Posts Tagged ‘Charles Olson


The Afterlives of a Poem, or What Happens to Your Poem When You’re Done Writing It

I woke up early this morning thinking about what happens to a poem after you stop working on it, and there are four possible afterlives for a poem.

But before I get there, let’s look at why we stop working on a poem.

One reason is that we think the poem is done. We’ve worked hard at it, had fun with it, and had a good conversation with it, and now there is nothing left to work on or converse with and the only fun left in this poem is reading it over and over again and feeling good.

Another reason we stop working on a poem is because we realize the poem is going nowhere. Oh, you went into the poem with good intentions, but along the way, you and the poem both realized it just wasn’t going to work out or there was too much awkwardness with it, and you couldn’t overcome all the obstacles. It’s kinda like going on a first date, and when you meet the other person, your fly is down, and then an hour after you eat, you realize you’ve had a piece of spinach in your teeth for the last hour, and you also told a joke that you thought was funny, but it turned out to be offensive. At this point, you realize the date is not salvageable, and you part ways.

A third reason for stopping work on a poem is that you no longer know what to do with the poem or the poem is being stubborn and not helping you help it. This type of poem can actually be a worthwhile poem. It’s doing good things, it sounds well, it has meanings you understand and that are just beyond you, and it has good energies. It’s not a bad poem. It’s fine. You could share it with people and they would like it and a journal might even publish it. But still it seems to be lacking something, but you don’t know what it is. This type of poem is like the date where you have a good time filled with good conversations and laughs and that lasts for hours and late into the night, but it feels like it was an only hour, and you walk her home, but she doesn’t give you a good night kiss. “What?” you ask yourself. “I thought everything was going well. What happened?” And so you walk away having had a good time, but you are confused. Maybe there will be some clarity tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow you will get a kiss. But for now, it’s time to be alone.

A fourth reason for stopping work on a poem is that you have come to an impasse. In this situation, you know what is wrong with the poem and you know it can better, but you just can’t figure out how to make it better at the moment. You know you will, but you just can’t figure it out right now. This is the poem you set aside on purpose and let your unconscious work on it for the next few days or weeks. This is the date with whom you play hard to get. You let the other person do the work. “Maybe I’ll kiss you at some later date . . . if you’re lucky.”

So however it has come to be, you stop working on a poem. You always stop working on poem, unless you are working on it in an unconscious manner. But there always comes a point when you put down you pencil or pen or walk away from the typewriter or keyboard. When this occurs, there are four afterlives or possibilities for the poem between now and the next time you look at.

The first afterlife or possibility is that at some future time you will return to the poem and it will be even stronger than you remember it. The sounds will be cleaner and underscore meanings and emotional content, the imagery will be crisper, the leaps will seem downright natural and universal, and it will be clear and sound and feel true.

Another afterlife is that the poem doesn’t change at all. It’s exactly the same as you left it and remembered it. It’s done nothing.

A third possibility is that any problems you had with the poem have somehow sorted themselves out, or at least some of them. This is a magical moment. And you feel delighted and relieved. This poem might still need a little work, but the big work has taken care of itself.

I’m not sure how those three afterlife possibilities occur, but they do.

The Afterlife of a PoemThe fourth afterlife is the one that woke me up, and I think I know the causes of this afterlife possibility. The fourth possibility for the poem after you stop working on it and then return to it sometime later is that the poem gets worse. We’ve all experienced this. We all know this feeling. In fact, from what I’ve heard from most people is the poem being worse is the typical afterlife result of a poem. But why does the poem get worse, especially if when we left the poem we thought that it was a strong poem. Especially after we had such a good time with it and we got a kiss good night.

Here is what I think happens. When we are in the act of writing a poem, we are gods that know everything. We know what each word means or how we want it to mean, we know how each sound is contributing or how we want it to contribute, and we know what the images are doing or how we want the images to perform. In fact, there are certain words, sounds, and images that act as pillars for the poem. These pillars hold up the poem. (Yes, all the words, sounds, and images are pillars holding up the poems, but some bear more weight than others.) These pillars are initially filled with personal meanings and associations and/or immediate associations. The pillars also contain immediate energies that arise from a poem in its first drafts. While we are in the first composition of the poem, we can create all sorts of magic to make those pillars stand tall and firm. If they wobble a little bit, we just wiggle our fingers at them and cast the magical spell “Stay.” And the poem stays. What we are doing here is imposing on the poem. We are hovering over the poem and controlling it. When we walk away it will, of course, collapse.

But this collapse doesn’t have to happen. Before you leave the poem, you need to stand outside of it and really talk to the poem. You need to ask a word, image, sound, or rhythm something like, “I know that if I say ‘bison’ I will think of the animal and meat and some of those cave paintings in France, and those all have special meanings for me, but will the reader be able to experience those things? Will my unique experiences confuse the poem? Are the associations to ‘bison’ mine own or are they more universally shared? Will anyone else think of meat or paintings or will they just think of the animal? or might they even think of other things like a baseball team?” In addition, some of the associations that you have during the writing of the poem you might forget when you return to the poem after some time has passed, and that is why the poem becomes worse. You have become the reader who is not intimate with the meanings that only you knew at the poem’s composition. The poem is not speaking beyond you.

This means before you leave the poem, you have to make sure those pillars are solid and coated in stainless steel. They have to endure. And the pillars also have to be real. They can’t just exist inside of you or in some “imaginary gardens.”

Charles OlsonAnother reason a poem gets worse after you leave it is that it loses energy. A poem in its early stage has lots and lots of energy. It’s a “high-energy construct,” as Charles Olson called it. There’s excitement in writing the poem, and sometimes the writing-excitement energy can be confused with the actual energy of the poem. If the actual poem doesn’t have much energy and the energy you are experiencing is just because of the excitement of writing it, then after you stop writing and then return to the poem later, there will be less energy than you expected and the poem will seem worse.

But there’s also an energy discharge, and this one is harder to explain, but I’ll call it original energy for now, but I’ll provide more subtle definitions below. A poem always radiates energy. The stronger the poem, the more energy it radiates it and the more sparks it can provide in peoples’ lives. The problem is how to contain that original energy of the poem. Each poem starts off in a high-energy field. (Well, many do.) The poem screams to be written. It’s knocking on the doors to your brain and heart and soul, and saying, “Let’s write. I’ve something new to add to the universe that will change people.” or “Let’s write. I’ve something cool to say.” That energy and the energy that results when you write the poem are the energies that are hard to sustain. The energy slowly leaks out. This is why a poem can also seem worse after stopping work on it and returning to it later. These are the hardest energies to sustain during revision.

Allen GinsbergIn fact, in my experiences, revision tends to revise away that original energy, especially too much revision. I think this is why Allen Ginsberg says to “revise lightly.” I like that advice, but for me, it’s slightly different. For me it is “revise quickly.”

I used to work on poems for days or weeks and sometimes years. I used to revise and revise and revise. In my revisions, though, by the end, the final poem never seemed that great. Oh sure, there were all these technical pyrotechnics, but the poem was no better for it. The poem just showed that I knew some poetic techniques and that I had learned something about poetry. The technique had become the poem. The poem was without energy or with little. The energy that was there was me saying I wrote this poem and from me reading it. But this is not the point.

I’ve found that once I’ve stopped working on a poem, it became really hard to come back to it because I couldn’t remember the original energies. “Remember” might not be the best word nor “original.” Maybe it is that I could not feel the the impetus energy. I can’t feel the impetus energy. Impetus energy being the energy that caused the poem. Original energy being the energy of the poem as it is being written.

So what I’ve learned to do is to revise quickly. I think all my years of enduring revisions have prepared me for this. But now I need to revise quickly. I need to contain that impetus energy before it goes away. I need to condense days, weeks, or years of revisions into one moment. I need to be able to quickly determine if a word, image, or sound is going to go beyond my personal associations and be relevant to others. I need to make the language crisp now. I need to make sure all the harmonies are tight now. I need to make sure the rhythms rise and fall in the best spots now. I need to contain all this energy now so it will endure, because if I come back to it later that impetus energy will be gone. There will still be original energies and they will radiate, but the impetus creative energy will be gone.

Quantum Foam

Quantum Foam

It’s kind of like the Big Bang. I can’t see the Big Bang, but I know everything that happened shortly after. I know the quantum foam that appeared at 10-72 seconds after the Big Band and the inflation that occurred at 10-41 seconds after the Big Bang, but I can’t see the Big Bang anymore. It’s gone. I can feel original energies, but I can’t feel the impetus energies.

Of course, this revision technique is unique to me. I know others who can revise for lengthy periods of time and still maintain energy in the poem. But I do think energy leakage is the reason for a poem feeling worse after you come back to it some time later.

Still my revise quickly method is applicable to everyone, or at least worth consideration. When you revise, be aware of what the poem is doing. That is, is it doing something immediate and personal and something you hope it to do or is it doing something enduring and universal? If it is the former, don’t leave the poem until it is doing the latter. Make sure you have strong pillars. Analyze your energies. Are the poem’s energies coming from the excitement of writing or are they the genuine energies from the poem? If the former, don’t leave the poem until the energies are the latter. Always try to revise to keep impetus and original energies. Do not revise away impetus and original energies.//


Notes Towards Investigative Poetry (Part One)

Notes Toward an Investigative Poetics

These are my initial notes towards an Investigative Poetics. I am trying to negotiate what this means to me. In this writing, I am drawing exclusively from Ed Sanders Investigative Poetry (San Francisco: City Lights, 1976) (yes, I found and purchased a first edition on for a very fair price), and I am trying to interpret it or make it mean to me. In the end, I think I will usurp the term, Investigate Poetry, for my own means, but pay high tribute to Mr. Sanders. There is absolutely nothing wrong with his version of Investigative Poetics. It is highly commendable. I just wish to go someplace else with it. Below are the notes.


On page 11 of Ed Sanders Investigative Poetry, Sanders writes two important things in regards to defining Investigative Poetry:

History-poesy, or investigative poetry, can thrive in our era because of the implications of a certain poetic insight, that is, in the implications of the line, “Now is the time for prophecy without death as a consequence,” from Death to Van Gogh’s Ear, a Ginsberg poem from 1958.


For this is the era of description of the All.

I’ll get to the first quote in a moment, but the last one, man, is that ever true today with the internet and its Google with so much information at hand. All the information we have today is not only overly readily available and abundant, but it has lent the way to very, very detailed people. In the States, we over analyze everything, in part, because of all the data we have. All this data provides us with the information we need to describe the All, or as I would say, “connect the All.”

With our imagination and its ability to leap and associate and with all this information, a copulation is at hand. Information inseminates the imagination to make more connections. It’s now possible to study, for instance, the history of the crabcake and soon find connections to Baltimore, the Baltimore Ravens, Edgar Allen Poe,  the history of the macabre, the history of literature, an episode of the sit-com Cheers or The Simpsons, and a stunning investigation into American culture, all the way to how our Paleolithic and Neanderthal ancestors hunted and ate food, and how the crab evolved, how through the course of history crab was served, hunted, and was a component of economics, how it affected astrology and the universe, how it affects cancer when improperly connected to on an etymological level as Skeats did in the first few editions of his An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, and how that improperly connected etymology affected James Joyce when he wrote Ulysess, which was banned in America like Ginsberg’s Howl, who is the ancestor of Whitman and who is the contemporary of Edgar Allen Poe, who is from Baltimore where they make delicious crabcakes.

The study of one thing can connect the universe, though I’m not sure this is what Sanders has in mind, but it’s what I have in mind.

As for the first quote, I’m concerned with the “History-poesy” part. I had never though that would be synonymous with Investigative Poetics, but now that I think about, it has to be. How can an investigation occur without a study of history. All investigations will have to go into the past. The past is what defines us. There’s a long tether in humanity and it stretches back to the Neanderthals and to the first amoebas to cosmic background radiation to quantum foam to the big bang and into the future where it will end in fire or ice . . . or Frost.

Example Investigative Poetry texts:

  • Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems
  • Hart Crane’s The Bridge
  • William Carlos Williams Paterson
  • Ezra Pound’s Cantos
  • Sanders says Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, but I’m not quite sure why at this point
  • T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland
  • Jerome Rothenberg’s Poland 1931
  • Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger
  • Many of William Heyen‘s collection of poems
  • Any of my collections of poems (I mention not for ego, but because I was doing this before I knew of Investigative Poetry and now I want to study what I’ve been doing.)

Could any of these books have been written without an historical perspective? The Maximus Poems must study the history of Gloucester, The Bridge without a long study into the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge and the events that happened on it during the construction and after couldn’t come to be, nor Paterson without a study of Paterson or even the Genesee River in Rochester, NY, nor the Cantos, which is almost all history, nor The Wasteland, which meanders through history and Eliot’s present, nor Gunslinger without an historical study of the Wild West and philosophy. History, does in fact, seem to be the key. (Joyce’s Ulysess, if it were a poem, would fall into Investigative Poetry, too, and on a number of levels, as he charts Dublin precisely and then writes in each of the main styles of writing through the history of writing, and the whole early Celtic alphabet thing.)


Our minds naturally associate, so why does Investigative Poetry seem so foreign to the contemporary poet?


In a moment of Olsonian possession and Ginsbergian yawp, Sanders announces:

     The verse of the investigative poet of
     genius will discharge data as if scanning
     eye-brains were passing across a high-energy grid,
     the vectors of verse-froth leaping up from
     the verse-grids at every points. High Energy
     Verse History Grids!

High Energy Verse History Grids. The investigative poem must be a high-energy discharge. The poet must gather the energy of the original source and put it into the poem. The poem is a capacitor. It contains the energy of the investigation. No wonder Sanders says to channel the voice and rhythms of Ginsberg as the means of transferring that energy.

The investigative poem is an extension of Olson’s “Projective Verse.” Investigative Poetry needs the mandates of Olson, which Sanders shares with us:

A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it, by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader.


Then the poem must, at all points, be a high energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.

(p 21, quoting Olson from “Projective Verse”).

Let me tell you of Investigative Poetry. When you, the Investigative Poet, are doing the research, and you are always doing research as commanded by the muse and demanded by the imagination, you read a lot. Even in the most mundane of research writings you will find moments of passion from the author. Here is where you know something is happening. Here is where you know the author knows something more than the facts are saying. Here is where you, the investigative poet, must be at high alert. Here is your inspiration. Muse be ready. Imagination raise your eyebrows. The investigation is about to begin. But it’s not the passion we study. It’s what precedes the passion. Preceding the passion are the facts. It’s the running start to the passionate leap that the author makes. Where the author transcends the facts. We, the investigative poet, must go back and start running on our own and then make our leap. The author has left us a trail. Can we get to the same place? Will our landing be different? No matter as long as we make a perfect three-point landing like a sky diver landing on solid ground. The muse and imagination will do with the facts as they please, and they will create a great truth as great as the author’s truth but more musical and more readily available to the novice or uneducated in the field. We, the Investigative Poet, break it down. We make it accessible. We make the jump obvious for the reader. We give the reader a bridge, though the reader won’t realize the bridge is there. The Investigative Poet is the interpreter of the universe. And we, as Investigative Poet translators, must follow Pound’s logopoeia, melopoeia, and phanopoeia. At bare minimum we translate verbatim and insert line breaks and tidy up the language – logopoeia. At our best, we find the best rhythms and music to give the reader’s legs the energy to run and jump from fact to truth – melopoeia. More often, we lay down a bridge for the reader, though kinda shaky like a rope bridge across a great divide – phanopoeia – but it gets us, the Investigative Poet, the facts, and the reader to the truth.

Indiana Jones and a Rope Bridge

Indiana Jones is the Investigative Poet of the Big Screen

The Investigative Poet, in the end, is the medium between fact and truth.

Indiana Jones is what Sanders wants the investigative poet to be. Delving into the research. Keeping careful notes. Cross checking. Making leaps from the limited information he has has into the truth. And killing the right-wing Nazis.


Just so it is known, Ed Sanders back in 1976 invented emoticons, though he called it them emotion-glyphs.

It seems obvious that the language of poetry may well evolve into 1000 color hieroglyphics utilizing a near infinity of typographies. The availability of colors & photographic images and the 100’s of type faces, even in a good art supply store, foretell the birth of an international hieroglyphics. The upcoming laser hologram revolution – that is, poetry and collage and perspective join to thrill the eye-brain with glowing, animated (“poetry in motion,” the rock-and-roll song so prophetically sang), multi-color, 3-d “memory gardens” or verse-grids. This new hieroglyphic language may well use letterless symbols, emotion-glyphs say, 3-d soundless glyphs or tiny photographs depicting complex emotional states, inserted in the hieroglyphic grids, to augment the poet’s inherited word-horde. (p 33. My bold.)


Sanders’ Investigative Poetry is about real investigation, however. Investigating as to expose those right-wing, oppressive cops who spied on Wordsworth and Coleridge and who caused Wordsworth to lose his home, who spied on Shelley until he left the country, that made Dostoevsky complacent, to expose the “FBI-CIA Surrealistic-Complex” (p 23), or:

Victor Jara With Children Supporters

Victor Jara With Children Supporters

Nor shall we forget how the Chilean poet-singer Victor Jara was leading a group of singers while imprisoned in the soccer stadium following the 1973 CIA-coup in Chile, and the killers chopped off his fingers to silence his guitar, and still he led the singing – till they killed him, another bard butchered because of the U. S. secret police (p 12).


Nor shall we forget how the Czar’s secret police hounded Alexandr Pushkin with a nightmare of surveillance and exile. In fact, a brief look at certain aspects of Pushkin’s life is here appropriate, in order to gauge some of the pressures that can force a poet “to become more objective,” or, as the English professor who writes for the CIA-funded magazine might giggle, “to come to terms with the harsh facts of life.” Or to escape into the forgetful symbols (p 12).

Sander’s investigations are more political than mine. Good for him. There should be more political poetry and exposing. An Investigative Poetry that leads to “a genre of Indictment Verse” (p 38). Sanders then expands on how Indictment Verse can sound:

Once again we can reiterate how Howl, with its long-line iambo-anapestic, bacchic and beat dactylic structure, could easily serve as model for blistering indictments and descriptions of your investigations. Read it a few times and see how it fits: invent melodies for sections of it. Chant it with percussion, say, of a tambourine as background; practice singing your investigation grids with its long-breath rhythms. If Sappho’s unique metre could serve as the basis for a whole school of endeavor, why cannot certain modern poems serve in the same way? (p 38)

Man, conviction by poetry. I love it.

Frank Sinatra

"Such meditation would certainly help to center the poet, who, say just last night had gotten roughed up trying to walk past Frank Sinatra's body-guards in Las Vegas to try and ask him a few questions about his buddy Sam Giancana and CIA assassination squads" (p 32).

I can do the political poetry thing, but the way Sanders goes about it is not my way. I’m too shy for that, and he has a whole section explaining why this isn’t for they shy. He gives you tips on what you should do when you go deep the oppressors realm or confront Frank Sinatra.


Do not hesitate to write investigative songs (as in Ginsberg’s smash CIA-Calypso song detailing CIA dope-dealing in SE Asia). No one owns the modes. Ahh the modes. Do not hesitate to use every mode that anyone ever devised. The modes of poetry are more powerful than any so-called magic, for they are a proven input. Do not hesitate (p 38).

Some of his investigative styles, however, are useful even to us shy folks. Dig deep in your research and keep good notes and cross references and document.


More notes will come. This is just the first round. //


Investigative Poetics

I had never heard of the phrase Investigative Poetry until about two weeks ago when Sean Thomas Dougherty used it to describe my poetry. When I read those words, it was immediately obvious that he was right. He didn’t define Investigative Poetry, but I knew what he meant, and he was right.

Ed Dorn

Ed Dorn


Investigative Poetry is, to me, studying and staring at one thing for a long time and writing poems about that thing. I learned this from Charles Olson and Edward Dorn. Olson once said to Dorn something like, “Ed, if you study something long enough and think about it long enough and write about it often enough, you will understand everything. Associations will be made through that one something that connects everything in the universe.” Ed Dorn responded by writing Gunslinger. An epic poem about the wild west. Dorn study the wild west and connected the universe. So that’s what I do.

The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound

The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound

I first did this with an unpublishable book of poems called The Cosmology and Particle Physics of Love. That book certainly connected things in the universe. Then I wrote After Malagueña, which is really the study of one poem which leaps outward. But there are others, Negative Time (where I studied a universe that is similar to ours but where time moves in a contrary direction to ours), The Oldest Stone in the World (which was a long stare at the oldest stone in the world), Pre-Dew Poems (which is a long, never ending stare of my girlfriend), Henri, Sophie, & the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex (which looked into the lives of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Sophie Brzeska, Ezra Pound, a statue, and Vorticism and Vorticists). And now I’m investigating Paleolithic parietal (cave) art.

Each time I do this, I gain clarity.

But it’s this latter book, the book on Paleolithic parietal art, that is making Investigative Poetry make more sense to me.

The Man, The Bison, and the Bird of the Shaft (The Shaft of the Dead Man)

The Man, The Bison, and the Bird of the Shaft (aka The Shaft of the Dead Man)

With this book, I stare back to understand today. I also understand our origins better. I study and imaginatively think and write. I’m making more connections with the universe than ever before. I’m discovering humanity. It happens because I’m investigating. I’m investigating humanity, and so far it’s not guilty.

My description of Investigative Poetry is not all the good.

A better description is in the review that just came out today on Gently Read Literature, “Khurshid Alam’s Investigative Poetry—An Interpretation on Subject, Treatment, and Technique.” This essay is wonderful. I love it. I love it because it describes very well what I am doing with my poetry. It’s got me nailed.

I never thought my poetry could be nailed down, because, until recently, I’m all over the place. But this, this Investigative Poetry nails me, and I like it.

Read this essay on Investigative Poetry and you will read me.

(I apologize if this post seems self-serving, but, damn, the review so excited me.)//


The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the World by Tom Holmes and released by Amsterdam Press on 1-1-11 is the first book release of 2011.

The Oldest Stone in the World

Tom Holmes wrote this book almost 11 years ago. It was his bridge from his heady, intellectual poems into the poems of everyday speech, images, and much closer to humanity. In this collection, you can see the blossoming of Holmes’ imagination while maintaining a loose grip on formalism.

Wanda Schubmehl says of the book:

Tom Holmes has given us a Stone for the ages, a physical metaphor for the tension between our anxiety about death and our fierce compulsion to live fully. The language is simple, but the electric effect of its surprising associations and vision propels us into vast new landscapes of possibility. Almost Jungian in its effect, the work vibrates with mystery and significance, and readers will find that the Stone has a tendency to speak quietly to them long after the book is put away.

Steve Fellner says:

What a tremendously generous gift! Written about ten years ago, Tom Holmes shares some of his vital early work. Imagine a collection with a literary conceit rivaling Louise Gluck’s in The Wild Iris and with the influence of Donald Revell’s more spare lyrics. By reading Holmes’ past work, I can’t imagine what the future will bring. All I know is this: I can’t wait to read it.

Here’s the introduction to the collection of poems:

The Oldest Stone in the World came out of an experiment to write a poem at the rate of one word per day. Because of this slow pace, I believed I would be able to meditate upon that word all day & explore rhythms & undertones that could attach to & build from the word-of-the-day. In addition, I would also use the word-of-the-day in another poem. Thus, each day I would write a word, which contributed to a slowly developing poem, & I would write a completely different poem that included the word-of-the-day. The experiment ceased after 30days. In practice, the experiment did not work as well as anticipated. However, there was a nineteen-day run of poems that resulted in this book.

I first learned of the stone in Guy Davenport’s essay “Olson” in his book The Geography of the Imagination. I then researched & read what I could find that was written in English of the stone. The most helpfulplace was Rev. T. Dempsey’s The Delphic Oracle. Though he had good information, he didn’t have much information. Thus, I was left to fragments of information & my imagination & meditations.

This stone, however, actually exists. According to Davenport’s essay,“Olson,” “In September 1913, the French archaeologist FrançoisCourby unearthed this ‘omphalos’ at Delphi.” In addition, Plutarch has written about it, but I have failed to find that writing translated into English.

Nonetheless, I give you The Oldest Stone in the World.

This is Tom Holmes’ fifth collection of poems.

This beautifully handmade book from Cindy Kelly and all the good people at Amsterdam Press is currently available for sale at Etsy. To get your copy, click here. Soon it will be available at Amazon, too. But Etsy is a cool place to get it. It’s like going to the local book store.

It will also soon be available at the wonderful Lift Bridge Books in Brockport.

The cover art is a drawing by Guy Davenport, which appears in the “Olson” essay. The image is reproduced with the permission of the Guy Davenport Estate.

The book is dedicated to Charles Olson, Guy Davenport, and Pat Meanor.

Charles Olson the great poet, Guy Davenport the wonderful essayist, and Pat Meanor the professor from SUNY Oneonta who first brought my full attention to poetry.

Enjoy the read!!//


Lineation: An Introduction to the Poetic Line

When I was asked back in late July or early August to do this lecture on the line in poetry, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to talk about and explore. I have since forgotten that clear idea, but I do remember the prompt. A few months earlier in the Just Poets meeting there was a new lady who was interested in poetry. She was a prose writer. Her questions were contentious despite the appearance of wanting to learn about poetry. At that time I had suddenly had new understanding – what distinguishes poetry from prose is the line. Of course there are other elements lending to poetry’s identity, and the line is obvious, but there was something more. I mentioned to the lady the tension between line and syntax and the magic that happens at the line break, but she seemed to tune it out. I think she was looking for reasons that conformed to her ideas, which were to keep writing prose and that prose is better. So that’s what brings me to you. The line.

I can’t possibly cover everything about the line and what it can do, so this will be a brief overview.

So what do we know about the line? What makes a line? What are its characteristics? As a writer, how do you know when to end the line? There’s intuition, of course, and that will work sometimes. There’s syllabics, where you make sure you hit the right number of accents per line. There’s the metrical line, such as the well-known iambic pentameter. But there is also free verse, vers libre. Robert FrostRobert Frost said something like, “Free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” However, Charles Wright is rumored to have responded, “Free Verse is the high wire act without the net.” I’m concerned with the latter for this introduction.

In free verse there are many line measures. There’s the line defined by breath, as Charles OlsonCharles Olson explores in the essay “Projective Verse” and his own poetry. There is the image-thought line, where there is one image or thought per line. There is the haiku leap, or as Ginsberg says in “Howl,” “jumping with sensation.” Those lines are defined by leaps or lightning bolts or perception zaps.

The first snow,
just enough to bend
the leaves of the daffodils.


Weathered bones
on my mind,
a wind-pierced body.


A bee
staggers out
of the peony.

Matsuo BashoThose are haikus from Basho. (By the way, the plural of “haiku” is “haiku” or “haikus”.) Each poem is a direct perception or thought. Short bursts that leap from line to line. And there’s the magic at each line’s end. The snow is bending something. What is that something? Perhaps it’s the snow. Have faith in this line-break leap as we will see it is the slightest weight of snow bending the slightest thing – a daffodil leaf. Zap zap zap.

That seems pretty effective. Why not just keep writing like that? Why not write:

I saw the best minds
of my generation
destroyed by madness

That’s from the first line of Ginsberg’s “Howl.’

Allen Ginsberg's Howl

Ginsberg was very much into Haiku. He even had the four-volume, 1600-page collection of R. H. Blyth’s translated haikus, the main and maybe the only source of haiku at the time in English. He and Gary Snyder and others called it their Perception Bible. So why not write “Howl” in haiku and give the reader/listener a jumping-with-sensation jolt?

I kinda like how that above haiku moves. But Ginsberg chose:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

What’s the difference between the two? Perhaps we should ask the content.

“Howl” is anger, a rant, a celebration, an anthem for a generation. It’s a loud proclamation that needs to be heard “over the roofs of the world,” as Whitman would say. Can haiku achieve that voice? Maybe. For a short while, but it would sound odd especially after each little pause after each five- or seven-syllable line.



The short lines slow down the reading. This poems needs to be oracular. Loud. It’s a rant that needs long lines. The shorter lines in this case also become disjointed and not fluid. When we turn those short-lined stanzas into one line, then there is one long breath per line. One outburst. The longer lines speed up the reading. The longer line can also become more inclusive. It can hold more, unlike the discreteness of the short line. Ginsberg also gets one image-thought per line.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the           machinery of night,

After the opening three lines come a whole bunch of anaphoric lines starting with “who.” The anaphora is another way to create lines. By beginning each line with the same word or a few words, you can create a whole new rhythm. Often a rhythm of expectation, but in the case of “Howl,” a further definition or inclusion of who is he talking about. Each “who” is probably a specific person. So now we have each line a reflection of a person and his or her actions.

But there are more to lines than direct perception, rants, slow, and fast. I mean, so much depends upon the line.

There is the line of everyday speech. Wordsworth and Frost and others tried to keep their language as close as possible to everyday speech, which we all know. However, what they didn’t do is use the line as a measure of everyday speech. Maybe back in Wordsworth and Frost’s time, people spoke and thought in 10 syllable lines. Maybe, it was because of location. The world moved more slowly and allowed for such thinking. But closer to home is William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, and Robert Creeley. Now their lines seem close to how we actually think and talk when we are at the grocery store talking to friends, when we are at the playground watching our kids while talking to other grown-up adults, when we are at the bar drinking and talking. Then we tend to speak and utter in three, four, six, or eight syllable bursts. Oh sure, if it’s five minutes to last call we may have a sudden burst of energy and announce some certain alcohol-induced profundity that will save the world, and that burst may last 10-12 syllables. But that comes after considerable thought and liquid courage. And the next sentence most likely is, “Yeah.” It balances out.

William Carlos WilliamsThe line as measure. William Carlos Williams in his essay “A New Line is New Measure” talks about how Louis Zukofsky reinvented the line. In the essay Williams says:

There is actually no “free verse.” All verse is measure. We may not be able to measure it, we may not know how but, finally, it is measured.

The new line is a new measure.

This essay, which I just read, got me thinking about the line as a measure of common speech, as noted above. Let each line be a thought/speech burst. Let it reflect how you would speak. And since utterances vary in length, you will get movement and variance in your lines. The lines will add to the meaning. They will imitate breath and thought. These are similar conclusions Cid Corman also came to when he first started to explore improvised poems into a wire recorder, which was like a tape recorder. Let’s look at the middle lines of one of Zukofsky’s shorter poems, “25 (for Zadkine)” from Anew:

Louis Zukofsky' 25 for Zadkine

So you can see hear how there is a burst of energy in the first line of this excerpt. You can see/hear the variances in length paralleling thought. But what do these lines have in common with the haiku we saw before:

The first snow,
just enough to bend
the leaves of the daffodils.


Back in the fifties, when they were trying to make haiku work in English, they thought to use the 5-7-5 syllabic form. That was one way to do it, but it is not much practiced anymore. (Robert Kelly probably got the best English syllabic equivalent to the haiku in his form The Lune – 5-3-5.) They also thought a good measure for haiku was the breath. One breath per haiku. The idea of breath can also be applied to the line. For a full overview of that, read Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” and then his poems, as well as Robert Duncan’s poems. One of the many things we can get from reading Olson’s essay and Olson’s and Duncan’s and other’s poetry is one breath equals one line. Or as Olson says in “Projective Verse”:

the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE

The breath is the line. The breath makes the poem physical. So maybe we can read “Howl” that way, too?

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the           machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of    cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on    tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy    among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the    skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and    listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New        York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos    night after night

Breathing Robert DuncanThose are some big-breath lines there. It’s almost difficult to do. But the long-breathed lines also add to the poem’s anxiousness and speed and chaos. But it stables out with the anaphoric “who.” It keeps you from going dizzy from lack of breath. The “who” teaches you how to breathe for this poem. The breath becomes more regular. It’s more like regular breath. Because the “who” dictates a long, deep inhale. It’s anticipated. The anxiousness dissipates. The breathing becomes more regular. That’s what these lines and this poem needs.

But what of poems with line lengths of 8-14 syllables? Despite how we speak in shorter sentences, or how Ginsberg speaks in ginormous sentences, there are still some poems with line lengths in between. Let’s look at Robert Duncan’s poem “The Torso, Passages 18” from Bending the Bow.

The Torso

Archaic Torso of ApolloThat’s about half of this beautiful poem. Each line is a breath. It’s almost more like a gasp. A gasp of awe and surprise. With that and the extra space between most of the lines, you hear a contemplative man. You hear a hesitant man. A man observing beauty. The breathing lines create a tone of awe. (In fact, on an aside, the tonal awe of this poem reminds me a lot of Hopkins awe in “The Windhover.”) You will also notice there are spaces within the lines. Those are pausing spots, but the pauses are still part of the same breath. You should read these lines out loud to hear a fuller effect and to see what you hear and feel. You can read the whole poem here:

So we just learned three effects of the breath-driven line. There’s the wham-bam-thank-you-poet of the haiku of direct perception, where the one-breath poem heightens the wham-bam. There’s the anxiousness in “Howl.” And there’s breath-induced awe. All of these, as we noticed, affected the emotions and the body. There are more ways to use the breath, and I hope you explore them.

Of course, you can also have multiple breaths in one line. Let’s look at Larry Levis’ poem “Shiloh” from Elegy.


When my friends found me after I’d been blown
Into the limbs of a tree, my arms were wide open.
It must have looked as if I were welcoming something,

Awakening to it. They left my arms like that,
Not because of the triumphant, mocking shape they took
In death, & not because the withheld breath

Of death surprised my arms, made them believe,
For a split second, that they were really wings.
Instead of arms, & had always been wings. No, it was

Because, by the time the others found me, I had been
Sitting there for hours with my arms spread wide,
And when they tried, they couldn’t bend them back,

Couldn’t cross them over my chest as was the custom,
So that the corpses that kept lining the tracks
Might look like sleeping choir boys. They were

No choir, although in death they were restored
To all they had been once. They were just boys
Fading back into the woods & the ravines again.

I could see that much in the stingy, alternating light
And shade they train threw out as it began to slow,
And the rest of us grazed out from what seemed to me

One endless, empty window on what had to be.
What had to be came nearer in a sudden hiss of brakes,
The glass clouding with our reflections as we stood.

Arms & wings. They’ll mock you one way or the other.

The Battle of Shiloh

The Battle of Shiloh

Larry LevisIn this poem about a soldier dying in the Civil War battle of Shiloh, Levis suspends sentences, as he often does in Elegy. The first sentence extends two lines, and the main clause and the subject, “arms,” aren’t known until the end of line 2. “Arms” is a subject of the poem, too. You’ll also notice there is a breath before the main clause. One breath for one-and-a-half lines but with an end pause at the end of line 1, another breath for half a line, and then one breath for line 3. But what you will notice in this poem is that the breath is aligning with the natural pauses of syntax. In this poem, Levis dismisses projective verse. For him, the body is connected through the images. For him, the tension and tone arise from the breathing syntax’s tension with the line and the suspension of the subject.

In this poem, Levis uses the line and the poem to suspend the arrival of the subject and the predicate. It adds to the dizziness that is going through the speaker’s mind. Or maybe it parallels it. He’s telling his story from the other side of life, death. He is in shock. He’s so unsure of what happened, he delays that he is the subject for one-and-a-half lines. This delay happens again at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth stanzas. It again takes one-and-a-half lines to introduce the real subject of “I” (not the dummy subject “it”), and the second line of the fourth stanza ends like the second line of the first stanza with arms wide open. But this sentence that starts at the end of the third stanza has two independent clauses. The first clause delays the arrival of the real subject, “I,” and the second begins with an adverbial clause, “And when they tried,” which also delays the arrival of the subject.

And there are the interrupters – the grammatical and the line-break interrupters.

But more on the sentence suspension. Let’s look at the fifth sentence that begins at the end of the fifth stanza, and a little of what precedes it.

Might look like sleeping choir boys. They were

No choir, although in death they were restored
To all they had been once. They were just boys
Fading back into the woods & the ravines again.

The sentence begins “They were” and then there is a line and stanza break. With the last image before “They were” being “choir boys,” the mind will make the connection that “They were” relates to the “choir boys.” It does. But at this point the mind is thinking “They were choir boys.” And the mind holds on to that image for the long pause until the beginning of the next stanza that begins, “No choir.” This is really good action. This is tension between line and syntax, or associative syntax. The association gives us the choir boys, and after the line break which interrupts the syntax and image, the choir boys are taken away. Just like that. You have choir boys as an image, and then they get taken way. Now if the line were more like:

Sleeping choir boys. They were no choir

Well then the effect would be different. The qualifier of “no choir” comes too quick. The image does not get to build and sustain itself. The line break causes the image of choir boys to build and grow, the rest of the sentence enacts that they were not “choir boys” or a “choir.” And then, and then he takes that away with “although in death they were restored.” In the same line that he taketh away, he giveth. This is what I mean by suspension and interruption.

Still this continuing give and take between the syntax dictating the image and the line dictating the image continues. Let’s just look at the whole stanza.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . They were

No choir, although in death they were restored
To all they had been once. They were just boys
Fading back into the woods & the ravines again.

I just told you about those first few lines, but let’s look at the end of the second line, “They were just boys.” Here the line break creates two meanings because the line break suspends the qualifier of what types of boys there were. First, because “just” is ambiguous at this point, it hasn’t been qualified by the next line, “they were just boys” sounds like “they were righteous boys.” And aren’t all boys righteous in war, and because of the context of this poem. The “just” also takes more of a hit, a bigger accent or stress. Then on the next line we get context for “just.” On the next line we realize “just” means “nothing more than” boys, young boys. And the “just,” in a Zen-syllabic moment, loses some of its accent. Its accent is more equal with “boys” than being stronger. The line break creates that double meaning and the Zen-syllabic-stress moment. The line in tension with the syntax creates the double meaning. So on the line turn we can hear/feel/see young, righteous boys “Fading back into the woods & the ravines.” The tone is passive, so reflective, so somber.

This makes me think of “were.”

The verb of the poem is “were.” It occurs six times. Because of “were” and “had been,” the final lines work.  The past tense formation sets up the possibility the “what had to be.”  And even in that same sentence of future possibility, the poem slides back into past tense with “as we stood.” Then the free floating image, “Arms & wings.” Of course it’s in the now. It’s an image. So we have “were” and “had been” in the early part of the poem jamming up with the existential “to be” followed by an image of the present, and concluded with the imperative. The tone of the poem, especially with all its interrupters, feels passive, which gives the last line such an impact.

If you want to hear and see and see how best to use syntax and the line, read W. S. Merwin. He uses the line as punctuation because he uses no punctuation. He doesn’t use punctuation because he believes the mind doesn’t think in punctuation.  He uses the line as an image-thought. The line reflects the thinking.

Robert CreeleyWe can also look to Rober Creeley’s “The Turn” for syntax-line tension.

The Turn

Each way the turn
twists, to be apprehended:
now, she is
there, now she

is not, goes, but
did she, having gone,
went before
the eye saw

nothing. The tree
cannot walk, all its
going must
be violence. They listen

to the saw cut, the
roots scream. And in eating
even a stalk of celery
there will be pathetic screaming.

But what we want
is not what we get.
What we saw, we think
we will see again?

We will not. Moving,
we will
move, and then

On the line stanza break at the end of the first stanza, he kinda does the same thing we just saw Levis do with “They were / No choir.” This poem, in fact, by the way its sentences twist and turn within the lines, might be an ars poetica about the line-syntax tension. I mean, look at those commas. They are there in large part to cause stammering. To add to the magical act of being and nothing and violence and peace.

be violence. They listen

to the saw cut, the
roots scream. And in eating
even a stalk of celery
there will be pathetic screaming.

But here is a point I want to get to as well. The line break. The line defines the poem, and the line break is where all the magic happens. I believe that almost always you should end a line with a good image or action. Some solid word. Usually, if you end with “the” or “of” or a word that doesn’t evoke something in the mind, you are losing magic. What do I mean by magic? I guess I mean a leap of faith. If you are religious, you can only believe in a god or gods if you make a leap of faith. A leap between here and there with nothing connecting the two. Like Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Without faith, without belief, without any rational explanation, without any visible evidence of a bridge existing and crossing over the bottomless pit between him and the cave with the grail, he closes his eyes, takes a step, and hopes/believes a bridge will be there. And there it is.

The line break manifested in The Last Crusade.

A bridge. And he walks across. (However, he doesn’t have that much faith because he sprinkles some gravel on the other end of the bridge so he can find it again. The leap of faith took that much out of him.) And that’s the magic that happens on the line break. Something that doesn’t exists materializes. You reach the end of the line with a hopeful image, you go through the line turn hoping for something, and during that line turn your mind is actively involved in creating something, just like with the “just boys.” The mind is being imaginative. The mind is involved in magic. It creates something out of nothing, which is why the beginning of the next line is so important because it restores hope. Your leap becomes successful. And if there is good magic, and if there is jumping-with-sensation magic, a new imagination is created on the next line. One you hadn’t imagined. And this creative imaginative force should happen at the end of every line. This is why it so important to end the line with something solid. You need to give the reader hope. You need to give the reader’s imagination a stimulant. The poem needs to give and take.

However, sometimes, and I hate that I’m undermining that passion explosion, but sometimes ending on “the” or “of” can be successful. Look at Sharon Olds’ poetry. That’s her shtick. Whether it’s successful or not is up to you. But in the above Creeley poem, he ends on “the.”

to the saw cut, the
roots scream. And in eating
even a stalk of celery
there will be pathetic screaming.

It’s a clever line break because it mimics the cutting. It’s a cutus interruptus. (Yes, I punned.) The line and the expected words to follow get cut off in an unexpected place. In fact, the cutting starts with the out-of-place comma. That’s where the saw makes contact with the roots. Then it cuts on the line break. But I see these line breaks being more for the head and less for heart. But if done well, it can create a jarring effect that disturbs the heart, as it did here.

The Precarious Rhetoric of AngelsOr what about these line examples from George Looney’s The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels (White Pines Press, 2005), a book where the poems’ meanings revolve around loss, or as he says, “Meaning alludes to something lost.”

Let’s look at these lines from “Faced with a Mosque in a Field of Wheat”:

. . . . . . . . . Not even sex
can disguise the flatness of place
topographical maps turn gray
and the sky blurs, anonymous.

Note how the pauses (the line breaks) cause a tension against the movement of the syntax. Note how that tension forces the reader to slow down to pay attention so as to not overlook, to not anticipate, and to not lose the meaning of what is going on. See and hear how a line makes sense and then is redefined by the next line and the next.

Or consider the opening lines from “A Vague Memory of Fish and Sun”:

Some rivers bend from sight or burn down
to nothing but fossils and dust.

Now some of us may have written:

Some rivers bend from sight
or burn down to nothing
but fossils and dust.

But with Looney’s poem, a different tension arises with the syntactical pause after “nothing,” which seems to complete the thought (which is why I made my line break after “nothing”) and seems to complete the line above. In fact, it sounds like it almost is part of the first line, but that’s just what the grammar ear wants. The first line is doing two things. First, it is saying “Some rivers bend from sight,” that is, they disappear. Then we read the “or”, which seems to indicate something contrary will happen. So we anticipate, when we read “or burn down,” that something will remain. This is where the second thing happens, the line has countered the reader’s expectations. So instead of burning down into a pile of ashes, or something, it “burns down / to nothing”. Now here’s the big pause where syntax and line have finally come to agreement — it’s a mental sigh of relief as we get what is going on in the lines, we get our bearings. But now it’s the syntax’s turn to have its way. And it has its way with “but”. Here “but” is acting similar to the “or” except it is also working against what the lines have already done. The “but” doesn’t slow down the movement of the poem but rather propels it forward. Now what was lost when we read “nothing” is now recovered with “fossils and dust.” These lines mimic a vague memory (as the title suggests), and they play with the theme of loss.

Here’s another example of the line-syntax tension from “The History of Signification”:

nothing. Loss is
elitist and forgetting is best
done in layers.

You see/hear how each line can create its own independent meaning with “nothing” and “loss” balancing and reinforcing each other, and the line almost reads like a definition (if Yoda were reading it). The next line behaves similar with “elitist” and “best” balancing each other, and there is a definition of sorts in there with “forgetting is best.” But here, as is often the case in the poems in this collection, the line is working a tension against syntax. The status of “forgetting is best” becomes a how-to on the line break. “How best to forget?” and the third line responds, “Forgetting is best done in layers.”

The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels is a contemporary book of poetry that one should read if one wants to learn more about the line action and the decisions that can be made for line breaks.

As I said earlier, “In free verse there are many line measures.” And I have covered very briefly only a few. But I want to mention the poem that has no line measure – the prose poem. In prose poetry there are no lines. Prose poetry is like poetry where line breaks can’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t help the text. The tension in a prose poem is elsewhere and it’s not with meter, breath, rhythm, image-thought, or something other rubbing up against the line. I’m still not sure what makes the prose poem a prose poem, but I assume what I just I said – it’s a poem without line breaks.

Lawrence FerlinghettiSo how can I leave you with only one mimetic line device? How can I leave you hovering about and wanting another example? How can I close this lecture that began with playing tennis with a dropped net and high-wire act with no net without including this Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem, “Constantly Risking Absurdity” from A Coney Island of the Mind: Poems (New Directions, 1958), of which I have a first edition, thank you?

Constantly Risking Absurdity

So what you may see in this poem are the lines just starting here and there on the page. However, they move backwards and forwards across the page just like a tightrope walker who steps forward and then kind of steps back to get his balance then steps forward a little bit and a little bit more and then a step back to gain balance and over and over until he gets to the other side, or the end of the poem that uses the line most uniquely. That uses “sleight-of-foot tricks.” (There’s a pun there, too.) That uses line breaks and “empty air” to enhance the poem’s existence.

Thank you for listening to this lecture. For anyone who wants to attend, I will be leading a mini workshop on lineation and the line break.

Thank you again for your attention.











And now for the exercises.

Exercise 1.

Here’s a poem with no line breaks. It’s up to you to insert them. Then we will compare what you did with the way the poet laid out the poem.

In a Jam

Driving one hour through rush hour traffic to bring you a spare set of keys, reminds me of what I would and would not do for you. The moon, weightless lure, stumbles across the road. I have been banished from your sight for lesser sins, lonely and sorry, believing lightning would not rift the same bark twice. In spring, sap pushes upward in a body until it flowers to become nothing more than wet bark, green buds. What is the probability of softening and changing?  The river is a miracle of attentiveness, eyes and blood, wandering through a passage so labyrinthine grief is released, unlike the place we inhabit which stands so certain with a door to lock and a key to fit inside it. And if this is the purpose of all favors, the one requesting the other to relinquish that which arms do not yield then release may, in good turn, be received.











Don’t look until you’ve put in your line breaks. The final poems is below.











Here’s how Harriet Levin laid out her poem (, and it’s below.

In a Jam

Driving one hour through rush
hour traffic to bring you a spare
set of keys, reminds me of what
I would and would not do
for you. The moon,
weightless lure, stumbles
across the road.
I have been banished
from your sight for lesser sins,
lonely and sorry,
believing lightning would not rift
the same bark twice.
In spring, sap pushes upward
in a body until it flowers
to become nothing more
than wet bark, green buds.
What is the probability
of softening and changing?
The river is a miracle of attentiveness,
eyes and blood, wandering
through a passage so labyrinthine
grief is released,
unlike the place we inhabit
which stands so certain
with a door to lock
and a key to fit inside it.
And if this is the purpose
of all favors, the one requesting
the other to relinquish
that which arms do not yield
then release may,
in good turn, be received.

Harriet Levin's Girl in the Cap and GownBefore I say anything. This poem appears in Girl in Cap and Gown from MAMMOTH Books.

I mainly want to focus on the first part. In the beginning of this poem, the speaker is in a traffic jam, so what better way to mimic the feel of traffic jam than by imitating the sudden stops and starts. The phrase “rush hour” is almost like a word, and here she splits it up. She disrupts the normal flow of how it is worded. The same is true of “spare set of keys”. That’s a common phrase that you wouldn’t interrupt when speaking, but here it’s broken up on a line break, again, to mimic the jarring stops and starts. The third line break is similar, but not as harsh. Perhaps we were in a rubber necker, and now we are at the accident watching it as we slowly speed up. The same feel is at the end of the fourth line. Then we get the romantic line “for you. The moon.” It flows smooth. It has a natural pause at the end of the line. The line is paralleled with two syllables on either side of the period. There is an iamb on either side of the period. It reminded me of Anglo-Saxon verse, which could be another fine study. In Anglo-Saxon verse, like Beowulf, a line has two halves, or hemistichs, and there is a caesura in the middle. In either half are two stressed syllables that are also long in quantity and an alliterated letter. On the other side of the caesura are two more stressed syllables and another alliterated letter. (There are some other considerations, but what I just mentioned are the main ones.) This type of writing is fun practice, as are all syllabics and metrics.

Then the poem moves forward with a good flow. The syntax and line work in unison. The end words, the words at the end of the line, work well. And then she pulls a Larry Levis at the end by suspending the subject and the predicate. The subject of “release” in the penultimate line, and the verb “may be received” is broken doubly with the line break and the interrupter “in good turn.” There’s a certain tension there. It recalls the juts and jukes of the first line, but whereas those jerked the neck, these interrupters and suspensions still flow smoothly. However, isn’t there a juke in the passive voice of the independent clause, “then release may, in good turn, be received”? The subject really being you? “You may receive release” or “release may be received by you.” “You” which may also be “grief” from a few lines before, “grief is released.” “You and grief may receive release.” Anyway. A harsh poem for sure.

And what a way to end a poem with another fulcrum – “in good turn, be received.”

There are good turns in this poem and all poems should have good turns.

Exercise 2.

Bonus example if there is time.

Morton Marcus' The Dark Figure in the DoorwayThis poem is by Morton Marcus. It appears in The Dark Figure in the Doorway (White Pines Press, 2010).

All We Can Do

All we can do on this earth is step into the future with a sense of the many people behind us, the living and the dead, as if we carried our bodies like amphorae filled with sunbeams into each new day, continually reaching inside ourselves to scatter golden butterflies over the land before us, or to fling them against the night, not like tears, but like stars that will guide those who follow across the darkness.





Some helpful definitions

amphora (am-fer-uh) – a large two-handled storage jar having an oval body, usually tapering to a point at the base, with a pair of handles extending from immediately below the lip to the shoulder: used chiefly for oil, wine, etc., and, set on a foot, as a commemorative vase awarded the victors in contests such as the Panathenaic games.

amphorae (am-fuh-ree) – more than one amphora.












Don’t look until you’ve put in your line breaks. The final poems is below.











All We Can Do

All we can do on this earth is step into the future
with a sense of the many people behind us,
the living and the dead, as if we carried our bodies
like amphorae filled with sunbeams into each new day,
continually reaching inside ourselves
to scatter golden butterflies over the land before us,
or to fling them against the night, not like tears, but like stars
that will guide those who follow across the darkness.

I like how the first line keeps moving as if into the future. One could break the line on “step.” That seems natural. It leaves us with a good image-action, but it works better with the extension as the line keeps stepping into the future. Plus ending on “future” means we can imagine the future on the line turn. The future is unknown and so is the line turn. And then the next line ends on “behind us.” Now we are spiraling. Forward at one line break, and backward at the next. That’s good line movement. It mimics how we move in everyday life. It mimics how we write. We write for the future and the past and because of the past. And then the next line has a pivot. The first half defines who those people are, which is a good thing for me because I only thought of the dead, but all people in the past are alive and some of the people in the past are still living today. Then the pause and the return to the sentence. Then the next line is good break, too, because we imagine carrying bodies. I imagined carrying a dead body, even though it is mine. But carrying a body somehow. And then the simile kicks in “like amphorae filled with sunbeams into each new day,” with the natural pause at the line’s end.  I like how the next line is the shortest. Somehow, to me, it mimics the depth of the vase. My hand goes in, but only so far. Certainly not very far compared to the temporal distances we have travelled. Plus, the short line helps the next line scatter. The scattering is mimicked in the longer line length. The line scatters out in length, and then grows longer on the next line that goes into the night and the stars – a distance comparable to the temporal distance we have travelled and then some. Also, if you watch these lines move, they go from a void with the abstract future and past, to the color of sunbeams, then into the darker night with stars and then into the darkness. And all of this happens in one sentence, but there is no anxiety in these lines. The tone keeps the anxiousness at bay. We actually don’t want the period to come. But it comes like death.

What a beautiful one-sentence poem.







Bibliography (or a list of books and essays some of which I have read and some I plan to read when I make this a more in-depth detailed study)

Corn, Alfred. The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon P, 2008.

Longenbach, James. The Art of the Poetic Line. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf P, 2008.

Oliver, Mary. Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. New York: Mariner B,    1998.

Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.”

Pinsky, Robert. The Sounds of Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Preminger, Alex, ed. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University    Press, 1974. (I’m sure there are more recent editions.)

Williams, William Carlos. “A New Line is a New Measure: Louis Zukofsky’s Anew.” Something to Say:      William Carlos on Younger Poets. New York: New Directions, 1985. P 161-169.

—. “On Measure – Statement for Cid Corman.” Something to Say: William Carlos on Younger Poets. New    York: New Directions, 1985. P 202-208.

—. “The Poem as a Field of Action.” Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions,    1954. P 280-291.

—. “The Speed of Poetry: James Schevill’s Right to Greet. Something to Say: William Carlos on Younger      Poets. New York: New Directions, 1985. P 217-218.



Black Mountain North, Today, You, Me, and Energy

Black Mountain North SymposiumWhat I’m learning at this Black Mountain North Symposium are community and energy. Black Mountain College with all its writers, artists, mathematicians, physicists, language teachers, et. al., had community and energy. Well, I knew that, and you probably did, too. What I didn’t know was that the community could even be seen in the school directory. It listed all the students first under the heading Community. Then it listed the faculty, the maintenance people, and the cooks. But there is more to community than that directory. That’s just an example of how unconscious it was.

There is the community of help, as well, and celebration. Back then when a Black  Mountain person produced a journal, like Origin, Jargon, Black Mountain Review, et. al., the journal mattered. The editors actually published writers they believed in. Writers they thought needed recognition. Writers they wanted to celebrate. And, as a result,  those journals had energy rising from passion.

Black Mountain CollegeThe remains of all of that has been gathered by John Roche and put on display here as one entity at the Black Mountain North Symposium at the Rochester Institute of Technology. This conference is not only lectures that celebrate Black Mountain College and some of its writers and artists, such as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Jonathan Williams, but the conference also gathers a few people who actually attended Black Mountains College. Students. Students who are now 81 years old. (Martha Rittenhouse who studied with Josef Albers and Charles Olson in 1947-48, Basil King who attended Black Mountain College as a teenager and completed an apprenticeship as an abstract expressionist in San Francisco and New York, and Martha King who attended Black Mountain College in the summer of 1955.) That is an amazing feat, and it will probably be the last time a gathering like this happens.

Oh, and Ed Sanders is here, too. I so want to meet him. I want to tell him the importance of The Fugs to me, especially “The Swinburne Stomp.”

I just haven’t found the right moment. He seems approachable. I did say hi to him, but then wasn’t the time to go any further.

Oh, and Robert Creeley’s wife, Penelope, is also here, despite her good friend and poet Michael Gizzi passing away the other day.

Beauty and the BeastBut as I said, there is more than the lectures. There are those people I just mentioned. The students. The students with their stories. Students telling stories of the past. The past with detail. Stories of the chemistry building burning down, and the students helping to reconstruct it. Stories of farming together. Stories of washing their dishes. Stories of the parties. And stories of the competition to make the best, perfect piece of art. But not a competition with each other, but with themselves. A competition to make something wonderful for class the next day.

I feel sentimental. I miss Black Mountain College, and I’ve never been there. Black Mountain College formed in 1933 and closed in 1957. (For a brief history, go here: I’ve even read a lot about Black Mountain College via Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community and Fielding Dawson’s The Black Mountain Book. The former written by a historian; the latter by a student of Black Mountain College, who was also an amazing fiction writer. And I’ve read a ton of Olson, Creeley, Cid Corman, Robert Duncan, Williams, Sanders, et. al. But I never felt like I was at Black Mountain until today. My sentiments feel deep and strong. I’m sad it’s gone. I’m happy for this conference.

I feel like I’m a champion of poetry. I try to champion poetry and poets when and where I can, but I feel I’m not doing it well enough. With not enough integrity. I want to start a press to help poetry more and more poets, but really that won’t help. I need more integrity like the Black Mountain writers. I need a community and energy.

Where is today’s energy and community? Is it in the MFA programs with two- to three-year-long communities? If so, that is not enough. Those communities dissolve fast after graduation but not nearly as fast as the energy.

Energy depends on community. I would like to find or shape a new community. A community of help and celebration and the championing of poetry. Who wants to join? How shall we join? How will we connect? Is the I-90 Manifesto and Poetry Revolution the road to community? Let’s hope so.

Let’s energize.

Let’s make for the altar of imagination some sign, some image complex, some community of energy.//


Writing Poetry Aloud

Sean Thomas Dougherty and I started a Facebook poll. We are asking our poet friends the following question: During the composition of a poem do you read the poem out loud?

Sean and I want to know because it seems there are a lot of “ear dead” poems out there. While we wait for responses, I am thinking about how I read the poem aloud during its composition.

I can tell you right now that I don’t read my poems out loud during composition that often, but I tend to read the poem aloud once during the composition. But why don’t I read  aloud more often during the poem’s composition? Why only once if at all? especially when I love reading them out loud at poetry readings, especially when I love the rhythm my body falls into and the trance I fall into when I read the poems aloud.

Charles Olson

Charles Olson. Creator of Projective Verse.

I used to read out loud a lot more often, especially during my Charles Olson and Projective Verse phase, which lasted about three or five years. I had to get the poem’s layout with all the spaces between the words to match my breathing, which is more fun when you try to match it to how you smoke!

I should go back further.

I have written in almost every form and every quantitative and qualitative meter that I could find in English, Latin, and Greek. And I have written at least three poems for every meter or form. The only way to write in every meter is to read aloud.

Algernon Charles Swinburne

"Algernon Charles Swinburne" painting by George Frederic Watts 1867.

Swinburne taught me the most about qualitative meter, and it was Ezra Pound, I think, and a Latin dictionary that taught me the most about quantitative meter. By the way, qualitative meters are based on syllabic stress while quantitative meters are based on syllabic length.

Back in the early 90s I heard of a guy who would talk in complete sonnets. He just made them up on the spot in mid-conversation and as part of the conversation. I wanted to do that. So I began another level of training. After a while, I was able to talk in rhyming iambic pentameter fairly well and in blank iambic pentameter with hardly any effort. I never did reach the sonnet level. Maybe once.

I also learned to read slow so I could hear each sound, how it moved, and how it connected to other sounds. Did you know that each letter of the alphabet is made of multiple sounds? That’s useful in harmony making. Did you know there are five levels of stress? They only teach you two in school: stressed and unstressed. But there are five. I even created my own five-level scansion symbol system to mark all the syllables.

Did you know that it’s impossible for the first syllable of a poem to be unstressed? It’s not necessarily stressed, but it’s not completely unstressed. This is because you are speaking for the first time. There’s an extra build up of air. More air comes out here than it would in another spot. For example:

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.

That’s from Robert Frost’s “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things.” That first “the” has more of an accent than the “the” in the second line. It’s because of the initial expulsion of air.

Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan

Also, in every poem there is one syllable that is more stressed than any other syllable. That’s what Robert Duncan said. I’ve confirmed it true, usually. Sometimes there are two syllables that are the strongest.

So how do I accurately explain how much I read out loud? I don’t know, but I did. Every poem I read, I read out loud. In fact, there came a point when I thought you could derive a poem’s meanings strictly from its sounds. You can. Not always, but often. In fact, there came a point when I didn’t care about the content in any poem. I just wanted sounds. Long vowel sounds especially. Like Bob Dylan’s vowels or Campion’s. Eventually I learned that in a poem the vowels carry the emotion and the consonants carry the meaning. That’s what the letters do. Go read a poem. The emotional ones have lots of long vowels or good vowel movements. The heady poems are consonant based.

T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets

T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets

Almost all my papers on poems were about sound, meter, and rhythm. What I’m trying to say is that I spent an intense twelve to fourteen years reading every poem aloud multiple times and in different intonations. The beginning of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets may be the most beautiful sounding poetry in the history of the English language.

Plus, I scanned poems. I wrote down the stresses and unstresses using my five-level scansion symbol system. I wanted to see what I was hearing. By seeing what I was hearing, by recording it, I was better able to train my ear.

Now, I don’t read out loud that much. Now, when I read out loud, I read for pitch and tone. Because of all my self-imposed training, my mental/silent ear can pick up on the vowel movements and harmonies and rhythms quite well, at this point. It’s actually like a visual and internal-audio dialogue as to how I hear most of the poem. But it’s not so good at hearing the height of the sound, or at least in hearing how the heights work throughout the poem, and how those heights affect the poem’s tone. The poems I don’t read out loud while composing are the ones that are generally flat in language and imagination and end up being to thinky or cerebral. Plus, I want to hear the puffs from my lungs. At some point in the composition, I want my lungs involved. Also, if I’m trying to work out sounds in the poem, I will read it aloud a number of times.

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg

Thinking of pitch and tone. If you want to learn about pitch, read Allen Ginsberg. If you want to learn about tone read Ezra Pound or Christopher Howell.

Now, I wanna write a long Ginsbergian poem because those are the most fun to read aloud.


Everything I wrote above is true. At the same time I’m being defensive. I’m rationalizing my laziness for not reading aloud my poems during their compositions.

Jack Spicer

Jack Spicer

A poem needs energy to exist. The hardest part about revising a poem is keeping the original energies. The more revisions that occur, the less of the original energies that remain. That’s generally true. That’s why I think Allen Ginsberg “revised lightly.” That’s probably why Robert Creeley didn’t revise. That’s probably why Jack Spicer trusted the Martians who gave him his poems.

And a poem can’t have energies if it’s written flatly on the page. It can only have two dimensions that way. Writing with the voice creates additional energies and dimensions. The vowel aloud has more emotion that what I hear in my head.

A poem written on the page is a zombie.

It needs breath to be alive. Charles Olson knew that, and now I am reminded of that.

It’s time to stop being lazy. It’s time to sing aloud.//

The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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June 2020


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