Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Little Book On Form by Robert Hass


A Little Book on Form: An Exploration Into The Formal Imagination Of Poetry, which HarperCollins kindly sent me to review, is the culmination of years of studying, teaching, and writing poetry done by Robert Hass. Besides being a former U.S. Poet Laureate, he’s also won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer for poetry.

That information alone lets us know we can surely learn something about poetry from this book, and, since it’s still National Poetry Month, it’s an ideal time to begin.

Although my bookshelves testify to scores of well-written books about poetry from accomplished poets, this book differs in that it doesn’t just discuss the exterior architecture of poems but what forms the form – as in, what causes its formation, resulting in form?

In the opening chapter, for instance, Hass calls attention to the one-line poem, rarely found in English, but common in the “…haiku, a one-line form with a three-part prosodic structure, (which) usually consists of two images. And so you’ll notice that inside what is apparently a single line, there is a play of one, two, or three elements, balanced or unbalanced in various ways that are expressive in relation to what the poem is saying.”

The poet then gives ten examples in English translations of Basho, such as “First snow falling on a half-finished bridge,” which presents the first picture in the early snow and the second in an incompleted bridge. See! We haven’t even gotten beyond the first chapter, and I’ve already learned something!

I’d never given thought to the two images occurring in haiku, but if you’re writing haiku, as I often do, that’s very good to know! Looking over haiku I’ve written, I see each has two images, but now that I know to look for this when I revise, I can.

What we write instinctively without knowing becomes more useful when we do know. With the knowledge of a technique or the words to describe it, we’re more aware and then equipped to incorporate the information into our work – not during the writing process so much as when we revise.

Take the number “three” again, for example. In chapter three, Hass says:

“Two often regarded as an aspect of one, so that with three number as such, the many, begins. And is infinite. Oddness. Not divisible. So that – trinity, for example – mystery begins here.”

During the years in which this book came together, the poet often jotted notes to himself in quick phrases, many of which he scattered throughout these pages. This unique aspect of the book lets us in on his actual thoughts in real time as though we’re passionately engaged in the discussion.

Similarly, Haas’ explanations of forms include more than the “what” but also the “why” or “how.” In a discussion of “Three-Line Stanzas,” for example, the poet says this about the uncommonly used three-line verse, the triplet:

“There is something of imbalance and excess in threes. Especially where rhyme is concerned. About two-based forms something hovers of natural complementarities: binary systems, the bi-lateral symmetries in nature, male and female, lover and beloved. Hence the closing down of two-based rhyme. It seems to secure a completion and emphasizes at once the orderliness of rhyme....”

A passage in a much later chapter “How To Scan A Poem” picks up that thread of orderliness and emphasis in these words:

“Often you will hear what feel like strong irregular emphases in metrical poems. The irregularities are strong, because once a pattern is established, you notice departures from the pattern. So, of course, poets learned that one of the best ways to get emphasis is to establish a meter and then vary it.

But, how can poets establish a meter unless they know what meter is, why it works as it does, and what it can accomplish?

How can poets emphasize anything in their poems if all parts have the same treatment or monotonous tone?

And, how can poets establish a meter unless they know what meter is, why it works as it does, and what it can accomplish? You can play it by ear and rely on a sense of musicality – as long as nothing goes wrong! If it does, it’s difficult to shape up something nameless.

This book names names. It talks about sonnets and sestinas, genre and georgics, organic form and prose poems. Much more than what might be found in a poetry dictionary, however, this highly recommended book invites us to accompany the poet on “An Exploration Into The Formal Imagination Of Poetry.”

If you care to join Robert Hass and me in this adventure, you’ll find entry through the clickable Amazon ad below.

Mary Harwell Sayler, © 2017, poet-writer reviewer


A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry, hardback




Monday, April 17, 2017

Rest in the Moment

The drama of Lent and Passion of Christ propel us to rise with the Lord on Easter Sunday, but then what? Can that heightened awareness of our Lord and Savior continue throughout the year, and, if so, how?

In Rest in the Moment, poet-writer Christine Sine, who kindly sent me a copy of her book to review, responds to our need for closeness in her “Reflections for Godly Pauses.”

As explained in the Introduction, we have two types of silence: quies, which comes from an absense of noise, and silentium, “an internal, intentional posture of complete attentiveness toward God. It is a silence of making space for, taking time for and paying loving attention to the One we proclaim to be our God and Lord…. It means establishing a quiet inner attitude in which we set aside the distractions of our minds and hearts, draw from the stillness that is within us and commune with God in a very special way.”

After explaining this insightful way to be close to the Lord, the book further provides the means: first, in a meditative poem followed by a brief devotional and relevant scripture, then spaces to respond before closing in prayer.

The twelve meditations in this book get off to a blessed start with the title poem, “Rest in the Moment,” which begins with these lines:

“Rest in this moment of God’s creating.
Savor its beauty.
Inhale its fragrance.
Listen to its music.
Sit in awe of our God-infused world.
Rest in this moment of God’s unfolding….


As the author says in the devotional lines that follow, “This is an elusive rest. It means letting to of control over our schedules and our relationships. Sometimes it means letting go of things that we love to do or people we care about to create time to notice and appreciate the presence of God.”

The Apostle Paul talks about this rest in Philippians 4:11-13, where he says, he’s “learned to be content with whatever I have.”

The pages then turn to our response as we’re asked to consider “What distracts your attention from being fully attentive to God?” For each of us, the answers will differ, of course, and yet each of us can give our “Amen” to the closing prayer, which asks God to “Guide us to rest in each moment and enjoy the revelation of Your love it reveals.”

So? you might ask. What does this have to do with poetry or poetry writing? Perhaps nothing to the secular poet who’s waiting for the Muse to strike, but to me – everything!

If you want your poetry to be insightful, powerful, blessed, and a blessing to your readers, re-read the above discussion, rest well in the Lord, then let your poems flow with new depths and passion.

Mary Harwell Sayler, © 2017, poet-writer, reviewer


Rest in the Moment, paperback






Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Small Presses | Poets & Writers

Small Presses | Poets & Writers:

Poets & Writers website lists publishers interested in a variety of topics and types of poetry. When you find publishers whose work you like, you're more apt to have found ones who will like your work too.

In addition to these hotlinks, the site provides contact information and a brief bio of each publication to help you to get a better feel for where your batch of poetry (usually 3 to 5 poems per submission) might fit.



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Monday, March 6, 2017

Communion of Saints: poems by Susan L. Miller


In Communion of Saints by Susan L. Miller, present-day people reflect saintly individuals of the past in a collection of poetic portraits grouped into four sections: Faith, Hope, Love, and Pax Et Bonum, before concluding with an epilogue and “Notes on the poems,” which readers might want to refer to from the start.

Published by Paraclete Press, who kindly sent me a complimentary copy to review, the book begins with a Foreword by award-winning poet Mark Doty, who says:

“I imagine it’s no accident that this surprising and moving book begins with a ‘manual for would-be saints’ and ends with a ruined, heartbroken wolf learning to be loved. To become a saint, the lesson might be, it is necessary to enter completely into one’s abjection, and then to give oneself over completely to what might provide for your hunger.”

As the opening poem, “Manual for the Would-Be Saint” begins with these lines:

“The first principle: Do no harm.
The second: The air calls us home.
Third, we must fill the bowls of others
before we drain our own wells dry.”


With nineteen principles in the poem to mull over, I found these two my favorites:

“The thirteenth, we practice forgiving Judas.
The fourteenth, we love Judas as ourselves.”


Being unfamiliar with some of the saints highlighted in these poems, I didn’t connect as well as I did with those whose stories I knew or whose work I’d read. Therefore, “Self-Portrait as St. John of the Cross,” spoke to me immediately then intensified with these closing lines:

“I know that even Christ

doubted his Father
for a moment, in his suffering, and cried out My God
why hast thou forsaken me? without

feeling your hand in his chest, that hand
that wraps itself around the human heart and presses gently
two times every second.”


In addition to those perceptive moments, the poet gives us fresh phrases as shown, for instance, in “Portrait of Father Santo as St. Anthony of Padua,” where the relics of St. Anthony’s bones:

“reminded me
that all we are, after we are, becomes
small and brown, as if time dyes our bodies
with tea and smoke.”


Considering the Master of fresh phrases, Miller writes of a potential moment when “Gerard Manley Hopkins Looks at a Cloud.”

“On his back, under a sea of stirring wisps,
Hopkins tries to find words for the cirrus,
the cumulus, the nimbostratus, the drifting crowd
of clouds like steam opening the sky.”


And then, going deeper into the imagined scene, the poet writes:

“He thinks of his heaviness,
his own bones a weight he must strive to stir.
He thinks of the clouds’ massive heft like the flesh
of the sky, a musculature sure and simple,
striated, spare, and strange: he is liftened then too,
all sinew and soul thrilled in the high reaches
of Christ’s clutches, to whom all things
are light, and lifted, and lifting.”


Since I quoted Mark Doty’s mention of “The Wolf of Gubbio,” which ends the book, I want you to:

“Imagine yourself an old wolf: lean
and ragged, belly shrunken beneath a ribcage
as bowed as a galleon’s undercarriage” –


a wolf whose hunger terrifies “each living thing you encounter,” but who responds to kindness, affection, and food until:

“No longer ravenous, you slowly eat your fill,
then lie on your side as children rub your fur,
making their high-pitched sounds.

For the rest of your life, you never
hunger, fed at any door you pass through,
beloved and belonging. Would you
call it a miracle if you knew
that wherever you went,
someone provided for you?”



Poetry book review by Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2017, poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem, Outside Eden, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, Faces in a Crowd, and from Cladach Publishing the forth-coming book PRAISE!


Communion of Saints, paperback




Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Poems of PRAISE!


The Psalms provide wonderful examples of ways to praise, pray, thank God – and also complain and lament! A study of those timeless poems shows almost all of the lamentations in Psalms as beginning with a concern but ending with praise or thanksgiving. That uplift at the end exemplifies a strong faith in God, despite hard or scary circumstances, and also shows how the poured-out-heart of a poet must remain completely honest and wholly vulnerable.

Unlike the “made poem” of the sonnet and other traditional verse, this type of poetry writing relies on prayer and spontaneity. For example, a startling phrase or insight may suddenly come to mind and need to be written down in a spirit of obedience, rather than the usual intent on creativity. Once those words have been recorded on paper or computer, the rest of the poem will often follow freely.

You might call such poems short meditations, but as a lifelong lover of the Bible, I consider these types of poems as contemporary psalms and prayer-poems. At least, that’s how I would describe the poetry in my book PRAISE! which Cladach Publishing plans to release on March 30, 2017.

To give you an example, the word ruah appears hundreds of times in the Bible and, depending on its context, means wind, an animating force, or the Holy Spirit. That thought brought to mind God’s Breath, which soon brought forth other thoughts in this poem:

Praise God the Breath of Life –

Who breathed me awake
at birth,

Who breathes on me now
in my sleep,

Who keeps my lungs filled
with Holy Spirit Ruah,

and takes my breath away.


by Mary Harwell Sayler, from PRAISE!

For about a year, the opening lines or thoughts for praise poems came to me with the rest of the lines usually following fairly quickly. I posted most of those on the Praise Poems blog, which eventually led to their collection in the forthcoming print book PRAISE!

Like the biblical psalms, these poems came without titles. Rather than labeling them numerically, as editors did in later years for the Psalms, I saw the first line as the poem’s title.

Since I’m writing this the day before Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent – I’ll give you an example of the title as first line in this time-appropriate poem.

The day holds its people

to star words and crystal
globes, to apron strings
and past experiences,
to present predicaments
and verdicts of guilt.

Who so bound
can stand?

Oh, praise! Oh,
praise the Son
of Man!

Praise Christ,
Who bound
to the cross
for our sins,
willingly died.

Praise our Lord
Who cuts us free
with the sword
thrust into His side.


by Mary Harwell Sayler, © 2017, and included in PRAISE! – the book of contemporary psalms and prayer-poems to be published March 30, 2017 by Cladach Publishing, but available now for orders at a pre-publication price


PRAISE! paperback




Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Stained Glass: poems by Joanna Kurowska


Having previously reviewed Inclusions by Joanna Kurowska, I looked forward to her most recent book of poems, Stained Glass, which the poet kindly sent for my review.

Published by eLectio Publishing, this slender volume immediately spoke to me in the title poem “Stained glass,” which begins:

“I don’t know whose garden this is

the wind-whisper gently blowing,
an ocean under the leaf’s surface,
universes crossing in a spider”


Those lovely lines express the uncertainty many of us feel when we’ve gone from a home in one place to another far away. Although the poet crossed the Atlantic in relocating from Poland to the United States, the sense of mystery and fragmentation can occur even as we change regions, making

“pieces of stained glass I must
arrange, knowing they are necessary.


In such times, we may wonder, where are we? Where do we fit? Who are we? And where is God in all this?

In the second poem, the “I” of the poem states: “For a moment I turned into a plant.” But that transplantation gets re-routed then re-rooted in the poem’s closing lines:

“My entire body being made of light,
nothing separates me from the heart of a tree
or from other hearts in the palm of man’s hand.”


Reconnecting with oneself and each tense of life has to begin somewhere – past, present, or future. Interestingly, the poet began the first of four sections in the book with “The Cemetery,” which “was dying” before taking us on a tour of her native land with the colorful memories of a child.

In “Transgressions,” for example, we learn:

“The nineteen-fifties
had the blue color of the smoke
from the cigarettes of Grandpa Witold,
may he rest in peace.”


And in “The Lesson,” we discover:

“The nineteen-sixties were yellow or red,
full of exalted anthems to the fatherland
and military songs about the People’s Poland.”


“Expulsion” tells us:

“The nineteen-seventies were brown
like the background in a still-life.
In place of flowers or apples
gray eyes shone.”

We feel the loss – of place and “Youth” – before turning to section two “Time of Grace,” which seems to be a time of change and struggle.

As Mount Tabor is the likely site of Jesus’ transfiguration, the poem “Mount Tabor” has its own transformations to consider:

“Lord, put out the fire, let me step down from Tabor
onto solid ground, to tamed realities
Let me recoup the shapes in the names of things
I must know, can I still see or have lost my sight?”


In the third section of the book, “File #3” begins with “the Berlin boys” as the poetic voice asks:

“What are the Berlin boys doing now?
The one who used to walk with a dog
alongside the train corridors?
the one, who held my passport….
…the one who aimed his
machine gun at me from up high?”

Other troubling questions with no answers occur in “Christmas now,” which begins:

“What if he were born today
and the hotels ran out of rooms?”


then goes on to ask if the twelve-year-old Jesus would need to set up profiles on Twitter and Facebook, or, as an adult…

“Could he stay unemployed, spend the night
by the lake, make campfires, heal without
a license, transform himself with impunity
in the company of persons decreed dead?

The last section “Nothing” sees “no way out,” yet looks to death as “opening to freedom” and life as “an unfolding flower.” Either way, there’s no containment, no strict answers in a box clicked shut, but pieces of life and memories remain as does “The Presence” where “God is next to you” – in your kitchen or Auschwitz.

Despite the sharp edges of reality, these fragments come together and find a unique yet familiar pattern, ready to go on.

Review by Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2017

Stained Glass, paperback



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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Literary Magazines and Journals Database| Poets & Writers

Literary Magazines and Journals Database| Poets & Writers:

Poets and writers, place your work in a literary magazine, journal, or e-zine before you even think about self-publishing.

Having editors accept your work will develop your confidence. And, if they decline it, well, that's informative too, especially if you put your poem or manuscript in context with those published in that particular publication.

Once you have built some publishing credits, consider gathering poems for a chapbook, based on a single theme. If none exists, you might wait until you have enough poems for a book of, say, 45 to 75 pages.

Either way, be sure to acknowledge the title, periodical, and date of publication on an Acknowledgment Page. Then study, study the guidelines most publishers provide on their websites to see where your work best fits.

A little revision, a little research of potential markets can go a long way in helping you reach your publishing goals.

Mary Harwell Sayler, (c) 2017

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