Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Intro and poems from Talking to the Wren

Even in troubling times, poetry can lift us out of squalor, self-centered perspectives, and apathy! Notice I said “can,” not “does,” for the power and choice are ultimately up to us.

Nature offers this power too, especially when highlighted by haiku or other poems that give us a touch of surprise, humor, empathy, or beauty we might not have otherwise noticed. Then, as our awareness increases, we’re encouraged to tend the earth and all of its peoples with closer fellowship, appreciation, and good will. At least, that’s my hope in collecting poems for Talking to the Wren: Haiku, Short Verse, and One Long Poem recently published by Cyberwit.net.

Here’s a glimpse of the poems:

Black vultures at rest –
surprisingly beautiful –
on the dead branches

This morning the lake
can see its warm breath, puffing
against the cool air.

Spring comes silently –
slow as a caterpillar,
quiet as an owl.

pearl petals –
Magnolia blossoms
cup to catch Spring rain.

Kudzu leaves its green
drop-cloth over the wooden
furniture of trees.

cracks the sky like a walnut –
each half trembling.

See how old I feel!
In Autumn, the night light draws
a moth to my shine.

In every season –
Thunder! and the still, small Voice!
God is All in all.

from Talking to the Wren: Haiku, Short Verse, and One Long Poem by Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2020; published by Cyberwit.net.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Poet’s Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke

The following post originally appeared on the “Poets Who Make Us Better” column for Interlitq (The International Literary Quarterly.)

In the introduction to The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, the former U.S. Poet Laureate and prize-winning poet Robert Haas summarizes the central theme of Rilke’s poetry as “…the abandonment of ordinary life for the sake of a spiritual quest.” Our interest in this quest, shared by other poets and prophets, draws us to Rilke’s work as a standard for improving our poetry and seeing our lives embraced by both mystery and clarity.

The very first poem in the collection, entitled by its first line, gives a glimpse of that quest:

I am, O Anxious One. Don’t you hear my voice
urging forth with all my earthly feelings?
They yearn so high that they have sprouted wings
and whitely fly in circles around your face.
My soul, dressed in silence, rises up
and stands alone before you: can’t you see?
Don’t you know that my prayer is growing ripe
upon your vision, as upon a tree?

That poem originated in Rilke’s renowned The Book of Hours, but to get an overview of his life’s work, I chose the Vintage Books edition of poems edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell, who selected poems from Rilke’s books written between 1905 and 1926.

This does not, of course, include the must-have Letters to a Young Poet since that book consists, not of poetry, but of the correspondence between 27-year-old Rilke and 19-year-old Franz Kappus, who asked for a critique of his poems but received a 5-year-long discussion on poetry and the life of a literary artist.

For example, in the first letter of the book Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote, “Things are not as easily understood nor as expressible as people usually would like us to believe. Most happenings are beyond expression; they exist where a word has never intruded.”

Rilke’s adventures into a life-expressed continue throughout ten letters to Kappus with everyday conversations but also brilliant observations such as this timeless insight from Letter 8:

 “It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing.

Also in Letter 8, the poet-mentor challenged the novice with these words:

Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don't know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien.

The startling statement that “sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien” gives an excellent example of how Rilke’s words call us to read his work again and again.

Regarding the questions the poet likely intended to be rhetorical, the answer just might be fear – the common lack of courage to face life head-on, regardless of its pleasantries or lack thereof, and a frequent factor in our tendency to pull back or shy away from living life to its fullest.

Not only do Rilke’s letters enlarge our ability to embrace our own existence and expand our view of life and poetry, they let us know where he was coming from in the poems he wrote.

For instance, the poem “Lament” from The Book of Pictures, expresses Rilke’s openness to the sadness that well might be a prerequisite for joy.

I think that the star
glittering above me
has been dead for a million years.
I think there were tears
in the car I heard pass
and something terrible was said.

Then these lines conclude the poem:

I would like to step out of my heart
and go walking beneath the enormous sky.
I would like to pray.
And surely of all the stars that perished
long ago,
one still exists.
I think that I know
which one it is –
which one, at the end of its beam in the sky,
stands like a white city….

Perhaps my background and interests cause those lines to bring to mind the long-ago shining star over Bethlehem and the bright new Jerusalem yet to come. However, another poem selected from The Book of Pictures shows Rilke’s skill in observing and comparing what’s right before us in these opening lines of “Evening.”

The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
held for it by a row of ancient tress.

An observer of all aspects of nature – whether plant, animal, human, or Divine – Rilke clearly sees the predicament of “The Panther” in New Poems:

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

A less poetic voice might have said something like, “The panther only sees the bars of his cage, and after staring at them for ages, he no longer believes there’s anything ‘out there,” but bars.” So Rilke is not satisfied merely to notice something; he must enter it.

Also in the section of New Poems, we find one of Rilke’s best-known pieces, the “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends with the often quoted statement, “You must change your life.” However, my favorite from New Poems is “The Flamingo,” which portrays a flock of the exotic birds in this exquisite word-picture:

“…They rise above the green
grass and lightly sway on their long pink stems,
side by side, like enormous feathery blossoms…

Having returned to my almost-native Florida after several years in Virginia, I can easily envision the flamingos here looking like the blousy pink peonies that bloomed alongside my sister’ Virginia farmhouse, but I never thought about that until Rilke made the connection – the fresh comparison and delightful depiction that, hopefully, challenges us to spend enough time with our own poems for them to come fully into bloom.

Highly adept at letting poems unfold, Rilke even managed to let life unfurl in death! For example, his book Requiem includes the poem “Requiem For A Friend,” which begins:

“I have my dead, and I have let them go,
and was amazed to see them so contented,
so soon at home in being dead, so cheerful,
so unlike their reputation…

This inclination to turn a concept or assumption onto its head and shake out its pockets is a high mark in Rilke’s poetry and prose. For instance, in his book The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, his poem on the well-known biblical figure, “The Prodigal Son,” gives this unique account:

He “…didn’t even want to have the dogs with him, it was because they too loved him; because in their eyes he could see observation and sympathy, expectation, concern; because in their presence too he couldn’t do anything without giving pleasure or pain.”

Instead of the degenerate young man typically portrayed, Rilke saw the prodigal as the younger son surrounded by so much love, he had to get away to keep himself from suffocating.

In the “First Elegy” of the Duino Elegies, Rilke gives us another fresh perspective:

…the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in
our interpreted world.

In the “Second Elegy” of that same book, Rilke asks:

Does the infinite space
we dissolve into, taste of us then. Do the angels really
reabsorb only the radiance that streamed out from themselves…

And in The Sonnets of Orpheus, the first poem to Orpheus describes him as a “tall tree in the ear,” then says, “you built a temple deep inside their hearing.” Conversely, the poem “At once the winged energy of delight” astonishingly states, “For the god wants to know himself in you.”

Apparently, Rilke also wants us to know ourselves in our poems – and vice versa. Returning to The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which some call a semi-autobiographical novel, the master poet offers us this counsel in his poetic prose “For The Sake of a Single Poem”:

“…Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) – they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained….”

The sage advice goes on, “And it is not enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.”

Rilke frequently presents the flip side of what’s obvious,  taken for granted, and/or unexplored beyond a shallow surface or assumption, enticing us to open ourselves more fully to a well-lived life, and perhaps, in the process, finding ourselves becoming better people, better poets.


©2020 Poet-writer-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 provide resources for poets and writers on her website.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Revising for Sound and Sense

Poetry revision seldom involves rewriting the poem. More often, revising simply means the poem needs a little tweaking to clarify what’s said and/or to enhance the poem’s musicality.

This new haiku provides an example.

In the morning light,
a bird begins its chirping.
Maybe I can sleep.

Reading those lines aloud reveals a lack of sound effects that, well, would make the poem more effective. Also, the connection between the last line and the first two seems too subtle.

Once the problem of a poem has been identified, a solution will usually come to guide the revision.

In the morning light,
birds begin their lullabies.
Maybe now I’ll sleep.

The tweaks clearly connect the last line to the first two and add a hint of humor. 

When the poem is read aloud, the consonance (aka alliteration or repetition of an initial consonant) can be heard in the “b’s” and in the “l” sounds – the latter of which might lull me at last to sleep.


Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Saying More Than You Say

At least a dozen times in offering poetry tips on this blog, I’ve used the word “clarity,” while  many dozens of times I’ve urged poets to “Be clear!” I stand by that advice. But….

A poem that gives up all of its secrets in one reading will not likely draw readers to read it again and again.

Telling all about something is not as effective as inviting others to join you in the experience. Telling all also takes away the mystery and desire to know more.

The idea is to be clear but say more than you’re actually saying. This paradox makes poetry writing more difficult yet more rewarding for both the poet and the reader.

Irony can help to ease the transition between clarity and ambiguity. For example:

Black vultures at rest –
surprisingly beautiful –
on the dead branches

The words make a clear enough picture, but who ever thought of a vulture as “beautiful”?  I certainly hadn’t until seeing them congregate on the bare arms of winter! The stark contrast – and irony – caught my attention enough to commemorate the unusual sight and invite you, too, to be watchful for unexpected moments.

Another way to say more than you say is by writing only the highlights of a story, leaving readers to wonder what this might mean to them or someone they know. For instance:

Pain level a ten –
She thought she had a slipped disc.
Chemo starts today.

Little brush strokes of haiku or, in these examples, senryu, automatically keep us from saying too much and giving readers no cause to pause and think. In this poem, for example, consider the opening pronoun as it relates to the last line.

We’re counting bird calls –
listening for a response.
Sometimes no one’s there.

Sometimes irony will work, sometimes an unexpected viewpoint or turn of events. Regardless, poems do well with open endings that leave readers inspired, challenged, or at least interested enough to think about something they might not have otherwise considered. If, for example, you’ve ever had an opportunity to see the odd and, often, "useless" items donated to less fortunate people, this poem might speak to you in a clear voice while saying more than it says.


Impoverished peoples give generously 
of their patience, graciously accepting  

assorted hand-me-downs: the sequined
vest, silk tie, high-priced pair of heels.

Soon this stiletto heel will bore holes
into the earth where roots can nestle.

This silk tie will fasten branches to hold
a thin blanket, freshening in the sun. This

designer vest will warm the old woman
in search of water and one lost daughter.

She will wear sequins as icons of honor.
She will bear symbols, shining like rain.

Mary Harwell Sayler from the new collection of previously published works, A Gathering of Poems, ©2020

Friday, April 24, 2020

Mary Oliver: my favorite poet

[NOTE: The following article originally appeared on Interlitq in my column Poets Who Make Us Better: Mary Oliver.]

When I began an arduous search of poetry journals, I read so many poems I didn’t connect with that I suspected I had been born in the wrong time with too many blessings to ever be a poet. So I did the only thing I knew to do: I stopped writing poems.

Then during a trip to New England I meandered into a quaint bookshop and saw the glossy green cover of White Pine, a poetry book by Mary Oliver. Confetti could have fallen! Or, more likely, rose petals, bird feathers, pine needles, and beach sand….

Her poems not only spoke to me as no one else’s had done, they called me to observe intently and search attentively for THE precise word. For instance, the opening poem “Work,” hung on these lines:

“All day I work
with the linen of words

and the pins of punctuation…”

We talk about words being “silken” – smooth, soft, sleek, and often shiny – the kind of things I had aimed for in writing poems, but no. In the very first poem of my very first introduction to Mary Oliver’s work, she tells us she’s looking for linen – a fabric that can be coarse or crumpled and in need of ironing. But, with strong fibers woven from the flax plant, linen is a natural material to work with in writing poems.

How unlike the synthetic poems I had been reading! How observant! And see  how precise the poem becomes in the line, “the pins of punctuation….” Isn’t that exactly what punctuation does?

What I’d often looked for, however, in the poetry I’d been reading were lines that carried insight to readers in a plum-delicious way. Consider, for example, Mary Oliver’s poem, “Yes! No!”

“How necessary it is to have opinions! I think the spotted trout
lilies are satisfied, standing a few inches above the earth. I
think serenity is not something you just find in the world,
like a plum tree, holding up its white petals.

The violets, along the river, are opening their blue faces, like
small dark lanterns.

The green mosses, being so many, are as good as brawny.

How important it is to walk along, not in haste, but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out….”

Did you notice the poet’s skill in enticing us with lush, unexpected descriptions before injecting flat statements into the poem?

For another example, look at “I Looked Up,” and see how a ‘thick bird” with “a ruffle of fire trailing over the shoulders” prefaces these flat but startling statements:

“What misery to be afraid of death.
What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven.”

The more I studied the poems in White Pine, the more the book hooked me until I wound up buying everything of Mary Oliver’s I could find. I also read and re-read A Poetry Handbook by this highly acclaimed poet, who had already won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. Then I discovered Blue Pastures with its poetically written essays on poets, poetry, and Oliver’s own writing life.

The wisdom, beauty, insight, exactitude, and down-to-earth practicalities of those books invite me to read them again, making new discoveries with each reading. In Owls and Other Fantasies, for example, the “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard” has a beak that “could open a bottle” while the eyes with “their soft lids” –

go on reading something
just beyond your shoulder –
Blake, maybe,
or the Book of Revelation

One might say the same for the soft lids of Mary Oliver’s eyes as evidenced by “The Uses of Sorrow” in her book Thirst:

“Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.”

In both an experiment or a trial, evidence can confirm a claim or prove it, so it’s not surprising that one of Oliver’s books is called Evidence. The title poem includes a line that exhorts us (perhaps, like an Old Testament Prophet?) to “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

Published by Beacon Press, Evidence contains the persuasive poem, “I Want to Write Something So Simply,” which shows the poet’s consistent aim in her work.

“I want to write something
so simply
about love
or about pain
that even
as you are reading
you feel it….”


“…you will realize –
that it was all the while
yourself arranging the words,
that it was all the time
words that you yourself,
out of your own heart
had been saying.”

That refreshing goal made her poetry exquisite yet accessible and unique and established Mary Oliver as a poet who makes us better as poets and people too.

Mary Harwell Sayler recently collected almost all of the prayers in the Bible from many English translations and paraphrased them into everyday English for the Book of Bible Prayers. She also released the prayer book in the King James Version only as the Book of KJV Prayers then collected poems from her previously published work into A Gathering of Poems.


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.