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

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Shadow Light by Denise Low

Poet and poetry instructor Denise Low has pared words down to their essence in Shadow Light, an award-winning collection from Red Mountain Press, which she kindly sent me to review.

These highly compressed poems begin with “Eyes,” whose lines baffled me at first reading and demanded a closer look. Having experienced blue circles around lights before cataract surgery, my eyes soon focused on:

“A fourth circle of Paradise - ultra-violets
- opens to hummingbirds - cataract patients.”

[Note: On the actual pages, no dashes occur in the typesetting but spaces, which my blog program removes with confusion ensuing, thus my insertion of the occasional dash.]

Even poems which seem clear at first reading require another look to see the deeper subject at play. For instance, in the playful but thought-provoking poem “Ceilings:”

“I look up just as the Louvre’s ceiling Icarus
falls from his father’s arms forward
painted wings behind him.
He plummets into
my gravity-squared
marble floor tile.”

The same poem also gives us a glimpse of the poet's skill in handling metaphor and descriptive detail, for example:

“Chandeliers dangling are cocktail glasses brimming effervescence.”

In the title poem, “Shadow Light,” we see how a “Birch forest shapes ragged darkness.” Then:

“Past shadows, where light glimmers
its celestial yellow, chiaroscuro,
my dead sister appears, back lit….”

When the following words appear, however, we can’t be sure if the living poet or deceased relative says:

“Don’t you know you are in Heaven?”

Perhaps, both give voice to those words.

An intriguing voice of Native America especially appeals to me. For example, in “Naming Willis Bird,” poetic lines call on each aspect of the Winds:

“Winds of the South: Here is Bird. Treat him well.
Winds of the South: You are good for my aching bones.”


“West Winds: This is the direction of sunset and darkness.
You balance the sunrise. I know you as the place of dreams.”

In “Chicory Afternoon,” the poet speaks of a porcupine as “a nimble fat man’s shadow,” and in “Where the Dead Go:”

“Snow petals ghost
the northern wind.”

The last poem, “Stomp Dance, Wyandotte County,” invites or returns us to ancestral abodes where:

“The lead man lifts his black hat and calls from the center.

I wait for the tail-end of the man-woman procession. Lead women
are shell shakers. Double-time steps rustle turtle-shell rattled tied to

Men sing and sing loud. Women step-step hard. The inner circle
might turn sideways to the fire.

My grandfather and grandmother lived on Lenape land near this
spot. Their footprints remain in the ground.”

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

Shadow Light, paperback

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Happy Birthday Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman would be 199 today if he were alive, yet he's still going strong. Considered to be one of the all-time “greats” in American poetry, Walt self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855 with only a dozen poems! Over the years, however, he added to the collection, continuing also to publish each edition of the book himself.

Those poems and others have been republished along with his prose in the book shown below, providing a comprehensive look at his work, which has subsequently been published by numerous presses over the years, no doubt contributing to the belief that poets become more famous after their deaths! The question, though, is why. Why do people - including those who seldom read poetry - keep on buying and reading Walt’s books?

From the start, the poet's perennially favored poems drew readers because of their generosity of line and spirit.

In a time when most poets still wrote in traditional metered forms and perhaps even tried to outdo each other with wit and word plays, Walt’s loosened lines sprawled across the page in a new formless form, akin to conversation.

More important, the contents included, acknowledged, and empathized with almost everyone, leaving readers with the assurance of being seen.

This generosity of spirit and inclusiveness speaks to us especially in a time when mean-spiritedness, prejudice, and social exclusiveness seem to prevail.

As poets and people, we have much to learn from Walt. For those of us who are uptight or write tight, his poetry can show us how to loosen up!

In the following, however, I wrote a prose poem aka concise paragraph poem after seeing a man who reminded me of photos of Walt.

Leaving Walt at the Mall

Coming out of Dunkin’ Donut, I walked right by
Walt Whitman without even speaking. You know
how he likes to include everyone in a conversation
and so can go on a bit, but I just wanted to get
home before my caffeine let down. Later I felt
bad about giving him nothing more than a nod,
especially since I’m sure his driver’s license
expired long ago. He’s been gone for over 100
years now and was almost that old when he died,
so I could have at least offered him a ride some-
where, but he might not have liked being confined
to this little boxcar of a poem.

by Mary Harwell Sayler

Whitman: poetry and prose, hardback

Friday, March 16, 2018

7 Steps to Becoming an Awesome Poet

Serious poets want to improve their level of writing, but how do you go about that? These steps will help:

Read a lot of poetry. Focus on the works of classical and contemporary poets, especially Pulitzer or Nobel prize-winning collections.

Study poetry forms and techniques. Poetry dictionaries, how-to articles, and my e-book on poetry writing will help you to expand your “tool box.” The more you know about poetry, the more you have to draw on as you write and revise your poems.

Revise. Let your own poems sit until you’ve forgotten what they say. Then read aloud and correct anything that seems off. Cut unnecessary words to compress the language and tighten the beat. If something has been said in the same way, change it up. Give it time. Make it new.

Use your good senses. Rather than relying on imagination to freshen up a poem, use your senses to note what you see, sense, smell, taste, feel, touch, and remember. Be specific. Notice details. Compare this to that in an unusual way.

Identify your strong suit. Then do something different! If imagery fills your poems, fine tune your poetic ear toward musicality. (You’ll hear this best by reading each poem and revision aloud.) If you’re inclined to write rhythmic poems with end-line rhymes, break into free verse - and vice versa. If your poems take up a full page, practice writing haiku. Long poems often have more than one focal point, which means you might have two or more poems in one.

Study poetry journals and anthologies to increase your publishing options. Look on the Internet for samples of poetry journals to discover ones you relate to and enjoy. If you like their work, they’ll be more apt to like yours. Study individual websites to become familiar with the favorite themes, style, tone, length, poetic forms, and other preferences of the publications you favor.

Get professional feedback from a poet and/or poetry instructor. That would be me! Start by selecting up to 5 pages of poems that best show your writing style and interests. Then send $25 by Paypal and email a Word or .doc file attachment of your poems to marysayler(at)bellsouth(dot)net. After we’ve discussed your poems and I’ve sent feedback, keep my suggestions in mind as you re-read and revise, not only this batch of poems, but also others you have written.

For a poetry book or chapbook you intend to self-publish, visit the Contacts & Critiques page of my website for fees and mailing information.

Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2018, poet-writer

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Enter your poems before midnight

This year marks the 35th writing competition sponsored by the Writers-Editors Network - a professional organization with tips, perks, and job posts for writers in all genres.

For about half of those years, I’ve been judging the poetry entries of this “blind” contest, which means I have no idea who won what until winners have been determined. If, however, I see any poems I’ve previously critiqued, they’re automatically disqualified. (The same goes for judges of other categories, which assures you of no favoritism!)

Well-written poems have a good chance of placing, especially if they employ brevity, fresh imagery, unusual comparisons, musicality, and/or something that’s never been said in quite the same way until now.

However, every poet and writer who visits the annual “winner’s list” will “win” helpful insights by seeing, not just who or what won, but why! The more we discover what works in poems and writings by other poets and writers, the more effective our own work becomes.

Mary Harwell Sayler
, ©2018, poet-writer

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Painting poems with light and shadow

Where would a painting be without light, shadow, color? An artist must study, practice, and experiment to develop a unique and effective use of those elements of art.

Not surprisingly, a unique, effectively written poem requires something similar. The words of an overly introspective poet, for example, might come across as dark enough to lead readers down a black hole. A socially-sensitive poet aggravated by political debates or moral dilemmas might come across as too heavy-handed for readers to escape the wrath.

Let there be light!

Levity in poetry appeals to most readers, but with or without humor, a light touch often engages people more than a lengthy monologue.

Let there be shadow.

Glare brings discomfort, and too much light can blind. Various degrees of shading will tone down the light whether in a personal confession or a realistic suggestion of the dark surrounding us. Such tones of “we’re all in this together” will enable readers to relate and integrate the poem into their lives.

Let there be color.

A fresh image or exquisite use of language adds color to a poem - something readers can sense and see. Similes comparing this to that or metaphors saying “this IS that” help readers to experience what we’re trying to convey.

Let there be brevity.

As the old adage says, a picture is worth a thousand words, so the more you focus on helping your readers picture your poem, the less words you’ll need. Poems with active verbs and easy-to-picture nouns need fewer words too.

Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2018, poet-writer and poetry judge for the annual writing contest sponsored by