“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

I Will be a Question Mark – Image Journal Interviews Li-Young Lee

American Poet Li-Young Lee

American Poet Li-Young Lee

from An Interview with Li-Young Lee

LYL : The word quest is in that word question. I feel as if I’m going to live my life as a giant question mark. I’m just going to live open, ready to encounter whatever God puts in front of me next. I have fewer and fewer answers. I feel like I know less and less.

Last year my son told my wife, “When we were younger, Baba had a lot of ideas he would talk to us about. As time has gone on, he talks to us less. And he’s become a lot warmer and seems more mellow.” I wanted to give them a lot of ideas. But the older I get, the more I realize I don’t know anything. There are no ideas to give. If I can just love them straight from my soul…. I don’t know who they are. I don’t know why they’re here. I don’t know why any of us are here. I’ll just live that question. My whole life will be a question. I will be a question mark.

Image: And poetry helps you do this?

LYL: I think so. When I come to the page to write the poem, I have to surrender everything. You have to accomplish a kind of deep yin quality—openness, yielding, getting out of the way so that the poem can come in. And that is a way to practice my life.

 Li-Young Lee interviewed by Paul T. Corrigan in Image Journal,  Autumn 2015

Whenever my poetry begins to feel too wordy and cut off from my experience I pull out the poetry books of Li-Young Lee. His spiritual immediacy and winged metaphors get me flying again. A perfect example is this gem of a poem, this love poem to God:

One Heart

Look at the birds. Even flying
is born

out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, open

at either end of day.
The work of wings

was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.

Li Young Lee (1957 – ) from Book Of My Nights, BOA Editions, 2001

Lee has been in my heart a lot lately as I have been using his poem After the Pyre frequently in a new writing adventure I use in my poetry workshops. In particular the arresting line: what kept you alive
all those years keeps you from living. When I put myself in the speaker’s voice in that line I am forced to look at my life in a new and challenging way. Lee is not afraid of these kinds of challenges.

My appreciation of Lee was placed in focus today when I followed a link to a new interview with Lee in one of my favorite literary magazines – Image Journal out of Seattle. To view the interview click here. The interview was vintage Lee and expresses so cogently the urgency of his spiritual seeking in a world he sees as saturated with God.

I am in transit from Madrid to Entebbe, Uganda for the Kahini Poetry Festival today so that’s why this post is short. But please, do read the interview and I would so appreciate your comments on it!


Two Poets Out of Ten – Hirschfield and Hayes Make the National Book Award Long List – Part One

A man I once asked a question of has died; his son sends a letter

A thirsty mouse turns a river.
a stone turns a river.

Bodiless Words turn us.

Jane Hirschfield from The Beauty, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015

American Poet and Essayist Jane Hirschfield

American Poet and Essayist Jane Hirschfield

Two Recovering Words favorites made the poetry long-list for the 2015 National Book Awards yesterday: Jane Hirschfield for The Beauty (click here for my blog post) and Terrance Hayes for How To Be Drawn (click here for my blog post). For the long list nominees click here. Along with Hirschfield and Hayes some familiar names but lots of unknowns, too.

To celebrate their inclusion in the list I want to feature, first, in part one of this blog post a poem by Hirschfield in the New Yorker and in part two, a long poem by Hayes from How To Be Drawn.


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Enough or Not – Part Three of Three – A Poem by Ellen Bass

American poet, Ellen Bass (1947 - )

American poet, Ellen Bass (1947 – )












from Autumn Quince

The world is a blurred version of itself —
marred, lovely, and flawed.

It is enough

Jane Hirschfield from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions, Bloodaxe Books, 2005

from Enough

Enough seen….Enough had….Enough…
—Arthur Rimbaud

No. It will never be enough. Never
enough wind clamoring in the trees,
sun and shadow handling each leaf, never enough clang
of my neighbor hammering,…

Ellen Bass from Poem-a-Day,  August 14th, 2015

In the first two parts of this three part series I focussed on two poems, one by Charles Wright and another by Jane Hirschfield. Each of the poems navigated through images of loss and imperfection before resolving in unexpected epiphanies. Hirschfield’s last lines included above from Autumn Quince say it all:

The world is a blurred version of itself —
marred, lovely, and flawed.

It is enough

But now, let’s hear American poet Ellen Bass whose excerpt from her poem above, Enough, says: No it will never be enough. Bass’s poetic style is so different from Wright and Hirschfield. Much looser, relaxed and discursive. And she begins with the big thought con brio, with great feeling! Then watch the surprising turn this poem takes!

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Enough or Not – Part Two of Three – Autumn Quince by Jane Hirschfield

American Poet and Essayist Jane Hirschfield

American Poet and Essayist Jane Hirschfield











Autumn Quince

How sad they are,
the promises we never return to.
They stay in our mouths,
roughen the tongue, lead lives of their own.
Houses built and unwittingly lived in;
a succession of milk bottles brought to the door
every morning and taken inside.

And which one is real?
The music in the composer’s ear
or the lapsed piece the orchestra plays?
The world is a blurred version of itself —
marred, lovely, and flawed.
It is enough.

Jane Hirschfield from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions, Bloodaxe Books, 2005

This is the second part of a three part series featuring poems by Charles Wright , Jane Hirschfield and Ellen Bass. The common theme in the poems is the idea: Is life enough? Wright in his poem writes himself to a yes , for me, so right, yet so unexpected. Hirschfield as you can see in her poem above, comes to a yes, but differently.

Hirschfield is a magician. In her poem every move  counts! And she makes me pay attention. Nothing is wasted. In this case, especially the title. There is a reason she chooses an Autumn quince, not an Autumn pears or apple. Here is the definition of Quince: Most varieties of quince are too hard, astringent and sour to eat raw unless “bletted” (softened by frost and subsequent decay).

What a great word: bletted. And, Autumn quince: what a large image. Sounds like life for most of us. Life needs to soften us up before we are fit to eat! How she weaves thoughts and images into a shape we can only recognize fully at the poem’s conclusion.

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Enough or Not? – Part One of Three – First, A Poem by Charles Wright

U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Wright

U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Wright



Piero in wraps, the True Cross sotto restauro,
Piazza desolate edge
Where sunlight breaks it,
desolate edge
Where sunlight pries it apart
A child kicks a soccer ball. Another heads it back.

The Fleeting World, Po Chu-I says, short-hops a long dream,
No matter if one is young or old –
The pain of what is present never comes to an end,
Lightline moving inexorably
West to east across the stones,
cutting the children first, then cutting us.

Under the archways, back and forth, among the tables,
The blind ticket seller taps and slides.
Lotteria di Foligno, Lotteria di Feligno,
he intones,
Saturday, mid-May, cloud bolls high cotton in the Tuscan sky.
One life is all we’re entitled to, but it’s enough.

Charles Wright (1935 – ) from Field, Fall, 1992

Charles Wright, current U.S. Poet Laureate, needs little introduction.Through his poems he has been making the ordinary extraordinary during a remarkably productive writing career spanning more than fifty five years. He also may have won more major literary awards than other English-speaking poet alive today!

Wright’s poetry disarms me. Thoughts and images shadow across his poems like reflections of clouds across the water. His poetry is so grounded in the ordinary, then it can lift off and seem other-worldly. I know where I am; then I don’t. He disorients me, marvellously. I am in this world but not the obvious one.

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The “Isness” of Being Black in America – The Black-American Poetics of Claudia Rankine and……

American Poet Claudia Rankine. Photograph: John Lucas

American Poet Claudia Rankine. Photograph: John Lucas















In line at the drugstore it’s finally your turn, and then it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised. Oh my God, I didn’t see you. You must be in a hurry, you offer. No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.

Claudia Rankine, from Citizen: An American Lyric, Graywolf Press, 2014

Standing outside the conference room, unseen by the two men waiting for the others to arrive, you hear one say to the other that being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation. Because you will spend the next two hours around the round table that makes conversing easier, you consider waiting a few minutes before entering the room.

Claudia Rankine from Citizen: An American Lyric, ibid

from In Two Seconds

I believe it is part of the work
of poetry to try on at least
the moment and skin of another,

Mark Doty, from American Poetry Review May/June 2015

Poetry is an issness not an aboutness, says American poet B.H. (Pete) Fairchild. What does he mean? It means a poem re-creates the experience in lyric, in narrative, the writer was experiencing so the reader might have the same experience; feel it, not just hear about it.

Well, for me, to read Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine’s award-winning 2014 poetic, and illustrated, expose on being black in America, is to live inside an isness of being black, to feel it, each slight, each insult; and worse. to  feel the anger her words make me feel. She, a black American poet,  put me, a privileged white person, smack inside a feeling of being black in America and it felt lousy! It sucked. It is not my experience. Period.

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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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