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.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ancient Japanese tanka into English

In the anthology, One Hundred Leaves, Frank Watson translated 100 ancient tanka from 100 Japanese poets in a stunning collection that makes new connections with contemporary poets and poetry readers who especially enjoy micropoetry.

When I received my review copy, I initially noticed the appealing cover with its restful scene and eye-appealing composition, which nicely illustrated the contents I went on to discover, beginning with “A Brief Guide to Appreciating Japanese Poetry.”

As traditional haiku lovers know, there’s more to that ancient form than meets the modern eye, and the same can be said for the tanka. A slightly longer pattern of syllabic verse, the 5 lines of a tanka break into units based on 5/ 7/ 5/ 7/ 7 syllables in their respective lines.

Besides that basic information, Watson explains the importance of characteristics typical of traditional Japanese poems:

Visual Images – where “emotions and abstract ideas are commonly symbolized through tangible images”

Pivot Words and Pillow Words – which might be stock phrases or the playful use of “homonyms, words with different meanings but the same pronunciation” that “introduce extensive wordplay and layers of meaning,” causing readers “to guess among many possibilities”

Nature - where “Almost every poem refers to nature in some way, and these references carry additional emotional, allusive, or historical connotations that add meaning to an otherwise short poem.”

Season and Time of Day – which also “have emotional connotations that add a layer of meaning to the poem.” For example, Autumn might signify sadness or loneliness while “spring symbolizes youth, love and vitality.”

Overall Experience – which traditionally relied on the poems being slowly chanted, giving the reader time to “layer in the feelings of the poet and try to imagine the scene, letting it come alive into a moving picture with sounds, scents, and colors”

With that information to enhance our reading, the layout further assists our appreciation of the poems in a consistent format that includes the title, byline and dates for the poet, Watson’s English version of the poem, the original lines in Japanese, a pronunciation guide, and a literal rendering.

In addition, Watson provides annotations on many of the poems in his “Literal Notes,” which I found most interesting. Not only do those notes give insights into the poems at hand but also the mindset of traditional tanka writers, whose works we do well to emulate.

For example, the poem “Scattered blossoms” by Ki no Tomonori (845-907) might have used those beautiful but short-lived cherry blossoms to express “unease over whether the peacefulness of the Japanese imperial court would last.”

More often, though, the poems had to do with secret love or love and a rendezvous. Of these, one of my favorites has an unusual twist that shows the fresh perspective ancient micro-poems often had.

To give you a better idea of that perennial freshness and this highly recommended book in general, I’ll present the translation and literal notes below.

#38 Lady Ukon, “How I pity your fate”

Being forgotten,
I do not worry for myself –
You made a vow
On your mortal life
and how I pity your fate.

As the “Literal Notes” explain:

“In this poem, the narrator speaks of her lover who vowed on his life to be faithful, but has now abandoned her. Instead of being upset for herself, she fears for his life.”


© 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.

One Hundred Leaves, paperback

Friday, January 9, 2015

Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan

The strange, evocative poetry of Paul Celan seems impossible to translate from German into English while retaining its unique twists and inventive word-combinations, yet poet-author Pierre Joris did just that! You get a glimpse in the title and will see more in a moment, but first let’s consider some relevant background on Celan.

When I received my review copy of Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, the Introduction reminded me that only Rilke had an impact comparable to Celan’s. Both were major poets of the 20th century, who wrote in German, and both penned poetry that was prolifically reviewed, studied, written about, and annotated, then and now.

Born Paul Antschel in what became the Ukraine, Celan grew up in a Jewish family, speaking German but learning many other languages as well. As a young adult, he worked in forced labor camps until they were closed and he could continue his studies. By then, both of his parents had been killed.

Other hardships and devastations followed, including the death of a child, which created, no doubt, unimaginable influences on the poet and his work. Some deemed the resulting poems as surreal, but Celan saw his poems as rising from the real with clarity as “law.”

Again, in the Introduction, Pierre Joris says, “Radically dispossessed of any other reality, Celan had to set out to create his own language – a language as absolutely exiled as he was himself.” The author goes on to explain that “Celan’s ‘language,’ as I have tried to show, is really a number of dismantled and re-created languages.”

What does any of this have to do with us now – as poets or as poetry readers? A lot! Not only was Celan ahead of times in compressing and reducing the elements of a poem as poets often do today, his work presents the essence, the essentials, the core of life, the crux of being stripped of superfluities and the superficial.

That was a mouthful! But Celan’s poems, amazingly rendered by Joris, give us beauty and a breathturn into brevity. For example:

YOU MAY confidently
serve me snow:
as often as shoulder to shoulder
with the mulberry tree I strode through summer,
its youngest leaf

I have no idea what that means! Nevertheless, impressions and images arise, recreating a mood and interesting experience.

For another example of this and of the composite words I mentioned earlier:

above the grayblack wastes.
A tree-
high thought
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond

Incidentally, both of those examples present the complete poems, which consistently remain sans title. Interesting, too, both of the poems begin or end with levity, belying the “shriek” and “grayblack wastes.” So, even if we’re pretty sure what’s going on here, we’re never really sure of either the mood or the experience.

The same can be said for poems offering a visual encounter:

Hamburg, an
endless shoelace – at
the ghosts gnaw –
binds two bloody toes together
for the road’s oath.

The city can be seen. The shoelace can be pictured. The ghosts can jump to life as they gnaw, but are they gnawing the toes bloody or were they already oozing when the shoelace bound them together? And how does this influence a road to make an oath?

Again, I have no earthly or ghostly idea what this means, but I have impressions of how ongoing hardships – bloodying hardships – can bind together people who normally might not be going in the same direction, but now have a similar goal or purpose they vow to accomplish before the road ends.

We'd better hurry, though, as it’s already evening, and the dark will soon be upon us. We might need a flashlight, but I hope you'll read these poems until the darkness lightens and impressions arise to appreciate, ponder, and recall.

© 2015, Mary Harwell Sayler has authored 27 traditionally published books in all genres, including 3 books of poetry, Outside Eden, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, and Living in the Nature Poem.

Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan, hardback

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Resolve to improve your poems

Instead of making more New Year’s resolutions, how about promising ourselves to do what we can this year to improve our poems?

Self-improve your poems

Listen to your poems! Read each poem and each revision aloud, noticing anything that seems “off.” Then believe yourself! Find out what bugs you, where, and why. Once you’ve identified a problem you can usually correct it.

Change viewpoints! Revise a first person poem to second or third person perspective. For instance, a poem that’s all about you might expand to include other people if the narrator changes from “I” to “you” or “s/he.” Or pluralize the perspective from one “I” to “we,” so we’re all in this together.

Cut it out! Shorten poems that go on too long by omitting blah words, unnecessary phrases, redundant thoughts, or repetitive ideas. Cut lines that do not add anything new.

Treat words and lines like furniture! Move them around. Check the overall effect by reading aloud each version. Then simply return words to their original positions if that’s the best placement.

Leave readers wanting more! End each poem on its strongest, freshest, most insightful line.

Know when to get help!

Find helpful feedback and resources

Follow this blog, and scroll down to revisit posts from the last 3 years.

Type a key word in the Search box to learn more about a particular form such as haiku or technique such as scansion.

Study resources for poets and writers.

Order the e-book, the Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry to discover your poetic options with a wealth of poetry forms and various types of rhymes and rhythms. (The poems used to illustrate techniques or terminology can be considered “G” rated.)

Or, order the Poetry Dictionary For Children and For Fun e-book as a fun way to learn about poetry forms and techniques.

If you’re still unsure how to improve your poems, get professional feedback through a poetry critique that focuses on strengths, general effectiveness, and the crucial question to be asked of each word, thought, line, or whole poem: “Does it work?”

© 2015, Mary Harwell Sayler has authored 27 traditionally published books in all genres, including 3 books of poetry, Outside Eden, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, and Living in the Nature Poem.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

You, me, and Wallace Stevens

This week before Christmas, I received a surprise gift from poet-peer Glynn Young, author of the book Poetry at Work, which we've previously discussed and which I wish I’d remembered sooner to suggest as a great Christmas gift for everyone in the office.

In my Christian Poets & Writers group on Facebook, Glynn had posted a hotlink to his blog post on Wallace Stevens, another poet whose work I admire. Naturally, I clicked the link and surprise! It took me a moment to realize that the article begins with my poem, “Landscape Loved by Wallace Stevens.”

Glynn acknowledged me as author, of course, and also my poetry book, Living in the Nature Poem, which includes that poem, but then he went beyond that. He provided a hotlink to the book on Amazon and another to my website. Nice!

Oh, if we would all be so nice to one another, think of the interest we might generate in poetry!

Think of the poets we would encourage.

Think of the poetry network we could build with poems we like and poetry books we recommend if we simply let others know we recommend them.

Think of the publishers who might retweet our tweets about our poetry book reviews.

Think of the way poetry can counteract the terrorism of hurtful words.

Think of the joy we can bring to one another as Glynn did me.

May your Christmas be blessed and your New Year a blessing to your readers, poetry editors, and other poets too.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler has placed hundreds of poems and 27 traditionally published books in all genres. Her e-book, the Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry, is a revision of the poetry home study course she wrote and used for years with other poets and poetry students, and she continues to offer one-on-one feedback for a minimal fee through her website.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Early Poetry of Charles Wright

By the time I discovered the poetry of Charles Wright, his work had received prestigious awards, but not the Pulitzer, which I thoroughly expected him to win, and he did. Since then, I’ve continued to follow but not study his poems beyond my own ponderings. So when I learned of The Early Poetry of Charles Wright: A Companion, 1960-1990 written by English professor Robert D. Denham, I eagerly requested a review copy, which the publisher, McFarland, kindly sent.

As the author said in the Introduction, “Each of Wright’s poems can be read as a discrete work, but each is also part of an expansive quest.”

Sometimes this quest focuses on the poet’s life, sometimes on a fitting form, sometimes on spiritual questioning. In lesser hands, such aims might make for self-absorbed writing that doesn’t connect well with readers, but Wright’s acute powers of observation and fresh phraseology connect with us on an artistic, spiritual, and intellectual level. At times, though, the poet’s subject matter can be elusive and exclusive, so I welcomed Denham’s knowledge of poems I’d enjoyed, admired, but not necessarily understood!

Again in the Introduction, the author explained: “In the present book the notes that accompany most of the poems follow the usual conventions of annotation. They identify Wright’s sources (he is a comparatively allusive poet), along with people, places, things, and events that might not be immediately obvious. They also point to perceived influences, parallels to other poets, biographical details, historical explanation, and other kinds of supplementary and expository information, and they translate the occasional foreign word and phrase, ordinarily Italian.” Yeah!

To take full advantage of Professor Denham’s explications of the poems, you do well to have a copy of Wright’s two trilogies alongside, so you can see what’s going on that you might have missed (as I did) when reading Country Music: Selected Early Poems and The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980-1990.

In summarizing Country Music, for example, the author provides a chart to point out the “Condensed form; process of squeezing down; the pilgrimage moves upward.” Also on the chart, we see that Hard Freight deals with the past in a “book of disparate individual lyrics” with “...narrative structure,” while Bloodlines focuses on the present in a “book of sequences” with both imagistic and narrative tone and structure. Addressing the future, China Trace has “movement toward a spiritual hope” in a “forty-six part poem beginning in childhood and ending in the constellation of fixed stars.

The World of the Ten Thousand Things follows a past, present, and future timeline, too, in each of the books with The Southern Cross focusing on large concepts in the past. The Other Side of the River brings narrative-based poems into today, while Zone Journals and Xionia are concerned with what’s to come.

To give us further grounding, Professor Denham includes quotes from Wright himself. For example, in discussing “The New Poem” from the first trilogy, Wright defined that poem as “a reaction… to the idea that everything in the sixties was going to be different and make our lives different and was going to change everything.”

In “Spider Crystal Ascension,” Wright wanted to “compress the language and the thought to such a point that it stops being small and starts to enlarge…. Which is to say, rather than writing a lot to get larger and larger, you write less and less.”

References to poets, painters, and even post cards occur in the second trilogy. For example, in “Composition in Grey and Pink,” Denham says, “The instruction that Wright gave himself for this poem was to produce a watercolor in words.” How did that go?

"The souls of the day’s dead fly up like birds, big sister,
The sky shutters and casts loose.
And faster than stars the body goes to the earth.

Heat hangs like a mist from the trees.
Butterflies pump through the banked fires of late afternoon.
The rose continues its sure rise to the self."

In my opinion, that watercolor in words went amazingly well.

For “October,” Wright just wanted to write a seasonal poem, and for “Driving through Tennessee,” we learn that “Wright’s instruction to himself was ‘to write a poem that was basically commentary’.”

"In the moonlight’s fall, and Jesus returning, and Stephen Martyr
and St. Paul of the Sword…

– I am their music"

Besides the mood music and gorgeous lines, what interests and surprises me is how Wright sets goals and guidelines for his frequent experiments with poetry! If the average poet were to say, "I'm gonna write a commentary in a poem," the lines would most likely come out as stiff as brocade with none of the beauty. Besides, who even thinks of writing a poem just to see if you can get a verb on every line as Wright does in “California Spring”?

Are you starting to think what I'm thinking? Not only is this a writer of absolutely beautiful poetry but a poet who lives in the poem.

His poem “Ars Poetica” says it well:

"I like it because I’m better here than I am there,

Surrounded by fetishes and figures of speech:
Dog’s tooth and whale’s tooth, my father’s shoe, the dead weight
Of winter, the inarticulation of joy . . .

The spirits are everywhere.

and once I have called them down from the sky, and spinning and
dancing in the palm of my hand,
What will it satisfy?
I’ll still have

The voices rising out of the ground,
The fallen star my blood feeds,
this business I waste my heart on.

And nothing stops that."

Oh, thank God, Charles. Thank God.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, has authored 27 traditionally published books in all genres, including 3 books of poetry, Outside Eden, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, and Living in the Nature Poem.

The Early Poems of Charles Wright, paperback

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The quiet, unassuming life of a poet

Usually, “unassuming” refers to an attitude of meekness and humility, which a poet might have – or not. Conversely, “assuming” typically indicates pretentiousness or a certain air of arrogance, and no, I’m not talking about that either.

What comes to mind is how a poet needs to avoid assuming anything and, therefore, be “un-assuming.”

To un-assume might mean an attitude of acceptance of whatever comes. Unlike people other than mystics or prophets, a poet needs to aim for and retain a sense of openness.

To un-assume might also mean recognizing the ongoing need to check out everything – from looking up words in the dictionary to verifying quotations and their sources to researching a subject of interest and getting facts straight – yes, in poetry!

To un-assume might mean acknowledging that other people and resources have legitimate perspectives that differ from our own – and then being curious about them and also fair.

A closed box, cement block, locked door, or heavy duty marker with permanent ink do not spell the receptivity I’m talking about, but instead illustrate the opposite.

An unassuming life allows for spontaneity, mystery, and those unexpected turns a poem might take before finishing what it has to say – to us and to our readers. Whatever allows the surprise and wonder we experienced in childhood is what will most likely work well in an honest, unassuming poem.

© 2014, Mary Sayler is poet-author of Outside Eden, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, and Living in the Nature Poem in print and in an e-book on Kindle. Mary also works with other poets through the Contact & Critiques page on her website.