“I quit, you bitches,” he yelled before ripping his apron off, throwing it on the ground, and storming out Starbucks, leaving me with my rival to finish the shift. Neither of us were sad to see the guy go — he was a grown man who replied, “Do I have to?” when asked to fetch a pastry or sweep — but we begrudged being left alone together to finish the shift without anyone to break up our passive aggressive feuding. Both of us were bitter that we had to be baristas in our mid-20s after earning college degrees and building professional resumes, but instead of bonding over our similarities, we complained to our boss about one another and swapped shifts to avoid working together. That evening we finished our work with a minimum of conversation. As we were locking up the store, we spotted the quitter waiting for us in the parking lot, idling in a late-model convertible. He sloppily hurled a melted Frappuccino in our direction, did a few screechy loops around the parking lot, and sped off. It was such a hideous and absurd display that all my rival and I could do was go get a few beers and laugh it off.

When I recently received the good news that my uncle Deano, a poet, had undergone a successful heart transplant, I celebrated by re-reading some of his books. At the time, I hadn’t read any poetry for months; and, though I began writing, at sixteen, with the ambition of following my uncle, I hadn’t written a poem in six or seven years.

This experience-the joy (relief!) I felt for my uncle, coupled with my reading-initiated a new season for me.

Since then, I’ve devoured poems in the way, post-diagnosis, I’ve devoured medical information: with an obsessive, indiscriminate mania; as if in pursuit of some transformative antidote.

I began with Deano. Then I moved to his forbearers: Kenneth Koch. Frank O’Hara. John Ashbery. Stretching back, I read The French Surrealists. Rimbaud. Whitman. I punctuated my reading with my own preferences: Dilruba Ahmed, Ross White, Laura Van Prooyen, Matthew Olzmann, Alicia Jo Rabins, Gabrielle Calvocaressi, Iain Haley Pollock. C. Dale Young, Angela Narciso Torres, Dwayne Betts, Jenny Johnson, Rj Gibson.

Then, two weeks ago, after a lunatic evening out with some friends, I wrote a poem. Inspired, I wrote two poems.

“It’s on,” I said to my wife that day.

“What’s on?” she asked.

It was a good question. What was on?

Sweeping the Temple Steps

When I was twenty-one, my uncle wrote in a letter to me:

“Remember, Seth, you can’t sustain inspiration, you can only court it, and here’s the thing: it happens WHILE you work. It’s not something to wait around for. You have to sweep the temple steps a lot in hopes that the god appears.”

I cannot imagine this-all this sweeping-and this is why I am not a poet. I sit and work for hours on my fiction, yet the thought of sitting to write a poem without the germ of a poem already in my head strikes me as ridiculous.

How do you do that?

In the same letter, my uncle wrote:

“There’s a lot of luck involved in being struck by lightning, so you want to make sure you’re holding a pen when it happens.”

So, for now, furiously inspired, I carry around a pen. This fury, I believe, is good for me, yet it’s a fickle fury.

Soon, I will lose my spark.

And yet, I wonder, in the absence of work ethic: is it possible to live in a manner that is favorable to writing poetry? If one were to at least attempt the project how might one actually go about sustaining inspiration?

Make Yourself as Shitty as You Can

“The idea,” Rimbaud writes, “is to reach the unknown by a derangement of all the senses.”

Is this how you do it?

Rimbaud wrote this line in 1871, at the age of sixteen, in the midst of a sequence of two brash letters that came to be known as the “The Seer Letters.” The first letter, to his teacher Georges Izambard, announced Rimbaud’s intentions to become a poet, and it included a poem, which begins with a choice line: “My sad heart slobbers at the poop.”

Izambard blasted the letter. It was vicious, detestable, he later said. Rimbaud seemed to want to fuck himself up, as much as possible-physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Yes, Rimbaud was fucking himself up, but he was serving an inviolable master: Poetry.

“Right now, I’m making myself as shitty as I can,” he wrote. “Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a Seer…The idea is to reach the unknown by a derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet.”

“The derangement of all the senses” is one of poetry’s most celebrated phrases. In the second “seer” letter, to Izambard’s friend Paul Demeny, Rimbaud qualified the notion crucially with the adjective: “reasoned.”

Although Izambard and Demeny both dismissed his letters as utter inanity, practical jokes at best, utter filth at worst, Rimbaud, in proposing “a reasoned derangement of the senses,” was not joking at all. Rimbaud, it seems, meant to transform poetry into an act of living.

Within months he was carousing Paris, living on little else than absinthe, hashish, and the erotic adulation of Paul Verlaine, and conjuring his masterpiece, A Season in Hell. At sixteen he wrote, “My sad heart slobbers at the poop.” Two years later, he’d finished A Season in Hell.

From poop to poetry-the evolution of Rimbaud was furious. Two portraits taken around this time seem to prove this point.

In the first, Rimbaud, recently arrived in Paris, appears to be no more than a child, a puffy brat, poised for naughtiness-the type of child capable of writing a manifesto on poop.

In the second, Rimbaud has seemingly aged considerably; his face-chiseled, evocative, “angelic,” according to Jean Cocteau-is the face of a poet, a man.

What could’ve happened in the span of two short months to bring about this transformation?

Lunatic Evening with Friends

Among friends, I’m known as a somewhat fastidious person.

I eat the exact same dinner every night: chicken. With the chicken, I eat potatoes or sweet potatoes. I’ve done so, with unerring consistency, for six or seven years.

I rarely eat out. When I do, I thoroughly pre-inspect the menu. The place better have chicken. And, no matter what the menu says, I bring my own potatoes-boiled, tossed with extra virgin olive oil, smuggled in my wife’s purse.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I met some friends at Melograno in Philly: C and his girlfriend, H, as well as a new friend, M. My wife and I had met M a day before, at a poetry reading. The fact that we’d invited her to dinner struck C as somewhat impulsive.

We parked in a garage. $12.00 for the evening. It was one of those dangerous spring evenings when the intimations of summer are too much to bear, when, early in the evening, you worry that your fervor might lead you to forgo your smuggled potatoes in favor of the “roasted potatoes”, which M points out, have actually been fried; to the inevitable Malbec spill, H’s blouse swiftly more stain than not-stain; to the interlude in the garage, the attendant hiding behind the partition, M smoking on the street; to the embarrassing, glass-smashing incident at Ten Stone; to the suggestion that maybe you abandon C and H and go on to some other place; to the pointless walk up and down Walnut; to asking, “Can we go home”?; to M’s corn nuts and whiskey; to the delightful moment when M and your wife agree, “Yes, we can go home now”; to the goodbye on the street, M waving as she climbs into her car; to the parking garage, which is barricaded closed with your car in it; to the recognition that you’re stuck in Philly-stuck without your probiotics and Noni juice, your bed in Ambler, a forty-minute drive away; to running out to Sansom, hailing M’s car; to hopping in; to driving back to M’s place in Narberth, her pointing out Robin Black’s house on the right; to falling asleep in M’s son’s bed with your wife, the single the size of your childhood bed, the bed you first shared with your wife sixteen years ago, as M munches on a Klondike Bar outside the door; to waking up in an unfamiliar town, bereft of your routine, your insulin missing; to a long walk to Starbucks, but no food for you, because where’s your insulin?; to the discovery, back at M’s place, of a book case jammed with poetry; to picking up Skid, the one book by Deano that you’re not really familiar with because your first copy was stolen, your second copy left in that Starbucks in Encino; to reading “Whale Watch” and feeling, the exact coordinates of your soul struck, that perhaps you shouldn’t have borrowed $50,000 for that MFA in fiction, you could’ve probably made more money by now, and you just want to get home, back to your insulin, yet it was good to get away, you’re already writing your first poem in years.

“What happens when your head splits open/ and the bird flies out, its two notes deranged?”

Poems, I’ve been reminded recently, are fucking awesome. I will not stop reading poems. I will probably stop writing poems. Still, my recent experience has me wondering: How do you become the type of person who writes poems? Sustaining inspiration aside, perhaps this is the question.

Is it wrong to assume that kick-ass poetry comes, not necessarily from the best writers, but from the most kick-ass humans?

One might live, of course, in any number of ways, just as one might write a poem in any number of ways. And anyone can, and should, I think, write poetry. But how does one acquire the ability to continue to write poems, after the inspiration vanishes?

Is it a practice of writing or living? A successful poet, of course, writes poetry, studiously, day after day. Yet, the source of poetry seems to issue from some seriously untidy place.

Is it wrong, to assume, as Rimbaud does, that a successful poet must also live in a certain reckless way?

On the one hand, millions of hopeful idiots like me have followed Rimbaud, misunderstanding him completely, fucking ourselves up into the night.

On the other hand, it has nothing to do with alcohol, but the poets I’ve met are usually drunk in some serious way.

Is it unreasonable to approach poetry, or life, with the expectation that it send you into the storm of your own being-that it transform you?

Transformation, obviously, can take many forms. Transformative two months in Paris. Transformative potatoes. Transformative poem. Transformative email. Transformative heart surgery.

Early on, Deano suffered a few setbacks. For months, we waited for news. He received his heart April 14, 2011. I read the news the next morning. 6:45 AM. I burst into joyous tears.

It’s on, I thought.

And then I asked myself: What we he will write now?


Things are only as they appear when you see clearly.

The Lone Ranger made his mask from his dead brother’s vest.

Sometimes self-destruction looks like survival.

Resist temptation and it ceases to be temptation.

You can’t keep a hummingbird in a jar.

There’s a point where the wind and the rain sound the same.

The light changes. The light changes everything.

While you were waiting, something else happened.

Keep something hidden.


The proof of having broken a code is not being able to understand a message-but being able to send one.

To come from behind is to know more precisely what you need to achieve.

If there’s not a weak point you’ve got a problem.

If it were worth doing you’d have done it by now.

Simplicity is complexity you understand.

The Wild Men of Borneo came from Ohio.

Don’t be afraid to abandon all hope.

Intensify all ambiguities.

Take all the time you need. This is an emergency.


Certainty in anything always implies completion-an end of change.

Would you rather break a leg climbing up a steep mountain on the other side of the world-or tripping over a curb outside your house? Think carefully.

Fire moves fastest up a hill.

Humble yourself and make repairs.

It is not necessary to catch a fish each time, to enjoy fishing. But it is necessary that there be the possibility of catching one.

A walking stick makes good kindling.

There is a reason why the gods are pictured with the heads of animals.

An unidentified key is useless.

Options diffuse momentum.


Use fewer tools.


Search through what you’ve discarded.

The man swimming in the shark cage died of a heart attack. Not a mark on him.

The slightest doubt derails the whole enterprise.

The fissures in the granite run north-south. The rabbit runs clockwise around the pond.

Lose your confidence but not your curiosity.

Simply renaming a weed a flower won’t stop it from spreading.

Everything is a reflection.

Nothing can hold back the person who is willing to reevaluate everything.


Wouldn’t you try to paddle the leaking boat as far as you could?

All the clocks tell slightly different times.

When would precision not be desirable?

The secret goal of music is the restoration of silence.

Failure is the least of your worries.

Find the hidden assumption.

Never approach a horse or a helicopter from the rear.

Redefine the boundaries.

Striving for originality has been the undoing of many.


Constantly compromise-until you master the secret of it.

When you know when to stop, you’ve gone too far.

It is the fence you stumble over, not the property line. Yet, after the flood, the property line remains.

Time to change your password.

Try not to lose or depend on the element of surprise.

The difference between surgery and dissection is of vital interest.

Carefully plan all surprises.

In any crime, motive is the most important factor.

Intentionally make the mistake you most fear.

The search for answers is the art of asking ever better questions.


Take a hammer to your seashell collection.

Savor your uncertainty. It won’t last long enough.

You look down at the wake of the ferry, and see your shadow at the rail.

Patience is a virgin.

Be generous with your anxieties.

Because people are not always what they appear to be does not mean that they are never what they appear to be.

The most interesting things can only be seen out of the corner of your eye.

Secrets have a life of their own.

If you’re ready for anything, you’re probably not very well prepared for what’s actually about to happen.

The old woman in the wheelchair has not forgotten how to ride a bicycle.

Lewis Turco. Well, here it is September, 2010, already, my friend, and your new book, The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems, is out from www.StarCloudPress.com. It’s your first solo collection since The Airs of Wales back in 1981, if I remember the date correctly.

Wesli Court. That’s right, but you and I did a collaborative book titled The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court 1953-2004 six years ago.  Same press, though.

Turco. Twenty-nine years is a long time to wait for a new collection of your rhymed and metered poems.

Court. Don’t I know it!

Turco. Don’t we both? But this blurb on the jacket by X. J. Kennedy ought to make up some for the wait, shouldn’t it? He wrote, “This major collection by the astonishing Wesli Court is an event calculated to shiver all literary seismographs.  Readers addicted to poetry, but weary of ill-made poems, can latch on to it with joy.  Aspiring poets can seize it as a handbook of models, learning how to write anything from an ode to a sonnenizio, from an epigram to a blues epilogue.  While often striking a wistful, wintery tone of hail-and-farewell, there are notes of infectious cheer and some genuine surprises — even a poem to fulfill an unused title that Wallace Stevens left lying idle. With unique skill, Court shows us what a truly good metrical poem used to be, could be, and (in his able hands) still is.” That ought to make you feel pretty good.

Court. You know it does.

Turco. Here’s another one by Miller Williams — as I recall you and I both contributed poems to his handbook-anthology Patterns of Poetry in 1986: “It’s an increasingly rare pleasure to read poems about the real world in language as clear as it is lyrical, with deep roots in the past and illuminated by carefree rhyme.”

Court. Miller may have meant to say, “careful rhyme” rather than “carefree,” but his computer broke down and he sent the blurb to the publisher, Steven Swerdfeger, written out by hand. Steven couldn’t make out that one word, so he scanned it and emailed it to me for my opinion, but it was a tossup as far as I could tell. I thought “carefree” sounded more raffish than “careful,” so that’s what I voted for.

Turco. You voted for raffish rather than literary?

Court. Was I wrong?

Turco. I don’t know. Did he ever get his computer fixed?

Court. I was afraid to ask.

Turco. Here’s another comment by Rhina Espaillat: “The miraculous thing about all these poems is the way they avoid sentimentality and the temptation to reinvent the past, preferring, instead, a difficult blend of affection and detachment, honesty and regret.” The note says that it’s from a review in The Hollins Critic, but I’m a subscriber and I haven’t seen it there.

Court. I haven’t either, but I’ve seen a copy of the review — She sent a copy. It’s a fine review by a poet and critic I respect, as I do the other two as well, of course. The review will no doubt appear in due time.

Turco. You realize they’re all three friends of mine? Miller was even the director of the University of Arkansas Press which published two of my books.

Court. Certainly I know that, and they’re my friends as well, of course. The books Miller published were your The Shifting Web: New and Selected Poems in 1989 and before that, in 1986, Visions and Revisions of American Poetry, which won the Poetry Society of America’s Melville Cane Award for criticism.

Turco. Miller and I met while we were poetry fellows together at Bread Loaf in 1961, and that prize pleased him almost as much as it pleased me. But how much can one trust blurbs that are written by friends?

Court. Are you going to ask your enemies to supply you with blurbs?

Turco. Point well taken, but I’d trust these three any day. All are themselves fine formal poets.

Court. I don’t think there are any better writing today.

Turco. Well, then, let me ask you the obvious question: Why are you a traditionally formal poet?

Court. What an outrageous question! It’s your fault, and the fault of that Book of Forms of yours. I’m practically your galley slave. You’ve had me chained to the oars writing formal poems you could use in your “Handbook of Forms” actually for decades. You got to retire from teaching in ’96! Did I get to retire from writing sestinas, terzanelles, sonnets, blues…you name it? Not on your life. You could go on writing your nontraditional syllabics, prose poems, experimental stuff…what have you? But did you? Oh, no! You wanted me to pick up speed instead of retiring. Every time you wanted a formal poem, which was often, I had to write it for you!

Turco. To be fair, my book titled The Green Maces of Autumn: Voices in an Old Maine House came out late, in 2002 — it was nothing but quantitative unrhymed syllabic poems, and Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems 1959-2008 from Star Cloud had all sorts of nontraditional stuff in it, but I had no idea you objected to writing in forms!

Court. I don’t. I enjoy it. It’s a hoot and a ball. I like it very much. No, I take that back. I love it.

Turco. Then why are you complaining?

Court. Because every time I ask somebody how he’s doing he (or she) sayz, “I can’t complain.” I just wanted to prove that it’s possible to complain any time, even when you’re feeling good.

Turco. That seems perverse.

Court. That’s how I get paid sometimes.

Turco. How you get paid?

Court. Yes, “per verse.”

Turco. That’s an old pun. I should have seen it coming.

Court. I’m sure you did.

Turco. What are you working on these days?

Court. I’ve been writing a year’s worth of Epitaphs for the Poets. I hope I finished last month, August.

Turco. I hope so too. I’ve been posting them on my blog at www.lewisturco.net under the title “Uncle Wesli’s Daily Epitaph.” Who is the first poet in the sequence?

Court. John Gower who was born in the year 1330; he was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, who is the second poet. They were both poets of the royal court, and they knew each other.

Turco. How many have you written to date?

Court. I’m not sure, but the manuscript is nearly 80 pages long, and there are two or three epitaphs per page, depending on how long each is. The shortest are couplets, and the longest one, if I recall correctly, is eleven lines long, a roundelay for Swinburne, who was the inventor of the form. I think the average is three per page.

Turco That would make about 240 epitaphs. That’s a lot of writing. How long have you been working on the set?

Court. Well, I wrote the first two or three many years ago, but I started working at it in earnest last August, which is why I think I may have finished, but every now and then I find another poet I think ought to be included.

Turco. How long does it take to write one of these things?

Court. If I’m lucky, maybe five minutes, but I might tinker with one for years. Would you like me to write one for you right now? I just thought of a poet I like but somehow overlooked:

June 1, 1878 – May 12, 1968

He went down to the sea again,
To the lonely sea and the ships,
And that’s where Charon was waiting
For Erato to seal his lips.

Turco. How long did it take you to write that?

Court.  How long were you sitting there waiting?

Turco. I don’t think it was even five minutes. You managed to do a little research on-line, I noticed, and you looked up one of his best-known poems — to paraphrase, almost to quote in your first two lines, but the actual writing took maybe three minutes including those classical references to Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx in Hades, and Erato, the muse of lyric poetry.

Court. Sometimes I write one in my head while I’m lying sleepless in bed in the wee hours, or taking a shower. The problem is remembering it long enough to get it down on paper.

Turco. Does that happen often?

Court. Not often, but sometimes. On occasion a little poem will pop into my head without any effort at all. Once in a huge while I’ve even dreamt a poem.

Turco. And remembered it?

Court. Yes.

Turco. Any examples you can give me?

Court. This mote:

In memory of Donald Justice

Clearly, you may see clear through me,
As though I were not here.

Turco. What is it you like so much about writing in meters and formal lines and stanzas?

Court. I love to see the language dance and hear it chime. I love to make it do what I want it to do and make it seem easy. I want to make it soar and dive deep into the human situation. I want to be able to do anything at all I wish to do with language.

Turco. That’s not easy, is it?

Court. Maybe not at first, when you’re young and learning how to write, but it gets easier and more fun the more you learn the craft and the more you practice the trade.

Turco. “Practice”? “Trade”? What are you, an artisan or an artist?

Court. Both. If you want to be a concert pianist, you’d better learn how to read music, play the piano, and practice unending hours.

Turco. There are many poets who think that poetry is inspiration, a gift of the gods, a swig from the springs of Helicon.

Court. Maybe it is, but if you’re going to be inspired someday, you’d better be ready for it, like every other artist — if you want to dance, you’d better learn all there is to know about your body and train it; if a sculptor, you better know all about stone and carving; if a painter, knowing how to draw would help — unless, of course, you’re an “abstract expressionist,” in which case anything goes. As far as I can tell it’s only poets who think they don’t have to know how to write. Neither you nor I ever felt that way.

Turco. You are so right. On the other hand, X. J. Kennedy once wrote a poem titled “Ars Poetica” that goes, “The goose that laid the golden egg / Died looking up its crotch / To find out how its sphincter worked. / Would you lay well? Don’t watch.” He’s a formal poet. Do you think he believes that?

Court. Maybe, maybe not, but he surely believes in the pun of his title. Unless I’m sadly mistaken (and I’m not), you would say anything to pull off a pun like that. At any rate, have you ever seen a concert pianist watching his hands as he plays? Joe, as Shakespeare did, just sits down and writes because long ago he taught himself how to do it, he committed what he learned to memory, and now it’s just second nature. It’s the same thing as instinct at this point.

Turco. You seem pretty blasé about the whole thing.

Court. You taught me that.

Without passion man is a mere latent force and possibility, like the flint which awaits the shock of the iron before it can give forth its spark – Henri-Frédéric Amiel.

I like sleeping in, and I like staying up, and these facts are not always related to each other.