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Poet Quotes

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I paid only desultory attention to how I spent my time. It seemed I had a chest full of currency, the various-sized coins that represented minutes, hours, days, the large heavy ones of years. Even though I reached blindly into the chest, and so could not see how much was there, it still seemed like a lot. Yesterday I turned 60. I'm well aware now that when I reach into the chest, I can feel the wooden bottom of it in places, and I'm more and more selfish with how I spend that time.

—Sam Green  


Everything is autobiography, even if one writes something that is totally objective. The fact that it's a subject that seizes you makes it autobiographical.

—Lisel Mueller


I want the creature and the angel to both be in the poem, you know. I don't want to write poetry of angels that doesn't have the beast in it, and I don't want to write a bestial kind of violent, craving, raging poetry that doesn't have some kind of possibility of transcendence in it. ... Another way to say it is I believe that a poem is a body, and should have a body. There are poets who don't have body—I'm using that word sort of metaphorically—don't have body in their poems. I don't know. There's room for everybody, but I like a lot of body in the poem.

—Tony Hoagland


No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.

—Robert Frost

Writing poems is incredibly pleasurable and addictive. Something happens when you write— especially poetry, of course, and prose, too. There’s a kind of a feeling of something happening to you that’s a kind of fusion of will and submission and inspiration that’s quite marvelous, where something sometimes will—at its very best—seems to be happening through you and to you, rather than you making it happen. And there’s very little in the world that’s like that, and very little that’s so close that’s coming out of your own consciousness into something else.        

—C.K. Williams

I want poetry that tells the truth with compassion. I see so many poems of which anyone could say: There is absolutely nothing wrong with this poem. Or this poem is interesting. Or this poem is so smart. What does that mean? Smart? Was Neruda a smart poet? Or this is so well-crafted. I’m looking for poems that leave me speechless. Breathless. Slayed.

—Dorianne Laux


Line breaks are one of our major forms of punctuation.

—Jane Hirschfield


I write for other people with the hope that I can help them to see the wonderful things within their everyday experiences. In short, I want to show people how interesting the ordinary world can be if you pay attention.... Poetry's purpose is to reach other people and to touch their hearts. If a poem doesn't make sense to anybody but its author, nobody but its author will care a whit about it.

—Ted Kooser

My conviction is that each poet has a set of key images that are the clue to one’s deepest identity. And the key images never change. So, in a way, all the poems dissolve into one poem, the poem you spend your life writing. . . . You cannot separate the word from the maker of the word. That’s why I have insisted in my teaching that the first crucial act of the imagination is to create the person who will write the poems.

—Stanley Kunitz


. . . Poetry is based on something other than just the shoveling in of content: poetry is an experience, a venturing into new encounters, an exercise in thoughts, feelings, dreams, impulses of living human beings.

—William Stafford

In order to write a good poem, the poet must read as much poetry as he or she can. Read fifty or a hundred poems by others for every one you try to write of your own.

—Ted Kooser


Learn how to pay attention with every one of your senses, inner and outer. Read. Live. Love. Write. Then do these things more. And last, keep the window open some inches more than is comfortable.

—May Swenson

I don’t believe in the perfect poem. That’s not to say that I don’t try to polish and polish my work. . . . Even after a poem of mine is published in a journal it often goes through another revision or two before entering a book manuscript and being published in that context. So: all poems are finally abandoned.

—Todd Davis


My barometer for myself when I'm writing is that I'm not truly in my poem until I've actually startled myself, and if that doesn't occur, I'm probably working with my conventional work-a-day mind too much and for too long. For me, poems come alive when I start to say something that I didn't quite know I was capable of saying.

—Stephen Dunn

The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.

—Marge Piercy

Diane Lockward’s advice to emerging writers:  Learn the craft. It’s essential to have a heart and a brain, but you must also learn the craft and know what you’re doing and why. Be patient and persistent; it won’t happen overnight. Learning the craft takes years. Writing the poems takes weeks, months, even years. Sending them out is time-consuming and the responses are slow in coming back. Here’s my daily mantra: Go forth boldly.

—Diane Lockward


I very much wished not to be noticed, and to be left alone, and I sort of succeeded. I worked probably 25 years by myself, just writing and working, not trying to publish much, not giving readings. . . . Poetry isn't a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that. . . . Instructions for living a life:  Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

—Mary Oliver

Poetry is, for me, a way of life as well as an art. It's the way I pay attention, the way I make a shape out of my experience, the way I praise this brief life, the way I mourn, the way I see my experience as part of the human experience. Poetry helps me to accept what I don't want to accept and to be curious about even the most terrible experiences. It's a kind of spiritual practice, a way to pray.

—Ellen Bass

I want the reader to actually understand what I’m communicating. It’s not a theoretical process for me. It doesn’t exist outside of relationship. The elements that I use in the poem, like metaphor or image or a particular language construct, are clearer rather than just decorative. But I can write only how I can write. I do try to keep stretching how I can write. But ultimately it does wind up being a pretty direct voice.

—Ellen Bass

I don’t talk to anybody before I write, if I can avoid it (except my dog Mia), and I never read my e-mail before I write. That’s an inflexible rule. Once I have a conversation, in real time or cyberspace, I’m finished. The ear gets shut off. Sometimes the ear’s shut off even if I haven’t talked to anyone or gone online. When that happens, I grab a postcard from the basket of postcards I keep on my desk, all of them reproductions of paintings, and I write a poem about the painting.

—Lynne Knight

Being a poet is not a career, it's a life. Writing poems is a lifetime of looking into, and listening to, how words see.

—Philip Booth.

Reading a poem is, or ought to be, a whole-body experience. What I look for in poems is delight, instruction, and wounding. Some poems do one of those things; some two; some all three. The ones that do all three are great poems. You might sit down to write hoping to do all three things to the reader, but sometimes you do just one. That’s fine. But you should always aspire to do the impossible. A poem that can be paraphrased, or reduced to a theme, is dead on arrival. 

—Robert Wrigley

Two reasons keep me coming to the empty page: the desire to make a place for the glinting shard, the divine detail, and the hope that this caressing, this pressing against the visible will reveal the invisible. In the end, it isn't hard: when I sit down to write a poem, one thing just leads to another.

—Joyce Sutphen


I have in my office a tool no poet should live without: a shredder.  I don’t just delete drafts, I shred the paper versions.  It is incredibly satisfying to find that extra word or clunky phrase and chop it into tiny pieces.  I’ve never regretted destroying a draft.  Of course, I can’t be sure that the last draft of every poem is always the best, but it is the only one I keep.

—Joel Johnson


A word is dead / When it is said, / Some say. / I say it just / Begins to live / That day.

—Emily Dickinson


The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.

—Grace Paley

If you copy something out by hand, before you move onto the typewriter, you've already gone on making minor changes. This is an intuitive part of the creative process, and one that's eliminated by the use of word processors. People get such a completed-looking copy that they think the poem is done. The word processor doesn't take as much time as actually forming the letters with your hand at the end of your arm which is attached to your body. It's a different kind of thing. They don't realize that this laborious process is part of the creative process.

—Denise Levertov

When writing poems, I try to take out half the adjectives and a third of the self-pity.

—Sharon Olds

I believe in body poems, poems that rise from the body. A poem is a creature of sound. A poem comes to us, all poems come to us, through the oral tradition. Yes, a poem has a certain life as mere text on a page. But that life as text is only a fraction of the poem's complete life. A poem can't assume its complete life until it's been given voice. . . . A poem has a sound form, it's comprised of a sequence and combination of sounds. A poem has musical devices. A poem has kinetic energy. A poem has risen from the physicality of its maker, and it speaks to the physicality of a listener. . . . For me, writing a good poem means writing an embodied poem.
—Paulann Petersen

I've had it with these cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book.

—Kenneth Rexroth

How does he know when a poem is done? When I can take a poem of mine that I think is finished and put it aside for a month and pick it up and read it and find it interesting, and if I encounter no place where I think it should be changed, and if at the end it surprises me, even though I wrote it, I think it might be done.

—Galway Kinnell


I almost never have a goal in mind for a poem, so poems failing to do what I want them to do aren't usually a problem. It's a large part of the joy of writing for me, to arrive where I didn't know I was going. Writers talk about this quite often. I think it's why many of us don't want to talk in detail about what we're writing. I tend to run with the first line or image that arrives with force.

—Bob Hicok


I’d like to say I’m of the begging bowl theory of poetry. You put out your begging bowl and see what drops into it. I really don’t want to know where the poem is going. And of course revision is a great thing. You get a draft and start tinkering and find out where it really wants to go.

—Marianne Boruch

When asked what makes a poem great, Conrad Hilberry said: It must be understandable. I don’t want to have to puzzle it out. It must be so personal that I feel I know the poet when I read it … imaginative, creative, written with care and skill … and with an ending that just socks you.

—Conrad Hilberry

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