Thursday, June 25, 2015

Reviewing Heaven

In the book, Heaven, written by award-winning poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips and published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, who kindly sent me a copy for review, the poems in this particular “heaven” lean not toward the baptismal but the mythological. So, if you’re expecting a biblical view of heaven, as I was, you might miss the search, as I first did, into heavenly realms that began with light, music, and flights of literary allusions.

While these poems do not land in a particular place or spiritual environment, they explore a variety of routes people have taken to get there. For example, the opening poem, “The Mind After Everything Has Happened” begins with “Perpetual peace. Perpetual light./ From a distance it all seems graffiti” then ends:

“If Hell is a crater to a crater
To a crater to a crater, what then
Is Heaven, aside from its opposite,
Which was glorious, known, and obvious?”

But then there’s the question of whether that last line depicts Heaven or Hell.

The poem “Boys” seems more obvious as the guys cut class to hang out “to play/ Just about all the music we knew,” caught up in the heavenly tunes of their own making. Interestingly, that all-day endeavor ends in suffering:

“When the dark would come, we’d show each other
Our blisters, the painful white whorls peeling,
Our read palms upwards, outstretched and unread.”

After reading the search in those palms, we read “The Starry Night,” where “Night frees its collar from around its neck/ And walks slowly past the two bathing bears/ Wading in the black stellate subheaven.”

From celestial places and beautiful myths to the beauty in nature and love, the poet briefly descends into “News From the Muse Of Not Guilty” with these sensory and highly visual lines:

“He sits in a Hawaiian shirt over a bulletproof vest,
Slumped in a beach chair, its back to the ocean.
Even his red wine spritzer tastes like Skittles now.”

“An Excuse For Mayhem” starts with “The Kingdom of Heaven” as perceived through the Christian faith then ends with this word or, is it a warning?

“…the sublime blue hour
Of the voice, the mute light, mute church, mute choice.”

The final lines of the book, however, find rest in an earthy heaven and this confession:

“…all I want to do is lay my head/
Down, lay my head down on the naked slope
Of your chest and listen there for my heart.”

©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. That same year, Kelsay Books published Mary's book of nature poems for children and her book of Bible-based poems, Outside Eden.

Heaven: poems, hardback

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Prose poem for Father’s Day

Textiles. Textures. Materials. Cloth.
by Mary Harwell Sayler

Wearing this shirt worn by a stranger no longer wears down the edges of my fingernails. Eventually, all polish chips away. Once in a while of silk slippers and white chiffon, I had grown too accustomed. Denim did not come as effortlessly as imagining denim and then only on Saturdays with my father’s sturdy long-sleeved shirt loosely matching the dependable fabric of his arms. Some say his spirit gave me God, while connecting with people tangled in maternity, not material – text, not texture, but sometimes the way the weave is worn.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. This prose poem was originally published in the poetry book, Outside Eden. For more about prose poems, see “Do real poets read and write prose poems?”

Friday, May 29, 2015

Favorite poets, poetry, and why

As a poetry lover, poet, freelance poetry editor, and competition judge, I’m often asked about my favorite poets, which puts me in a spin as I admire and enjoy the poems of so many. Then it occurred to me to focus on favorites whose work I’ve reviewed, mainly because their publishers sent review copies of recent books per my request! Unfortunately, others did not, or I just haven’t gotten around to asking. Nevertheless, I can almost guarantee you that studying the works of these highly acclaimed poets will increase your pleasure in reading poems – and improve your poetry writing too:

Poems of Jorie Graham flow through a stream of conscientiousness with beauty and fresh, often startling, imagery and statements that cause us to think, imagine, and reconsider what we thought we knew. As you read her poetry, let each experience wash over you, whether you understand everything that’s going on or not! I rarely do! Yet the poems are so exquisite, I keep returning to her work where each reading rewards me with something new or insightful.

I could say the same about the poetry of Charles Wright – another Pulitzer poet whose work includes allusions to experiences I don’t have or places unfamiliar to me, despite the fact that we were both born in Tennessee and have lived in California and Virginia. Again, like Graham, Wright’s poetry is lush with exquisite phrases and imagery, and each has a spiritual quest going that I share. I also like how both poets play with line lengths – an experiment worth studying.

Wallace Stevens wrote a jar onto a hill in Tennessee and shared my love for my home state of Florida, but he’s more apt to envision a world under construction by poets and poetry. His award-winning work offers fresh imagery and musicality to notice and study, but I especially enjoyed responding to some of his poems with poems and experimenting with titles after reading the interesting and often lengthy ones he created.

Czeslaw Milosz mentored many poets and spotlighted Polish poets in particular, but his poetry enlarges our world view with references and insights born of war, exile, and the loss of loved ones. Somehow this struggle evoked hope, perhaps based on his attachment to the church and his sense that things are not to be dissected but contemplated and appreciated for what they are. Although God remains in mystery, Milosz remained open to the search as do most of the poets on this list.

Wendell Berry most assuredly seeks the spiritual side of things, and yet his poetry is accessible, down-to-earth, and wise with insight based on experience and ardent observation. I say “ardent” because of his passion for life and his obvious love for God and creation and “observation” because his poetry calls us to pay attention, appreciate, and interact with all that’s around us.

The poems of Pattiann Rogers, however, would win the prize for interaction. Her work embraces almost every aspect of life and life sciences – from the make-up of the cosmos to the break-down of garbage! On a deeper level, the precise details and possibilities demonstrated in her poems cause us to pause and enter into such diversities as the suffering of God and the vulnerability of a turtle.

The poems of Gary Snyder also make us aware of nature and natural surroundings but, in addition, call attention to social and human inadequacies. While I certainly wouldn’t call Snyder a romantic poet, his insights on relationships clarify what’s honest, loving, and true in a Zen-like way, but I especially appreciate his astounding brevity. Poets who struggle with wordiness will find his poems excellent examples of saying a lot while being concise and, often, amusing.

Amusement definitely distinguishes the poems of Billy Collins. What’s especially funny is that this highly cerebral poet connects with a huge reading audience because of his comedic timing, unexpected twists, and good calls. i.e., He calls it like it is, but we did not think about it that way until he said so with accuracy and good humor.

As you delve into the work of these favored poets, notice how they sound uniquely like themselves yet find ways to be fresh, insightful, observant, concise, and wise. Therefore, we would be wise to read, study, and enjoy their poems – their exquisite, prize-winning poems filled with musicality, imagery, and the quests of their lives.


©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. Mary also chairs the poetry division of the annual writing competition sponsored by and provides reasons why each title stood out over other entries.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Read, write, breathe poetry

With National Poetry Month (NaPoMo) rapidly coming to an end, I thought it might be a good time to select past posts that can help you better enjoy the poems you read and also effectively improve your own poems as you revise. During this search, however, I unhappily discovered that my blog host does not provide easy access to posts written before 2012!

Fortunately, basic information on poetry stays the same! So I found hotlinks that still work, as listed below, to give you a broad overview of poetry and the joys and challenges of becoming a published poet.

Since those early days of posting, I changed my website to my name, which means you might find links within an article that no longer work. Also, when Poetry Of Course went out of print with my book publisher, I retained rights to upload an updated version as the Kindle e-book, a Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry.

Hopefully, these helps will give your poetry writing a boost, but you’re welcome to suggest new topics in the Comments section below.

How to Read a Poem

Scan A Poem. Get The Picture.

Going Postal with Poetry

Rhyme, rhythm, and reality: traditional English verse

Start your New Year with new tools for writing & revising poems

What kinds of poems fit you?

How do you know a poem is ready?

Do real poets read and write prose poems?

Breaking line with free verse

Line breaks can make or break your poem

Scan a poem. Catch the beat. Change the rhythm as you revise.

Poetry forms help re-form a poem as you revise

National Poetry Month and the 3 Rs

Poets and poems to celebrate during National Poetry Month

Poets who shaped poetry - good reading for NaPoMo & beyond

How to write haiku

Revising your poetry can be a smooth move.

Poetry Revision: Less can bring more to a poem

Three techniques for revising your poems

Unlocking clockwork rhyme

Villanelles need something worth repeating

Sonnets traditionally require poets to use rhythmic rhymes and argue nicely in fourteen lines

That Punctual Punctuation (Anyway) How

Resolutions for sober poets in the New Year

©2015 Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. For more poetry resources or a one-on-one critique of your poetry book, chapbook, or batch of poems for a minimal fee, visit Mary’s website.

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