Saturday, May 4, 2019

Find poems to love in anthologies

Every now and then, poets who are ready to step up their level of poetry-writing ask me to recommend poems they might study and emulate. No, not to mimic someone else’s voice or style, but to discover their own preferences and improve their use of technique.

Art students do this all the time. i.e. They typically study and copy the masters in order to find out what works and why. Then, having discovered a wide assortment of useful tools and techniques, they go on to find their own creative methods of working.

Conversely, I’ve found that many poets give little thought to poetry forms, styles, techniques, tips for revision, or precision in their choices of words. Worse, many poets don’t read poems by other poets, which handicaps them without their knowing it as they have few options except for what comes to mind.

Since we have centuries and centuries of beautifully expressed poetry to draw from, you can find all sorts of anthologies that collect poems around a central theme, subject, or form. Also, The Norton Anthology of Poetry aims to put together as many poems in English as possible.

To give you other anthologies I recommend with poems worth studying and enjoying, here’s a list of ones I’ve reviewed in the order shown:

Villanelles anthology 

As publishers send me new copies of poetry books and anthologies to review, I’ll let you know of engaging poems and anthologies I’ve found that connect well with readers - including you and me!

Remember: We're first readers of poetry. Then, Lord willing, we become poets prepared to write poems that other people will want to read.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Ballads: The Story Poem Form

In our new MeWe “Poetry Lessons” group for poets and poetry lovers, a member asked if I could identify the form she’d used in writing a story poem. I wasn’t sure! A first draft with no pattern in mind is unlikely to plink onto a page and come out true to form, but that’s okay. That’s even to be expected because traditional poetry usually results, not from writing in form, but from revising lines to fit a particular pattern.

Ideally, that form will shape up what’s already there. So, the more forms or poetry patterns you become acquainted with, the more options you’ll have as you revise. (Like, why try to reinvent countless centuries of patterns and choices?)

The story poem I just mentioned had end-line rhymes and roughly four beats per line. The poet had then divided those lines into groups of four, making her narrative poem a four-beat poem (accentual verse) set in quatrains (four lines per verse.)

Is that a problem? No! That intuitive pattern has frequently been employed by poets, who enjoy playing with words, images, and rhythm. Most often, the resulting quatrains have four beats per line, although some have three or five. But this poem had something more than a regular beat and specific linebreaks. It had story.

When we think of narrative or story poems, book-length epic poetry such as Beowolf might come to mind. However, far shorter narratives can introduce heroes, legends, Bible stories, or personal stories with which readers can relate.

With a little tweaking, quatrains with a 4/4/4/4- beat can be revised to fit a ballad form aka literary ballad aka folk ballad aka hymn ballad, each of which often has an alternating beat of 4/3/4/3 for each quatrain.

If you’d like to know more about the ballad or other form, type the one you want in the Search box on this blogpage. For instance, searching for the word “ballad” should bring up the previous post “Writing a Ballad.

For more in-depth discussions and examples of poetry forms (and free verse tips too), consider the Christian Poet’s Guide to Poetry Writing e-book (formerly my poetry home study course.) Or, make learning super easy and lively with the e-book, the Poetry Dictionary For Children & For Fun -- for yourself and/or creative kids of any age!

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Poetry titles and Table of Contents

A poet just asked if her poetry book needs a Table of Contents and/or an Index, and I thought this conversation might interest you too.

Whether you publish a book of poems yourself or send the manuscript to a traditional or indie publishing company, yes, you need a Table of Contents (TOC) in the front matter of the book.

Typically, the format for a TOC places the title of the poem on the left side of the page with its corresponding page number on the right – no matter what size the book. If, however, you plan to self-publish, be sure to set the “Page Layout” of your book’s word-processing file to the dimensions you prefer for the actual book. (For me, that’s apt to be 6x8 or 6x9.)

If you plan to submit your poetry manuscript to a poetry book publisher, you can go with the above or stay with a regular typing paper size (8.5x11) before applying pagination. Either way, you need to include the Table of Contents once your book is done.

Indexing comes after the manuscript’s completion too, but a traditional or indie book publisher will make that decision based on the company’s preference.

For self-published works, you can add an index in the back matter of the book if you have several themes. If so, type each key word or phrase as a heading such as “Faith” or “Grief” or “Joy.” Then alphabetize the poems by titles arranged under the most relevant theme or topic. Or, if you don’t want to bother with an Index, you could divide the poems into key themes, group them together in a separate section for each topic, and include that information in the Table of Contents, which is what Cladach Publishing did for my book of poems and contemporary psalms before publishing PRAISE!

Either way, this information helps your readers quickly find the poems they especially want to read again. More important, the list of titles in your Table of Contents will either entice readers or discourage them from buying your book.

For tips on titles, these previous posts may help:

Monday, January 28, 2019

Joy: 100 poems

If you’re looking for sweet little verses or helium-filled poems, this may not be the book for you. But, if you’d like a collection of literary poems expressing an important life-lifting theme, you’ll be delighted to discover the works of some of the most highly acclaimed poets of the last hundred years or so, including many, many of my favorites.

Edited by award-winning poet Christian Wiman and published by Yale University Press, who kindly sent me a copy to review, Joy: 100 poems is a slender anthology of poetry written, as Emily Dickinson might say, “slant.” Instead of trying to capture the ever-elusive joy straight on, the book presents a collage of joy, eclectically illustrated by snow, sex, nature, children, bodily functions, music, religion, and ways of writing poetry. 

As the poetic introduction “Still Wilderness” declares, “…this entire book is aimed against whatever glitch in us or whim of God has made our most transcendent moments resistant to description.” That particular page also uses these lines by Lisel Mueller to describe joy that’s indescribable:

“It has nothing to do with the passing of time.
It’s not about loss. It’s about
two seemingly parallel lines
suddenly coming together
inside us, in some place
that is still wilderness”

With that last apt phrase as the introduction’s title, Editor Wiman goes on to say:

“Joy is what keeps reality real, since in this world of multiverses and quantum weirdness, where ninety-five percent of matter and energy we know only to name as ‘dark,’ it is obvious that reality extends far beyond what our senses can perceive. So what in the world, or what beyond the world, is calling to us when we are called to joy?”

This is not, as Wiman points out, to be confused with happiness, which is “a disposition or evaluation: we are happy when we experience pleasure, when things go our way, and so on. Joy, by contrast, is an emotion: there is always an element of having been seized,often in, “some loss of self.”

In one poetic example, Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai contrasts the descriptions of pain with the imprecision of joy as these lines, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfield, show:

“The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain –
I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness
and blurry joy. I learn to speak among the pains.”

At other times, poets speak of unexpected moments of delight, such as happened when Elizabeth Bishop memorialized “The Moose,” who wandered into the middle of the road:

“Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?”

Or, as Derek Walcott explained in “The Elegist”:

“Happiness is for the Declaration of Independence, a political
condition, and also for the ending of movies. Joy, by contrast,
is an illumination, as in Blake and Wordsworth and Rilke,
a benediction, a visitation. In the twentieth century, it required
nothing less than a belief in angels.”

Spanish poet Pablo Medina translated his “A Poem For The Epiphany” into English in these closing lines:

“It snows because light and dark
are making love in a field where old age
has no meaning, where colors blur,
silence covers sound, sleep covers sorrow,
everything is death, everything is joy.”

And, in The Luminous Web, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes:

“There is a living hum that might be coming from my neurons
but might just as well be coming from the furnace of the stars.
When I look up at them there is a small commotion in my bones,
as the ashes of dead stars that house my marrow rise up like metal
filings toward the magnet of their living kin.”

Throughout this collection of poems by poets, whose individual works also happen to fill five bookshelves in my home, the surprises of life and death merge into a single theme, which, after reading this highly recommended anthology, I, too, cannot help but address:


On the road
from Arimathea
to Jerusalem,
Jesus and I
turned cartwheels,
not minding the muck
on our hands or
the pebbles pressing
into our palms.
We felt unfettered,
no one could ever
kill Us again.

by Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2019, all rights reserved.

Joy: 100 poems, hardback, edited by Christian Wiman and published by Yale University Press

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The WrEN Award for Poetry

When Dana Cassell, founder of the Writers-Editors Network, decided to sponsor a poetry award and long-time WEN member and poet Mary Sayler agreed to judge the entries during National Poetry Month each April, they began looking for a theme. Almost immediately, a tiny, melodious wren flew by, swooping up the WEN initials, and WrEN soared into being!

Unlike other awards that prize a single poem, The WrEN Award for Poetry aims to honor poets, who consistently produce well-written, compelling poems. Therefore, each entry consists of a batch of 3 to 5 single-spaced pages of unpublished poetry submitted as one of these three categories: Traditional Forms, Free Verse, and Poetry for Children.

Each poet whose work places highest in a category will receive $25 and one-on-one feedback from the poetry judge, who, besides being a well-published poet, has worked with other poets for many years. Then, regardless of the category, the poet whose overall work soars above the rest will receive $200 and a one-year membership in the Writers-Editors Network - a professional organization that’s helped editors and writers in all genres for decades.

Multiple entries are encouraged, but more important, you’re encouraged to be like a wren and express “...a big voice in a small frame.”  So, let’s hear your poetic voice! 

To enter a batch of poems in its appropriate category, visit the WrEN Award for Poetry page on the Writers-Editors Network website. 

For WrEN updates, “Like” and Follow The WrEN Award for Poetry page on Facebook. 


Monday, December 24, 2018

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Soul in Paraphrase

Edited by Leland Ryken and published by Crossway, who kindly sent me a tastefully designed hardback copy to review, The Soul in Paraphrase offers exactly what the subtitle says: “A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems.” This anthology of works by Christian poets “begins with the oldest surviving poem in the English language and ends with the modern era.”

From Caedmon to T.S. Eliott and Robert Frost with the famous “Anonymous” in between, Leland Ryken not only selected some of the most treasured poems in English from a Christian perspective, but he included his “Notes on selected words” and insightful mystery-solving “Commentary” on each poem.

These features mean even more, coming as they do from a college English professor of almost 50 years and author of over 50 books on literature and/or God’s Word. Over the years, many of those books helped me to develop as a poet, critiquer of poems, and person of faith, so, as you can imagine, I received this review copy with Christmas glee!

To give you an idea of the delight awaiting the serious poet or poetry lover, take a look at the opening verse of “Caedmon’s Hymn” – the oldest poem known to be written in English.

“Now we must praise the Keeper of Heaven’s Kingdom,
The might of the Maker and his wisdom,
The work of the Glory-Father, when he of every wonder,
The eternal Lord, the beginning established.”

After Professor Ryken updated the original poem into the contemporary English version shown, his “Notes on selected words” tell us interesting aspects of the key words or phrases that might otherwise be foreign to our ears. For example:

“Wisdom: ‘mind-plans’ in the original Old English, with the implication of thoughtful purpose and careful planning.”

The “Commentary” then gives us a peek behind the poem by telling us the story of an illiterate farmhand, who regularly wiggled out of his turn to sing as part of the nightly after-dinner routine at the abbey where he lived.

“On one of these occasions, Caedmon went to the barn and fell asleep. In a dream, he heard someone telling him to sing something. Caedmon replied that he did not know how to sing. ‘Sing about creation,’ the visitor replied. Thereupon Caedmon sang the song known as ‘Caedmon’s Hymn.’ The new poetic gift never left Caedmon. English poetry thus began with a miracle of the word.”

Professor Ryken then goes on to analyze the whole poem, saying:

“The poem does three things that praise psalms typically do: (1) It begins with a formal call to praise God (the first stanza); (2) it provides a list or catalog of God’s praiseworthy acts; and (3) it rounds off the praise with a note of closure in the last line. This simplicity is played off against two pleasing forms of stylistic formality and artistry,” as found in the poet’s use of “phrases and clauses that name the same phenomena with different words, a technique influenced by the biblical verse form of parallelism. Second, our spirit is elevated by exalted titles for God, a technique known as epithets. For example, the first epithet in the poem is the Keeper of Heaven’s Kingdom.”

Throughout this book, Professor Ryken introduces readers to the works of the most skilled Christian poets, who would probably be appalled by the “greeting card verse” too common in “Christian verse” today. Indeed, the “Editor’s Introduction” defines some desirable qualities for devotional poets to consider. This not only includes spiritually-minded content but the poem’s effect on the reader – something I urge Christian poets to think about before publishing poems that go on and on, generally to show off a clever clanging of rhyme without saying anything new. Or, worse, expressing gall over Christianity or “religion” in general with no hope in sight and no concern over the effect this might have by leaving Christians who are struggling with their faith stuck in the mire!

As I read through the poems selected for this collection, I found favorites whose work I, too, highly recommend. Inevitably, their poems give us thoughtful, insightful, well-written works that point to God rather than the poet’s cleverness. I noticed a timely but timeless embrace of nature and the environment, too, as well as skillful ways to praise.

Although the “Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliott remains one of my favorite poems ever (and, yes, is included in this book), readers today often exclaim over the work of Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose brilliant and beautiful poetry can be elusive to some and downright deafening to others! What a joy, then, to read Professor’s Ryken’s notes and comments that give us access to poems which may be familiar to us and even loved, yet still perplexing.

And, so, Dr. Ryken has succeeded in presenting us with a book that provides a sweeping view of the best of the best while naming and explaining numerous techniques these classical poets used – techniques that, over many centuries, have become time-proven methods for elevating the literary quality of poetry of faith.

Mary Harwell Sayler,
©2018, poet-writer and poetry reviewer

The Soul in Paraphrase, hardback, Crossway