Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Gathering poems for a collection

Poets often produce a collection of their works later in life, so when some of my poetry went out of print, I decided to do the same.

Selecting then arranging poems can be a challenge, but establishing guidelines for those choices will help. For example:

  • Look for poems in various forms, tones,patterns, and style to keep the collection interesting. 
  • Choose subject matter that matters to readers, so they will relate and connect. 
  • If the poems come from several poetry books or chapbooks, their book titles can be used to divide the collection followed by poems from each previously published manuscript.
  • Sections can also be divided by topical interest. For instance, A Gathering of Poems separated poems by the books in which they originally appeared then ended with “New Poems.” However, categories such as “nature poems,” “people poems,” or “poems of faith” could have worked too.

To show you what I mean by the above suggestions, I’ll identify the section and type of form used for the poem that follows. My hope is to help your work and, yes, introduce you to A Gathering of Poems.

[This free verse poem begins the book and the first section which comes from my first poetry book, Living in the Nature Poem – no longer in print as, sadly, the publisher closed up shop.]

Sleeping with the Universe

Beyond the action of creation
lies a great repose. You can
see this in a wildflower – the
closing of petals in tight lashes
against a lidded night – or in the
breaths between a burst of bird-
song: this lull unknown to highly
cultivated peoples, places, plants.
You can see it today in the falling
away, overnight, of leaves from
the live oak, exposing an amazing
maze of boles, terminal buds, and
holes for nesting in the dark. You
can see this in the gardenia – its
leaves cold-snapped into crackling
paper curled to protect the tender
growth – or in the dust flecks
resting on the pocked marble-top
table or in the hush of the porch
rocker or in the sag of a telephone
wire or in the pulsating of a star.
All attest to this universal need
known to artists, children, poets,
who, poised in mystery, must
watch and wait and wonder.

[Also from Living in the Nature Poem, this traditional poem – based on a personal experience – has four verses of four-beat quartrains – I.e. four lines per verse.]

Down Kinney Town

Feet bare, the girls came up today,
and Mama gave them ouch grown shoes
that once belonged to me or Kay,
but, oh, I longed to give them too.

Two girls they were: soiled blonde, unkempt –
not like Mama's girls who shone
in new sewn clothes and often dreamt
of finer galaxies than home.

With clean hands bare, could I, a child,
share much with girls from a small shack, wild?
But one said, "Come," so I went down –
down the tangled path to Kinney Town.

Theirs was adventure I could play.
A cold potato rationed me –
eyeless, grown in soil, unbent. They
gave that last leftover. Free.

I took.
Then home I went with backward look.

[Again from Living in the Nature Poem, this piece was my first published prose poem aka paragraph poem.]

Hapless Holiday

I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if I
can shut the door you bolted on the other side.
Keeping out weather is one thing, raccoons
another, although I know there's nothing below
the kitchen sink they might find appealing –
blackened banana peels, coffee grounds, and
those eggshells I keep on breaking as I walk.

[This last example from Living in the Nature Poem presents a haiku with a traditional pattern of 5/7/5 syllables per line. More important is a light touch and reference to a season of the year.]

With Coffee at a Sidewalk Cafe

Almond slivers, pear
slices with a bit of Brie –
Spring! Taste buds blossom.

[The second section of A Gathering of Poems comes from my second book of poems, Outside Eden, which begins with the title poem that gave the book its name.]

Outside Eden

Away from the flaming torches,
everything grows dark.

Does God                     never
want me near?           

I turn back to look,
but angels loom,
and sparks drip from wings
as though they’re bleeding.

I hear a lion roar.

Is this called fear?

I do not know what I can eat now –
every berried bite a potential toxin,
waiting to take hold.

I don’t know where or when to sleep,
but I drop down, exhausted,
hoping the serpent
won’t coil around my ear.

[Gathering poems from my next book, Faces in a Crowd, brought this free verse to mind as an example of an impressionistic free verse involving readers and relying on brevity.]

You’re starting to catch on,
starting to regain your balance,
starting to gain some insight
into what you see, when
you awaken,
and it all begins.

[Poems from Lost in Faith include this traditional sonnet with 14 lines, end-line rhymes, word plays, and a shift in focus or resolution at the end.]

Attention To Detail: Sonnet on Straightening My
Son's Room When He'd Grown Up and Away

Fallen into dust, the plastic people lost few parts
throughout his years of play. I'm proud of my son's
command over this company of miniature warriors:
a helicopter pilot, a Navy Seal, and tiny soldiers
sealed in skins akin to a small green grenade.
But now, a hundred scattered pieces have made
this battle dangerous to endure – cannons
to the right of me, torpedoes to the left, guns,
bombs, and the wing of a shot-down plane. I watch
to see if anything will move again.  A shadow
flares on the floor as I troop to retrieve each
camouflaged piece ready to be dismissed now.
Part of me resists this final mission: To release
these fatigues of childhood, honorably, at ease.

[Also from Lost in Faith is the turning of a Bible parable into poem.]

Going Mile Two
Matthew 5:40-42

And Jesus said:
If anyone wants to sue

your socks off and take away your tunic too, then hand over
your coat, your cloak, your robe, your cape, your fake fur,
and definitely that denim jacket with tarnished silver studs.
Who knows? Eventually they might realize they did not get
your angora collar.

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two

and while you’re walking together on The Way, give them
whatever else they ask, and don’t turn away from the one
who wants to borrow, borrow from you. Who knows which
tomorrow will bring a cloak of sorrow or remind you of your
own dire neediness?

[The final section of A Gathering of Poems brings new poems, including this piece that arose after revisiting the Bible story of the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus. That not only encouraged me to internalize scripture as though I were there, the resulting poem symbolizes the road through Lent, leading to the joy of Easter.]


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.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Poetry of Biblical Prophets

[Note: This post originally appeared on Interlitq as Poets Who Make Us Better: the Prophets.]

Unlike the psalmists, many biblical prophets got booked under their own names. From Isaiah through Malachi, these servants of God were often misunderstood, maligned, and mostly considered weird.

Although lacking in social skills, the Prophets had a closeness with God few ever have. They “got” how God thinks, speaks, and acts. Then they passed those thoughts and words on to other people.

As most of us think, those prophetic words predicted forthcoming events – but only occasionally. For example, Malachi 4 relates:

(God) will send you Elijah the prophet
before the coming of the great
and dreadful day of the Lord.

And he shall turn the heart
of the fathers to the children,
and the heart of the children to their fathers,
lest I
(the Lord) come and smite the earth with a curse,”

King James Version (KJV.)

Well, those closing lines ought to put the fear of God into us! However, prophecies weren’t always warnings (which we might do well to heed!) or calls to repentance (which we might also….)

Once a disaster of some kind – whether natural or man-made – had shaken the people, the Prophets encouraged and comforted them, for example, as Isaiah 40:1 soothingly says, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,’ saith your God,” KJV.

If we think about homeless children or family abuses or wars or addictions or hate and divisiveness of any kind, that poetic word of God voiced by Isaiah can comfort us as we comfort others. Consider, too, the prophetic encouragement of Zephaniah 3:17,which is joyfully expressed in the Contemporary English Version of the Bible (CEV):

“The LORD your God
wins victory after victory
and is always with you.

He celebrates and sings
because of you,
and he will refresh your life
with his love.”

The poetic qualities and healing words of those verses add to their power – as poetry has the potential to do. In fact, those words from Zephaniah encourage me so much, I printed and posted them beside my desk as a constant reminder of what I most need to recall.

But, yes, prophets also have the task of calling it like it is. Consider, for instance, these chilling and, dare I say, timely words from Isaiah 5:20-24:

“Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who change darkness into light
and light into darkness,
who change bitter into sweet
and sweet into bitter!

Woe to those seeing themselves as wise,
esteeming themselves as clever.

Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
men whose power goes to mixing strong drinks,
who acquit the guilty for bribes
but deny justice to the righteous!

Therefore, as fire licks up the stubble,
and the chaff is consumed in the flame;
so their root will rot,
and their flowers scatter like dust;
because they have rejected the Torah
of Adonai-Tzva’ot,
they have despised the word
of the Holy One of Isra’el,”

 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB.)

 However, the Prophets aren’t just aware of what’s wrong in the world or of what attitude we need for the situations in which we’re involved. They have an enviable faith and trust in God that enables them to turn to the Lord in every circumstance. For example, Jeremiah 17:14 says:

“Heal me, O Lord,
and I will be healed;
Save me
and I will be saved,
For You are my praise,”

New American Standard Bible (NASB.)

But I keep going back to Isaiah – my favorite biblical poet and prophet, who, because of the time lapse between each section, might have been three or more poet-prophets booked as one.

Regardless, Isaiah goes from warnings of destruction to comfort and encouragement for those ready to listen, so I’m especially fond of the second and third sections, which begin with chapter 40 referred to earlier:

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Yahweh is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the whole earth.
He never grows faint or weary;
there is no limit to His understanding.
He gives strength to the weary
and strengthens the powerless.
Youths may faint and grow weary,
and young men stumble and fall,
but those who trust in the Lord
will renew their strength;
they will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary;
they will walk and not faint,”

Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB.)

After a series of oracles against social and cultural injustices in First Isaiah, those comfort words can especially be found in chapters 40-55 of Second Isaiah, also called “The Book of the Consolation.” Then as the community rebuilds, the third section of Isaiah offers reminders, blessings, and hope in chapters 56-66. For example. Isaiah 65:24-25 offers this poetic promise of things yet to come: 

Before they call, I will answer;
    while they are yet speaking, I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall pasture together,
    and the lion shall eat hay like the ox—
    but the serpent’s food shall be dust.
None shall harm or destroy
    on all my holy mountain, says the Lord,”

New American Bible (Revised Edition) (NABRE/)

Mary Harwell Sayler began writing poems in childhood but, as an adult, wrote almost everything except poetry! Eventually she placed three dozen books in all genres including poetry and how-to books on poetry and writing. She also maintains the Poetry Editor blog and provides resources for poets and writers on her website. Recently she collected almost all of the prayers in the Bible from many English translations, paraphrased them into contemporary language, and published the Book of Bible Prayers. She then published the prayer book in the King James Version only, the Book of KJV Prayers.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The poetry of the Psalmists

[Note: This post originally appeared on The International Literary Quarterly (Interlitq) in the column “Poets Who Make Us Better.”]

When we think of the biblical psalmist, King David inevitably comes to mind. Although other poets wrote many of the psalms, a collection of David’s work brings us praise poems, prayers, and laments with which we can identify. Regardless of the situation in which this poet-king-warrior finds himself, however, his poems almost always end on a note of faith and hope as shown, for example, in this psalm quoted from the King James Version of the Bible:

Psalm 13
How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord?
for ever?
how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?

How long shall I take counsel in my soul,
having sorrow in my heart daily?
how long shall mine enemy
be exalted over me?

Consider and hear me, O Lord my God:
lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;
Lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him;
and those that trouble me rejoice when I am moved.

But I have trusted in thy mercy;
my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation.
I will sing unto the Lord,
because he hath dealt bountifully with me.

The poet begins with an outpouring of his personal fears and worries before reminding himself of the goodness of God in Whom he trusts.

In the opening lines of this psalm of prayer and praise, David again gives poetic voice to his own experiences before calling all people to trust and praise:

Psalm 30
 I will extol thee, O Lord;
for thou hast lifted me up,
and hast not made my foes to rejoice over me.

O Lord my God, I cried unto thee,
and thou hast healed me.

O Lord, thou hast brought up my soul
from the grave:
thou hast kept me alive,
that I should not go down to the pit.

Sing unto the Lord, O ye saints of his,
and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.
For his anger endureth but a moment;
in his favour is life:
weeping may endure for a night,
but joy cometh in the morning.

The honesty of David’s poetry adds credence to his expressions of faith and shows the difference truth makes in a poem. Often, his psalms also include metaphors and similes that help us picture what’s happening, so we can readily enter the experience (something most of us hope our readers will do too!)

In this poem, the figurative language remains in keeping with the overall image of a battle, helping us to see the warrior-king’s perspective of God as shown in these opening lines:

Psalm 18
I will love thee, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, and my fortress,
and my deliverer;
my God, my strength,
in whom I will trust;
my buckler,
and the horn of my salvation,
and my high tower.

I will call upon the Lord,
who is worthy to be praised:
so shall I be saved from mine enemies.

Can you see David’s need for a buckler, used as a small metal fist for close encounters? Can you envision his dodging behind a large rock as arrows fly or seeking shelter in a fortress as his troops rest and regroup? Such incidents inherent in battle help him (and us) to experience God’s presence in that setting.

In Psalm 73, the poet Asaph also uses metaphor, not to describe his relationship with God, but his assessment of enemies whose “pride is their necklace.” Then he fashions this apt simile: “violence covers them like a garment.

In a more peaceful time, a son of Korah, writes a poem in appreciation of a place  of worship:

Psalm 84
How amiable are thy tabernacles,
O Lord of hosts!

My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth
for the courts of the Lord:
my heart and my flesh crieth out
for the living God.

Yea, the sparrow hath found an house,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
even thine altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King, and my God.

Blessed are they that dwell in thy house:
they will be still praising thee.

The reference to a sparrow – one of the smallest birds, who, nevertheless, has a home – hints at the poet’s feeling of being lost and alone when away from a place of worship.

In Psalm 119, an unidentified poet doesn’t focus on the figurative except in rare moments such as verse 70 when he refers to proud people as having “hearts as fat as grease” (effective, but yuck!) Then in verse 103 he uses the memorable metaphor, God’s “word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.

For the most part, however, this longest of all psalms, maintains its poetic status through the use of an acrostic pattern in which each verse begins with the next letter of an alphabet poem as the poet expresses his love for God’s Word – from Aleph to Taw. Without that form, the psalm might merely be a long list of statements except for the use of the poetic technique of parallelism often found in Hebrew poetry.

Some forms of parallelism create a contrast between thoughts, but the following lines builds on the same general concept.

Psalm 119:169-170
Let my cry come near before thee, O Lord:
give me understanding according to thy word.
Let my supplication come before thee:
deliver me according to thy word.

In addition to parallelism, call-and-response can be found in various psalms too. Here, for example, an unidentified poet invites the people to respond in acknowledgement and confirmation of their faith:

Psalm 106:48
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel
from everlasting to everlasting:
and let all the people say, Amen.
Praise ye the Lord.

Many psalms repeat a phrase or a praise, using repetition to add special emphasis to a particular thought or belief. For example:

Psalm 130:5-6
I wait for the Lord,
my soul doth wait,
and in his word do I hope.
My soul waiteth for the Lord
more than they that watch for the morning:
I say, more than they that watch for the morning.

Finally, the last psalm (according to most translations) repeats the ongoing  need for praise by everything and everyone on earth:

Psalm 150
Praise ye the Lord.
Praise God in his sanctuary:
praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mighty acts:
praise him according to his excellent greatness.
Praise him with the sound of the trumpet:
praise him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise him with the timbrel and dance:
praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals:
praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.
Praise ye the Lord.

Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2020, from “Poets Who Make Us Better” on The International Literary Quarterly (Interlitq)

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Glimpsing Glory

Poet, writer, editor, and publisher Catherine Lawton’s second book of poems, Glimpsing Glory, shows a love of God and appreciation for nature, rhyme, contemplation, and prayer.

As the daughter of a pastor, she learned to adjust to new surroundings in a series of moves and, as a wife and mother, enjoyed family outings in natural terrains – all of which can be glimpsed in the poems she writes. In other genres, her articles, stories, and books saw publication, and now, as the editor and publisher of Cladach Publishing, she publishes works by other poets and writers, including my book of poems and contemporary psalms, PRAISE!

In organizing her new book Glimpsing Glory, which Cathy kindly sent me to review, she divided her poems and prayers into seven sections: Relating, Communing, Trusting, Living, Dying, Praying, and Word-Playing – each of which offers some glimpse of glory.

To clarify her theme, she poses the question, “What do I mean by ‘glory’?” in the first line of the first poem with the poem itself a response. For instance:

The Shekinah glory filled the temple.
Our bodies are temples.

The next poem, “Spaces Between,” gives a glimpse of the “God-centered contemplative life” the poet seeks for herself while inviting readers to stop and notice:

The spaces between things seem
to take on lives of their own.

In “The Stars Sing,” the poet pauses to take in the sweep of night sky, which she describes:

Like music engraved, blazoned across the sky,
notes – not in lined scores or measures,
but in splashes of compositions ears and eyes
aren’t attuned to hear or decipher.

Not with physical ears do I hear the music
of stars singing out from night pavilion,
graced by the moon, echoed by bugling elk,
crooning owls and sibilant wind.

The poems continue to observe and encourage observation. For instance, in “Nature Doesn’t Lie,” the poet counsels readers:

Be present to a flower, tree, or pond;
it will gradually
be present
to you in truth.

Truth comes into focus again in the poetic prayer “Wholeness and Peace,” which begins:

Lord, I don’t want to live out of
a place formed by other people’s
brokenness, false words spoken
over me, lies internalized, nor fears.

Then goes on to say:

Speak Truth in this awakened  place.
I open doors, windows, pull down
storm shutters, plank by plank,
that your Light may stream in.

May we, too, be called to Glory!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The poetry technique of tiny

With the Internet speed of self-publishing, a poet’s rush to get published can quickly result in a lengthy poem that forgets the reader and says nothing new. It’s sort of like a one-sided, long-winded conversation – often boring to the other person.

If you even suspect this might be true of your poems, my advice is to write tiny.

Read haiku and other mini-poems.
Find out if there’s a form to follow.
Stay within the lines or syllabic count of that particular pattern.

This may sound confining but can actually be freeing as the last two years of poetry-writing have shown me. i.e., After a while, poems begin coming to you in 17 syllables.

Actually, the same is true if you start writing, in say, iambic pentameter or any other pattern. However, to stay on our present topic about the importance of little things in writing and revising, consider the senryu.

A senryu has the same 3-line pattern as the haiku with 5/7/5 syllables on each respective line. The difference between the two syllabic forms of poetry is in the content and purpose.

A haiku draws a quick sketch of a seasonal scene, often with a touch of humor.

A senryu presents a quick thought or insight.

This morning, for example, when I took my coffee onto the deck overlooking our little lake, this senryu came to mind:

Is it You I see?
Maybe. Probably. I don’t know.  
God is everywhere.

I went inside, wrote down those words before I forgot, then this revised version occurred to me:

Is it You I see?
Maybe. Probably. I’m not sure.
God is everywhere.

If, like most people, you’ve ever struggled with faith or moments of doubt, that poem might speak to you. So the reader could well have a part in the poem.

The capitalization of “You” is a small thing but alerts the reader to a conversation with God. The change between “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure” is small too, but weighty with possibility. For instance, if you take out that teeny tiny period ending the second line, you have an expression of doubt:

“I’m not sure God is everywhere.”

Yet another tiny change can turn the poem into a call-and-response or debate with oneself, if you simply add a line space:

Is it You I see?
Maybe. Probably. I’m not sure.

God is everywhere.

Then the small addition of italics for the last line can create further emphasis and possibly clarify the debate between doubt and faith. It might even highlight the fact that God's presence is beyond measure.

Is it You I see?
Maybe. Probably. I’m not sure.

God is everywhere.