, or the bread, you know? You don’t know what poetry is doing when it’s doing the work it does. Like you know why you’re eating bread and you actually know the result of having eaten bread, you know exactly why your microwave is in the house, you know what it’s supposed to do. You know, if you read enough poems, over time that those poems are doing work on your soul, but you don’t get to know. You don’t get to know how to name that. You don’t even get to know that it has happened when you read a poem. Do you know what I mean? You can read a poem. I know I’ve read poems, that really didn’t matter. I didn’t understand how much they mattered until years and years later. And then they started doing work. And they had really been doing that work all the time. But you could read a poem now that prepares you for an experience that you’re not going to have for twenty years.

Interview with Jericho Brown
Poetry speaks privately to thousands of people at the same time

For me poetry is a moment of awe — that silence that travels from one human body to another by means of words. Gilgamesh was written 4,000 ago and it transforms us still. This is what poetry is: not a kind of public posturing but a private language of music and imagery that is strange and compelling enough that it can speak privately to thousands of people at the same time.

Ilya Kaminsky in the New Statesmen
makes language into something that means more than what it says

Take that old, material utensil, language, found all about you, blank with familiarity, smeared with daily use, and make it into something that means more than it says. What poetry is made of is so old, so familiar, that it’s easy to forget that it’s not just the words, but polyrhythmic sounds, speech in its first endeavors (every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome), prismatic meanings lit by each others’ light, stained by each others’ shadows. In the wash of poetry the old, beaten, worn stones of language take on colors that disappear when you sieve them up out of the streambed and try to sort them out.

 Someone is Writing a Poem / Adrienne Rich
helps create an archive of eloquence and reponse

We are not diminished but enlarged by grief, by our refusal to vanish, or to let others vanish, without leaving a verbal record. We need poetry to help us transform the oceanic depths of feeling into art. Poetry rises out of one solitude to meet another in recognition and connection. It companions us.

And, yes, poetry is connected to contemporary life, but it’s also always connected to other poetry. We need an archive of eloquence and response.

Interview with Edward Hirsch

Thomas Aquinas argued that poets and philosophers “are alike in being big with wonder.” Lucille Clifton aptly remarked that “poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing.” Part of what drives me to the page is the pleasure of capturing in language what seems bent on eluding it. When we experience wonder, we experience an instinctive recognition that what is being wondered at matters in some profound way, which has the power to drive us to the blank page, drive us to want to say something, to REPLY.

Interview with Maya C. Popa
is the art of listening

A poet casts wrods into the ether to hear what words come back. It can seem like a lopsided dialogue, only part of the conversation. But most poets will tell you that’s not the case: poets speak inwardly, talking into their minds and listening for their minds’ responses. Each word is followed by another, each sentence answered by a sentence; each stanza opens into the next, and, when poems are working, they are full of discoveries, thoughts poets didn’t know they had, thoughts, perhaps, they hadn’t had until that moment, which are encoded in the langauge itself, which poets have trained themselves to hear.

That language, in the way I’m referring to it, is made up of many things—all the speech and text poets have heard throughout their lives: conversations, schooling, the poetry of the present and the past, and all the elements of culture—music, sports, film, TV, digital media, art—that have helped form an individual’s personality. Together, these elements create a matrix of connections, which poems can reveal. This is in part what defines a poet’s “voice.” Using the particulars of the language that formed them, poets hope to tell the truth about their time as exemplified in themselves, in what they see and, more precisely, hear. Whether or not she writes about her own biography, she is the mouth through which her time is sung—they are her, his words, after all. Poetry makes its case through each poet’s sensibilities; it is never impersonal.

Though it seems, at first, like an art of speaking, poetry is an art of listening. The poet trains to hear clearly and, as much as possible, without interruption, the voice of the mind, the voice that gathers, packs with meaning, and unpacks the language the poet knows.

We Begin in Gladness/ Craig Morgan Teicher
makes the unbearable bearable

One of the jobs of poetry is to make the unbearable bearable, not by faslehood but clear, precise confrontation.

Richard Wilbur / Paris Review
tend to the wounded

Lyric poems, even when based on narratives, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory or defeat.

Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded”

John Berger via Ilya Kaminsky
Write to save yourself

I do feel like there’s a lot of “the arts will save us.” You know, there’s a part of me that really believes that, right? I mean, I believe that poetry can heal us and help us. But, I mean, if I’m very honest, I think they can only do that for the poet. (LAUGHS) And then they may, if we’re lucky, help someone else or move someone else or inspire someone else or get them out of a rut. But I think it begins with like, I write my own poems to save myself. You know, then if, in, you know, some series, lucky series of events, a poem becomes larger than me and reaches someone else, that’s, that’s beautiful. But I don’t always know that that’s gonna happen, right? I have to start by how is this poem recommitting me to the world?VS Podcast Interview

Yes! How is this poem recommitting me to the world? And, I write to save myself.

Poetry returns the familiar to its strangeness

The purpose of poetry is to return that which is familiar to its original strangeness.

Charles Simic
Poetry’s magic cannot be summarized, only experienced

(from RUN! on feb 23, 2023): A few days ago, I encountered a beautiful poem of his on twitter. The poetry person sharing it introduced the poem by tweeting: “I love poems because they can do this.” Yes, I agree. I’ll write how I understand the “this” after the poem.

Alone/ Jack Gilbert

I never thought Michiko would come back
after she died. But if she did, I knew
it would be as a lady in a long white dress.
It is strange that she has returned
as somebody’s dalmatian. I meet
the man walking her on a leash
almost every week. He says good morning
and I stoop down to calm her. He said
once that she was never like that with
other people. Sometimes she is tethered
on their lawn when I go by. If nobody
is around, I sit on the grass. When she
finally quiets, she puts her head in my lap
and we watch each other’s eyes as I whisper
in her soft ears. She cares nothing about
the mystery. She likes it best when 
I touch her head and tell her small
tings about my days and our friends.
That makes her happy the way it always did.

Okay, I said I’d explain what I mean by the “this” in I love poems because they can do this, and I’ll try. I’ll start here: Last night I was telling Scott about this poem and the tweet. I didn’t have the poem in front of me, or any of its lines memorized, so I explained it as best I could, which was not very well. I think I didn’t succeed with my summary because the meaning and magic of this poem doesn’t come in a summarized telling of it, but in the specific words used, the line breaks, the order of the words, their rhythms. This poem isn’t so much telling the story of a man and his dead beloved who has come back as a dog, but inviting you into the story to witness it, to behold his grief and tenderness. And, it’s inviting you to believe in other worlds where such gentle, tender moments are possible. Or, even if you don’t/can’t believe in them as true/real/ scientifically possible, you can give room for them to live or to breathe or to be possible for someone. Also, it’s strange. I love strange!

poetry should be democratic

It’s fun reading such poems aloud, the repetitions reminiscent of one’s heartbeat, with a syntax that feels like running with the wind at one’s back. At the same time, the content decisively democratizes what is poetry, and who can be a poet. Not solely of the academy, but of the people. Not of closed doors with secret handshakes, but of the city streets and in nature. What could be more contemporary? There’s a poem for every taste in this collection, though not because Mayer wrote for a specific audience. In writing for herself she wrote to and for us all.

Review of Milkweed Smithereens by Bernadette Mayer
come to poetry when you have no words

When you deal with the musicality of language, which includes rhythm, the sonics, meaning, architecture… I mean, you can’t get that anywhere else in quite the right manner. Poetry is a kind of distillation. I’ve said sometimes that everyone has their area of obsession; maybe every poem is like that. Maybe every poem has a heart. There must be a heart in there somewhere for a poem to live. I always come to poetry when I have no words, which is the great paradox of writing poetry. Poems map out mystery, using words, lines, phrases, sonics – in a manner unlike any other literary art.  

Joy Harjo and her Poetics: An Interview with Joy Harjo

What is Poetics?

“When I say poetics, I’m referring to the practice of making poetry, which is not necessarily a poem on the page. Poetics is the consideration of attention, listening, noticing and perceiving the world. It asks what’s going on in your mind and your body. What decisions will you make as you create?” she said.

How to live more creatively/ Diana Khoi Nguyen

What is a Poet?

a poet just gets to the point, and tells us their dreams

Or you could just get to the point and tell us your dreams, trusting the images you conjure to transmit their enigmatic message.


The most striking thing about The Irresponsible Magician is the fact that dreams function within it as real, legitimate evidence—not just about the author’s inner life, but about the world writ large. This is the lesson we ought to draw from it. We’re used to treating dreams as belonging to the individual; analysts treat them as signposts on the hero’s journey out of neurosis and into an uncertain truce with the-world-as-it-is. But dream-data is not just individual. It’s also social and historical. Each dream reveals a foundational lie—that, for example, the world is a mall—while at the same time revealing there is a truth in the lie—that the structure of the mall commands the world and that the world is falling apart. Our job is to hold tight to these contradictions, to refuse to resolve them but instead to harness their dialectical heat. The result will not be dream-interpretation, but dream-criticism. Wander the halls and map the fault-lines that cleave them. Notice the roof. Notice the moment your ally and your enemy switch faces. In every inconsistency, there is a message. And beneath the pond scum that floats in every broken fountain’s basin, there shimmer uncountable, useless dimes.

Naked Criticism/ Mal Ahern

Now, what happens is, we don’t live in a society, generally, that supports dreams as knowledge. And we’re not living in a place like that. But think about it — about half of our lives, we’re out gathering information that we may not bring forth consciously, and for some of us, it’s like it’s a library that we go to when we need to know something. It works in that way.

The Whole of Time/ Joy Harjo (On Being Interview)

In my initial typing up of this poem, I left out the is in the first sentence: Red sadness the secret one. I do that a lot, leave out words. I think it’s partly that my failing vision makes me sloppier, but I wonder if it’s not also because my way of reading/thinking has changed, become more abbreviated. I cut out the unnecessary words, worry less about full sentences, want more condensed, compact ideas. I’m tired of extra words — literally, it hurts my brain when I have to read so many words, but also figuratively, having spent so many years wasting all of my energy on finding the right words (right = smart enough, fancy enough, researched enough) to make an argument that finally maybe almost gets to the point. I also like using less words like a fun experiment — how many words do we actually need in order to understand something or to communicate an idea?

from a RUN! log entry, may 3, 2023