Saturday, April 11, 2015

From the New World: Poems 1976-2014 by Jorie Graham

In the highest realm of poets and poetry, Jorie Graham and her poems are gorgeous. Even if you don’t understand a single line, you know you’re in the presence of something extraordinary – something worthy of three or more readings to “get” what’s too often apparent in poems from the start. So, when I learned of the latest book, From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, I eagerly awaited my review copy, kindly sent to me by the publisher, Ecco Press.

When the book arrived, however, I froze. Like, who am I to comment on the work of any Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, much less this one! Some time ago, in fact, a friend asked why I keep on reading and re-reading Graham’s work when I was often frustrated by my lack of understanding. I said I felt I could learn something important, which is a good enough reason anytime, but especially during NaPoMo (National Poetry Month.) However, a more precise response to why I read Jorie Graham’s poetry is, “How can I not?”

If you’re a poet who likes to eat, sleep, and breathe poetry, you know what I mean. But then, maybe you don’t, and thus far, I’ve done nothing to entice you, so let’s remedy that!

Mid-way into the first verse of the first poem, “Tennessee June,” for example, you’ll find these exquisite lines:

your mind wandering without its logic,
your body the sides of a riverbed giving in.
In it, no world can survive
having more than its neighbors;
in it, the pressure to become forever less is the pressure
to take forevermore
to get there….”

If you want to understand the poems of Jorie Graham, those lines might pull you under, but if you want to experience her work with its sensitive insights, acute observations, and highly intelligent thought patterns, try going with the flow of that river and enjoying its depths and possibilities for change. You might even catch a reflection of the poet herself.

But then, the next poem reminds us that we’re all “Strangers” – to one another, to our surroundings, to ourselves. For example:

“The vigor of our way
is separateness,
the infinite finding itself strange
among the many….”

Such lines might be considered flat statements were there not so many curves! But this poem, as typically happens in Graham's work, includes images as fresh as the tulips who “change tense/ too quickly” and as startling as the starlings who “keep trying/ to thread the eyes/ of steeples.”

If you think you’ve heard those lines before, you probably have since this collection consists of several poems selected from each of eleven previously published books before closing with new poems. But, if you’ve never read Graham’s poetry, having poems representative of her work collected in one volume makes an excellent place to start – not only for the sweeping, all-encompassing view but for the life these poems take on when combined and arranged as they have been.

We could talk about that. We could talk about what the poems mean, and if you want such assessments by numerous poets and poetry students, you’ll find explications on the Internet. To relish the taste of Jorie Graham’s poetry, however, I recommend you simply enjoy the play of words, the sound echoes, the complexities of thought, then give yourself over to the experience of each poem.

When I began to do this, I discovered a spirit of wonder, a sense of breathlessness, a stream of consciousness that engaged me with its musicality and lush imagery. I also found connections arising from the disconnected and reorientation from various disorientations lit on by a highly active mind.

Because we’re now well into National Poetry Month and because my review copy has been with me too long without response, I’ll stop here for now with the hope you’ll let me know in the Comments below how you approach the poems of Jorie Graham. Then, when I’ve had time to read and absorb each poem a few more times, I hope we’ll chat again about this major poet and what makes her poetry so memorable and her new book so important to read and recommend as I do now.

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, writer and reviewer, has 3 books of poems in print: Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press and Beach Songs & Wood Chimes (for children) and Outside Eden, published by Kelsay Books.

From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, Hardcover

Saturday, March 21, 2015

World Poetry Day with new poems by Gary Snyder

A Review of This Present Moment to be released mid-April 2015

What originally drew me to the poetry of Gary Snyder was the connectedness he has with nature with no hint of the sentimentality often found in nature poems. He also has a way of connecting scant words with deep thought and embracing what’s around him, not as a romantic but as a perceptive poet who pays attention to everything.

A student of wildlife, languages, and primitive cultures around the world, Snyder connects physical realities to a spiritual realm he has reportedly reached by practicing Zen Buddhism. As a meditative Christian who praises God as creator while warily watching the whereabouts of the alligator in my pond, Zen offers no appeal to me. Yet I’m impressed by the precedent Snyder has set for countless Zen poets extending the religious boundaries of poetry all over the world.

And so, as a lover of nature, the natural, and the spiritual too, I had the idea of studying his work more thoroughly in hopes of seeing what makes his books such prize-winners -- a thought that initiated my request for a review copy of This Present Moment: New Poems by Gary Snyder, which the publisher, Counterpoint, kindly sent.

From the first page, “Gnarly” intrigued me with brevity buzzing through a log-splitter and a “beetle-kill/ pine tree” before ending on the sensual acknowledgement of “my woman/ she was sweet.

How do you get from one to the other in eleven lines with the insinuation of a story behind each image? As the title says, you give yourself over fully to the present moment even though the “sweet” gets bittersweet in that one word “was.”

While each moment exercises its muscular lines, fully present to the telling, the past flickers by too. “The Earth’s Wild Places” becomes a love poem. “Siberian Outpost” offers narrative and social commentary in a vivid scene as shown in “swampy acres/ elk-churned mud.”

The sounds, the smells, the stories put readers in each present poetic moment, sometimes with humor, as in “Why I Take Good Care of My MacIntosh,” and sometimes with the pain of relationships gone wrong, as in “Anger, Cattle, and Achilles,” where “Two of my best friends quit speaking/ one said his wrath was like that of Achilles.”

Relationships in these poems extend to peoples around the world, such as in “Old New Mexican Genetics,” where “an 18th century listing of official genetic possibilities” defines:

“Indio. A Native American person
Mestizo. One Spanish and one Indio parent”

and “Coyote. Indio parent with Mestizo parent.”

Class systems, caste systems follow – and even a gentle chastisement of Thomas Jefferson for having slaves, yet the poems evoke no wistfulness nor preachiness. They simply tell it like it is in a pragmatic but entirely poetic voice – even to the heart-rendering poem “Go Now,” which ends the book and begins:

“You don’t want to read this,
be warned, turn back
from the darkness,
go now.
— about death and the
death of a lover — it’s not some vague meditation
or a homily, not irony,
no god or enlightenment or
acceptance — or struggle — with the
end of our life,
it’s about how the eyes
sink back and the teeth stand out
after a few warm days.
Her last
breath, and I still wasn’t ready
for that breath, that last, to come
at last….”

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, writer and reviewer, has 3 books of poems in print, the first of which, Living in the Nature Poem, was published in 2012 by Hiraeth Press with an e-book version in 2014.

This Present Moment: New Poems, paperback

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Eyes Have I That See: review of selected poems by priest-poet, John Julian

As a long-time lover of poetry by priest-poets, I was delighted to receive a review copy of Eyes Have I That See: selected poems of Fr. John Julian, which Paraclete Press kindly sent me to review.

According to the back cover, Fr. Julian’s work has been compared to other priest-poets such as George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but that may be like comparing peaches and pears! Besides the differing forms and styles, the poems of the two G. H.’s flow with succulent phrases and sweet praise, whereas the poetry of Fr. Julian has a contemporary bite.

As soon as I said that, however, I opened the book again and re-read the first poem, which, yes, makes me think of the Episcopal priest George Herbert in a beautiful litany appropriate for liturgy! The poem, “Anima Christi,” begins by calling:

“Soul of Christ, O, consecrate me;
Flesh of Christ, emancipate me;
Blood of Christ, intoxicate me;
Water from Christ’s side, repair me….”

These exquisite lines continue, focusing on Christ before closing with a plea, “That forever I may praise Thee. Amen.”

As the collection continues, the “I” of the poem could be me, you, the poet, or, most likely, the voice of people since the beginning of time, for instance, as “My golden fruit/ Lies tarnished now” in “The Apple Tree,” and “Gethsemane, BC,” calls on Isaac to arise.

In the poem “’Twixt Dinner And The Tree,” we see “The Beloved gathered” between the Last Supper and the cross and find:

“Old wildly verbal Peter had already felt his words
twist back, his promises stumbling to unanticipated oblivion;
poor James hid dark in tears in some far kosher corner….”

Other poems present contemporary reflections of biblical stories threaded with the timelessness that connects us. Most lines unwind as free verse with others occasionally aligning into traditional meter as shown in this first verse of “Incarnatus.”

“Bethlehem broadened and filled our horizons,
The stable demanded our hearts in return;
God spoke the Word in the flesh of a Man-child
And wrote with that Body what mankind must learn.”

In the last pages, we find thirteen cantos comprising the poem “Ave Maria” as Christ’s Mother Mary accompanies her Son through each crucial moment of His life and death. This long poem provides a fitting way to end the book, and yet, an earlier poem, “Oblation,” made me think of her – and us.

“In all that I do
You act;
In all that I say,
You speak;
In all that I wish,
You will;
In all that I am,
You are.”

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, writer and reviewer, has 3 books of poems in print: Living in the Nature Poem, published in 2012 by Hiraeth Press; a book of nature poems for children, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, published in 2014 by Kelsay Books, and the book of Bible-based poems, Outside Eden, also published by Kelsay Books in 2014. She recently completed a fourth book of poems and is now working on more poems based on Bible prayers and stories.

Eyes Have I That See: selected poems, paperback


Monday, March 2, 2015

How to ruin an almost good poem

For over a decade I have chaired the poetry division in a well-run writing competition for poets and writers, and each year I've noticed similar mistakes in poems that almost placed. Having learned from this recurring cycle of flaws and errors, I thought you'd welcome the following list of things to avoid – not as you write, but as you revise.

• Expressing excessive enthusiasm for a topic or using saccharine phrases and words such as tears, heart, share, cry, and dear ole something or other

• Making incredible statements or spouting opinions with nothing to substantiate the facts

• Stating the obvious

• Flatly stating something in lines that sermonize or do not hum true

• Giving unasked-for advice in a bombastic tone, laying on guilt trips that drive people away, or just generally venting and spewing

• Putting down a person or a group or, worse, bad-mouthing God!

• Using punctuation like chicken pox

• Using fonts, colors, or patterns that turn an editor’s eyes into disco balls

• Talking to yourself without even a nod to your readers

• Saying nothing fresh, insightful, imaginative, interesting, or new

• Using clich├ęs that were imaginative and new a long time ago

• Using crude words, vulgar language, or other device for shock value

• Emphasizing thoughts or phrases that do not warrant flashing headlines or rhyming endlines

• Getting locked into endline rhymes so strongly that the syntax suffers or the rhyming words aren’t worth the emphasis – for instance, rhyming “the” and “me”

• Compressing too much by omitting articles and other business words that help people communicate and make sense, or, more likely…

• Going on and on….

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler has 3 books of poetry, Outside Eden and Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, published by Kelsay Books in 2014 and, in 2012, Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press with an e-book version released in 2014.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

10 Ways to Read a Poem

1. Get comfy and enjoy your first reading. Relax into the experience without trying to analyze anything.

2. Read the poem again, this time aloud. Listen for the musicality. Feel the rhythm.

3. As you read aloud, notice the sound echoes, images, or other poetic devices that make the poem unique.

4. Now analyze. Ask what grabbed your interest and why.

5. If the poem included words or literary references with which you’re not familiar, look up each in a dictionary or on the Internet. Analyze: How or why does a particular word or reference enhance the poem?

6. Ask more questions, such as why an image works – or not!

7. Does the poem follow a pattern or form? If so, is it effective?

8. Consider the connotations for unusual choices of words. Do the implied meanings add layers of meaning to the poem? If so, how? For instance, a word that suggests more than one meaning can add a sense of mystery – or confusion!

9. Whatever the overall effect, is it effective? Does each aspect of the poem work well – or not? If not, what would you change and why?

10. As a poem reveals itself to you, you begin to own the experience. And, as you notice or consider each poetic aspect, those techniques become available to you too. You now own the choices that went into the making of this poem – choices that you, too, have the option to use as you revise your poems for others to read, analyze, and enjoy.

© 2015, Mary Harwell Sayler has 3 books of poetry, Outside Eden and Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, published by Kelsay Books in 2014 and, in 2012, Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press with an e-book version released in 2014. She’s also written e-books on poetry: the Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry and the Poetry Dictionary For Children and For Fun, which all age groups can enjoy.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Tips for writing poems kids read

If you like to write poetry and like to keep company with children, you might enjoy writing poems for kids. These tips will help:

Get to know children of all ages well.

Find out what encourages, worries, or speaks to kids from preschool through teen years. Being around your unique readers will help you to know how to write for a particular age group, but you can also research their most likely areas of interests and typical stages of child development. For example, most children are interested in animals and nature, but often fear spiders! Fortunately, facts and fun can help to overcome those fears.

Questions for a Spider

Spider, Spider,
eight-legged glider,
how do you spin those threads?
You don’t have a needle
to wheedle a beetle,
so what do you use instead?

Spider, Spider,
how does your sticky web spin?
Can you duck from the guck
without getting stuck?
How do you get out and in?

by Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. Poem included in Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, published in 2014 by Kelsay Books.

Read poems published for children.

Include Mother Goose nursery rhymes and other classics but focus primarily on contemporary poems written with kids in mind.

Keep each line in line with the age of your readers.

The younger the child, the simpler a poem needs to be. For instance, young children love a regular rhythm or bouncy beat. Since they’re learning words themselves, toddlers and preschoolers like the sounds of words such as those sound echoes they can easily hear in rhyme and alliteration.

Turn up the volume.

By repeating the first sound of a word within a line, the resulting alliteration will enliven the sound and tempo of your poem. For example, “Big, bright beads of rain wet down the window.” If you carry sounds to extreme, alliteration creates kid-friendly tongue twisters such as “Suzy sells seashells by the seashore.” (Guess Suz didn’t live in FL where shells can be found for free :)

Use strong nouns and active verbs for your rhyming pairs.

The nouns you choose can quickly sketch a picture of a person, place, or thing for the child to envision. The active verbs will then move those noun-pictures along. For instance, a rhyme of “bird/ stirred” brings to mind all sorts of possibilities you can play with as you create sense with sounds. However, word pairs such as “of/ above” and “in/ when” do not provide a clear sound, a clear picture, nor a clear meaning for anything.

Develop a sense of play.

Good-natured humor appeals to all ages of readers, but the catch comes in knowing what a preschooler, kindergartner, elementary school child, junior high kid, or older teen will find amusing, especially since that can change from one age level to the next or one mood to the next! For instance, a child needs to be able to read to enjoy the wordplays and line breaks in this poem:

All Broken Up!

Hey! What’s going on tonight?
My fingernail broke.
A bird broke into flight,
and, oh! The mirror broke!
Will it be all right?
Then someone breaks
the silence.

I went to bed closing
my eyes to these sights –
hoping and praying the breaks
might not last,
then morning broke
into dawn-light,
and I happily hopped down to break-

by Mary Harwell Sayler. This poem originally appeared in the Kindle e-book, the Poetry Dictionary For Children and For Fun published in 2012 and then in the book of nature poems for children, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, published in 2014 by Kelsay Books

Repeat well-chosen phrases for a lively refrain.

Purposeful repetition will help children to join in the fun, get playfully involved in your poem, and remember information. Similar to the refrain of a song, a poem’s refrain can be the same from one verse to the next. Or, vary a word or two each time to develop your theme fully and keep readers interested.

Read each poem aloud.

Tap out the beat. If the rhythm gets too regular, the poem will sound like a nursery rhyme. That’s perfect if you write for nursery school children but not for older kids, teens, or young adults, who might be more apt to like free verse freed of regular rhyme, rhythm, and other patterns.

Read aloud each version and revision of a poem.

Does anything seem “off” in the sound, sense, or rhythm? If so, keep playing with words, sound echoes, or line breaks until you find what works for the poem.

© 2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. For help with your poems, get professional feedback in a poetry critique or writing consult for your children’s poems, poetry book, chapbook, or children’s picture book for a reasonable fee. You'll find more info on the Contact & Critique page of Mary’s website.

Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, paperback

Poetry Dictionary For Children & For Fun, Kindle e-book


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Writing paragraph poems or prose poetry

Confined to little brick-like blocks of text, prose poems offer about as much visual appeal as a business letter. When it comes to writing them, though, prose poetry often allows more freedom than free verse. For instance, you don’t have to decide where to break every single line to the best effect since the unadorned form of a paragraph acts like a shoe box where you can drop in almost anything.

Since you do not have to count feet, syllables, and lines or count on rhymes, prose poems also come with less stress than traditional patterns of poetry.

To give you an example, here’s my first attempt that placed in a 2011 issue of The Prose-Poetry Project! and was later included in my book, Living in the Nature Poem.

Hapless Holiday

I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if I can shut the door you bolted on the other side. Keeping out weather is one thing, raccoons another, although I know there's nothing below the kitchen sink they might find appealing – blackened banana peels, black coffee grounds, and those eggshells I keep on breaking as I walk.

© 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler

As you try your hand at writing prose poetry or paragraph poems, experiment with these devices:

• Write all around an image, insight, or event – real or surreal.

• Let the poem flow in a stream-of- consciousness.

• Create a verbal collage of almost anything – from dreams and diaries to factual data, stories, episodes, or headlines in the news.

• Use juxtaposition to startle your readers, or ask a timely question to ignite thought.

• Sprinkle in a little alliteration.

• Add wordplays, humor, or a rhythmic beat.

Prose poems usually come across as intimate, fresh, honest, and, sometimes, bizarre – like real people in real life! And here’s a bonus:

Prose poems depend on the same blocks of paragraphs you use for regular writing, so regular, non-poet people often come to prose poetry unaware and unscared! They just start reading, not realizing it’s a poem until poetic aspects surface as, hopefully, they'll do.

Writing the Prose Poem

Is this better or this, my right eye asks, sharpening the focus on the left and shifting the view toward the proverbial third eye centered in the forehead where more depth and better balance can be found by considering two differing perspectives. Rational thought and rumors of romance dance in lines and squiggles, circling and circling like squirrels ready to mate or preying partners ready to consume almost anything. Oh, who knows which way a poem will go?

© 2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. This post is a revision of Mary’s earlier article posted on 2011/01/18 but with the addition of two examples of prose poems from her book Living in the Nature Poem, published in 2012 by environmental publisher Hiraeth Press.