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Saturday, November 14, 2020

Poetry through the eye of a needle

A poem often engages us with a new comparison, an uncommon viewpoint, an unusual image, or a rhythmic thought that beckons us (poetry writers and readers) to investigate more thoroughly. This can be a moving force for other types of writing, too, or effectively assist you as you revise.

For instance, as you look over a first draft, ask yourself:


  • Does this poem contain something I’ve never heard before nor seen written somewhere else?
  • Will the poem evoke an interesting thought or picture in the reader’s mind?
  • Does anything make this poem stand out?
  • What’s new?


If you don't see any of those outstanding qualities, just give your poem more time. Then, you might not have a big revelation but, more likely, will see something as light as a new twist on a cliché or as small as a needle’s eye – both of which came to me as my Bible study group discussed Matthew19: 24. (That link will take you to many translations of the verse as found by researching on Bible Gateway.)


Entering the Eye of the Needle


In the middle of a haystack, strewn

not with straw but distractions

of health, wealth, and power,

lies the tiny eye of the



How can a non-seeker see?


A pin-prick locates the point

of discomfort, piercing

the soul – the threaded

needle knotting our

neediness to



by Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2020-2014


The above poem appeared in the book of Bible-based poems, Outside Eden, published in 2014 by Kelsay Books then in A Gathering of Poems, ©2020


Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Comparisons work in poetry, not in life!


Comparing one person to another or one thing to something better (or worse!) does not work well in real life. In poetry, however, comparisons can reveal the abstract in visible terms readers can picture.


First, an example of the nonworkable way to compare: After my husband and I bought a newly built house with shiny hardwood floors, we visited my parents, who lived in an older home. As soon as we arrived, the first thing I noticed was the floors – old and in need of sanding and re-staining.


A couple of years later, we moved to an old apartment building in New Orleans with dark, worn wooden flooring. So, what do you suppose I thought of my parents’ house when we returned to visit? Yes, I discovered they had nice, bright medium-stained floors, which had not been redone in years.


That kind of comparison skews our view and can get us into trouble. For instance, comparing one child or skin color or church affiliation to another mainly shows our favoritism, prejudice, or ignorance!


In poetry though, we aim to illustrate ideas and concepts that cannot be pictured with something that can. For example, in writing PRAISE! these “pictures” of God came to me.


Praise God Our Axis –

Around Whom

all things turn

and without Whom

everything gets

off balance –

like an overloaded

washing machine

or earth off its orbit

or a planet spinning

out of control.




Praise God Our Heavenly Fog –

Through Whom we see what’s now

and near and clear enough to touch.




Praise Christ Our Holy Telescope –

Through Whom we clearly see

what’s coming

when we need to know.


Praise Christ our holy


Who helps us to discern

the true,

the false

in tiny telling detail.


from PRAISE! by Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2017, published by Cladach Publishing


Scrolling through this blog site and/or typing a subject of interest into the Search box above can help to expand your own options in writing poetry.


If you’ve been following this blog (thank you very much!), you’ve most likely seen posts on figurative language expressed in metaphor (this IS that) and simile (this is LIKE that or similar.) When freshly done, those comparisons reawaken our senses and help us to be more appreciative of the beauty around us.


Every evening, for instance, my husband and I sit on the deck overlooking our little lake in hopes of witnessing a memorable sunset. Some are subtle, some vivid, but many often evoke comparisons fit for a new haiku:


The low-lying sun

ignites a cotton blanket

of flammable clouds.


Pink flying saucers

trailing across the twilight –

landing in the pond.


from Talkingto the Wren: haiku, short verse, and one long poem by Mary HarwellSayler, ©2020, published by Cyberwit.net


Coming up with fresh comparisons will likely occur if you simply give a poem ample time. Then, meditating on abstract concepts or carefully observing what can be seen, heard, or felt will elevate your poems and your awareness of the amazing creation in which we live.


Mary Sayler, ©2020



Saturday, September 5, 2020

Wendell Berry: Poet, Farmer, Philosopher

[Note: This article originally appeared in the Poets Who Make Us Better column on Interlitq.]

Growing up in the home of a Christian poet who loves nature and small towns, my son knew I’d be eager to hear the poet who had been invited to speak at our local university. Located in DeLand, Florida, Stetson University often had (and still does) such interesting guest speakers as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, anthropologist Jane Goodall, and theologian and social activist Desmond Tutu. And so, during a time when my son was completing undergraduate studies, Wendell Berry came to visit. By then Berry had written “Mad Farmer” and other manifestos of which I was unfamiliar, being interested primarily in his poetry.

After hearing this down-to-earth yet sophisticated Kentucky poet-philosopher speak and purchasing my signed copy of his Collected Poems, I began reading this paperback collection of his first eight books, starting with The Broken Ground.


All day our eyes could find no resting place.
Over a flood of snow sight came back
Empty to the mind. The sun
In a shutter of clouds, light
Staggered down the fall of snow.
All circling surfaces of earth were white.
No shape or shadow moved the flight

Of winter birds. Snow held the earth its silence.

The poem continues for five sections, the latter of which ends:

The shape of the wind is a tree
Bending, spilling its birds.
From the cloud to the stone.
The rain stands tall,
Columned into his darkness.
The church hill heals our father in.
Our remembering moves from a difference place

The next book in the collection, Findings, includes “Three Elegiac Poems,” the second of which offers these lines:

At the house the light is still waiting.
An old man I’ve loved all my life is dying
in his bed there. He is going
slowly down from himself.
In final obedience to his life, he follows
his body out of our knowing.
Only his hands, quiet on the sheet, keep
a painful resemblance to what they no longer are

By the book Openings, the poetic voice speaks with an uncommon clarity and sensitivity as shown in the poem, “My Great- Grandfather’s Slaves,” which concludes:

I see them go in the bonds of my blood
through all the time of their bodies.

I have seen that freedom cannot be taken
from one man and given to another,
and cannot be taken and kept.

I know that freedom can only be given,
and is the gift to the giver
from the one who receives.

I am owned by the blood of all of them
who ever were owned by my blood.
We cannot be free of each other.

What profound insight Berry brings as we ponder who owns whom! How many of us with an Anglo-Saxon heritage, for example, realize the need to be free of the enslavement we have – the  inherited guilt of ancestral ownership of other persons? How many of us long for pardon from those whom we have harmed in any way, whether individuals or collected cultures of the one human race we all share?

At this writing, racial tensions have flamed up around the world, and social change continues to be a need and strong priority. But while we look for a more perfect peace found in clarity, wisdom, pardon, and divine inspiration, these lines from Berry’s long poem “Windows” might ease the wait.

Peace. Let men, who cannot be brothers
to themselves, be brothers
to mullein and daisies
that have learned to live on the earth.
Let them understand the pride
of sycamores and thrushes
that receive the light gladly, and do not
think to illuminate themselves

This idea of being siblings to ourselves may well enable us to be better citizens and siblings to one another. 

In the next book included in Collected Poems, Berry addresses Farming: A Hand Book with poems such as “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer.”

“I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback…

This sense of life and death, people and place coupled as one entity comes together in the book The Country of Marriage. The first of seven parts in the poem by that name begins:

I dream of you walking at night along the streams
of the country of my birth, warm blooms and the nightsongs
of birds opening around you as you walk.
You are holding in your body the dark seed of my sleep.

Part 7. goes on:

I give you what is unbounded, passing from dark to dark,
containing darkness: a night of rain, an early morning.
I give you the life I have let live for love of you…

The love of his wife of many years widens the poet’s embrace of the land, nature, people in particular, community, and peoples in general. However, this vision of a land at peace – an earth in love with life and the lives of every living thing – is not sentimentalized in Berry’s poems and other works as shown by these lines in the poem “The Clearing” from the book of that name.


Vision must have severity
at its edge:

against neglect,
bushes grown over the pastures,
vines riding down
the fences, the cistern broken;

against the false vision
of the farm dismembered,
sold in pieces on the condition
of the buyer’s ignorance,
a disorderly town
of ‘houses in the country’
inhabited by strangers;

against indifference, the tracks
of the bulldozer running
to gullies;

            against weariness,
the dread of too much to do,
the wish to make desire
easy, the thought of rest.

In A Part, the book dedicated to his mother, Berry offers “A Warning to My Readers.”

Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is

I would be more inclined, though, to call it wisdom and perhaps the inversion of pride – not arrogance but delight in the timeless cycles of life and death as shown in this oddly named poem “Desolation” from the book The Wheel.

A gracious Spirit sings as it comes
and goes. It moves forever
among things. Earth and flesh, passing
into each other, sing together

Although I have other books by Wendell Berry – and he has far more published than I have shelf space – his Collected Poems give us a sweeping view of his insights and his farsightedness. As an author, essayist, naturalist, and “mad farmer,” who challenges us to expand our thinking, the perspectives of this poet might make our views better too.


by Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2020


Poet-writer Mary Sayler maintains the Poetry Editor blog and provides resources for other poets and writers on her website. Her recent books include A Gathering of Poems and Talking to the Wren: Haiku, Short Verse, and One Long Poem published by Cyberwit.net.


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Is it a minipoem or first line?

In the previous post “Poetry Revision:Less can bring more to a poem,” we read “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound, who originally addressed his Parisian subject in a long poem he didn’t particularly like. After letting those lines sit for many months, he condensed thirty into three, creating an exquisite minipoem that almost everyone loves. (I do so much, it prefaces my poetry book Faces in a Crowd.)

So here’s the question: 

How do we know the size and shape of a poem? 


How do we identify our lines as a minipoem complete in itself or as the first line of a longer piece?

Sometimes we can’t tell! Sometimes we might need to toss the poem aside for days, months, or years, and later come back with a fresh eye and clear feelings about whether we even like the poem or not.

This week, for instance, the following lines came to me:


When I’m gone
will you walk alone
in the rain?


As you see from the line-breaks, I initially heard those lines as a minipoem, and I liked the thought, the image, and the echoes of sound apparent from the start.

But then, I started wondering? Is that poem finished? Has it said all it needed to say? And so, I started playing with the lines a bit more with these results:


When I’m gone will you walk alone in the rain?

Will you retrace our steps again, or wander home,
hoping for the comfort of a warm fire and a shawl?

Is this all our memories will ever own –
a slow walk in the rain?

That version is okay, but I’m not sure what it’s saying. More important, I don’t love it. So I tried again:


When I’m gone
will you walk alone in the rain?

Will you retrace our steps again,
or wander home,
hoping for the comfort
of a warm fire and a shawl?

Is this all our memories
will own – a slow walk in the rain
heading nowhere we’ve not known?

That version says more, but it doesn’t particularly resonate with my life and experiences. So now I’m wondering if it resonates more with readers? 

What do you think – first version, last, the one in between, or something else entirely?

I'm honestly interested in your response. Do you see, though, how there’s no “right answer” to such questions we face as poets and readers? I suspect some of you will connect more with the last version of my example, even though I don’t. My preference remains with those first lines that came to me as my husband and I pondered taking a walk in the rain – until it thundered!


Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2020



Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The wit and poetry of Billy Collins

[Note: This article originally appeared in the PoetsWho Make Us Better column on Interlitq.]

Many poets with prestigious awards have served as Poet Laureate for the United States, as has Billy Collins, so you might wonder what makes him so special. For one thing, people who don’t normally read poems buy his poetry books, contributing to his status as the most beloved living poet in North America.

Down-to-earth or up in the clouds, Collins has a way of studying ordinary subjects most of us can relate to and then addressing them in an extraordinary, often amusing way. For example, in his “first real book of poems” (since reissued) The Apple That Astonished Paris begins with “Vanishing Point” – a subject artists are compelled to study to get the perspective right:

You thought it was just a pencil dot
art students made in the middle of the canvas
before they started painting the barn, cows, haystack,

or just a point where railroad tracks fuse,
a spot engineers stare at from the cabs of trains
as they clack through the heat of prairies
heading out of the dimensional.

Then, in a unique turn-about, that’s like a signature, the poet continues:

But here I am at the vanishing point,
looking back at everything as it zooms toward me….”

Speaking of perspective, Collins even addresses the viewpoint of sea creatures in “Walking Across The Atlantic.”

…for now I try to imagine what
this must look like to the fish below,
the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.”

Another quirky viewpoint In “Flames” tells us how…

Smoky the Bear heads
into the autumn woods
with a red can of gasoline
and a box of wooden matches.”

Reportedly, Smoky has had it!

“He is sick of dispensing
warnings to the careless,
the half-wit camper,
the dumbbell hiker.

He is going to show them
how a professional does it.”

Later in the book, the poet gives professional “Advice to Writers.”

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.”

The poem goes on to recommend “cleaning” with the assurance that “The more you clean, the more brilliant/ your writing will be….” But, after this encouragement to polish poems or other writings, the poet ends with this suggestion:

…cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.”

In the book, Questions About Angels, the title poem turns its attention to one often asked:

Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.”

Those opening lines give an excellent example of how Collins takes the ordinary, the familiar into another realm as the “I” of the poem asks:

Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?

Another poem in the book contemplates investigating “A History of Weather.”

The snow flurries of Victorian London will be surveyed
along with the gales that blew off  Renaissance caps.
The tornadoes of the Middle Ages will be explicated
and the long, overcast days of the Dark Ages.
There will be a section on the frozen nights of antiquity
and on the heat that shimmered in the deserts of the Bible.”

In a more down-to-earth tone, Collins begins the book The Art of Drowning with a note to the “Dear Reader.”

…you could be the man I held the door for
this morning at the bank or post office
or the one who wrapped my speckled fish.
You could be someone I passed on the street
or the face behind the wheel of an oncoming car.”

Whether those last few words show someone about to mow down the poet is not for me to say, but, like many others, the title poem  for that book weaves dark threads lightly through its lines.

I wonder how it all got started, this business
about seeing your life flash before your eyes
while you drown, as if panic, or the act of submergence,
could startle time into such compression, crushing
decades in the vice of your desperate, final seconds.”

Instead of that last flash, the “I” of the poem recommends:

How about a short animated film, a slide presentation?
Your life expressed in an essay, or in one model paragraph?
Wouldn’t any form be better than this sudden flash?

For some, those questions might be rhetorical, but Professor Collins apparently gives such matters important consideration worthy of being dignified with answers, albeit odd.

In “The End of the World,” for instance:

It is a subject so profound I feel I should
be underwater to think about it properly.”

The poem continues:

But here in the calm latitudes of this room
I am thinking that the end could be less operatic.
Maybe a black tarpaulin, a kind of boat cover,
could be lowered over the universe one night.
A hand could enter the picture and crumple the cosmos
into a ball of paper and hook it into a waste basket.

Clearly, Billy Collins compels us to think about things we might not otherwise consider. For example, in the book Picnic, Lightning, the poem “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice’” asks why the farmer’s wife wanted to cut off their tails with a carving knife.

And I start wondering how they came to be blind.
If it was congenital, they could be brothers and sisters….”


…how, in their tiny darkness,
could they possibly have run after a farmer’s wife
or anyone else’s wife for that matter?
Not to mention why.”

With Collins’ poems in hand, one begins to see how much we take for granted – how many times we don’t bother to look closer or beyond the obvious. Such probing can be delicious too, as “Japan” reveals:

Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.

It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again.

I walk through the house reciting it
and leave its letters falling
through the air of every room.

As poets and writers, we do well to devour bushels of poetry, yet taking time to really taste each poem. And we do well, too, to read Collins’ book, TheTrouble with Poetry, discussed, of course, in poems.

Again the poet invites us into his world by acknowledging “You, Reader.”

I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you.”

Those few beginning lines express how I feel, reading Collins’ work: Oh, I could have written that! But I didn’t. He did. He took the time and energy to take everyday thoughts and phrases to a new level. Or, maybe he can’t help himself!

As the title poem, “The Trouble with Poetry,” expresses it:

Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry.”

And that’s another reason the work of Billy Collins makes us better. It makes us want to read poetry again. It makes us want to write.

Then, reading “Quandary” from Collins’ book Aimless Love, I wonder, too, if poetry makes us better because we use the pen, rather than the sword, to extinguish our enemies. To begin:

I was a little disappointed
in the apple I lifted from a bowl of fruit
and bit into on the way out the door,
fuzzy on the inside and lacking the snap of the ripe.”

After considering “all the people/ who would be grateful to have this apple,” the poet finishes with this quick toss of a phrase:

Then I took a second bite, a big one,
and pitched what was left
over the tall hedges hoping to hit on the head
a murderer or one of the filthy rich out for a stroll.

The book The Rain in Portugal shows a softer, sensitive side, however, as  “The Bard in Flight” occupies the adjacent seat on a flight from London – presumably Shakespeare’s first plane ride filled with the awe of ice cubes until the sudden turbulence results in…

…the frenzied eyes of the nervous passengers,
and the Bard reaching for my hand
as we roared with trembling wings
into the towering fortress of a thunderhead.

As one of the poets most likely responsible for the shaping of the English language as we know it, Shakespeare might have been more dismayed by the “Poem to the First Generation of People to Exist After the Death of the English Language.” If you’ve ever tried reading poetry in Middle English, these lines will mean even more to you.

I’m not going to put a lot of work into this
because you won’t be able to read it anyway,
and I’ve got more important things to do
this morning, not the least of which
is to try to write a fairly decent poem
for the people who can still read English.”

The decent poem continues, lamenting “English finding/ a place in the cemetery of dead languages,” and what a loss that would be. And,

So I’m going to turn the page
and not think about you and your impoverishment.
Instead, I’m going to write a poem about red poppies
waving by the side of the railroad tracks,
and you people will never even know what you’re missing.

That last line expresses my sentiments for those who have not yet read at least one book of Billy Collins’ poems.

Reviewer 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 books of poems and how-to’s on poetry and writing. She continues to maintain the Poetry Editor blog and provide resources for poets and writers. Cyberwit.com has just published her newest poetry book, Talking to the Wren: Haiku, Short Verse, and One Long Poem.