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

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