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.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Prufrock and T.S. Eliot

As I began the column “Poets Who Make Us Better” for Interlitq (The International Poetry Quarterly) T.S. Eliot  came to mind – not because his poetry led us out of the wistfulness of romanticism into the  honesty of modernism (which it did), but because, in the United States, my high school English teacher forced our small class to read the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” 

Although Eliot wrote the poem from the perspective of an old-fashioned, socially-inept, aging man, the poet himself was a college student, not much older than the baffled teens who studied his work. At the time, of course, I had no idea what the poem meant, especially since it began with a quote from Dante’s Inferno! Nevertheless, the opening lines in English invited me into a new experience, and, immediately, Eliot’s skillful use of figurative language startled me into something I’d never thought about before: Poetry can be brilliant!

Lines from the first verse give a glint of that poetic brilliance:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.

Remember: I said “poetic brilliance,” which has little, if anything, to do with poetic prettiness.

Regardless, if you have ever had the nauseating experience of being “etherized,” you may recall the fog accompanying that older form of anesthesia, which, thank God, is no longer in use, except among residents of countries who can’t afford the newer, pricier ways of getting a patient ready for the surgery that inevitably follows.

So, from the start, Eliot invites us to accompany him before gesturing with a hand-sweep across the sky to show a hazy grey evening that contributes to the dismal mood. The “half-deserted streets” and “cheap hotels” add to the gloominess before the poem jolts our sensibilities with a precise, concise, and, yes, brilliant simile that depicts a city scene:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Insightful phrasing like that does not come from one’s imagination, but from the outer sight of what’s actually present. This highly observant “nowness” is where Eliot had a turn at altering the course of  poetic flow in literary history.

Before he began to write for publication, reams of poems had been written to “my lady, my love.” Or, poets had painted idyllic landscapes flowering with nostalgia, or they addressed abstract matters having little to do with everyday lives. But like an interesting (albeit shy) tour guide, Prufrock invited us to accompany him on a journey.

Once the speaker of the poem reached his destination, Prufrock began paying close attention to a particular movement that caught his eye:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Frankly, I would like to walk around, talking of Michelangelo and maybe Dante too, but Prufrock is clearly not in the mood. Instead, his glance shifts, drifting toward another movement that catches his attention:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes.

Oh, to be that observant and write such amazing metaphors! And yet, Prufrock himself evokes pity.  He goes on to speak of the time needed for people to do whatever they will in life, while recognizing that he himself wastes a lot of time by being mired in uncertainty:

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

As he turns in on himself (which high school students are also apt to do!) Prufrock reveals his self-doubts – from thinning hair to, ironically, being unable to express himself and, therefore, being misunderstood and likely to misunderstand others. But, instead of saying, “I feel so insignificant,” he shows that by saying:

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

Prufrock’s indictment against himself most likely felt true for Eliot too, and perhaps even urged him toward his poetic greatness. But, as this poem unfolds, Prufrock continues to observe people while trying to figure out where he (and maybe Eliot) might fit in. Eventually this led to the troubling question:

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

At first, the question seems rather egotistical, but, in light of Prufrock’s insecurities, that assessment dims. For, in the decades following the high school student I was and college student Eliot was, I’m convinced the question “Do I dare?” occasionally haunts those of us who want to make a discernible difference in the world.

Do I dare to set things right? Do I dare try to make life better for someone or something somewhere? Do we dare to pray, to hope, to take a chance on the unknown? Eliot did.

Caught between his uncertainties and his calling, between his life in America and in Europe, and between two world wars, the poet dared to expand his poetic sight by exploring the inner self, the impact of social confinement, the quality of time, the literary edges of poetry, and the spiritual struggles we all face – and embrace or deny.

The chances Eliot dared to take earned him a Nobel Prize in literature as well as the honor of being a pioneer in the modern movement of poetry and, ultimately, of having an appreciated place in the classroom of my high school, which I now appreciate too.

originally published in “Poets Who Make Us Better” column on Interlitq

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Christian mystic and poet: Caryll Houselander

Are you ready for 2019 to end? As 2020 begins, let’s make poetry a priority for the coming year. Let’s get a 20-20 vision of the legacy we want to leave as poets, and let’s seek to see more clearly and deeply into every subject to which we’re drawn.

An example of this abilty to see well can be found in the work of the Christian mystic and poet, Caryll Houselander, whom I wrote about in the following article which initially appeared in my Poets Who Make Us Better” column for The International Literary Quarterly (Interlitq.)

The road to mysticism is sometimes paved with ruins and wreckage as Caryll Houselander (1901-1954) colorfully illustrated in her life. She liked to drink. She liked to curse. And she fell in love with a Russian spy, who broke her heart by marrying someone else.

As the Blitz killed 40,000 people in and around London where she lived during World War II, Caryll drowned out the noise and her own explosive fears while writing her first book The War is Passion. These lines from the book give us an idea of the changes happening within her as bombs dropped and sirens blared, and she came to realize this calming thought:

“There are people who do not find it necessary to use words or ideas for meditation. We know we can hear a song, sung in a language of which we know not one word, but of the rhythm, the melody of it finds an answer in our heart, it echoes from our own soul. We can understand it without being able to translate a word of it into our own speech. For some, prayer is like that.”

In 1944, Caryll wrote The Reed of God, an inspired collection of devotionals about Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She wrote poetry, too, but called the poems her “rhythms,” which I’d be more apt to call “perceptive.” Take, for example, her opening lines of this longer poem:

The Old Woman

The old woman, who nods by the Altar,
Is plain and ill shapen
and her clothes musty.
She thinks her life useless.
She has scrubbed many floors,
And always she did it, mostly
for God’s glory;
but never with the vision
that makes the work easy.

The empathy Caryll felt with other people grew so strong, it didn’t even matter if they were alive! She physically felt the pain of others, saw the face of Christ in everyone, and experienced a peculiar closeness with people who had died.

Eventually Caryll acquired the reputation of being a spiritual writer or modern-day mystic, and yet I knew none of this when I bought her slender volume, A Child in Winter – a post-humus collection of short devotionals from her various books. I just wanted something with a Christmas theme to read during Advent. So it’s not really Caryll’s poetry or “rhythms” that first spoke to me but rather her insights into spiritual matters that make us better people and give us cause to pause and consider such words as these:

“Christ has lived each of our lives” from her book, The Risen Christ.

“The Law of Growth is rest,” from The Passion of the Infant Christ.

“Truth would be a very small and petty thing if it would fit into our minds,” The Reed of God.

The little book I bought for Advent includes other lines and passages from The Reed of God, many of which seem significant not only to seekers of the spiritual but to poets, writers, and other artists. For example:

“Those who seek are more aware than any others. They observe every face; they look deep into every personality;  they hear every modulation in the voice. They hear music and words and the sounds of machinery, laughter, and tears with new hearing, attentive ears. They hear and see and taste life in a new way, with a finer consciousness, more analytically, because they are searching, because truth and only truth can ease their thirst; and with incomparably more delight, because, in this seeking, searching, and finding are one thing; everywhere and in everyone they find what they seek.”

For most of us, this awareness of people and the world seems especially keen during the Christmas season as we focus more fully on one another and on the Christ Child, Who awaits our love. Caryll Houselander understood this vital relationship, which she expressed for us in The Reed of God:

“Most people know the sheer wonder that goes with falling in love, how not only does everything in heaven and earth become new, but the lover becomes new as well. It is…like the sap rising in the tree, putting forth new green shoots of life. The capacity for joy is doubled, the awareness of beauty sharpened, the power to do and enjoy creative work increased immeasurably. The heart is enlarged; there is more sympathy, more warmth in it than ever before.

“This being in love increases a person’s life, makes them potent with new life, a life-giver; from it comes all the poetry, music, and art in the world. Human beings, made in the image of God, must also make the image of God’s own love. We make songs and tunes and drawings and poems; children’s stories, fairy stories; jewels, dances, and all else that tells the story of our love long after our heart is dust.

“Christ on earth was a man in love. His love gave life to all loves. He was Love itself. He infused life with all the grace of its outward and inward joyfulness, with all its poetry and song, with all the gaiety and laughter….”

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Prime Time for Rhyme

Rhymes have the best success when they accentuate the meaning, theme, or purpose of a poem.

Since the repetition of a sound naturally calls attention to it, this can be a useful technique to highlight an important thought or image. Otherwise, the emphasis of rhyme can be distracting – like pointing to an empty doorway and saying, "Ta DA!" when nothing is there.

If you once thought, as I did, that a poem wasn't a poem unless it rhymed, you may have found yourself being faithful to the rhyming pattern rather than the poem’s meaning. However, rhyme for the sake of rhyme can make a line seem odd, awkward or strained, so it's better to omit rhymes altogether than to force the syntax into an unnatural-sounding sentence.

In general, the weakest rhymes use the weakest words to create the weakest pictures.  For example, a preposition, adjective, or adverb can not be envisioned.  Except for providing a senseless sound, nothing is gained by pairing a rhyme with “of,” “for,” “the,” or other abstract word.

Conversely, the opposite is true:  Strong nouns and verbs offer the strongest rhymes, create the clearest pictures, and give the greatest strength and emphasis  to a poem’s meaning, theme, and purpose as I hope this poem will show: 


The cardinals convene the color of the day.
Robed in red, they pronounce a benediction
over cawing crow and squawking jay –
an ecumenical procession of beak and plume.

Two tiny titmice, cowled like monks,
begin to chant, and a pair of mourning doves
peck flat wafer seeds from green chunks
of ground, keeping time to some hymnal tune.

A brown thrasher thrashes in a purifying pool,
and into this God-given school of earth and sky –
on my most mid weak day – I
come to be quiet and commune.

by Mary Harwell Sayler from the poetry book Lost in Faith

Note: The above post primarily came from the ChristianPoet’s Guide to Writing Poetry e-book.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Blank Verse Versus Free Verse

Have you ever met a person who reminds you of someone else? The two may look alike or express themselves with similar gestures, but after you get to know them, you might see they’re not alike at all. The primary characteristic you first noticed may be the only one they share. That's how it is with blank verse versus free. People often confuse the two, thinking they’re the same although they have little in common – with one big exception:

Neither blank verse nor free verse has regular end-line rhyme.

The following might help to clarify:

• Free Verse is free of all preconceived patterns or fixed forms. 

Free verse often has no rhymes whatsoever, but it’s just as likely to have true and/or slant rhymes tucked less conspicuously into its lines. Notice, for example, the true rhyming pair receive/believe in the poem “After Shock” and the slant rhymes thicket/wet and guarding/Garden. If you read aloud the poem (derived from the biblical book of Genesis), you’ll also hear sound echoes of resonating vowels and repeated consonants.

After Shock

When we awoke, we found ourselves
in a thicket of trees, the man called a forest –
our eyes too wet to see.

The boys had disappeared,
most likely exploring,
but the flaming torches
guarding the Garden had long
been leafed from sight.

Is this called sorrow?

Are we banished from God


Oh, why did we agree to receive
more than our Maker had made?

How could we believe that sliver
of truth in a slithering serpent?

by Mary Harwell Sayler from poetry book, Lost in Faith, ©2017

Free verse follows its own unique shape. It has the freedom to freely use or not use rhyme, rhythm, or meter – unless any of those features falls into a regular pattern.

Metaphorically speaking, free verse is a stream flowing freely within interesting, irregular, and sometimes surprising boundaries. Conversely:

• Blank Verse is rhythmic poetry blank of end-line rhymes.

In blank verse, the lines do not end in rhyming pairs even though the form is “traditional verse,” which usually does have a rhyming pattern. However, blank verse most often follows tradition with a sonnet structure of 14 rhythmic lines.

Figuratively speaking, blank verse is like a drinking glass used for tiny sips of water but appropriate for large gulps too. In classical English literature,  blank verse has occasionally been the medium for epic poems or plays, generally confining itself to metered verse set in iambic pentameter such as loosely shown here in sonnet length:

Blank Verse on a Blackboard

School children leaning over the flat world
of their desks symbolize tomorrow. How
will the chin lift, the back straighten, the eyes
refocus in time to come around in time
for the circle’s revolution from straight line
into that ongoing entity of spin and spin? 

We sat still once to become conversant
in the past’s apparent presence in pyramids, 
ancient cultures, and Babel's complex
structure – tortuous and convoluted, like
fault lines in the earth where quakes occur
below a city built to outlast blasts of when.

Who knows what we can learn from turning
pages – poured over, revised, and read again?

by Mary Harwell Sayler from the poetry book, Faces in a Crowd, ©2016

As you experiment with blank verse and free verse writing, you might discover you want the predictable, reserved blank verse for everyday company, while enjoying the spontaneity of free verse to help your writing flow, freely, into new terrain.

Note: The above post primarily came from the Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry e-book. For more information about blank verse and free verse, you can also type the topic of your choice into the Search box on this blog page to find related discussions.