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.

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.