“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

Saved by Rocks – the Poetics and Prose of Lidia Yuknavitch

American author Lidia Yuknavitch

American author Lidia Yuknavitch

….we are the poem, we have come miles of life, we have survived this far to tell you, go on, go on.

Lidia Yuknavitch from The Chronology of Water – A Memoir, Hawthorne Books, 2010

I owe the topic of this blog post to my friend and wonderful poet Rosemary Griebel. A month or so ago she listed her list of summer reading. On it was a book I didn’t know – The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. So I bought it. It was a memoir published in 2010. Not your everyday memoir. Bigger than big, raunchy, explicit, graphic and in its heart-breaking details of her life, which include addiction, family dysfunction. the stillborn birth of a daughter and marriage breakdowns, it is also radiant with hope and beauty.

While many commentators are grappling with the sexual depictions in Yuknavitch’s books (especially in her latest novel) it was the grief she describes in her memoir from the still-born birth of her daughter that gut punched me. And then the chapter, Metaphor, rocked me (pun intended) where images of rocks become her way of trying to convey the visceral experience of her grieving.

But truly, in the end, it is Yuknavitch’s use of poetic language that mesmerizes me. Here, from an interview with the editor and publisher of Hawthorne Books included at the end of her memoir, is Yuknavitch’s take on poetry:

Poetic language – and by that I mean the language of image, sound, rhythm, color, sensation-is probably the closest we bring language to experience – poetic language takes you to the edge of sense and deep into sensation. So after I name my primal grief, the death of my daughter the day she was born, it felt precise to move directly to poetic language. The metaphor of collecting rocks is more “true” to me to the experience of grieving than to say, I was intolerably sad. It feels precise to draw that metaphor of collecting rocks out, to extend it as long as possible, to let the reader feel the space of grief in the house the way I did. It’s my hope that at least one person will find resonance in that extended language space.

I want you to hear how it feels to be me inside a sentence. Even if some of the sentences seem to lose their meaning. I want the rhythm, the image, the cry to remain with your body. You could probably go through this book and literally chart the moments of emotional intensity by watching where the language – to quote Dickinson-goes strange.

(To read Yuknavich’s chapter titled Metaphor  in her memoir see below.)

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Terrance Hayes – If You Wake Up, A Poem Will Be Waiting

American Poet Terrance Hayes. Photo from the MacArthur Foundation website.











Yes, I have a pretty good idea what beauty is. It survives
all right. It aches like an open book. It makes it difficult to live.

Terrance Hayes (November 1971 – ) from Lighthead, Penguin Poets, 2010

Terrance Hayes, accomplished Black-American poet, and prof at the University of Pittsburgh, has been getting a lot of press lately after receiving a MacArthur Foundation genius grant for $625,000 last year and making People Magazine’s 2014 candidate list for sexiest man alive!

To read the New York Times Magazine article published in March 2015 click here. For the recent Pittsburgh Tribune TribLive article click here. For the video clip interview with Hayes on the MacArthur Foundation website click here.

Sure, Hayes is getting a lot of attention these days but what has kept my attention on him for more than two years is the line he said at a poetry workshop a few years ago: If you wake up,  a poem will be waiting.

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Poet as Spell Caster – Whittemore, Raine and Hirschfield

American poet Amie Whittemore. Photo from The Baltimore Review

American poet Amie Whittemore. Photo from The Baltimore Review



















Spell for the End of Grief

No incantations, no rosemary and statice,
no keening women in grim dresses.
No cauldrons, no candles, no hickory wands.
No honey and chocolate, no sticky buns.
No peonies and carnations, no handkerchiefs.
No dark and lusty liaisons.

Only you and me to see it out.
Sweet self, let me wash your toes,
brush your hair, let me rock you gently.
Together we’ll change the sheets
and I’ll pull you to me, little spoon.
You be the marrow, I’ll be the bone.

Amie Whittemore from the Baltimore Review, Summer, 2015

The oldest job of poetry: spell casting.

Marie Howe, at a Vermont poetry and music retreat, July, 2015

Poets as spell casters! When I heard Marie Howe say this at a retreat in Vermont last month my ears grew as big as a deer’s! And I remembered Amie Whittemore’s recent poem, published in The Baltimore Review, written as a spell. But more. I thought of possible precedents for Amie’s poem. It is rare that we as poets write from a vacuum. We write so often on the shoulders of others.

After reading Whittemore’s poem in The Baltimore Review I contacted her and sent her the poem Spell Against Sorrow. It was written by the important 20th Century English poet, poetry biographer and commentator (especially Yeats and Blake), Kathleen Raine ( 1908 – 2001). Although very different, the two poems share a strong incantory energy.
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Why Do We Fear Poetry? Two Poets Answer: Muriel Rukeyser and Brenda Hillman



American Poet Muriel Rukeyser

American Poet Muriel Rukeyser


Two Years

Two years of my sister’s illness;
the wind whips the river of her last spring.
I have burned the beans again.

Muriel Rukeyser (1913 – 1980) from The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, McGraw Hill, 1982

Strange, for me, how poets and poems move like flotsam on a river. Is it current, is it wind, that sometimes, brings them together? Why now, I wonder, is it that Muriel Rukeyser and Brenda Hillman (1951 – ) seem to have gathered in my poetic back eddy? There they move easily, lazily, around each other even though at times their poetic styles are so different.


What do I make of this poetic dance between two celebrated American women poets – one dead one and one, by all evidence, in the prime of her career? What I make of this is to watch how in this movement they move the poet, the activist, the braver Richard inside me. How they call for an unadorned emotional honesty in poetry. How they let the images do the work! Like Rukeyser does in her three-line bombshell of a poem above. And the way Hillman does it in these mysterious and lyrical poems (presented in published form in two columns side by side, one in darker type than the other) from the Poetry.org website:

December Moon

Oak moon, reed moon—

our friend called;
she was telling the pain
what to think.

I said Look. If you
relax you’ll get better.

Better? who wants better,
said a moonbeam
under the wire,

the soul is light’s
hypotenuse; the lily’s
logic is frozen fire—

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Words on Fire – So the Planet Won’t Die of the Human

Margaret Atwood  (Photo from the Lavin Agency Website)

Margaret Atwood (Photo from the Lavin Agency Website)

Musicians, poets and novelists will be situating their lyrics and plots in new contexts.

— Barry Lord from Art & Energy: How Culture Changes, AAM Press, 2014



Sometimes I am sick of humans except for babies, poets and the ones I love!

— Brenda Hillman, excerpt from her poem A Brutal Encounter Recollected in Tranquility from Seasonal Works With Letters On Fire, Wesleyan University Press, 2013

There is already much charged response to Margaret Atwood’s article a few days ago: It’s Not Climate Change – It’s Everything Change. For me the shock was the realization that as we move to a world without oil (a thought that still gob smacks me as a former oil and gas money manager) so much else will change. So much I take for granted will change and shift. To read Atwood’s article click here.

This idea of a change almost too big to imagine caught me, not so much in what Atwood wrote but later with the response to Atwood’s article by author Barry Lord, self-defined world renowned museum planner and thought leader, whose book (Art & Energy: How Culture Changes) was highlighted in Atwood’s article. To read Lord’s article click here. Here is an excerpt from his response:

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Grief’s Geology – On Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail with E.J. Pratt and Gerard Manley Hopkins (so to speak!)


Near Maher Rock, Newfoundland, looking north to Red Head on the Avalon Peninsula

Near Maher Rock, Newfoundland, looking north to Red Head on the Avalon Peninsula














As I walked along the cliff edges of Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail a few days ago near Pouch (Pooch) Cove, the most easterly community in Canada, I couldn’t help being reminded of a poem by E.J. Pratt ( 1882 – 1964).

Pratt’s poem became a lens which changed the emotional content of everything I saw as I walked surrounded by a landscape contorted by geological forces and the ever-present North Atlantic. Because of the poem I saw more than rock; I saw a woman’s face eroded and changed by grief. Because of a poem I saw beyond what I saw. I saw with unusual eyes.

Pratt may not be a household name these days outside of Newfoundland but he should be. After all he won three Governor General Awards for his poetry between 1937 and 1957. A remarkable accomplishment. His was a singular Newfoundland/Canadian voice powerfully identified with place; not Toronto where he lived for most of his life but Newfoundland where he lived until he was twenty five.

The photograph I took above captures the primeval force of  coastal Newfoundland. Every fracture, rock layer and fault line is exposed. No secrets. So too, Pratt’s poem:


It took the sea a thousand years,
A thousand years to trace
The granite features of this cliff,
In crag and scarp and base.

It took the sea an hour one night,
An hour of storm to place
The sculpture of these granite seams
Upon a woman’s face.

E.J. Pratt from: E.J. Pratt: Complete Poems. ed. Sandra Djwa and R.G. Moyles, University of Toronto Press, 1989.

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Amounts to Nothing Short of Cultural Genocide – Justice Murray Sinclair

Fort Simpson Indian Residential School 1922 J.F. Moran / Library and Archives Canada

Fort Simpson Indian Residential School 1922
J.F. Moran / Library and Archives Canada

Today I am going to break an unwritten protocol: not to use my blog to showcase my own poems. The reason: my emotional reaction to the release of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) report on the residential school system for aboriginal children that existed for about one hundred and twenty years.

These schools subjected these children to unimaginable abuse and in thousands of cases, death. More than seven thousand survivors of that system told their stories to the TRC.

To address my reaction to the report and the closing event for the TRC I attended in Ottawa I sat down and let a poem write me. I started by repeating one word, over and over until its four syllables felt too big and painful for my mouth – residential. Here’s the poem:

Hell, Yes! Say School. Say

Residential. Say it. Spit it out.
No soap, no brush, no doubt
will scrub the curses out. Pronounce it:
Residential. Province by province.
Not providential. Say it
syllable by syllable, blow by blow. Denounce
each syllable, each foreign tongue.
Residential: add it up: one
plus one, plus one, plus one
equals one hundred and twenty
schools. Or subtract it: family
less one, less one, less one
less one, equals fear
lined up in rows on steep steps,
the stopped faces of six year olds,
wearing suits and top hats made from beaver fur,
each tail-slap, each tooth-marked tree,
each under-water house –
forget, forget – forgotten
in Fortymile, Battleford, Hobbema,
Wabasca, Stand-off, Cariboo, and more.
Place by place memory scraped down
to playgrounds filled with gravestones.
Stiff collars, starched smiles
on a nun’s thin lips. Kiss me,
yes? Kiss me, not? Plant No
in fine long rows where nothing grows, no
corn, no moose, muskrat, geese,
no moon-wail nights beside a lake,
no loon-crazy cries to cast a spell –

no sunrise to break it.

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A Clearer Way to See – The Shared Poetic Vision of Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane

Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier Receiving their Honourary Degrees from McGill

Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier Receiving their Honourary Degrees from McGill

Yesterday, fleece under my sports jacket, I sat in Montreal with a few thousand others in a gargantuan white tent and listened to the convocation address at McGill University’s Spring Convocation for the Faculty of the Arts and Religious Studies. Yes, it was drafty and chilly under that tent but I didn’t notice. There are other ways of staying warm! Seeing wide inside this address was one of them!

Nothing was normal about this address. First it was a duet. Second, it was a poem! The address was given by Canadian poets Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier on the occasion of receiving joint honorary doctorates from McGill.

And let me say great kudos to McGill for recognizing these two Canadian poets whose poems are so utterly rooted in their particular geographies far from eastern Canada. To listen to the poem click here.

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Pass It On – Another Poet Passes – Steve Kowit (1938 – 2015)

American Poet Steve Kowit

American Poet Steve Kowit










This evening, the sturdy Levis
I wore every day for over a year
& which seemed to the end in perfect condition,
suddenly tore.
How or why I don’t know,
but there it was – a big rip at the crotch.
A month ago my friend Nick
walked off a racquetball court,
got into his street clothes,
& halfway home collapsed and died.
Take heed you who read this
and drop to your knees now and again
like the poet Christopher Smart
and kiss the earth and be joyful
& make much of your time
& be kindly to everyone,
even to those who do not deserve it.
For although you may not believe it will happen,
you too one day will be gone.
I, whose Levis ripped at the crotch
for no reason,
assure you that such is the case.
Pass it on.

Steve Kowit (1938 – 2015) from The Dumbbell Nebula, Heyday Books, 2000

The Californian poet, Steve Kowit, died on April 2nd after heart surgery. Likely he is not well known here in Canada but a tribute poem written in Rattle Journal’s in its weekly poem series – Poets Respond – will likely pique interest. To read the poem Click here.

I knew Kowit through his poetry workbook: In the Palm of Your Hand – The Poet’s Portable Workshop. A beloved poetry teacher he gets a big blurb of thanks from American poet Dorianne Laux on the jacket of his book:  I am deeply indebted to Steve Kowit for passing on his love of the word to a young woman in a waitress uniform with tips in her pocket and poems in her heart.

Somehow it seems fitting to share Kowit’s poem now that he has died. He warned us, he warned himself, when he wrote it and now he has, should I say, lived, or perhaps, better, died, the truth of it. What is wonderful though is that Kowit enjoyed at least fifteen years of trying to live up to the gratitude he expresses in his poem. And what a great reminder it is to us.

And what a reminder his poem is to me of another great poem of gratitude that features, as Kowit’s poem does, the famous and celebrated poem of gratitude, Jubilate Agno, by British poet Christopher Smart ( 1722 – 1771).  Within this 1200 line poem is a much-quoted seventy four line section on Smart’s cat Jeoffrey. For the link to a history of Smart’s poem and a part of the section on Jeoffrey click here. It is astonishing to note that Smart’s poem was not discovered until the 1930’s!

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The Poem Is a Lung – National Poetry Month: Poets on Poetry #3 – Catherine Owen

Canadian Poet Catherine Owen at the 2011 Edmonton Poetry Festival. Photo Credit:Tracy Kolenchuk aka Tracy O'Camera

Canadian Poet Catherine Owen at the 2011 Edmonton Poetry Festival. Photo Credit:Tracy Kolenchuk aka Tracy O’Camera

The Lung Poem

The poem breathes for you some days
It’s okay
The poem never says he isn’t, entirely,
Coming back.
The poem has too many lungs to accept
Death completely
The poem, as it sings its dirge, notices
A poppy
Opening like a soft heart in the sun
The poem
Cannot tell you with finality it’s over
The poem takes your breaths for you
Some mornings
The poem is a Lung

Catherine Owen (1972 – ) from Designated Mourner, ECW press/a misfit book, 2014

When Catherine Owen’s crack-addict spouse died in 2010 of complications from his addiction she breathed herself through her grief and loss with poems. Many of those poems became part of her elegiac collection, Designated Mourner, published last year and dedicated to her former spouse Chris Matzigkeit.

In a 2013 interview in Lemon Hound Owen says: I love how the elegiac impulse, amid the starvations of loss, can provide this generosity, this feast of forms into which the hell can flow. And what a hell Owen needed to flow through her. The hell of living with an addict who in spite of all attempts couldn’t break addiction’s grip. The unspeakable hell of his death.

Make no mistake: Designated Mourner is a walk with Owen, hand in hand, through the topsy-turvy madness of grief: its fierce exultations, raw angers and on-the-knees lamentations. But more than a walk, the journey through Designated Mourner and Owen’s grief, is a harrowing example of poetry bringing someone back from the brink of grief and despair. Of helping them survive it. And the closest Owen gets to saying this is when she writes:

The poem takes your breaths for you
Some mornings
The poem is a Lung

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