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“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
2013

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

American Poet Steve Kowit

American Poet Steve Kowit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notice

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,
showered,
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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National Poetry Month – Poets on Poetry # 2 – A Poem by Stephen Dunn

American Poet Stephen Dunn

American Poet Stephen Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poet and priest were one in the beginning – only later times have separated them. The true poet is however always a priest, just as the true priest has always remained a poet. Ought not the future to bring back this ancient condition of things?

Friedrich von Hardenberg-Novalis quoted by Chris Bamford, Temenos Journal #9, 1988.

I don’t deny” he said that there should be priests to remind men that they one day will die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have other kinds of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet.

G.K. Chesterton from Manalive, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1912

This idea: the kinship of priest and poet has rattled around the bone-bars of my heart for countless trips around the sun. Maybe it’s because of my conviction about how poems as we write them seem to come from some otherness that in moments of vulnerable clarity I call the divine.

Some poets aren’t shy about the link between the divine and poetry which makes a link between poet and priest more obvious:

Robert Cording (American poet): a poem is a form of prayer, an act in which the poet attends to both God and to what is before him.

Li-Young Lee (American-Asian poet): …when we’re working on a poem, we’re connecting or linking or yoking ourselves to our most complete nature which is God.

Christian Wiman (Poet, former Editor of Poetry Magazine and now professor at Yale Divinity School): ….I have at times experienced in the writing of a poem some access to a power that feels greater than I am, and it seems reductive, even somehow a deep betrayal, to attribute that power merely to the unconscious or to the dynamism of language itself.

Stephen Dunn (1939 – ) is an enduring treasure of American poetry whose curiosity won’t let him be shy about  anything as far as I can tell. Especially about embracing certainties like the poets I have cited above!

Dunn has written sixteen poetry books (including his latest collection Lines of Defense published in 2014)  and he won the Pulitzer prize in 2000. His poems which appear effortlessly conversational (almost chatty) and casual, are the product of a mind obviously curious and quick and not married to certainty. His intelligence seems so understated in his poems that I  realize just how hot it burns when I see the scorch marks on my hands after I put down the book of his I am reading at the time.

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National Poetry Month – Poets On Poetry # 1 – Tomas Transtromer 1931 – 2015

Swedish Poet Tomas Transtromer. Photo Credit: AFP PHOTO / SCANPIX

Swedish Poet Tomas Transtromer. Photo Credit: AFP PHOTO / SCANPIX

 

from Morning Birds

Fantastic to feel how my poem grows
while I myself shrink.
It is growing, it takes my place.
It pushes me out of its way.
It throws me out of the nest.

Tomas Transtomer, Trans. Gunnar Harding and Frederic Will from Selected Poems 1954-1986 – Ed. Robert Hass, The Ecco Press, 1987

 

From March ‘79

Tired of all who come with words, words but no language
I went to the snow covered island.
The wild does not have words.
The unwritten pages spread themselves out in all directions!
I came across the marks of roe-deer’s hooves in the snow.

Language but no words.

Tomas Transtomer, Trans. John F. Deane from Selected Poems 1954-1986 – Ed. Robert Hass, The Ecco Press, 1987 p.159

April 1st, 2015. The start of another National Poetry Month. It seems fitting to dedicate this first day of this month-long celebration of poetry to the Swedish Nobel Prize laureate, Tomas Transtromer who died almost a week ago on March 26th just a few weeks short of his 84th birthday.

In addition to being a prolific poet, Transtromer was also a practising psychologist for many years. In spite of a debilitating stroke in 1990 that took away his ability to speak coherently and confined him to a wheelchair, Transtromer continued to write and to appear at major writing events. He even managed to keep playing the piano, one of his passions, but with just his left hand. In 2007 he flew to Toronto to accept a Lifetime Recognition Award for Excellence in Poetry from the Griffin Trust. For a video on Transtromer from Bloodaxe Books click here.

I choose, also, to feature Transtromer in this post because of the theme I want to explore this month: poets writing poems about language and poetry.

The final stanza of Transtromer’s poem Wild Birds featured above captures the utterly mysterious nature of the poetic process. Do we write the poem or does it write us? Transtromer in his poem seems to be saying it writes us: fantastic to to feel how my poem grows/ while I myself shrink. Jane Hirschfield, the American poet and essayist echoes Transtromer in these comments from an interview in the Atlantic Monthly in 1997:

When I write, I don’t know what is going to emerge. I begin in a condition of complete unknowing, an utter nakedness of concept or goal. A word appears, another word appears, an image. It is a moving into mystery.

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Something Not Sayable – A Post for Heidi’s Mother

Canadian Poet Heidi Garnett

Canadian Poet Heidi Garnett

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Mother’s Foot

The main door into the nursing home slides open,
an exhalation of stale air. The gift shop
still has hand-knitted toques and scarves for sale,
though it’s the first day of Spring. There is a leather chesterfield
and matching love seat. There are people
foot pedalling their wheelchairs in the hallway.
I walk around them.
There is the nurses’ station to pass
and the gathering room, a maze of wooden tables and chairs
and artificial flower arrangements,
the fluorescent lights too bright, too harsh
for anything real to grow here.
I drop a nasturtium seed at each turn.

You are where you always are, watching Turner classics
in your room with the door closed. I knock
and enter without waiting to be invited in.
You’re propped up in bed and say you were at a party
where you danced with Fred Astaire.
You were still walking then and your foot hadn’t blackened yet.
You sound different,
your voice sticking to the floor
like the fruit cocktail you spilled. Outside your window
crocuses and daffodils, but I’m thinking about summer
and day lilies, their upraised shrivelled fists.

Heidi Garnett, March 2015, Unpublished

This post is dedicated to the Canadian poet, Heidi Garnett and her mother , Bruna (Brunhilde) Wiehler, who died yesterday in Kelowna at the age of ninety one. And, also to her father Horst, who died in 1997 at the age of seventy nine. Heidi’s poem, the epigraph for this post, was written just a week ago. What a difficult ending to a difficult and extraordinary life few of us could imagine. A life that included harrowing months alone with Heidi, her three-year-old daughter, in the far eastern reaches of Germany at the end of the Second World War in territory, occupied by the Russian army, near what was Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland.

I have been privileged to follow Heidi’s poetry career for almost ten years. Her poems have won or been short-listed for numerous poetry contests in the U.K., Canada and the U.S. But my greatest privilege has been to watch Heidi grapple with her painful family history through her poetry. Trying somehow through memory and metaphor to make sense of the senseless waste of war. To come to peace with what no three-year-old should have experienced.

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Mercury Dangerous – The Quicksilver Wit & Click of Micheline Maylor

 

Canadian Poet Micheline Maylor

Canadian Poet Micheline Maylor

What I would give to you

are secrets told in textiles,
pillows for your sofa made of clothing
slid from my body on sultry afternoons.
Are you thinking now of hands and buttons?

Are you thinking of Fridays?
These are impractical gifts now that you are alone.
A roaster oven would serve you better
than some erotic reminder of me
fashioned of gold silk, and piped with lace
propped in your living room.

This is the thing I now want to do with my fingers
as idle as they have become
without the thread of us, without the needle.

Michelene Maylor from WHIRR & CLICK, Frontenac House Poetry, 2013

For many years I have enjoyed being part of a tribe of poets whom I have met through Patrick Lane’s retreats held on Bowen Island, and on Vancouver Island near Sooke and at Honeymoon Bay on Lake Cowichan. There is nothing like having to write six poems in three days to create life-long friendships! It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy or should I say, endure (sometimes) that pressure.

One of the poets I have met through these retreats is Micheline Maylor, a self-described “certified poetry fanatic”. It makes sense: she is editor of FreeFall literary magazine, teaches literature and writing at Mount Royal University in Calgary and has published a poetry chapbook and two full length poetry collections including WHIRR & CLICK in 2013 which was nominated for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. These are all reasons why I take serious note of Michelene Maylor but it is an unforgettable line of poetry written at that Patrick Lane retreat that has engraved Maylor permanently in my memory: Rabbit, you fucker... Don’t let the obscenity throw you off. It has at its heart an existential complaint that echoes through her poems. Gives them such resonance and bite.

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Tonight She Wants Wheels – Two New Books (Poems and Essays) from Jane Hirschfield

American Poet and Essayist Jane Hirschfield

American Poet and Essayist Jane Hirschfield

from Fifteen Pebbles

Opening the Hand Between Here and Here

          On the dark road, only the weight of the rope.
          Yet the horse is there.

Jane Hirschfield (1953 – ) from Come, Thief, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

 

 

 

 

from Twelve Pebbles

                I Know You Think I’ve Forgotten

but today
in rain
without coat without hat

Jane Hirshfield from The Beauty: Poems  Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2015

Jane Hirschfield is a lay Zen practioner and it shows in the silence that is the mortar between her words and her lines. What we don’t hear. What we don’t see. I heard Hirschfield recite the first small/huge poem above in Key West, Florida two months ago. The second poem above, I read today from her latest book.

The unseen horse in the first poem, whatever it stands for, haunted me as I left her reading. What is the weight we carry, tied to the invisible, I wondered, as I lay alone in my motel bed that night? These are the “big” questions which are Hirschfield trademarks. The second poem startles me with who isn’t there. And the shockingly simple images for grief. Grief like standing drenched, no coat no hat!

The unheard, the unseen. These all loom large and loud in the poetry of this cherished American poet whose latest publications were released today: The Beauty, a book of poems and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, a book of essays. For an interview with Hirschfield on these books from NPR in the U.S. click here.

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Can Poetry Hurt Us? – Resurrection and Patricia Smith

American poet, Patricia Smith

American poet, Patricia Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
Little Poetry

He says I am gumpopper
wondrous shoulders,

evil on the days I bleed.

I can take hold of both my hands.
     He speaks cool water on me,
nudges my mood with a proverb.

I watch him undress, skin
    unto another skin, and I turn
away to keep from craving that.

By the time his hands
     touch my shoulders,
I am almost insane

with disappearing
and the thunder.

Patricia Smith (1955 – ) from Teahouse of the Almighty, Coffee House Press, 2006

To say Patricia Smith is a poetic force is like saying hurricane Katrina was a storm. If a hurricane were to be named for Smith it would be a class 10. Her poetry readings are events. She has won four world poetry slam competitions, her books of poems have won many honours and she is a celebrated writing teacher  and a tenured professor.

Her 2008 book Blood Dazzler, a word-storm of poems based on hurricane Katrina was short-listed for a National Book Award. And most recently her latest book, published in 2012, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, a poetic memoir,  won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 2013  and late last year she was awarded the Rebekah Johnson Bobbit National Prize for Poetry awarded by the American Library of Congress, one of the highest accolades for an American poet.

It’s shocking: Smith’s  transformation into one of of America’s most celebrated poets.  For two reasons:

First and this is the big-bang shocker: in 1998 Smith, an acclaimed journalist at age 42,  was also big new news but in the worst possible way. She was fired from the Boston Globe and stripped of a Pulitzer prize finalist’s nomination for fabricating people and quotes in four of her columns.  That would have been enough to deep six most people for a lifetime but luckily for poetry lovers, not Smith. For a recent New York Times article on Smith’s stunning transformation click here.

Second, she is being recognized by the formal poetic establishment even though her roots are firmly planted in the spoken word  (slam or performance poet) tradition as opposed to the traditional poetry of the written page. Yes, the distinction between the two is getting more blurred, partially thanks to poets like Smith, but a suspicion between the two traditions still remains. This is expressed wonderfully in Yusef Komunyakaa’s end page comments on Blood Dazzler: Only an echo of the spoken-word diva lingers in Blood Dazzler, and that measured presence is what approximates a necessary passion in this poignant collection. The worry, of course, is that performance poets drench their words in an emotional colouration that disguises a lack of poetic control and craft. Hence, Komunyakaa’s phrase “measured presence.” to compliment Smith’s collection.

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What Her Heart Sees – The “Man from…..” Poems of Lorna Crozier & More!

Canadian poet Lorna Crozier

Canadian poet Lorna Crozier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Man from the Promised Land

He was the north wind, the west.
And I very nearly blew away with him
My limbs light as grit. He whittled me
Raised me to his lips and made me sing.
It was Bedouin, Mojave, Saskatchewan’s
Great Sandhills, the Blackfoot and the Cree.
Oh, he was good to me. I shifted shape,
Moved as he moved, our tracks filled in.
Slow sift, was he, soft slide through fingers;
The dunes of hips and shoulder blades
Gilded by the sun. He raised me to his lips
And made me sing, the mouthpiece
Of my heart parched with grief.

Lorna Crozier (1948 – ) from man from elsewhere, JackPine Press, 2013

Next month Lorna Crozier will publish her eighteenth full-length book of poetry – The Wrong Cat. It follows her best-selling book of prose poems Book of Marvels, published in 2012 and 2013 in the U.S. But Lorna managed to sneak in another “little” book of poems in 2013 – her limited edition chapbook man from elsewhere which contains a series of eleven exquisite little poems all based on the theme man from…

I have included a favorite poem of mine from man from elsewhere as my epigraph to this post. To read some other poems from the series click here to read them from Lorna’s website. (Writing a series of poems on a theme is a Lorna trademark. I think specifically of her “Angel” poems and her sexualized “vegetable” poems.)

Man from the Promised Land is vintage Crozier. Lithe and sinuous as a snake this poem sings a sensual song of longing and ecstatic union: Oh, he was good to me. I shifted shape,/ Moved as he moved, our tracks filled in./Slow sift, was he, soft slide through the fingers.

Crozier writes with such musical confidence which seems to accentuate the ecstatic nature of the poem yet I am left haunted and shaken after reading it. There is union, yes, but the poem’s first two lines seem to suggest she cannot hold him: He was the north wind, the west./ And I very nearly blew away with him. And then at the poem’s end we are left with the searing image of grief: And made me sing, the mouthpiece/ of my heart parched with grief.

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He Tasted What He Said – Poet, Philip Levine (1928- 2015)

Philip Levine former U.S. Poet Laureate

Philip Levine former U.S. Poet Laureate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Simple Truth

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In the middle of June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me the potatoes
was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat,” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
                                                      Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt-shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions and potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live in it.

Phillip Levine (1928 – 1015) from Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs by Charles DeNiord, Marick Press, 2011

Last Saturday we lost Philip Levine, an American poet of singular brilliance. Yes, we lost him to cancer at age 87, but his poems will continue to remind us of his unusual perspective. He spoke, not only, with the authentic voice of a man utterly soaked in the nitty-gritty of everyday working life but with a philosophical wisdom you might not expect from a man born into the mean streets of Detroit during the depression. For a wonderful recap of his life from National Public Radio click here.

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