“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 Bigness of Small Poems – #12 in a Series – Gregory Orr (Again)

American poet Greg Orr

American poet Greg Orr

Sorrow is good;
Tears are good.
But too much
Grief erodes.

What if all
The soft soil
Washes away
And only hard
Furrows remain?

Then what?

Then what can grow in us?

Gregory Orr from The River Inside the River, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013

It seems as if the small poems I chose for this series chose themselves! Wasn’t planning on posting another small Greg Orr poem but I have! The reason: This quote I came across from an interview with Orr in Image Journal in my files today:

When the poet moves her disorder outside herself by turning it into words and then ordering it, she is re-stabilizing herself after being destabilized by experience. She thereby masters an existential situation – joy or despair, trauma or love – that had threatened to master her.

If you yourself can’t make a poem or song about your disorder (but you can, you should), you can instead benefit from someone else’s poem. Their poem can help you make sense of your experience.

It made me think again about Orr’s own experience of how poetry helped him survive in the aftermath of his fatal shooting of his brother in a hunting accident when he was twelve. How poetry helped him keep enough soft soil in his spirit so life could grow in him again. For Orr’s Op Ed piece about this in the New York Times Magazine in 2014 click here.

Orr expresses the truth for him of the stabilizing and therapeutic power of poetry in this small poem:

First, there was shatter.
Then aftermath.

Only later and only slowly
We gathered words
Against our loss.

But last was not least,
Last was not least of these.

Gregory Orr, ibid


The Bigness of Small Poems – # 11 in a Series – Denise Levertov

American poet Denise Levertov

American poet Denise Levertov



I had grasped God's garment in the void
But my hand slipped
On the rich silk of it.
The 'everlasting arms' my sister loved to remember
Must have upheld my leaden weight
From falling, even so,
For though I claw at empty air and feel
Nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.

Denise Levertov (1923-1998) from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, New Directions, 2013

Catching my spiritual breath again today after leading a Poetry-as-Prayer retreat at St Georges Cadboro Bay in Victoria, Friday evening and all day Saturday. These retreats remind me how poetry can be so soul revealing. How, sharing poems creates sacred space. How differences melt away when our poems speak in the language of our essential humanity. Our language of loss and resilience.

Even though Poetry Month is behind us I am going to continue with my series of small poems. What a delight it has been find poems of ten lines-and-under and share them! It seems fitting today to feature a poem by Denise Levertov whose poetry is often featured in my poetry-as-Prayer retreats.

I experienced something of the truth of Levertov’s poem at my retreat. Poem after poem of loss and sorrows yet such expressions of gratitude and the strange paradox of losses that become catastrophic or fierce grace. That somehow become life-giving. That somehow in spite of a sense of God or the Beloved’s absence in our lives in moments of loss and challenge we manage to keep on. We do do not fall in a bottomless void. We are held up, somehow:

For though I claw at empty air and feel
Nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.


The Bigness of Small Poems – # 10 in a Series – Jim Harrison (again)

American writer, Jim Harrison (1936-2016)

American writer, Jim Harrison (1936-2016)

from After Ikkyu

– 3 –

I’ve wasted too much moonlight.
Breast beating. I’ll waste no more moonlight,
the moon bullied by clouds drifts west
in her imponderable arc, snared for a half
hour among the wet leaves in the birdbath.

Jim Harrison from After Ikkyo and Other Poems, Shambhala, 1996

I have a soft spot for poet and novelist, Jim Harrison these days! My second pick of one of his small poems in a row!

I re-entered Harrison’s poetry after his death last month and have been delighted by what I have found. This poem comes from a small collection of Zen-inspired poems he wrote more than twenty years ago.

How much of what is beautiful in my lifetime have I stopped noticing? How much have I wasted? I can never get too many reminders to wake up and pay attention! So I am so grateful for this:

I’ve wasted too much moonlight. Yes.

The Bigness of Small Poems – #9 in a Series – Jim Harrison

American writer, Jim Harrison (1936-2016)

American writer, Jim Harrison (1936-2016)


My work piles up,
I falter with disease.
Time rushes toward me –
it has no brakes. Still,
the radishes are good this year.
Run them through butter,
add a little salt.

Jim Harrison from Dead Man’s Float, Copper Canyon Press, 2016

When American poet, novelist and outdoorsman, Jim Harrison died earlier this year, we lost a man of great carnal appetite who grounded his poetry within that appetite and made us all richer for it. He reminds me constantly to remember that the ordinary is extraordinary. I bless him for that.

This small poem delights me in so many ways. First: its title – Zona. Not some esoteric eastern Yoga practice but another name for shingles – the painful viral condition that effects the nerves and skin in a most debilitating way. Harrison had shingles and in spite of them managed to enjoy his life.

In his poem he faces death and disease and still has time to enjoy his radishes. To make that the defining story, not his own illness and impending death which, as it happens, was approaching fast.

I call this poem, a prayer of thanksgiving. A huge prayer with a small body! I was grumpy today and loaded up with all sorts of competing jobs. Wasn’t much I wanted to praise and give thanks for. This small poem wakes me up. Kicks me in the ass.

I have so much to be grateful for. For example? This Spring’s resplendent cherry blossoms! And is it possible I am forgetting them already? Not now! Not after this poetic reminder! Thank you Jim Harrison.

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 8 in a Series – Gregory Orr

American poet Greg Orr

American poet Greg Orr

Note to self: remember
What Emerson said
of Thoreau—
That he loved the low
In nature:
And crickets, suckers
And frogs.
                   Not stars.

Songs of the carnal,
Songs of what we are.

Gregory Orr (1947 - ) from River Inside the River, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013

Greg Orr’s recent small poems fit so well into my series of small poems! Since 2003, when a mysterious line entered his head one morning, he has focused on epigrammatic small poems ( in three full-length collections and a chapbook). I cherish these poems. The poem above is typical of this poetic outpouring.

This is not my first post on Orr. He is a favorite of mine. Not just for his poems but also his idea, expressed wonderfully in a book of assays that poetry is a way to survive our lives! And their chaos, joys and sorrows. He means it! Poetry has played a central role in his surviving a horrific moment when he shot his brother in an hunting accident when he was twelve years old. For a link to a previous post on Orr click here.

In an interview in Image Journal he explains how his small poems originated:

In the winter of 2003, I woke to a phrase in my head: “the book that is the resurrection of the body of the beloved, which is the world.” I intuited that it was referring to that repository of poems and songs that dramatize what it is to be a person, and I felt inspired to explore its further implications.

I need to make a note like this from his poem, to myself! To remember the things of this earth and in that remembering remember myself. My body! How much it has to tell me if I will turn off my mind long enough to hear!

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 7 in a Series – Robert Bly

American poet Robert Bly

American poet Robert Bly

Walking on the Shore in Late August

I look out over the muddy lake.
All at once I see a fin rise, what alertness!
All my brain power pours toward that spot on the water.
How we long for a bit of consciousness to appear above
              the water!

Now I notice what I have never noticed before,
Bending over graceful,
At the shoreline…

Mother take me deeper—
Take me on your fins down…

Robert Bly ( 1926 -) from Uncollected Poems in Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life,
White Pine Press, 2015

The idea of the deep image and the power of the unconscious have been a key part of the poetics of Robert Bly for almost seventy years! I have written about Bly in previous posts (to read some of them click here, here and here) but as he approaches his ninetieth birthday in December I want to highlight him again through this small poem.

A new documentary film has been completed on Bly (for details click here) which I am looking forward to seeing! My dvd is on its way! And although Bly has slowed down a lot someone who saw him a few weeks ago told me: He’s creaky but still Robert.

Bly’s was the single influence that brought me back to poetry in my forties! I know through his crusty nature he has not endeared himself to “The Powers that Be” but his influence on poetry in the English-speaking world, I think, is beyond comparison. Is he worthy of the Nobel Prize for Literature. You bet!

If you haven’t read Bly lately please consider it. Take a ride down with him in his darker waters. Hang on but enjoy the ride!

I keep trying to swim in those dark waters:

Mother take me deeper—
Take me on your fins down…




The Bigness of Small Poems – # 6 in a Series – Sean O’Brien

U.K. poet, Sean O'Brien ( 1952 - )

U.K. poet, Sean O’Brien

The Lost War

The saved were all ingratitude,
The lost would not lie down:
Reborn, their sacred rage renewed,
They razed the fallen town.

And in the graveyard made their stand
Just east of heaven’s gate.
We are the same. It is all one
Whom we exterminate.

Sean O’Brien (1952 -) from The Drowned Book, Picador, 2007

We live, not where I live, but where too many live in this planet, in the madness of war. This small poem, punches way above its weight and captures the madness of war fueled too often by sacred rage. This poem grabs me by the throat! What a wonderful poem should do!

We are the same. It is all one
Whom we exterminate.

This, for me, says it all. It is all one/ Whom we exterminate. And yet, we persist on pretending the “other” is an “other” and the killing goes on.

This “perfect” poem stirs an anger inside me. Not just because what O’Brien says is true. But because I, too, am part of the problem. I too, nourish my sacred rage but pretend not to. A friend once told me: Richard, we are badly made. Sean O’Brien seems to agree. What could we ever do to ourselves to make this poem untrue? How can we make ourselves better? All of us.

Sean O’Brien, poet, critic and playwright, is a professor at Newcastle University, U.K. and in 2007 had the singular distinction of winning both the T.S. Eliot and Forward Prizes for The Drowned Book which includes The Lost War.

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 5 in a Series – Patrick Lane

Canadian Poet patrick Lane

Canadian Poet Patrick Lane

The White Box

In the white box
you keep hidden away
a white salamander
waits with a flame
in his small hands.

How bright the fire! 
How long his breath
has kept it alive.
But the box is closed.
Why do you keep it closed?

Patrick Lane (1939 - ) from The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane, Harbour Publishing, 2011

Patrick Lane needs little introduction in these pages where I have highlighted his poems frequently! Mentor, teacher, prolific Canadian poet with a career that now spans more than fifty five years, Lane is an important poet not just in Canada but in the world.

When I think of Lane I think most often about his long narrative poems. So it it gives me pleasure to profile a small lyrical poem of his. This one so reflective and confronting. In this way it reminds me of American poet Charles Bukowski’s poem, Bluebird. The image (salamander for Lane, bluebird for Bukowski) of the essence of us we keep hidden. Give it just enough to keep it alive and no more!

Lane, a recovering alcoholic who is very public about his addiction and recovery, has opened his white box so we all can see that flame burning bright in the salamander’s hands. My question today is this: have I opened my box? Have you opened yours?

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 4 in a Series – Tom Crawford

American Poet Tom Crawford. Photo Credit: Carol Rose Brown

American Poet Tom Crawford. Photo Credit: Carol Rose Brown


   There is nothing
   out there
   to help you.
   The bird
   is inside.
   Pick up your brush,
   and maybe
   you should close
   your eyes.

Tom Crawford from Caging the Robin, Cedar House Books, 2014

I first profiled American poet Tom Crawford back in April 2012. (To read that post click here.) And so it was with delight I received a copy of Tom’s latest book in the mail from him in 2014. And I’ve been meaning to give a shout out for it ever since. Time!

Known and respected by many of his peers, including Jim Harrison, David James Duncan, Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher (Carver;’s wife who wrote the introduction to Caging the Robin),  Crawford has a disarmingly simple poetic style that still manages to pack in fistfulls of mystery! His latest volume, Caging the Robin, is yes, a book that includes many bird poems but also much more: his abiding praise for our crazy, horrible wonderful world.

There is a strong Asian influence in Crawford’s work (he lived in Korea for a time) and a lovely meditative notion in many of his poems, especially in the poem above. It has such a Rilkean sense to it. That we must bring the things of the world inside and make them live there in our imaginations. As a poet I am reminded by this poem to keep doing the inner looking. To trust the words that bring my poems from deep inside.

The Bigness of Small Poems – #3 in a Series – Kevin Young

American Poet Kevin Young

American Poet Kevin Young (1970 – )


In the night I brush
my teeth with a razor

Kevin Young from Book of Hours, Alfred A. Knopf, 2014


The borrowed handkerchief
           where she wept

returned to me months later
           starched, pressed.

Kevin Young, ibid

It seems ironic to be featuring two small poems of American poet Kevin Young when his poetic output in the past two years has been BIG! It has included too major hard cover volumes including Blue Laws, coming in at five hundred and eighty pages, his Selected and Uncollected poems published earlier this year.

The reason for metaphor! To put the ache back in an abstraction as American poet Stephen Dunn says. Oh the ache in these two Grief poems. But so differently. In the first poem the expression of grief is so dramatic and vibrating with pain. Ouch. Like putting my finger into a light socket that’s turned on! But the second – the grief is so folded up and contained. Another ouch but not the same!

Kevin Young is the author of ten books of poetry, one of which won an American Book Award and another that was a finalist for the National Book Award. He is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Creative Writing and English at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.