Posts Tagged ‘Robert Creeley


Poetry Assignments: The Book (Online): Forms: Obscure, Updated, & Invented


Brian Warner's The Cave

“The Cave” by Brian Warner. Used with the permission of Brain Warner.

or 100 Jackhammers for the Poet with Writer’s Block;

or 100 Ways to Jumpstart the Engine;

or 100 Pencil Exercises;

or 100 Ways to Stimulate Your Next Wine, Cheese, & Poetry Night


Table of Contents


  1. Finding the First, Discovering the Middle, & Chasing the End
  2. Imaginary Worlds
  3. Science, the Universe, Time, & Other Evolutions
  4. Fun with Letters, Words, Language, & Languages
  5. Forms: Obscure, Updated, & Invented
  6. New School; or Double Vision; or WWI (Writing While Intoxicated) & Its Repercussions
  7. Miscellany; Trying to Relate the Unrelated; or These Gotta Go Some Place . . . So Here
  8. Stupid Money, Dumb Politicians, & Celebrating America
  9. Responses; or Calling All Poets (Dead & Alive); or Talking to Eternity
  10. It’s All About You


Double Abecedarian

This one is kind of like an acrostic, but cooler.

Here’s how it works: The first letter of each should read A-Z down the left side, & then the last letter of each line should read Z-A down the right side.

Or, in the case of “Dead Critics Society” by Mike Dockins, Z-A down the left side, & A-Z down the right.

The additional challenge is to make it look like a box, i.e. to aim for similar line-lengths.

Also, it will probably be important to pick a subject matter that calls for such a form. In this case, you could say it’s a poem of arts & letters. . . . Because a poet would have to ask herself, “Why use this form? For what purpose?”

Mike says: “This poem was a sarcastic reaction to the notion that all poems are about death, or, worse yet, must be about death. F*** that. Note: the word ‘Zooks!’ is from a poem by Robert Browning. Enjoy!”

   Dead Critics Society

   Zooks! What have I done with my anthologies? I’ll need a
   year of sleep after writing my millionth review (with aplomb).
   XX bottles of moonshine litter my bedside table like arsenic.
   Why no lilting iambics in contemporary poetry? Only dead,
   vermin-ridden prose riddled with autobiographical treacle.
   Under my bed, the skeleton of Browning. I use his broken-off
   tibias as walking sticks. For hundreds of scenic miles I drag
   sensitivity, & marvel. Content must be pounded into a rich
   risotto of form – evident rhyme scheme & equal stanzas. I
   quote Keats: “Gasp! I am dying!” Were he as prosperous as J.
   P. Morgan, he may not have suffered so. These days, a black-
   out of good taste, a dimming of metrical etiquette, a dismal
   nerve of postmodern surrealism, whatever that means. I’m
   mad! I raise one of Browning’s femurs in revolt! I’ve a notion,
   ladies & gentlemen, that our language has crumbled into
   kindling – a few tiny sparks, maybe, but no thick log to keep
   joy in prosody truly alive. Meantime, I’m just about up to Q
   in my encyclopedia of verse: Quixote, etc., but still I gather
   hives hunting hopelessly for my beloved poetry anthologies.
   God knows Browning would have understood – what a saint.
   Five finger bones claw the floor under my bed, searching. You
   entertain such a relic, you pay the price – each knuckle a shiv
   digging for inspiration in the floorboards, scraping shallow
   crosses into my skin as I slumber. I should lock him in a box!
   But then nothing would remind me of my own bones – O my
   awaiting death – the only theme suitable for a poetry buzz.

This first appeared in The Atlanta Review and then on Verse Daily on August 10, 2006.

Look for other ones by Mike Dockins. “The Fun Uncle” in the Indiana Review (Winter 2004), “Zarathustra Paints Town” in jubilat (nine), & “Timbuktu” in New Zoo Poetry Review (January 2007).


The Clerihew

According to Jonathan Williams in his newest collection Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005):

The clerihew was invented in 1890 by Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who was a schoolboy of sixteen at St. Paul’s in London when the divine numen of Orpheus struck him. His best one seems to me:

   The digestion of Milton
   Was unequal to Stilton

   He was only feeling so-so
   When he wrote Il Penseroso.

Later Williams’ continues:

Frances Stillman’s The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary (1965) says this: “The clerihew is a humorous pseudo-biographical quatrain, rhymed as two couplets, with lines of uneven length, & often contains or implies a moral reflection of some kind. The name of the individual who is the subject of the quatrain usually supplies the first line.”

Here’s a couple of Williams’:

   Ezra Loomis Pound
   bought a lb

   of Idaho potatoes
   (the Hailey Comet always ate those).

   Hank D. Thoreau
   too seldom used eau

   de cologne,
   and always asked to live at Walden on his own

   Babe Ruth
   in all truth

   weren’t borned like you an’ me –
   he come down out of a tree.

   (Quoted poems by Jonathan Williams as they appear in Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems 
   (Copper Canyon P, 2005)© are used with permission of Copper Canyon Press.)

Ok go have fun. And if you like intelligent fun poets, read Jonathan Williams.


“Double Sonnet for the Minimalist”

I think this was first created by Mona Van Duyn. I read about it in Emily Grosholz’s “Poetry and Science in America” in The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science, ed. Kurt Brown (University of Georgia Press, 2001). (The poems first appeared in Van Duyn’s Near Changes (Knopf, 1990).)

This sonnet has fourteen lines. It has the same construct as a sonnet with the meter & the rhymes & the volta & all. But this sonnet has dimeter lines. The lines tend to be iambic, but the base minimum is to have two stresses per line. After the first sonnet is made, a second sonnet is made in response. Hence, “Double Sonnet.” See Below:

   The spiral shell
   apes creamhorns of smog.
   Dalmation, quenelle
   or frosted hedgehog,
   yet is obsessed
   by a single thought
   that its inner guest
   is strictly taught.
   When the self that grew
   to follow its rule
   is gone, and it’s through,
   vacant, fanciful,

   its thought will find
   Fibonacci’s mind.

The response:

   That fragile slug,
   bloodless, unborn,
   till it knows the hug
   of love’s tutoring form,
   whose life, upstart
   in deep, is to learn
   to follow the art
   of turn and return,
   when dead, for the dense
   casts up no clue
   to the infinite sequence
   it submitted to.

   May its bright ghost reach
   the right heart’s beach.

   “The Spiral Shell” and “That Fragile Slug” from Near Changes by Mona Van Duyn, 
   copyright © 1990 by Mona Van Duyn. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, 
   a division of Random House, Inc.


Tit for Tat & All That

This makes me think of a sestina, but it is not.

Let’s say we have stanzas with six lines each. The first line ends with a word. The second line ends with the same word but with one letter changed. The third line’s end word has another letter changed. Etc. See Below from the second stanza of John Hollander’s poem “Getting from Here to There” in Figurehead: And Other Poems (Knopf, 2000):

   One hears such stories with one’s eyes unwet:
   She woke up one day and found that the Tet
   Offensive had left her widowed with a tot
   Who broke her heart as if it were a toy.
   Luck, having given her one so-so try,
   Wrung out her life and left her bones to dry.

   Lines from “Getting from Here to There” from Figurehead by John hooander, copyright © 1999 by John 
   Hollander. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Now I imagine one could add a letter, as the title of the assignment suggests, and I don’t believe all stanzas need be six lines either.

Hollander’s poem has six six-line stanzas, a seven-line stanza, an eight-line stanza, a twelve-line stanza, & a thirteen-line stanza.


Chain Link Poems

This will involve a series of poems, & the first one you use in the series may already have been written.

The last line of the first poem will become the first line of the second poem. The last line of the second poem will become the first line of the third poem, etc…. until you are done. I imagine the linking will create a continuity & forward momentum. A subtle tension might be created between the poems, as well.

For a real Joycean challenge, make the last line of the last poem be the first line of the first poem; thus creating a cyclical movement.

I got this idea from Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s “Lucifer’s Crown” in Never be the Horse (University of Akron Press, 1999). Hers, however, is a “Crown of Sonnets:” a series of seven sonnets that follow the above rules.


The Glosa

I got this idea from Eleanor Rand Wilner’s poem “Αντíο, Cassandra” from The Girl with Bees in Her Hair (Copper Canyon Press, 2004).

The Glosa is comprised of four ten-line stanzas & begins with a four-line epigraph. The first line of the epigraph becomes the last line of the first stanza, the second line of the epigraph becomes the last line of the second stanza, the third line of the epigraph becomes the last line of the third stanza, & the fourth & last line of the epigraph becomes the last line of the fourth stanza, thus the poem. Also lines three, seven, & ten of each stanza are to rhyme. (Some say lines six, nine, & ten of each stanza are to rhyme. I say rhyming is not necessary, but to try anyway.)

Wilner, however, did it her own thing to the form. (Hmm . . . see poetry assignment “Make It New,” below). As she says in her endnote, “Since I can’t write if I know how something ends, I opened each stanza with the quoted lines, and reversed the form.” That is, the first line of the line epigraph became the first line of stanza one, the second line of the epigraph became the first line of stanza two, the third line of the epigraph became the first line of stanza three, & the fourth line of the epigraph became the first line of stanza four.

(Quoted passage by Eleanor Rand Wilner as it appears in the “Notes” of The Girl with Bees in Her Hair (Copper Canyon Press, 2004)© is used with permission of Copper Canyon Press.)


Minute by Minute, Syllable by Syllable

I’m sure most of us saw this on Poetry Daily on December 11, 2004 [which is now inaccessible 😦 ].

The form is called the “minute,” & was “formulated by Verna Lee Hinegardner, former poet laureate of Arkansas.” It works like this:

“Poems in this form consist of sixty syllables in rhyming couplets with a syllabic line count of 8,4,4,4– 8,4,4,4– 8,4,4,4,” as explained by the description for Cathy Smith BowersA Book of Minutes (Iris Press, 2004).

More: “A Book of Minutes is structured like a Book of Hours, the medieval prayer book that was its age’s own version of today’s literary best-seller. The Book of Hours was arranged in sections corresponding to with the eight canonical hours of the day, beginning with Matins, moving all the way through to Vespers, and ending with Compline. A Book of Minutes retains the same eight sections, and is illustrated to suggest illumination.”


The Gerald Stern Experiment

On February 10, 2005, Gerald Stern was in Spokane, WA, visiting Eastern Washington University’s Creative Writing Program. At the Q&A, he shared with us poems from one of his recently released, but not well-known, books: Not God After All (Autumn House Press, 2004).

Each poem is what Stern called a “petite narrative” or an “aphorism,” & he explained that each aphorism is composed of two lines of seven syllables each. I did not hear a connection between the poems, but I suspect they are connected in his mind associatively. In that regard, to me, from what I heard from what he read, they resemble the Sutras one uses to help remember The Upanishads.

Here a couple examples of Stern’s petite narratives.

   It’s not God after all,
   It’s the Chase Manhattan Bank.

   A fire I understand,
   but how do you make a flood?

   Don’t make God come too fast,
   be a bastard a while longer.

   (The Gerald Stern poems are from Not God After All copyright 2004 by Gerald Stern. 
   Reprinted by permission of the author and Autumn House Press.)

As part of the assignment, I am suggesting you just sit & write a bunch of these without being consciously involved except for the counting. Write & count. Write & count. Write & give me twenty!


Addonizio & the Sonnenizio; or Love is Hell for Fucci

In Kim Addonizio’s latest collection of poems What Is this Thing Called Love (Norton, 2004) (which is a solid book, by the way), there is a form poem I have never come across called a sonnenizio, & I would like to share Addonizio’s discovery with everyone as the next poetry assignment.

Addonizio has a footnote explaining the form:

note: The Sonnenizio was invented in Florence in the thirteenth century by Vanni Fucci as an irreverent form whose subject was usually the impossibility of everlasting love. Dante retaliated by putting Fucci into the seventh chasm of the Inferno as a thief. Originally composed of hendecasyllabics, the sonnenizio gradually moved away from metrical constraints and began to tackle a wider variety of subject matter. The sonnenizio is fourteen lines long. It opens with a line from someone else’s sonnet, repeats a word from that line in each succeeding line of the poem, and closes with a rhymed couplet.

It seems this form has the feel, or sensibilities, of a sonnet meets a sestina. And it seems like some cadence or rhythm will or can be built upon this repeated word, too. Also, it seems a slight variation on the word is a good idea so that the reader’s ears aren’t then just wafting to hear the repeated word. Make surprises as Addonizio & her poem do in:

Sonnenizio on a Line from Drayton

Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part;
or kiss anyway, let’s start with that, with the kissing part,
because it’s better than the parting part, isn’t it –
we’re good at kissing, we like how that part goes:
we part our lips, our mouths get near and nearer,
then we’re close, my breasts, your chest, our bodies partway
to making love, so we might as well, part of me thinks –
the wrong part, I know, the bad part, but still
let’s pretend we’re at that party where we met
and scandalized everyone, remember that part? Hold me
like that again, unbutton my shirt, part of you
wants to I can tell, I’m touching that part and it says
yes, the ardent partisan, let it win you over,
it’s hopeless, come, we’ll kiss and part forever.

   “Sonnenizio On a Line From Drayton” and the “note”, from What is This Thing Called Love: Poems by Kim 
   Addonizio. Copyright© 2004 by Kim Addonizio. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.


The Helen Humphreys’ Experiment

At Helen Humphreys’ reading on October 5th, 2005, at The Writers Forum at SUNY Brockport, Humphreys read a Sylvia Plath poem. She then read one of her poems, but this poem used all the words in the Plath poem she had just read – she just rearranged the order of the words to make a new poem. Humphreys said she does this because in her own poems she finds she often uses the same words in her poems. This experiment then allows her to break free of her word-choice confines.

The name of the poem she read I can’t recall, but it appears in Anthem (Brick Books, 1999).

Ok. Go & play in this new form; or, go in new & form this play.


Erasure Poems

Mary Ruefle has come up with a new way to compose poems & to make a new art form, or at least new to me. In her newest book, A Little White Shadow (Wave Books, 2006), there are a collection of poems arrived at from a larger book with the same name. What Ruefle has done is to use a page of text from the larger book & then white out/paint out words to leave only a few words to make a poem.

What is interesting to me about these poems is that they involve active reading. Your eyes have to move around the page, which creates for extended line breaks, & it affects the breath. Not to mention the spaces between words that are on the same line – it’s a type of projective verse. Plus, if you get the book, you will also see textures from the white out/paint, not to mention how the aged, faded brown pages play with the lively, contemporary bright white paint. Here are two examples that are used with permission from Wave Books.

Mary Ruefle Page 9

Mary Ruefle “the dead” (page 9).


Mary Ruefle Page 28

Mary Ruefle “a heart” (page 28).

I’m not sure of the process behind this, but I imagine it is more than just saving words. I imagine you have to consider how it will look when complete, how to breathe & read your way through the final piece, & what the poem will actually be. [Ten years later, I realize/learn the erasure poem needs to have a conversation with the original text. But you can’t just use any text, as some poets do. No, you need a significant text, and then by erasing words, you find something like a secret meaning to the poem or text your are erasing from or “discover something like poetry hidden within [a] book.” John Cage did this with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, but he added a twist. With the unerased words, he made an anagram: ALLEN GINSBERG. (See Perloff’s essay for the example.) Also see more here:]

Your assignment is to do this. Your assignment is to go to a used bookstore, buy a book, & try this out. I suggest first starting with Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man or H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. Until then you can visit this page & practice online:

(The Mary Ruefle poems “the dead” and “a heart” as they appear in A Little White Shadow (Wave Books, 2006. Copyright 2006 by Mary Ruefle.) are used with permission of Wave Books. Please visit their website at:


Make It New

I got this idea from Swinburne & Pound & James Wright. Sappho wrote her poems in a quantitative metric now called Sapphics. With ‘-’ representing a long syllable & ‘u’ a short syllable, it went like this:

   -u- -- uu- u --
   -u- -- uu- u --
   -u- -- uu- u --
         -u u--

Or, three hendecasyllabic lines & one adonic line. There also tends to be a caesura after the fifth syllable, and the fourth syllable in lines 1-3 is often free.

Swinburne then came around & realized quantity doesn’t work as good in English as it does in Greek, so in his poem “Sapphics,” he wrote in a qualitative meter, but with the same pattern as Sappho – but using a stressed syllable in place of a long syllable and an unstressed syllable in place of a short syllable.

Pound then came along & dabbled in Sapphics in “Apparuit,” where he tends to use both qualitative & quantitative meters simultaneously. But in the poem “The Return,” the meter is strictly quantitative, however! he hides the form by varying the line & stanza lengths. The meter is there, it is just camouflaged & jumbled.

James Wright then came along & said enough. He Americanized it in “Erinna to Sappho.” He used a qualitative meter more fitting to American rhythms, while keeping the spirit of Sappho’s meter.

Wright’s form is three lines of iambic tetrameter & one line of iambic dimeter. To scan it with “/” as stress & “u” as unstressed:


Ok. Make sense? Now go find a form & contemporize it!


Make it New (Number Two); or Make it American; or Repackaging – Making the Same Product Seem New & Improved

This is a variation of “Poetry Assignment: Make it New.” It arose from the following rapid-fire correspondence between Rob Carney & me, using three different email addresses. Here’s how much of the correspondence went:

Tom (from email address #1) [responding to a particular haiku in a series of Haiku and Tanka Rob sent him]: [. . .] “coming” in “coming in the wind” seems the wrong word to me. It sounds way too sexual, for some reason, and it just seems the wrong verb with the movement of snow. [. . .]

Rob (to Tom’s email address #2): yeah, I want a different verb for the snow in the soon-arriving future but arriving has 3! syllables! – fucking Japanese forms . . . the Japanese have one-syllable words for words like cascading or disappear or animal, they gotta, or how can they fit stuff into these shot-glasses?

Tom (from email address #2): Why not put a James Wrightian, Americana spin on the poem. 4-8-4 in iambs?

I say James Wright, not because he Americanized Haiku, but because he Americanized Sapphics. And you could do the same with Haiku.

Tom (from email address #1):

   A New York State of Mind

   The snow cascades
   in spring amid the yawping geese –
   rotate the tires.

4-8-4 in iambs (with an allusion to Whitman).

Aha! A new poetry assignment. Shit. This will be posted in 10 minutes.

Rob (to Tom’s email address #1): Dig it. Funnyclevercool.

[. . .]

Rob (later to Tom’s email address #1): Yes, of course. That’s fine. Oh, and I love that “rotate” doesn’t just command/resign to rotate/rotating the tires and also do an imagery thing BUT ALSO THIS: precedents were all iambs, then this first words actually, by going trochee on stuff, enacts the word “rotate”.

[. . .]

Rob (even later to Tom’s email address #1 and regarding the new poetry assignment):    [. . .] bonus points for ironic tone rather than reverence for Nature? or bonus points for making it funny too, a beautiful joke rather than a Zen koan like so many in Japanese are, meaning humor rather than riddle. Or bonus points for making great use of enjambment or fitting use of syncopation? [. . .]

Ok. There you go. Americanize the Haiku. Four syllables / eight syllables / four syllables in iambs, plus ironic tone &/or humor &/or great enjambments &/or syncopation.


Concrete Poetry; or Gaudier-Brzeska with the Line; or Watch Out for that Stinger

The shape of a poem on the page is indeed a worthy consideration when writing a poem. For me, for instance, I will write a poem with pencil & paper, & I will write it over & over with all the revising until I think it is done. Then I type it into Word. I then stare at it. Fix the shape better so it works better with the content. (It’s so nice to have that uniform spacing, unlike my random scrunching & expanding scribblings with my pencil.) Then when I think it is done, I print it. And then revise some, & sculpt the shape some more. Then back to the screen. Then to printed copy, etc. until I think, or the poem tells me, it is done.

The shapes of my poems, good or bad, tend to be rectangular. But there are others who have sculpted lines to represent the shape of the object of the poem. As far as I know, the first person to do this was George Herbert, with poems like “The Altar” (where the shape of the poem looks like an altar) & “Easter Wings” (where the shape of the poem, when turned ninety degrees, looks like a butterfly). The concrete poem then had a resurgence in the 1950s & 1960s. And then recently in William Heyen’s poem “Scorpions,” which appears in The Rope (MAMMOTH Books, 2003). The poem is below.

William Heyen "Scorpions"

(William Heyen’s “Scorpion” is used with permission of the author and MAMMOTH Books.)


In this poem, the reading of the poem imitates the viewing of a scorpion. You look upon the scorpion’s body, then curl up his tail, then drop off the stinger, then back to his body & legs. So the poem, has the second line as the body (the first line read), the first line as the stinger (the second line read), & then the third line the feet (the third line read). And the stinger-line dangles with one word, just like the stinger dangles. The poem snaps your head around as a scorpion would snap its tail. Heyen has another concrete poem, “Wishbone Hull Requiem,” that appears in The Rope.

I think this assignment is a good investigation, or reinvestigation, into the study of the line & line breaks. I think it will make us turn our head & ears just enough to reconsider how the line can act, breathe, perform, seduce, & mimic. I think it will also make us consider & re-consider how the sculpted shape of the poem can contribute in new ways.

Ok. Go forth!


Ghazals, Gazelles, & Jezebels; or Distracted from Distraction by Distraction

Ok, I’ve been reading a lot of Robert Bly, lately. The Night Abraham Called to the Stars & My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy. He’s writing Ghazals, and I’m staring at them. I’m noticing each stanza stands on its own, yet relates to the preceding stanza & the following stanza. And I notice each poem is complete, whole, despite the discreteness (though not really discrete). I stare again differently, but away from his poems & towards my generation of poets. I think, “This is a good form for my generation of poets. We are so easily distracted yet able to keep it whole. (Keep it real.) The sum of the distracted parts is greater than the whole” (with apologies to Creeley).

So, why not make this our generation’s form of poems. Our generation being 25-40. Born in 1966 (yea, you know the associations of that year & time period) to born in 1981 (when Regan became president). Why not make stanzas that are about one thing, then make the distracted associative leaps. Then at the end of the poem pull that draw string & yoke the poem into wholeness. Let’s call it Garbage Bag Ghazals. A place where we empty our thoughts, pull the draw string to close it up & contain it, haul it over our shoulder, walk it to the dumpster, hurl it into the dumpster, watch it explode on impact, & see what results. Watch the associations scatter & combine.

Let’s connect our distractions. Let’s write Garbage Bag Ghazals.

Oh, & to make it more interesting, let’s focus some of these poems on “grief.” I add this because, Bly says we (Americans) don’t know how to deal with grief, & because I’m not sure if I even know what grief is (other than “Good Grief,” ala Charlie Brown). I know sadness. I know burden. I know heaviness. I know sorrow. But I don’t think I know grief. Do you?

And now for a wonderful response to the assignment.

   Optic Nerve

   So the task swivels: look with your word-eye,
   keep a bright light on, see through the word eye. 

   On the bone planet, night time warps. Spooks morph
   delusional, bobbling a tight, weird eye. 

   At the rim shattered, junk started, speeding
   the labyrinth city – one hot-wired eye. 

   Air here so thin. Your chest wrenched by what
   can or cannot be cranks wide the worried eye. 

   Heed: ropes, riddled grapes, pikes. Drag your feet
   to the crossroads. Stamp out the wayward eye. 

   Afterburn. Blue mortar blast. Dying. Kin
   in the sights. Does it heal, the skewered eye? 

   Guts on hold, it shrinks, gelatinous; alights
   anywhere but here, that coward eye. 

   Ambling, misproportioned, poorly tethered
   from its mate; must we love the awkward eye? 

   Acid wash. A flaying grief. Tears just scratch
   the surface, grate salt on the raw red eye. 

   Hot tempered Damascus. Zealous blood gut-
   ters up the hilt. Quick! Unhorse that sword eye! 

   They give reasons. Justify. Explain. Not
   quell. Is it satisfied, our answered eye? 

   Though well-oiled; galvanized; springy; his stripes
   soft in the breeze; resist the bedward eye. 

   Tabloid: Dear Abby, What have we done? What
   do we do now? Yours, true, The Inward Eye.

   (Used with the permission of Abby Millager.)

By Abby Millager. (5-18-06, or so)


The Coop de Gras Experiment

[This one is brought to us by Linda Cooper! and used with her permission.]

Write six ten-line poems with no repeat nouns. Include internal rhymes within lines nine & ten. Do not think about content while writing the little vignettes. Afterward, look for a common theme & bring it to life! (Revise away the form if it doesn’t serve the poem). Go Forth!!


The Switchback Poem

This is probably a new poem form!

While hiking in the Olympic National Park near the Heart O’ the Hills on “Switchback Trail,” which leads to the Lake Angeles Trail & the Klahhane Ridge & overlooks Port Angeles & British Columbia at the top, I noticed something on the way down. I noticed that my thoughts, when not diverted by throbbing thighs, were toward one thing – a dorsal-finned mountain, & then on the switchback, my thoughts turned toward another thing – two blackbirds flying, who at certain angles reflected white or red – & as I kept going down my thoughts went back & forth between the fin & the birds depending on the direction I was facing on “The Switchback Trail.”

The assignment is to write a poem which follows the movement of a switchback trail.

Write a poem that starts in one direction & then turns in another. That is, start off in direction A, for instance, & then change to direction B, & then to direction A & back to direction B & on & on. But only two thoughts can be had. Two thoughts that share no associations.

You could combine two unsuccessful poems for this assignment.

Here’s the form: I imagine each direction, switchback, should be a stanza long (as a line would be too abrupt). I imagine each stanza should be about the same length, but of course, variances will be had based on thoughts & because the switchback trail had switchbacks that tended to be of similar length but at times also varied in length. The length between two adjacent stanzas, however, should be of similar lengths (for instance, one stanza could be five lines & the next stanza six lines & the next five & the next four). In addition, the length of stanza one could be completely different than the last stanza if enough subtle movements are achieved. For example, stanza one could be three lines, but by the time the last stanza is reached & some clever writing is had, the last stanza could be ten lines.

Ok. I hope you get the idea.

Also, if your two thoughts come to a conclusion, if associations are finally achieved between the two disparate thoughts, then great. If not, then you had a helluva hike!

a: The Cigarette Cough of the Just Poet; or Joseph K Writes a Poem; or the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE / the HEART, by way of the DRAG, to the LINE (with apologies to Charles Olson); or Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

I was thinking about Creeley (who according to Olson in the essay (“Projective Verse,” which contains “the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE / the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE”) said, “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT”).

As I was saying, I was thinking about Creeley. I was thinking about his poems – their pace. I was remembering that back in ’93/’94 I was reading Creeley & smoking cigarettes. I was remembering that I would take a drag of a cigarette & read a poem & then exhale. I was remembering what I was thinking while reading Creeley: “Creeley must have been a smoker. That his poems, the length of the poem, coincide with the drag of a cigarette.”

Thus, this assignment. Write a poem that lasts the length of a drag of a cigarette. A poem that commences after the inhale & ends with the exhale.

And then write a series of poems that can be read to one cigarette. I don’t even know how many drags that is. Five, ten, twelve, twenty? Wait. . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . pufff. Ok. I get thirteen. Hm. So now you got to work the moon into the series, too. Thirteen moon phases in a year, right?

b: Unanswerable Questions; or What’s at the Edge of the Universe?; or What’s the Last Digit of Pi?; or How Does Venus de Milo Hitchhike?; or . . .

After writing that, I couldn’t help but think of a lollipop commercial from the late 70s. So, now you gotta write a poem that lasts as long as a Tootsie Pop “How many lick does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop” will be theme to that poem. Work an owl into the poem, too.




Quick Notes on Charles Olson

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Charles Olson

Charles Olson (1910 – 1970) is an American poet, who is usually associated with the Black Mountain poets. He is influenced by Ezra Pound, whom he spent time with when Pound was in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, but he was also influenced by W. C. Williams, who was also influenced by Olson enough to include Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” in his The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. Olson’s first significant text was Call Me Ishmael (1947), his free flowing interpretation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. His primary texts include the highly influential essay “Projective Verse,” which I will focus on, and The Maximus Poems, a long poem spread across a thick book of 8.5″ x 11″ pages, where he maps Gloucester, Massachusetts, both geographically and temporarily. He uses Gloucester as a focal point from which to understand his universe. Its central character is Maximus, who according to David Perkins “is Olson, but also Olson composing poems” (502). Olson’s poetry explores the use of the page and the use of breath. He has an interest in the “primitive,” by which Olson means “‘primary, as how one finds anything, pick it up as one does new – fresh/first” (“Letter to Elaine Feinstein” 28). He is concerned with getting at the origins of things, before the habits of language interfere with their original uniqueness, that time when the Mayans “cut [hieroglyphs (words)] in stone, they [the hieroglyphs] retain the power of the objects of which they are images” (“Human Universe” 58).

On re-reading “Projective Verse” (1950) for the first time since the mid-90s, I realized I missed quite a bit of what Olson was getting at. He, of course, is concerned with the idea of breath in its relation to poetry, its lines, and its involvement with the body. This time, however, I noticed something more interesting, or at least, different. It begins with his use of scientific terminology (mainly terms from Newtonian physics and electromagnetics), such as “kinetics,” “energy,” “propelled,” “forces,” “principle,” “process,” “speed,” “particles,” “field,” and even in his letter to Elaine Feinstein (1959) he uses “vector” and a mathematical fraction to portray the double nature of the image. This creates the feel of Olson as scientist of poetry, which may be the essence of Projective Verse, which is the removing of the ego.

A scientist, at his/her best, is without ego when interacting with the physical world. The scientist’s prejudices and assumptions (ego) are withdrawn in the act of observation. For Olson, this act of observation is two-fold, and both folds lack ego (though not necessarily the self). Fold one involves poetic form and fold two involves “objectism,” which is different than “objectivism.”

Olson writes in “Projective Verse,” “It would do no harm, as an act of correction to both prose and verse as now written, if both rime and meter [. . .] were less in the forefront of the mind than the syllable” (18). This is similar to what I mentioned about form with Creeley. Form constrains perception and limits content. Here, Olson is saying a little more when he says, “were less in the forefront of the mind,” which I take to mean ego. The ego is bending, manipulating, encouraging in what it wants to see, as well as the clever truth it wants to present in its poem. The ego does this not only with the form but also with the “elements and minims of language [. . . the] logical” (18). So the ego uses all these forms, techniques, rhetorics, and literary devices to shape reality. But as Creeley says, “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.” Typically, we understand this to mean that content dictates form, and that is partially correct. However, there is the key word “extension.” Form extends from the content, which is the reality the poet is experiencing. Form is an extension of reality, and this reality has two modes of experience. One side is the ego-less or language-less experience, and the other is the experience of composition, and both find themselves in “objectism,” the second fold of Olson’s observational method, or as he might call it in “Human Universe,” a “threshold of reception” (60).

Olson says, “Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego [. . .] that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature [. . .] and those other creations of nature which we may [. . .] call objects. For man is himself an object” (“Projective Verse” 24). Now here’s the tricky part, Olson then says if man “sprawl”s himself across, he “shall find little to sing but himself” (25). That’s the ego interference, which seems counterintuitive. Also counterintuitive is that “if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participating in the larger force [nature], he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share” (25). In other words, he is advising the poet to keep her hands in her pockets, don’t touch anything with her assumptions and prejudices, and just observe. When one observes without ego-interference, nature will present its secrets in ways the poet could not experience or create with language constructs, logic, and preconceptions. This same idea holds true on the field of composition, which I take to mean to mean the page when it is being actively inscribed. Just as there shouldn’t be ego-interference in observing reality, there shouldn’t be ego interference in writing the poem, for “[f]rom the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION – he put himself in the open – he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself” (16). Even though the poem seems in the submissive position (“under hand”), the poem provides the track for composition, and the poet must listen to and follow where the poem wants to go. And the:

objects [in the poem . . .] must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold, and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself, through the poet and them, into being. (20)

In other words, I think, a tension is created when the poem moves from one object to the next, or as “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION” (17).

I’m not sure Olson achieves his goals. He may, and I may not be keen enough to notice it, but at least in “The Kingfishers” he gives directions on how to do it:

     When the attentions change / the jungle
     leaps in
                even the stones are split
                                                they rive     (169)

The poet needs to keep changing to immerse him/herself into the world different each time in order to experience the universe anew and fresh. In other words:

     What does not change / is the will to change    (167)


Works Cited

Olson, Charles. Selected Writings. Ed. Robert Creeley. New York: New Directions, 1966. Print.

Perkins, David. “Charles Olson.” A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987. 497-505. Print.



Quick Notes on Robert Creeley

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Robert CreeleyRobert Creeley (1926 – 2005) is an American poet, and usually associated with the Black Mountain poets, a group of high-energy poetry experimenters. Creeley’s poems are unique and hard to mistake for anyone else’s poetry, and his poems tend to be short, minimal, and lyrical. (And they are short enough that I once believed that his poems could be read in the time between two drags of a cigarette – drag, poem, drag (I thought it might be a way he found form that relied on breath, or “projective verse.”)) His poems create or find their own forms. One of Creeley’s most well-known poetic statements is “Form is never more than an extension of content.” This statement, which embraces the open form, is, I think and hope, pointed right at the New Critics and their formalistic ideas on poetry and self-containment.

While reading The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1945-1975 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), I pick up on themes of love (lots of love), loss, isolation, hopelessness, absence, and division, among other abstract ideas. This is not to give the idea that these poems are depressing, which I don’t feel they are. In addition, there are joyful and funny poems, but what I’ve focused on for the most part is division – division between word and the thing it represents, or the want for the lack of division.

To preface this I want to think of Wittgenstein who wondered whether we speak language or it speaks us. (I think it was Wittgenstein.) I think a Modernist poet would say we speak language, as they typically try to use language to impose order or meaning on a world that seems meaningless. The Modernist poet creates “supreme fictions” or “fictive certainties” that he/she hopes will generate a meaningful existence or space to inhabit. The Post-Modernist poet, I think, however believes language speaks us and that language mediates our experiences with the world, especially through its syntactic structures. Robert Creeley (like Charles Olson) provides a third option – a sort of pre-linguistic experience of reality, where word and the thing the word represented were one, where words “are always / with me, / there is never / a separate // place” (“Words” 332), and a place where “words” weren’t worn down into abstraction by “inveterate goodwill!” (“Divisions” 33).



     Order. Order. The bottle contains
     more than water. In this case the form
     is imposed.

     As if the air did not hold me in
     and not let me burst from what may have you or inveterate

     To make it difficult, to make a sense
     of limit, to call a stop to meandering –
     one could wander here

     in intricacies, unbelted, somewhat sloppy.
     But the questions are, is it all there
     or on some one evening

     will I come again here, most desperate and all questions,
     to find the water all
     leaked out.


     Take it, there are particulars.
     Or consider rock. Consider hardness not as elemental but as
     stone. The stone! And just so

     Which is to say, not a damn thing but
     rock. But, just so, that hardness, which is to say:
     the stone.

     Or if only to consider, don’t.
     Loss exists not as perpetual but, exact, when the attentions
     are cajoled,
     are flattered by their purport or what they purport
     to attend.

     Which remains not, also not, definition.
     But statement. But, very simply, one, just so, not
     attend to
     the business not
     his own.


In this ars poetica, part 1 is about the idea of poetic form. (On a side note, I want to note a hypothesis and reminder to myself that post-modern poetry is that which reacts against New Criticism poetry.) If a poem is to use a pre-established form, then it will “limit” the poem in its “meanderings” of experience and exploration. It limits the particulars that can enter a poem. It limits content. For Creeley, the poem, I think, is the experience of watching language and words appear in the moment of composition and expression, as he says in the introduction to Words (1965): “So it is that what I feel, in the world, is the one thing I know myself to be, for that instant. I will never know myself otherwise” (261). That instant, that moment is important because it can’t be repeated (which may be why Creeley did not revise his poems). And if a poet is to write through a pre-existing form, which is a pre-formed lens to view reality or one-size-fits-all container for experience, then the experience and the unique experience of the composition are lost. As a result, the form cannot hold all that could be held, and the reader will “come again here [to the poem], most desperate and all questions, / to find the water [in the preformed bottle of line 2] all / leaked out.” The pre-established form creates division between the limited and the potentially full experience and between the word and what it represents.

In part 2, he is trying to connect words with objects. He is trying to make “hardness” more than abstraction. He’s putting “hardness” into the stone, where it belongs if one wants to experience “hardness,” or even experience “stone.” (He is not abstracting (“pulling out”) the adjectival property of “hardness”; he is performing the reverse action.  So Creeley attempts to de-abstract (or implant) language and get it back closer to the word-object relationship, which is where the real meaning/experience of the word is. For instance, this word-thing relationship locates “loss” much closer to the feeling that “loss” is “perpetual,” and not an “exact” definition “cajoled” into meaning through the habits of use where it loses its original sense, feeling. “Loss” is not an abstract word, a statement, or a fact – as loss is the feeling of the “perpetual” absence.

As another example, to help clarify, there is the poem “A Marriage” (170), where the speaker first tries to define his partner by placing a wedding ring on her finger, thus defining her as bride and wife. In the next stanza, he kisses her, as if to indicate she is something physical to experience, and probably sexually. In the last stanza, he “gave up loving / and lived with her.” That is, he kept trying to impose abstract ideas of love onto her instead of living with her and intimating a bond with “with her,” a bond much akin to the relationship between the word and the thing it represents.

Another place to look at this idea is in one of Creeley’s more well-known poems “I Know a Man” (132).


     I Know a Man

     As I sd to my
     friend, because I am
     always talking, – John, I

     sd, which was not his
     name, the darkness sur-
     rounds us, what

     can we do against
     it, or else, shall we &
     why not, buy a goddamn big car,

     drive, he sd, for
     christ’s sake, look
     out where yr going.


This poem, on one level, is about the breakdown of language, at time when the speaker encounters emptiness, which is represented in the abstractions he speaks, which underscores a dislocation between the word and the actual, not to mention the self not being immersed in the world. The first language breakdown is with “John,” a name he uses to identify the person who he is speaking to, even John “was not his name.” The speaker in this poem is an “unsure egoist,” a phrase that appears seven poems earlier in “The Immoral Proposition” to indicate a person uncertain of his certainty. The “unsure egoist” in “I Know a Man” is always talking, but as we quickly learn, his words don’t attach to anything (not even “John,” as mentioned), and he gets lost in abstractions. His language has no reference – there’s no intimacy between word and object, like the intimacy between the partners living together. Even “goddamn big car,” a material possession meant to fill a spiritual (and maybe linguistic) void, is abstract, or at least not particular enough – it is general (we don’t even know the make of the car). As a result, the last stanza could be read didactically – the advice the other person in the poem gives is “to do and not think.” In the doing and looking (in poem appearing before the author as it is written), perhaps, is where the connections are made and where the divisions disappear, a place I think Creeley wants to inhabit.

David Perkins provides a good overall summary of Creeley’s poetry:

He [Creeley] retrenched into the small and muted. His poems focused on a metaphor or complex of feeling, which planted itself in the mind. Often the sentences were illogical, elliptical, or suspended in the indefinite; they opened delicate, precisely calculated gaps, so to speak, from which suggestions of meaning were emitted. (505-506)

I don’t really see the ellipticism happening until about 1968 in Pieces, which is maybe why it is titled that and why he so often uses a dot between so many of the stanzas to indicate the ellipsis between thoughts.

I also think he is one of the 20th century’s great poets of love.


Works Cited

Perkins, David. “Robert Creeley.” A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987. 505-507. Print.





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.//

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

The Cave

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