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Friday, June 18, 2021

A 21st Century Plague: Poetry from a Pandemic


When University Professors Press added the anthology A 21st Century Plague: Poetry from a Pandemic to their “Poetry, Healing, and Growth Series,” I happily received a writer’s copy as one of the fifty-three poets whose poems comprise this remarkable collection.


In the Introduction, editor Elayne Clift gives us a glimpse of the goal:


International in scope, this collection offers validation, comfort, and support to those who have struggled with pandemic restrictions, sometimes with humor and always with compassion. Poems address coping with mundane acts of daily life, profound emotions inherent in the challenges we have been called upon to face during a frightening time, isolation, lack of physical intimacy, and ever-present anxieties. Offering perspectives derived from personal experience, poets from various cultures and age groups contribute to the literature of healthcare crises in deeply meaningful ways.”


But don’t just take her word and mine! See for yourself the richness of these selected poems:


In “Daily News,” for instance, poet Barbara Crooker writes:


And so this day is like every other,
beginning with coffee and ending
with wine. But with nowhere
to go, and nothing to do, I’m
going to take my time, sit
in the morning sun and savor
the darkness, black and bitter.
In the larger world, terrible
things continue to happen.
Here, the only action
is the hummingbird zipping
and sipping sugar water,
jazzed on sweetness, in love
with the sun….”

“The End of Summer 2020” brings us these poignant lines by Judith Adams:


Call for a convention of wild animals
So you can listen to their sorrow.
Ask forgiveness for history.
If you don’t know what you are here for,
sleep on the edge of the sea and let it
Breath for you.
One day you will be able
To kiss again…


Free verse and traditional poems give voice to what we’ve been thinking, feeling, and doing for many months, and yet this very time of uncertainty and, often chaos, has also brought reminders to reassess our priorities and acknowledge what’s truly important. i.e., Enjoy the NOW of things. Pray and watch without ceasing for good to come from hard times.

Brother Richard Hendrick opens the door to praise in these uplifting lines from “Lockdown”:


They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds sing again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
Across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
So that those who are alone
May hear the sounds of family….


And look at these lines in “Face Mask” by Paul Hostovsky:


Have you noticed
how beautiful
everyone looks

when all you can see
are their eyes?


The pandemic also encourages us to open our eyes to perspectives other than our own and relevant issues such as “Covid Times in Prison” by Tony Vick.


God has been good to me, despite my bout with Covid. He brought people into my life when I needed them. But maybe the Mexican folktale holds some truth. God doesn’t need to photograph the poor and disenfranchised. He resides in their midst, loving them, knowing that we all must be free to seek a kinder, more compassionate world.

Without that, COVID-19 will be the least of our worries.”


May this excellent anthology help us to express our own fears and worries while reawakening us to beauty, joy, and the marvelous versatility of peoples and poetry.

©2021, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet and writer in all genres, including A Gathering of Poems


Saturday, June 12, 2021

Throwing a wrench in rhyme


The expression, “throwing a wrench into the works,” typically refers to the effort to prevent a plan or keep something from working properly. In poetry, that wrenching can occur in wrenched rhymes.

True rhymes not only have echoing syllables at the end of each rhyming word, they have the same emphasis or syllabic stress. For instance, round/found echo the sound and also the accent. 

singing/bring wrenches the true rhyme of sing/bring, whereas rhyming/wing emphasizes the differences in syllables – i.e., RHYming/ WING.

Wrenches can also occur by forcing the poem’s syntax (i.e., normal sentence structure or word sequence) in order to make a rhyme. For an example of such violence to the English language:

Wrenched syntax puts words in a position weird
when a poet tries to make lines rhyme-adhered.

Or to say it the regular way:

Wrenched syntax pushes words around just so they’ll rhyme – even if the phrase or sentence now makes less sense!

That said, you might want to wrench your words and rhymes on purpose for the sake of humor.

For more on rhymes, see the prior post “Good Times to Write in Rhymes.” 

For more help on writing or revising poems in general, A Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry  will help. 

In addition to that paperback book (based on my former poetry correspondence course) the A to Z poetic terms in the e-book, The Poetry Dictionary for Children and for Fun makes a great way to enjoy the summer with creative kids of all ages.


©2021, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet-writer, book author in all genres, including A Gathering of Poems


Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Unpaused Poems: Real, Raw, Relevant


When Cathy Lawton, Editor-Publisher of Cladach Publishing, asked me to review Unpaused Poems by Alice Scott-Ferguson, I gladly agreed, especially since Cladach had published my book PRAISE!


My first impression of this new poetry book was its attractive cover art by Elaine Pedersen, who also illustrated the book’s interior. Then I noticed three clues to the poems themselves in the subtitle: “Real, Raw, Relevant.” Not only do those words reflect the contents of the book, but they hint at the word plays to come.


At first, though, the poet let us know in the Introduction that she wrote the poems when many of us faced: “An ongoing pandemic threatening to unmoor society as we have known it, and an all time low in race relations in the United States driving deeper divides among us. We have navigated a national election through a hostile highway of acrimony, angst, and anger.”


During this unique time in history, the poet addresses seven themes: “I. Hurting and Hoping,” “II. Ruminations and Reflections,” “III. Sensing Surroundings,” “IV. Takes on Theology,” “V. Voices of Women,” “VI. The Darker Side,” and “VII. The Lighter Side.”


In the first section of both hurt and hope, we find “The Open Grave” with these lines:


We are bereft


“The casket, the dirt waiting to receive the remains

to cover him in the dark dirt of his island home

Then the larks – a pair of them soaring and swooping –

trill over the open grave

We lift our heads to see the song

of a pair of birds, a pair of lovers reunited!”


The second section demonstrates the poet’s affection for word plays:


Wearing Old


I wear my old with


below the fold, the news is


the light of years distilled from


that came and went


in the nature of things….”


However, my favorite section, “IV. Takes on Theology,” tones down the sound echoes and reveals insight into God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For instance, “Plenty For All” reveals awareness of  Jesus Christ in these lines:


They knew him by the breaking of the bread

        he who took less and made it more….”


In that same section, the last verse of “Where Is God?” provides this poignant picture:


In the endless need

        he is everywhere

I last saw him

        in the form of a brave bilingual man

        picking up dead bodies

        left behind in the desert

        where they dropped in their weakness

        on the road to freedom


Also in Section IV. of Unpaused Poems we have this verse from the poem, “The Lord’s Prayer.”


Do we not partake daily of the living bread of life

feasting by faith on the Body of him

broken for our sake

sated and wanting nothing we already have

We have surely been fully and forever forgiven

Every accusation against us was driven

into those healing hands


Other poems express faith, injustice, or social issues, while “Sequins Before Six” and “Observed at the Car Dealer,” deal with aging. In general, most readers will identify with the poems, but toward the end of the book, “Changes” happened to address my particular day’s frustration:


My heart quakes, all exultant expectations eclipsed

        by the prospect of creating a new password

Do you have any idea how many of those I have already?

        No. I don’t even know


I don’t know my exact number either, but at present, I have 12 columns of passwords, typed and scribbled in pencil, beside my desk. And this very day, I failed to log-in to my online bank account because a change of ownership necessitated yet another password change. Such is life as we now know it, and such are these poems.



©2021, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet-writer, reviewer





Thursday, May 6, 2021

Playing by Ear: the sounds of poetry

Have you or someone you know ever heard a song for the first time then played the melody on a piano or other instrument without any sheet music. That ability to “play by ear” usually denotes musical giftedness, which occurs among poets too. 

Often, musically inclined poets play with melodies they’ve heard in school, which leads them to a head-start in poetry as they skillfully write rhythmic, rhyming verses to the amazement of teachers, friends, and family. Unfortunately, those “gifted” ones might never try to develop their “poetic ear,” while those who lack that natural ability think they can’t write poetry at all. Wrong and wrong!

If you’re a “natural” at writing poems, these links to prior posts can help you expand your options as you write and revise:

Unlocking clockwork rhyme

Enjambment and rhyme placement tone down jangling rhymes  

Using alliteration for sound echoes and for fun

Revising for Sound and Sense

For the “naturally gifted” poet and also those who don’t think they are (or ever will be!) a poet, learn to play by ear as you read aloud poems by other poets or listen to recordings such as these favorites:

Caedmon Poetry Collection: A Century of Poets Reading Their Work, CD

Poetry Speaks: Hear Great Poets Read Their Work from Tennyson to Plath (Book and 3Audio CDs)

Poetry On Record: 98 Poets ReadTheir Work (1888-2006)

You can find recordings by contemporary poets too, such as this one by Mary Oliver, whose words coaxed me back to writing poetry after a gap of many years:

At Blackwater Pond: Mary Oliver reads Mary Oliver

If you prefer listening to poems read on the Internet, check out these sites:

Poetry Archive

poets.org | Academy of American Poets

Children's Poetry Archive - Listen to the world's best children's poetry read out loud.

Listen | Poetry Foundation

And, for a variety of poetry forms and techniques to play with, listen to, experiment with, and enjoy, the user-friendly paperback (and former course) 
A Poet's Guide to Writing Poetry can help you to develop an ear for poetry and/or fine-tune your natural ability to play by ear.


©2021, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet-writer, all genres


Saturday, April 17, 2021

Playing with Words


Every now and then, we’ve talked about the fun of playing with words, but this practice can also bring something unexpected to a poem, surprising, perhaps, both you and your readers.


Playing with words can bring connections we hadn’t previously considered.


The other day, for instance, my Bible Study group reached the book of Hebrews in our progressive study of the New Testament, and we came to this verse about religious leaders.

“Since he himself is weak in many ways, he is able to be gentle with those who are ignorant and make mistakes,” Hebrews 5:2, Good News Translation (GNT.)                                          

What was true of a compassionate leader then is true now, but the word that caught my attention was “ignorant.” We usually think of that word as being unaware of factual data, but I suddenly became aware of how ignorance also relates to those who ignore God. Carrying that connection further could be the starting place for a religious poem or a devotional article.


Using words with various spellings can also start a poem.


For example, most of us prefer “peace of mind” over “piece of mind,” but a single poem with both spellings could be insightful or become a rant!


Reading a dictionary has evoked many a poem for many a well-known poet!


If you were a mechanic or carpenter, wouldn’t you want every useful tool for your trade? For poets and writers, that “tool box” contains a regular dictionary, poetry dictionary, and handbook on grammar. That’s the bare minimum to bear. Judeo-Christian poets and writers would surely want at least one translation of the Bible, while academics need a manual of style.


Speaking of academics, I’d never given thought to the word “academic” or “academia” until I opened a dictionary to the A’s and read about Akademos, the legendary Athenian hero of the Trojan Wars. His association with Helen of Troy and also the school grounds where Plato likely taught gave me the impetus for this poem.



Writing The Academian Myth


Helen wrote history

without royalties,


without musing

over musicals or poems.


Helen wrote mystery,


romance and lively letters

loosely leafed

on wind.


When Akademos heard

where Helen had been hidden,

he played the instrument

for her release from unwritten

mortal codes and, hence,

her capture

in immortal odes, which

spoke volumes.


Mary Harwell Sayler from A Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry

If you have a topic you’d like to see discussed in a future post or a comment about your own play-times with words, let's hear from you in the Comments section below.







Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Placing rhymes

In traditional verse, rhymes usually take place at the end of a line and are, therefore, called end-rhyme in end-line rhyme position.  Poets use that pattern so often, we assume end-rhyme appeals to poetry readers too, but, despite its popularity, it does have its drawbacks. 

One problem can be a jingle-jangle effect that’s especially jarring when lines come to an abrupt halt. In light forms, such as limericks or other humorous verse, jingles can be effective, but in serious verse, heavy end-line rhymes can ruin a tone or mood.


To soften the jingle-jangle jolt of rhymes, try these techniques:


• Build up an echo, internally within the lines, by choosing words with similar vowel sounds.


• Let "liquids" flow in the consonants you select – for instance, rhymes containing l, m, n, r. (If you say those letters aloud, you'll hear their flow.)


• Drop the syllabic stress at the end of lines by using rhymes that have a down-beat or a last syllable without any emphasis.


• Try alliteration within the lines to soften the end-line rhyming sounds.


• Use enjambment.


For more on enjambment, see the previous post, “Enjambment and rhyme placement tone down jangling rhymes.”


For more on alliteration, see "Using Alliteration for Sound Echoes and for Fun."

For other aspects of poetry, type the word you want into the box that says "Search this blog" at the top right of the page. 

©2021, Mary Harwell Sayler, from her book, A Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry



Sunday, April 4, 2021

Poem for you for Easter

Mary Harwell Sayler : Poem for Easter:  

For You,

I turned water into wine, purified in the veins

of My own body. I climbed mountains, healed

crowds of hunger, warmed a leper’s skin. For

you I chastised leaders, halted stones, wrote on

the ground each word contained in Love.

I overturned unfair prices and low wages, tabled

discussions about who’s first or last, and enjoyed

the most unlikely company.

Before My execution, I tamed a donkey, became

your beast of burden, then bled from every pore.

Once for all, I buried death, and, when I arose,

some saw Me. Some heard Me as I broke through

the veil, cloaking time and eternity, and, yes,

for you, I’d do it all again.



Mary Harwell Sayler from book A Gathering of Poems

Friday, March 26, 2021

Let's Talk Poetry

April begins National Poetry Month – the perfect time to discuss questions we might have about poetry reading and/or writing. 

Consider these questions, for example, then respond in the Comments section below:


  • What do I hope to gain from the poems I read?
  • What do I most want my poems to give to my readers?
  • Why does poetry even matter to me?
  • Do formal poems or conversational ones appeal to me the most?
  • Which poetry technique do I like best: fresh comparisons, musicality, exquisitely expressed phrases, unexpected insights, or _______?
  • What types or forms of poetry do I especially like?


If you want to expand your poetry-writing options, A Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry: in Free Verse and Traditional Forms will surely help!


National Poetry Month also brings a good time talk about our concerns as poets. For example:


  • How do I find poetry publishing markets?
  • Is it a good idea to self-publish a poetry book?
  • How do I know for sure if I’m even a poet?


If you scroll through the posts on this blog or type a key word into the Search box, you might find previous discussions that relate to where you are now. Regardless, post your responses to the above questions and/or other poetry questions you’d like to ask in the Comments box below. And have a happy NaPoMo! 


©2021, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet, A Gathering of Poems


Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Turning Point

In poetry, a volta means a turning point indicated by a change of thought, scene, emotion, or perspective. When used as a common devise in classical sonnets, the volta typically turns an idea or argument in a different and, sometimes, unexpected direction.


Our country needs a volta.


Religious leaders, politicians, law-enforcement officers, COVID patients, shop owners, CEOs, and decision-makers for homes, health care, and schools need more workable, problem-solving perspectives.


As I’m writing this, we’re in the church season of Lent, which rhymes and often equates with “repent.” Unfortunately, social media (or, rather, anti-social media) seem to fixate on what’s wrong in the world rather than turning toward specific solutions worth suggesting.


Poets also have the opportunity to work toward a worthwhile volta – not by turning toward simplistic answers that show no understanding of peoples unlike ourselves or situations unlike any we've experienced. Sometimes we make a difference simply by asking questions relevant to our times. Last night, for instance, this poem appeared to me, saying what I've been wanting to say:


Turning Points

The tide turns on the privileged ones
who rank themselves above the law
and have nowhere to go but down.

What will the downtrodden do
to make things right? Will they
shout and fight or give everyone
the benefit of the doubt?

Will they treat others the way
they were – or Way they wanted?
Will they return the love God gave?

Will they turn to finger-pointing –
or be fair, be kind, be brave?


Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2021





Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Voice of Protest Poetry


My first awareness of protest poetry came during the Vietnam era when poets like Robert Bly had much to say. However, a quick search on the Internet shows a long history of poets voicing their concerns, which pretty much describes a protest poem.  


Protest poetry arises whenever poets address their concerns.


This might occur in lines subtly drawn or in a voice so loud, it’s like a slap meant to get a hysterical person to calm down.


As I’m writing this, our country – perhaps the whole world – seems to be operating on hysteria! Lies and innuendoes leave us confounded, unable to confront or correct whatever troubles us with reasoning and a rational response, rather than a mouth-jerk reaction.


Like everyone else, I’m anxious to see if COVID will disappear anytime soon and if our schools, shops, and churches will survive the resulting rifts and isolation. What concerns me more, however, is how wonderful, God-loving people can be more intent on hanging onto their pride and prejudices, so that nothing gets accomplished, and no healing begins.


We can take peace or make it.            


These troubling thoughts brought the first line of the following poem to mind this morning, so I wrote it down and the rest soon followed – a pattern you might follow too. i.e.


Write down whatever comes to your mind as you consider what most concerns you.


Let flow what you most want to say. 

Read aloud then go back later to clarify or revise.


Since I am especially weary of simplistic statements that fail to include valid views unlike one’s own, and I feel drained by the endless speculations about who’s lying, here’s my protest poem:


Where Does Truth lie?


Has the peace of the Lord been broken

into pieces?

Can we hear His voice best

if we’re protesting

or murmuring about our fate?


Is it too late to bind

the spirit of deception?

What will happen

if we wait for someone else

to say, “I’m wrong”?

A house divided against itself

cannot stand long,

nor can a church or nation.


Remember? God warns

our country will be judged

by how we treat our widows

and our orphans,

but which is worse –

slaughtering unborn babies

or leaving homeless children

and broken people

on the street?


Can the earth repair itself

without our help?


No easy answers have arisen.


Making peace with people

and political stances will be hard.


May God release us

from this wrath-filled prison.


May Holy Spirit be

our guide and gracious guard.


©2021, Mary Harwell Sayler