“The spirit of man is nomad, his blood Bedouin, and love is the aboriginal tracker on the spoor of his lost self; and so I come to live my life not by conscious plan or prearranged design but as someone following the flight of a bird.”
Sir Laurens van der Post

Welcome to Recovering Words. And the re-designed homepage! (For current subscribers to my Blog please note it is now on my home page! Below this Welcome! Also note that the recycling poetry quotes are there on the right!)

This is a site that celebrates the craft and healing art of poetry and offers details of upcoming poetry writing retreats and workshops. And includes my frequent blog on poetry!

Not just an art form, poetry can take a life in surprising directions. Very much as the way van der Post describes his bird in the epigraph above. That bird may be called many things by many people but for me it is the mystery at the heart of my life and at the heart of poetry. It’s what seems to see me more clearly than I do; seems to be what guides and writes my most lasting words.

Jane Hirschfield, the American poet captures this so clearly: The poet, pursuing a vessel to hold something known, finds what the poem may know that the poet as yet does not. A strange paradox in life and poetry.

Please enjoy my site, comment on the articles or contact me directly with any questions.

Richard Osler

The Kiss of a Shark and Feet of a Sparrow – The Poems of Tim Seibles

American Poet Tim Seibles

American Poet Tim Seibles


Traffic: solitude,
the city — walking around.

So many of us lost in it.
Is love the secret

nobody tells? In a small park
daylight pulled its knife

and a tree moved
toward me: what are you

doing here?
I remembered then: I lit

my eyes which had
gone out

Tim Seibles from Fast Animal, Etruscan Press, 2012

Watch Tim Seibles walk on stage and you better have a fire extinguisher handy or else you might burn up! This man has lit his eyes! Watch out. There is wildfire in his words! This is a man who embodies his passion for poetry. The words fill him and he fills the words. His rendition of Theodore’s Roethke’s poem In a Dark Time at this year’s Palm Beach Poetry festival made me hear it as if for a first of first times. Especially the last stanza:

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

Theodore Roethke from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, Doubleday, 1963

What a definition of the soul: my soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,/ Keeps buzzing at the sill. The way Seibles delivered that line I felt the madness of my own soul! The madness of it buzzing at the sill of my body, trying to break free. And feeling that feeling Roethke’s ecstatic release, at the poem’s end, hit me like an epiphany:

…………..…I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

This poem and Seibles’ poems were an epiphany last January in Delray Beach, Florida.(For a link to Seibles reading his poem Lobster for Sale at the festival click here.) I bought three of his books and devoured them. What I hadn’t expected was to be hit by his impassioned plea for an impassioned poetry in the introduction to his 2004 volume Buffalo Head Solos. What a poetic call to arms. Here is a taste:

What the hell happened to the notion of poet as town crier, rabble rouser, court jester, priestess, visionary madman?….Writing poems in SUV-America can feel like fiddling amidst catastrophe, but if one must fiddle shouldn’t one play that thing until it smokes? And, in stirring the words with our tongues, our paws, our long nights, and the smoldering tangle of our brains, maybe we could move our general kin to listen.

Seibles, in  despair, wrote this in the aftermath of the Iraq war but he could have as easily  written it yesterday. There is a new/old war Iraq, Syria remains brutalized by violence, the Ebola virus remains unchecked in Africa and has crossed over to other continents and terrorism visited my country last week in attacks on our soldiers (claiming two lives) and on our Parliament Building. Rough days. The days he could be describing at the end of his introduction:

 These are rough days. Desperate times. Times when our language is publicly tortured and forced to mean so much less than it means. There must be a way to stop this dying, a way to make a literature that does more: a poetry with the kiss of a shark and the feet of a sparrow, a poetry at intervals beautiful then ruthless, frank but full of quickening delusions.

Tim Seibles, from Buffalo Head Solos, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2004

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Christian Wiman and Greg Orr — How To Lighten Grief’s Gravity

I sometimes think art is useless in the face of extreme suffering, but then I remember Miklos Radnoti, Paul Celan, Anna Akhmatova, or Mandelstam—and I bow my head (to them) in awe. I suppose I do believe that the greatest art consoles a wound that it creates, that art can give you the capacity to endure and respond to the pain it forces you to feel. Psychological pain, I mean.

Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry Magazine from an interview with Caitlin MacKensie in The Rumpus, Oct.7th, 2014

Christian Wiman, who now teaches at the Yale Divinibooksty School,  has been getting a lot of press lately with his 2013 memoir My Bright Abyss and his new book of poems Once in the West which came out this Fall. Wiman is noted for his unapologetic Christian faith that has sustained him through grueling rounds of cancer that have taken him to the edge of unbearable pain and death. But his Christianity and belief in God is not a flag he waves but more a worn blanket with rips and tears he holds to himself with honest dignity.

This week’s tragic events in Ottawa, which are for me such a reminder of senseless deaths happening everyday everywhere on this good earth, brings me right back to the question of how art can possibly console or even heal in the face of tragedy.

And as luck or poetry would have it I came across Wiman ‘s quote in The Rumpus which seemed spot on with my own musings but also expressed something I couldn’t articulate.

I suppose I do believe that the greatest art consoles a wound that it creates, that art can give you the capacity to endure and respond to the pain it forces you to feel. Psychological pain, I mean.

What an insight: art consoles a wound that it creates. Then more: art can give you the capacity to endure and respond to the pain it forces you to feel.” Here’s the key thing Wiman is saying. When you write a poem on a tragic or difficult event you recreate it and with this creation you are no longer just a victim. You have some power over the reshaping and remaking of it.

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Let’s Go Fly a Kite – Heaney and Pascoli – Part Two

Let's Go Fly a Kite

Let’s Go Fly a Kite

The Seamus Heaney translations  of two poems by Giovanni Pascoli (1855 – 1912) published in the New Yorker after the death of Heaney (1938 – 2013) last August sent me scrambling to find out more about Heaney’s connection to Pascoli.  I didn’t have far to go.

Heaney discovered Pascoli in Urbino, Italy in 2002 and was introduced then to Pascoli’s poem L’Aquilone (The Kite), which Heaney,  in a sense, translated twice: once in its entirety and later as a modified version, A Kite for Aibhin (after L’Aquilone by Giovanni Pascoli).  The modified version is set in Ireland not Italy and was included in Heaney’s book The Human Chain, published in 2010.

For a commentary by Heaney on Pascoli’s  The Kite and Heaney’s full translation Click here.   For an article by a professor at the University of Urbino, Gabriella Morisco, describing how she introduced Heaney to Pascoli,  click here.

Heaney’s interest in the kite as an image did not begin with Pascoli. It was one of the wonderful links between these two men that Heaney had already seized on it as a vital image in a poem he had written for his sons about 30 years before — A Kite for Michael and Christopher – a poem that startles me again and again with these lines:

take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.

That’s a whooper of a line. And when Heaney died last year he might have been surprised to have seen that line quoted in  tributes to him to refer to the grief of his passing.

Here, below is Heaney’s version of Pascoli’s, The Kite.

A Kite for Aibhin

After “L’Aquilone” by Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912)

Air from another life and time and place,
Pale blue heavenly air is supporting
A white wing beating high against the breeze,

And yes, it is a kite! As when one afternoon
All of us there trooped out
Among the briar hedges and stripped thorn,

I take my stand again, halt opposite
Anahorish Hill to scan the blue,
Back in that field to launch our long-tailed comet.

And now it hovers, tugs, veers, dives askew,
Lifts itself, goes with the wind until
It rises to loud cheers from us below.

Rises, and my hand is like a spindle
Unspooling, the kite a thin-stemmed flower
Climbing and carrying, carrying farther, higher

The longing in the breast and planted feet
And gazing face and heart of the kite flier
Until string breaks and—separate, elate—

The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.

Seamus Heaney from Human Chain Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

Read More »

The Large Piccolo Cose (small things) of Giovanni Pascoli

Giovanni Pascoli (1855 - 1912)

Giovanni Pascoli (1855 – 1912)


Out in a field half-fallow and half furrowed,
A plough is standing, no oxen-team in sight,
Forgotten looking, half-hid in a mist-cloud.
From the mill-pond comes the wet slapping and surge
And rhythmic rinsings of the washerwomen,
Each splish-splash keeping time with their sing-song dirge:
The wind is blowing, the bush is snowing,
You’ve not come back to your native heath:
When you went you left me sorrowing
Like a plow left out in a fallow field.

Giovanni Pascoli (1855 – 1912), trans. from the Italian, by Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), The New Yorker, November 8th, 2013

The best poetic craft is never self-conscious or obvious. And that’s why the craft of Giovanni Pascoli , as translated by Seamus Heaney, intoxicates me. Pascoli is a new discovery but made familiar through Heaney’s voice which obviously echoes inside the Pascoli poems he translates. I owe the discovery to the American poet Marie Howe at a workshop this summer in Venice where she introduced us to two  of Heaney’s translations. Venice was intoxicating enough without the spells cast by Pascoli whose popularity internationally is so opposed to his obscurity here. Pascoli’s spare images dogged me in Venice and dog me still.

On the Poetry Foundation website  Pascoli is described as arguably the greatest Italian poet writing at the beginning of the twentieth venture. While certainly no modernist, his almost imagistic focus on piccolo cose (small things) and his scaling back of the era’s grandiose language and rhetoric both contributed to the modernization of Italian poetry.

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The Black Dog Speaks – Poetry and Depression – The Robin Williams’ Aftershock



Robin Williams 1951 - 2014

Robin Williams 1951 – 2014



















Depression in Winter

There comes a little space between the south
side of a boulder
and the snow that fills the woods around it.
Sun heats the stone, reveals
a crescent of bare ground: brown ferns,
and tufts of needles like red hair,
acorns, a patch of moss, bright green….

I sank with every step up to my knees,
throwing myself forward with a violence
of effort, greedy for unhappiness–
until by accident I found the stone,
with its secret porch of heat and light,
where something small could luxuriate, then
turned back down my path, chastened and calm.

Jane Kenyon from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 1996

We’re going to miss you Robin…Rest in peace, man.  This is not me speaking although it could be me and thousands of others. No, this is Marc Maron, the comedian, who broadcast a tribute to Robin Williams the day Williams took his own life on August 11th, 2014. Maron’s tribute consists, mainly, of the interview he did with Williams in 2010. The humanity of Williams, his vulnerability, pours out of that interview. It is in a strange way a glorious self-tribute to Williams, remarkable actor, comedian and, most of all, human being. To listen to Maron’s tribute click here.

What makes the interview almost unbearably poignant comes near its end when Williams is discussing his triple recovery: from a relapse back into alcoholism after 20 years of sobriety, heart surgery and divorce. The subject of suicide comes up and Williams dismisses it with grace and self-deprecating humour. He responds: First I don’t have the balls to do it and then he gives a remarkable riff on an inner conversation with himself where at one point he says to himself in response to the impulse to kill himself: Can I put this one here in the ‘What the Fuck” category?

It is clear in Williams’ interview with Marc Maron that taking his life was not an option. But a week ago that changed. What the Fuck became somehow Why the Fuck Not. And now so many of us grieve his passing. And I am reminded of the title of a remarkable book my friend Donaleen Saul wrote after her brother took his life: Did You Know I Would Miss You? 

The epigraph poem for this blog post comes from the American poet Jane Kenyon ( 1949 – 1995) who struggled with depression ( what Winston Churchill called his black dog) for many years. Kenyon in her poem finds a way back, finds a place of refuge from her black dog. Williams, last Sunday, could not. When I heard of William’s death last week when I climbed off a flight having just watched Williams’ last film The Angriest Man in Brooklyn I immediately sought solace in poetry. I thought first of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ so-called six Terrible Sonnets, his poems of black despair, especially his poem: No worse, there is none. But then I thought of Kenyon and her poems on depression. Read More »

Does Poetry Matter? That Question Again!!!

Every poem has an unconscious life…Our poems know more than we do. Read them as clues.

Marie Howe, Venice, July 2014

That’s what poets do: they go to the places that most terrify them and report back.

Patrick Lane, Honeymoon Bay, Vancouver Island, July 2014

Does Poetry Matter? You bet it matters! I have just come back home from two back to back poetry writing retreats: one in Venice with American poet, Marie Howe, and from one at Honeymoon Bay on Vancouver Island with Canadian poet, Patrick Lane. In both venues I have the privilege to witness the birth of new poems during every day of these retreats – poems written as if the lives of the poets writing them depended on it! They did! Not only were so many of these “new-borns” beautifully crafted – poetic artifacts – but in so many cases they led their writers to places of self-revelation otherwise not easily accessed.  For those of us listening these poems were like lanterns in the dark lighting up some of our own hidden, hard to find,  places.  I left both retreats nourished, my bodying carrying more lightly my life and wonderfully, inside me the echoes of the lives of many others.

For me the question, Does Poetry Matter, seems self-evident. But I was reminded of it when I stumbled across the on-line edition of the New York Times yesterday. There, a number of American poets weigh in on the topic. They include David Biespiel, Tracy K. Smith, Patrick Rosal  (click here for my recent post on his poetry), Martin Espada and William Logan. All these responses are worth reading. Gems in each one.

American poet David Biespiel says: Every society we’ve ever known has had poetry, and should the day come that poetry suddenly disappears in the morning, someone, somewhere, will reinvent it by evening. Yes! And why is that, I wonder? Perhaps Biespiel provides a clue when he adds: …. poetry connects us to our past, and poets unmask both private and civic memories, dreams, and urgencies. By harmonizing the body with the mind, serving both young and old, poetry is a guide to deliver us into a fresh engagement with our inner lives and with modernity.  In this quote Bliespiel echoes the comments by Howe and Lane I include at the start of this post. Read More »

Happy Surprise! Recovering Words’ Favorite Honoured at 2014 Griffin Poetry Awards

Winner of the 2014 Griffin Trust Lifetime Achievement Award -Brazilian Poet Adelia Prado

Winner of the 2014 Griffin Trust Lifetime Achievement Award -Brazilian Poet Adelia Prado



The hens, startled, open their beaks
and freeze in that style, immobile
—I was going to say immoral—
their mandibles and ruddy crests,
only the arteries pulsing in their necks.
A woman spooked by sex:
but liking it much.


A body wants another body.
A soul wants another soul and the body as well.
This surfeit of reality confuses me.
Jonathan saying:
it’s like I’m in a movie
If I tell him you’re stupid
he would say I am too.
If he said let’s take a walk through hell
I would go.

Adelia Prado ( 1935 – ) from Seven Poems published in The Puritan - 2014 Spring Supplement, trans. by Dean Thomas Ellis

A month since the last post. Not a lot of my words but lots of poetry that culminated in two days in Toronto feasting on the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize celebrations sponsored by The Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry – the public readings to a sell-out crowd of a thousand by the seven short-listed poets and the awards dinner the next day. You can read a thorough review of the readings here from the Descant poetry blog. (These poetry prizes  are said to be the most prestigious and lucrative on the planet! The winners of the Canadian and International prizes receive $65,000 each!)

Highlight? The chance to see and meet Adelia Prado, the celebrated Brazilian poet who was announced, without prior notice at the reading, as the winner of Lifetime Achievement Award from the Griffin Trust. Other winners of this award include Seamus Heaney and Tomas Transtromer,

In her brief acceptance remarks Prado gave a wonderful line translated by her translator, American poet Ellen Watson: The smallest of poems is a servant of hope! Now, ain’t that the truth!!!
(For my most recent post on Prado click here.)

As an extra treat celebrated American poet and a trustee of the Griffin Trust, Robert Hass, introduced Prado and read from three of her poems. Hass said so wonderfully of Prado: Brazil has produced what might seem impossible, a really sexy, mystical, catholic poet!

Earlier in his remarks he said: she is a theological and devotional poet who can make you think William Blake had been studying Pablo Neruda. She knows what the devil is. She knows that it’s thinking the ordinary is ordinary. She knows it’s the middle of the night anxiety and self-loathing that makes you wonder if you exist. She knows what the divine is: socks and roads and chicken coops.

(As a quick aside. Hass is  the husband of Brenda Hillman who won this year’s Griffin Prize for  an international poet. ( Anne Carson was the Canadian winner.) Both Hass and Hillman are social activists and they were both roughed up by cops at an Occupy Wall Street protest a few years ago.

Before the short list reading I told Hass how wonderful it was he could be there to see his wife celebrated. He replied yes but said he had asked the Trust if there wasn’t a conflict somehow with him as a trustee and she as a nominee. They were clear, he said, that since he wasn’t a judge there was no conflict. But there would be one if he was nominated!)

Prado is a spiritual and indeed religious poet whose words would not grace a Hallmark card. Her poems celebrates life but without a gram of mawkish sentimentality! In the body of her work I have read translated into English she achieves an exquisite balance between darkness and light,  joy and despair.

As Hass made clear Prado is no Gnostic worshipping some intellectual construct. God and Christ (referred to as Jonathan in her poems) are familiars whom she gives physicality with heft!  In a poem called Spiritual Exercise recited by Hass at the reading, she writes: I pray your son to show me the Father: a tooth, a vulva, a turnip appear, born as I was out of nothing. No devil here. No thinking the ordinary is ordinary! My kind of sexy mystic.

Prado fits the cliched image of the “sweet grandmothery type” to a T! But you might think twice before you ask her to read one of her poems when she babysits the kids! Her poem Day included above would be a good example! A woman spooked by sex:/ but liking it much.

I had a chance at the awards dinner to tell Prado, through her  translator Ellen Dore Watson, how much I appreciated her poems and especially these lines from her poem Passion included in Alphabet in the Park, translated by Watson and published in 1990 by Wesleyan University Press:

Once in a while God takes poetry away from me.
I look at a stone. I see a stone.

She responded warmly in her native Portugeese – smiles all around!  I  am grateful God only takes poetry away from Prado once and a while – that when she sees a stone she sees something much more, the grand chaos of our world! And with grace she can venture into the silence behind words and snatch out a live fish…….pure terror!

Here, two more poems translated by Watson:

Before Names

I don’t care about the word, that commonplace.
What I want is the grand chaos that spins out of syntax,
the obscure birthplace of “of,” “otherwise,”
“nevertheless,” and “how” all those inscrutable
crutches I walk on.
Who understands language understands God,
whose son is the word. It kills you to understand.
Words only hide something deeper, deaf and dumb,
something invented to be silenced.
In moments of grace, rare as they are,
you’ll be able to snatch it out: a live fish
in your bare hand.
Pure terror.

Adelia Prado ( 1935 – ) from The Alphabet in the Park, Wesleyan University Press, 1990, trans. Ellen Watson

Eternal Life

Half a century.
The weight of that word used to send me straight to bed.
No more. I’m gathering wisdom.
Alchemists aren’t law breakers —
sure, they’re naïve sometimes like the saints,
believing in stones, fish seen in dreams,
signs written on the sky.
Where is God?
April is reborn out in the cosmos,
in the most perfect silence.
Inside and outside of me.

Adelia Prado, translated by Ellen Dore Watson, from Ex-Voto, Tupelo Press, 2013

Here are some powerful words of Prado’s that sum her up so well! They were recited by Hass at the Griffin short-list reading:

Compared to the desires of my heart the ocean is a drop of water.



A Mothers’ Day “Boast”

Pilgrim's Flower - Nominated for a 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize

Pilgrim’s Flower – Nominated for a 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize

Today, Mothers’ Day, I raise a toast to the English poet Rachael Boast (1975 – ) who has been making waves across the pond for a few years but who recently made a big splash here in Canada with her second poetry collection Pilgrim’s Flower –  an international nominee for 2014 for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. I first discovered Boast through her first much lauded and awarded book Sidereal published by Picador in 2011 and because of that bought Pilgrim’s Flower last year.

In a quiet way her poems make a sensation. They pack an intellectual weight, the image-rich gatherings of a curious and scientific mind that holds room for the transcendent and the riches of the Bible but are not afraid to delve into the deeply personal. And above all  her poems pack an emotional wallop that more often than not catches me off guard. Like this gem, this sonnet in a surprising and unexpected form, from Sidereal:


And how like us it was
that a freak fall of snow
came to pass comment
on the scene. Not the coffee
and the conversation,
but the parting kiss
and its quick precision

after which not a thought
could come to rest
without losing itself in the next.
And even if one day
tells another, we started
as we meant to go on, in the light
of those elliptical flakes.

Rachael Boast from Sidereal, Picador, 2011

To say this is a chilling poem is no understatement. And the more I read it the colder I get! How she lets the metaphor of the surprise snowfall carry the poem and how she lets the musical sounds she creates enliven the poem. Her use of  “s”  and “t” sounds (scene, kiss, precision, rest, next, light, flakes) makes a particular resonance that unifies the poem. I so enjoy how the s’s run into the t’s and create a finality the poem is leading us to – the end of a relationship.

Read More »

SIng Going Down

Jack Gilbert (1925 -2012)

Jack Gilbert (1925 -2012)

What a journey I had this morning! It started with finding a Hirschfield quote in the 2012 book A God in the House:

…poetry exists in part to enlarge us, to deliver us into the not yet known. Writing is an act that generates and expands attention. And if I’m lucky, I may write something that helps expand the life and attention of others as well.

Jane Hirschfield from A God in the House, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, Tupelo Press, 2012

And yes, Jane, you have expanded the life and attention of others as well: I have been thinking lately of your poem On the Beach, how I carry that little girl from the poem, the beauty of that little soul standing in the beauty of the sea-wrack around her, the broken-beautiful at her feet, and her own losses, their terrible beauty, waiting for her:

On the Beach

Uncountable tiny pebbles
of many colours.

Broken seashells mixed in with whole ones,

Sand dollars, shattered and whole,
the half-gone wing of a gull.

Changed glass
that is like the heart after much pain.
The empty shell of a crab.

A child moves alone in the grey
that is half fog, half wind-blown ocean.

She lifts one pebble, another,
into her pocket.
From time to time takes them out again and looks.

These few and only these. How many? Why?

The waves continue their work of breaking
then rounding the edges.

I would speak to her if I could,
but across the distance, what would she hear?
Ocean and ocean. Cry of a fish.

Walk slowly now, small soul by the edge
of the water. Choose carefully
all you are going to lose, though any of it would do.

Jane Hirschield from the Lives of the Heart, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc, 1997
Perhaps it is that image of innocence standing up against life’s immensities at the edge of an ocean, such beautiful brokenness at her feet, but I identify with her. Even with the losses that I have chosen and the ones that have chosen me I want to remember how to stand like her and pick beautiful things and put them in a pocket.

I wasn’t finished with Hirschfield as it turns out this morning! I searched through an interview with her from Rattle Magazine in 2006 and found this:

This is also, of course, one of the central teachings of certain schools of Buddhism: You’re already a Buddha, so you might as well act like one. And everything that happens is the perfection of what happens, including the losses, the pain and suffering, the death, and also the joy. It’s never too late to awaken—you can recognize the perfection of things even at the moment of death. There’s a remarkable haiku by Issa—

On a branch
floating downriver,
a cricket singing.

I think that this is a perfect portrait of life in seventeen syllables [in the Japanese]. You’re going to go over the waterfall, but you are here, now, a cricket, and so what do you do? You sing.

You sing! Yes.The image of singing is so prevalent in poetry: poetry as its own irrepressible song! The haiku by Issa makes me think of Greg Orr’s wonderful declaration: Turn me into Song. Sing me awake. And then it makes me remember a haiku of Basho quoted by Jack Gilbert in an essay called The Craft of the Invisible:

Tired of cherry,
tired of this whole world,
I sit facing muddy sake
and black rice

No cheery early morning offering! And then in the process of finding this essay of Gilbert’s I found another one that also included a number of his early poems and was startled to find a favorite one that ties back to where I started with Hirschfield and Issa’s brave cricket! This wonderful fragment: sing going down.

Here are some excerpts from that poem: Don Giovanni on his Way to Hell:

The oxen have voices
the flowers are wounds
You never recover from Tuscany noons

They cripple with beauty
and butcher with love
sing folly, sing flee, sing going down.

And the final stanzas:

you never recover
you never escape
and you musn’t endevour to find the mistake

that cripples with beauty
that butchers as love
sing folly, sing flee, sing going down

sing maidens and towns, Oh maidens and towns
folly, flee, sing going down

Oh yes! What a great reminder: sing going down. And how unexpected on a morning when I was surprised by a quote on how poetry expands attention! And then how my attention expanded! And then, how I remember to sing!

Just What the Doctor Ordered – Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

New Anthology Causing a Lot of Tears!

This New Anthology Is Causing a Lot of Tears!


If I break my leg, I’ll go to a doctor, If I break my heart or of the world breaks my spirit, I will go to a poet.

Jeanette Winterson, The Times, January 2007

It has an attention grabber title: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. And happily for readers the title lives up to its billing on the inside of this anthology of poems chosen by men solely for their tear-inducing qualities. Just released in early April, this collection is already garnering a lot of attention and rave reviews including an interview with the collection’s father and son team Anthony and Ben Holden on CBC radio’s Tapestry program.

For those of us who consider poetry a vital ingredient for an emotionally robust and healthy life it is not a surprise what an impact these poems make. How important they are. But for others this book might be a life-enriching revelation.

Yes, there are some, dare I say, “old chestnuts” in this collection but none unworthy of this attention I am glad to say! But the delightful surprise is the unfamiliar (at least to me) new chestnuts” chosen by the eclectic list of luminaries (largely writers, actors and others in the movie biz) invited to submit their pick for these “salt water” distinction awards!

The poem that really surprised me in this collection was picked by British actor Colin Firth. In a collection dominated by male poets I am happy to say it’s by a young woman, Emily Zinnemann. I had never heard of her before and from what I can see on-line she has not yet published a book. I hope the inclusion of her poem in this volume will change that! Here’s her exquisitely crafted poem:

Regarding the Home of One’s Childhood, One Could:
forget the plum tree;
forget its black-skinned plums;

           also the weight
           of their leaning as they leaned

                      over starry hedges:
                                  also the hedges,
                                  the dew that turned them starry;
                                               the wet-bellied pups who slunk there

                                               trailing ludicrous pedigrees;
                                                            even the eyes

                                                            of birds


                                                            in the branches;
                                                            even the branches

Emily Zinnemann from
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, edited by Anthony and Ben Holden, Simon & Shuster, 2014

On the salt-water scale this poem is not as obviously gut-wrenching as many in this collection but for its subtle tone and the masterful use of the ambiguous “one could” it conjures its own heart-break – how one could, and many of us do, forget the sights that thrilled our childhood eyes, our beginner’s eyes – eyes that in adulthood grow too accustomed to the world’s wonder, its beauty.

But this poem grabs me for another less obvious reason; a reason that makes this collection a stand out. It is the brief commentary each poem picker makes on their selection. These, more often than not, deeply personal and poignant comments makes this book so much more than a typical anthology. The obvious impact of the poem on its picker is like gasoline thrown on a fire – it makes the fire leap higher and the heat hotter inside each poem. The high profile of each of the picker’s doesn’t hurt either.

Which brings me back to Colin Firth. Ironically, his comments are less emotionally revealing than many of the others and it’s what he doesn’t say that adds such poignancy for me. Firth doesn’t say who Emily is. But her poem was no random pick as I discovered when I searched for her on-line.

Zinnemann is the oldest daughter of Canadian American actress Meg Tilly. And Firth lived with Tilly in a log cabin outside Vancouver for almost five years and they had a son together – Will, Emily’s half brother. I wonder, is Emily referring to memories when Firth lived with her mother? But whether or not this is the case I so appreciate Firth taking the risk to share Emily’s poem regardless of the personal connection. It stands up as an equal in great company with the likes of Auden, Larkin, Tagore, Heaney, Hardy, Bishop, Dickenson, Owen, Oliver, Walcott, Collins and many other greats. No mean feat.

It is not surprising based on the title that all the poem pickers in the volume are men. More surprising is that almost all of their picks were poems by male poets. The lack of poems by women in the collection is being noted in reviews and one reviewer was quick to point out a similar volume is being prepared with poems by women!

I need to confess I am not the crying type when it comes to poems but I sure can get chills up and down my spine when reading them. I could add many picks of my own by women and men that give me the chills! Three by favorite women poets that would stand out for me would be, Fear of Snakes by Canadian poet Lorna Crozier, Manners, Rwanda by American poet Jane Hirschfield and When My Brother Was an Aztec, by American poet Natalie Diaz. Standouts by men would include three poems by the late American poet, Jack Gilbert: Finding Something, Michiko Dead and Married.

Reader advisory: make no mistake: this anthology is no mere intellectual exercise: the book short-circuits elaborate intellectual defences and allows beleaguered feelings to go free. Which of course is one of the great gifts of poetry. So often by feeling the feelings inside a great poem we can acknowledge our own. The American poet Gregory Orr says it so well in his classic book Poetry as Survival:

Whenever I read a poem that moves me, I know I’m not alone in the world. I feel a connection to the person who wrote it, knowing that he or she has gone through something similar to what I’ve experienced, or felt something like what I have felt…. The gift of their poem enters deeply into me and helps me live and believe in living.

And the acclaimed British writer Jeanette Winterson whose trenchant quote introduces this blog goes even further in another quote on the healing impact of art: The healing power of art is not a rhetorical fantasy… I know of no pain that art cannot assuage. For some, music, for some, pictures, for me, primarily, poetry…..cuts through noise and hurt, opens the wound to heal it, and then gradually teaches it to heal itself. For proof of this one needs to go any further than the pages of Poems That Make Grown Men Cry.

I was not familiar with Sir Richard Rogers the British architect whose firm is renowned for legacy buildings such as the Centres Georges Pompidou in Paris. His son died suddenly and Rogers and his wife Ruthie went to Venice during the winter on what would have been their son’s 28th birthday. A highlight during this time was an afternoon spent with their friend the British poet Craig Raine and his wife. Out of that time Raine wrote a poem for Ruthie. A poem that Rogers says, without apology, makes me cry.

For Ruthie Rogers in Venice

Shoulders to cry on,
there mooring posts,
trios leaning together
supporting each other:
in grief and inconsolable.

Mooring post tapering to blunt black
like a child’s lost crayons

The endless wash
of salt water
See-through, threadbare, worn,

These great fogs like ghosts
in slow flight from another slaughter.

The horse cries of fog horns,
lost in their loss,
with no way back,
and the world gone white
in a single night.

Craig Raine from Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, ibid.

There are many salt-water gems in this book. It deserves a wide reading. Prepare to have your heart broken and in that breaking, have it heal. When I read the poems here that deal with war, injustice, joy, death and grief I can only echo part of the last line of a poem by the British poet Robin Robinson, chosen by the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid:

and this is it: true life.