build A Poetry Student’s Commonplace

by Anne Doolittle

Published in Issue No. 27 ~ August, 1999

Odd as it may seem that a few words of overwhelming urgency should be a mosaic of quotations, why paraphrase what for maximum impact should be quoted verbatim?
      – Marianne Moore quoted by Douglas Crase in Amerifil.txt A Commonplace Book

We don’t need another hero,
We don’t need to know the way home.
      Tina Turner

Let her have time, and silence enough paper to make mistakes and go on.
      Jane Hirshfield, “The Poet”

There will be time to murder and create,
and time for all the works and days of hands.
      T.S.Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

For things can harden meaningfully in the moment of indecision.
      John Ashbery, “Grand Galup”

It doesn’t matter which leg of your table you make first, so long as the table has four legs and will stand up solidly when you have finished it.
      Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading

In an age defined by its modes of production, where everybody tends to be a specialist of sorts, the artist ideally is that rarity, a whole person making a whole thing.
      Stanley Kunitz, “Speaking of Poetry”

…a work of art is not a mirage, it is a solid object; in order to fashion it, one must know one’s business
      Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex

It seems to annoy some young writers that poems are, to a considerable extent, made out of other poems.
      Henry Taylor, “Running the Risk of Diversity,” AWP Chronicle

Poems are made of our lusty wedding nights,
the joy of words as they are written.
      Charles Simic, “What the White Had to Say”

To be using a new word in my writing is to me a very difficult thing.
Every word I am ever using in writing has for me very existing being…
I am feeling many ways of using one word in writing.
      Gertrude Stein, introduction to A Stein Reader

Words add to the senses. The words for the dazzle
Of mica, the dithering of grass,
      Wallace Stevens, “Variations on a Summer Day”

…grooming does for baboons most of what words do for us.
      A.R. Ammons, Garbage

…to name is to destroy to suggest is to create…
      Stephen Dobyns, Best Words, Best Order

If you can say what it is, that’s not it.
      Zen saying

All things seem mention of themselves
And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents.
      John Ashbery, “Grand Galup”

…continuous present is one thing and beginning again and again is another thing. These are both things. And then there is using everything.
      Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation”

To maintain is to deny the scattering of instants, it is to establish continuity in their flow; to create is to strike out from temporal unity in general an irreducible, separate present.
      Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Even to try to imagine the subject would be to spoil the sensation of wave-like freshness I hope to receive when it is first placed in my hands
      Elizabeth Bishop as quoted by David Lehman, “Elizabeth Bishop’s Prison Sentences”

In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
      T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The only danger to poetry is the reticence and silence of poets.
      Eavan Boland, “Letter to a Young Woman Poet,” APR, May/June 97

I hear the motions of the spirit and the sound
Of what is secret becomes, for me, a voice
      Wallace Stevens, “Chocorua To Its Neighbor”

What a history is folded, folded inward again, in the single word I.
      Walt Whitman, quoted in the introduction to A Stein Reader

      James Merrill, “Mirabell: Book O” The Changing Light at Sandover

In the wind, the voices
Have shapes that are not yet fully themselves.
      Wallace Stevens,”Parochial Theme”

…she may use “I” but not to refer to herself. Stein believed that a serious writer was in the work only as a voice, not as a person.
      Ulla E. Dydo, A Stein Reader

      James Merrill , “Mirabel: Book 9”

The poem is a communication from a person who is not the poet to a person who is not the reader.

Who can believe what is not written down?
      Mark Strand, “From a Lost Diary”

Poetry is the only place where a liar can have an honest existence, providing his lies make memorable poems.
      Charles Simic, Boston Review, Summer 97

The value of art rests in its autonomy and independence.
      David Lehman, “Notes On Political Correctness”

The truth depends on a walk around a lake,
A composing as the body tires,…
      Wallace Stevens, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”

In boldly setting out towards ends; one risks disappointments; but one also obtains unhoped for results; CAUTION CONDEMNS TO MEDIOCRITY.
      Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex (my emphasis)

…for poetry must leap, it must locate itself in a discontinuous universe (as Blake did) if it cannot find one. Discontinuity is freedom.
      Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence

…the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic
      Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation”

Since it had never truly fit, why wear
The shoe of prose? In verse the feet went bare.
      James Merrill, “The Book of Ephraim” The Changing Light at Sandover

For some of us, insults sink in, or the feet
Inherit two roads and lose the way
      Robert Bly, “Looking at Aging Faces,” APR, May/June 97

Better not look down, or you might just wind up cryin’;
You can keep it movin’ if you don’t look down.
      B.B. King

The lesson that honesty demanded by the elements of a poem could not be fudged. A real poem is not merely a verbal contraption.
      Dave Smith, “There’s a Bird Hung Around My Neck”, Five Points, Sp/Su, 1997

Is the function of the poet here mere sound,
Subtler than the ornatest prophecy,
To stuff the ear?
      Wallace Stevens, “Academic Discourse at Havana”

It is possible to make out a form only against a background, and the way in which the form is apprehended brings out the background behind it in positive detail…..
      Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Poets are addicts of form, martyrs of the perfect fit. The fit is something invisible, half in the past, half in the head.
      Helen Vendler, “Four Prized Poets” The New York Review, August 17, 1989

Most arts attain the effects by using a fixed element and a variable.
      Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading

Every sound we make is a bit of autobiography. It has a totally private interior yet its trajectory is public.
      Anne Carson, “The Gender of Sound”

The shape of air, deep as material.
      A.R. Ammons, Sphere

…the motion of thought / and its restless iteration.
      Wallace Stevens, “The Place of the Solitaire”

The poet disappears into the poem, which stands mute, like an idol, until the reader breathes life back into it.
      Edward Hirsch, “Beyond Desolation,” APR, May/June 97

All the idols made by man, however terrifying they may be, are in point of fact subordinate to him, and that is why he will always have it in is his power to destroy them.
      Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex

It is more difficult to love God than to believe in him….On the other hand, it is harder nowadays for people to believe in the Devil than to love him. Everyone smells him and no one believes in him.
      Charles Baudelaire, preface to The Flowers of Evil

      James Merrill, “Mirabell: Book O” The Changing Light at Sandover

…the dead, for that matter, are better adapted to the earth than are the living
      Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex

…The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
      Robert Frost, “Home Burial”

      James Merrill, “Mirabel: Book 8”

…The chants of final peace
Lie in the heart’s residuum.
      Wallace Stevens, “Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas”

Strong poems are always omens of resurrection
      Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence

But mind you, there ain’t anything ever really lost; everything that people can’t understand and don’t see the reason of does good if you only hold on and give it a fair shake; Prov’dence don’t fire no blank ca’tridges, boys.
      Mark Twain, Roughing It

No one can articulate a syllable which is not filled with tenderness and fear, which is not, in one of these languages, the powerful name of god.
      Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”

Soul is the place stretched like a surface of millstone grit between body and mind
      Anne Carson, “The Glass Essay”

Life itself is neither good nor evil: life is where good and evil find a place, depending on how you make it for them
      Michel de Montaigne, “To philosophize is to learn how to die”

I have included a certain amount of filth to please the gentlemen of the press. They have proved ungrateful.
      Charles Baudelaire, preface to The Flowers of Evil

      James Merrill, “The Book of Ephraim” The Changing Light at Sandover

Life like the periodical not yet
Defunct kept hitting the stands…
      James Merrill, “The Book of Ephraim” The Changing Light at Sandover

I think people who publish poetry are out of their fucking minds.
      Liam Rector, Bennington panel, June 97

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking.
      Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Out of the window perilously spread.
      T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

Out of me unworthy and unknown.
      Edgar Lee Masters, “Anne Rutledge”

One word after another erasing the world and leaving instead
The invisible lines of its calling: Out there, out there.
      Mark Strand, “Itself Now”

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
      Wallace Stevens, “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard”

…worth is not a given essence; it is the outcome of a successful development.
      Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst.       Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard”

…the work belongs to the reader. Its hidden subject is the life of the reader. It is through structure that the writer moves the work from his or her own life to the reader’s life.
      Stephen Dobyns, Best Words, Best Order

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ANNE DOOLITTLE is a graduate of the M.F.A. writing program at Bennington College and has a Masters degree in Education from Vanderbilt. Her poems have appeared in Boston Reveiw and on-line at Grepoetry, Conspire, and Zuzu's Petals Quarterly.