Saturday, March 21, 2015
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,
— 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.
breath, and I still wasn’t ready
for that breath, that last, to come
©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
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
In all that I say,
In all that I wish,
In all that I am,
©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
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 clichés 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
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
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
how do you spin those threads?
You don’t have a needle
to wheedle a beetle,
so what do you use instead?
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
I went to bed closing
my eyes to these sights –
hoping and praying the breaks
might not last,
then morning broke
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
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.
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
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”
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