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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
2016

The Bigness of Small Poems – #18 in a Series – James Wright – A Poem to Counter Terror

Victims of the July 1st Dhaka Attacks: Abinta Kabir, Faraaz Hossain, and Tarishi Jain.

Victims of the July 1st Dhaka Attacks: Abinta Kabir, Faraaz Hossain, and Tarishi Jain.

 

TODAY I WAS HAPPY,
SO I MADE THIS POEM

As the plump squirrel scampers
Across the roof of the corncrib,
The moon suddenly stands up in the darkness,
And I see that it is impossible to die.
Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
Crying
This is what I wanted.

James Wright from Above the River: The Complete Poems, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990

It has been a few weeks since the tragic terrorist attack in Dhaka but since then violence in the world continues unabated.  Attacks of all kinds: the attempted coup in Turkey, the deaths in Nice, France by a man in a truck, the deaths of five policeman in Dallas and days before that, the two deaths of black Americans at the hands of police. At times like these poetry can bring some kind of solace. Which is why this James Wright’s poem brought me such comfort when I learned of the deaths of the three young people who died in the Dhaka attacks.

The deaths of Abinta, Faraaz and Tarishi became more real for me because it turns out they were taught by two friends of mine in Dhaka a few years ago. My friends were devastated, told me they were exceptional, even as youngsters! All three had just finished their first year at prominent universities and had bright futures in front of them. It also appears that one of them, Faraaz, chose to stay with his two friends when he was offered the chance to be released from the restaurant where they were being held. Extraordinary.

So often in these difficult days of on-going wars, terror and racial discord I forget to be fully present to the beauty and extraordinary everyday moments in my life.  Like the late-day sun spilling itself in a treacle of light on the woods I see through my study window. Wright’s poem reminds me to notice and expand my sense of time.
Read More »

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 17 in a Series – Song Lines – The Eco-Poetics of Basma Kavanaugh

Canadian poet Basma Kavanaugh

Canadian poet Basma Kavanaugh

from NICHE

Last winter a chorale in an old church, a cold night in a prairie city. The
unaccompanied human voices smouldered and keened, swelled the stone
building, fluttered in the wooden rafters, soared

over shining pews, ruffling the hairs of my body. With my skin suddenly too
small, and pain burnishing my larynx, I thought, this is why we love the birds,
this is our gift to earth, our reason for being.

Basma Kavanaugh, from NICHE, Frontenac House Poetry, 2015

Poetry as rabble-rouser in the best sense of the words. To stir our spirit and our consciences! Especially in its passionate call to preserve our fragile planet, all its creatures!  That is something Basma Kavanaugh sings out again and again in her 2015 collection: NICHE. Not only is the poetry noteable in this collection but the production quality is way above average especially with its use of illustrations. A book that feels good to hold in the hand.

Kavanaugh is a poet, visual artist and letterpress printer from Manitoba who was short-listed for the CBC Canada Writes Poetry Prize in 2014. But even more, she is a woman who gives voice to an eco-poetics we need to hear and sing in our blood! So many of her poems are praise songs for the land. And what an appropriate epigraph she uses from Pablo Neruda to begin her book: This is the land./ It grows in your blood/ and you grow./If it dies in your blood/ you die out. Ouch and double ouch.

In this small poem, number seventeen in my occasional series, Kavanaugh brings singing into her poem and in so doing, for me, provides an echo from a long poetic tradition. The idea of poetry as its own kind of singing. The incredible importance of singing, and the singing that is poetry!

Her poem makes me think of American poet Gregory Orr’s wonderful line: Turn me into song. Sing me awake. Even more directly it reminds me of these lines by American poet e.e. cummings from his poem # 53:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old.

So many references to singing in Kavanaugh’s book!  Here’s the poem that comes after the one that introduce this post! Oh, the songs we all need to sing to save our precious Earth:

To sing. To warble, cry, croon, chant. To trill, lament, howl, wail,
To ululate, to lullaby.

Long ago people grew tobacco high in the Rockies. In cool, short summers,
they sang two hundred songs so the sacred leaves could ripen before frost. In
this gadget-rich gallup

to apocalypse what have we lost? What have we gained? If evolution has
stopped, can we sing tenderness, surrender, sing our ending, coax the future
from a seed? With a chorus of seven billion,

one small song each?

Basma Kavanaugh, ibid

 

 

 

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 16 in a Series – Li-Young Lee

American Poet Li-Young Lee

American Poet Li-Young Lee


 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

As I collect more small poems to highlight in my poetry blog I find myself once again going back to poets I have written about before. In this case the Asian-American poet Li-Young Lee. For a link to my post on Lee last year click here.

I discovered this poem of Lee through American poet Dorianne Laux. She savours it for its music and cadence. His use of one syllable words, startled by a few double syllable words and one three syllable word: fastening. It is an exquisitely crafted poem. But even more. I call it a love poem to God. Am I right? I don’t know for sure. But I do know something mysterious is happening in this poem!

This poem proves how important each word is in a poem. Lee doesn’t say Flying is born… He says: Even flying is born out of nothing. His use of Even changes everything. It suggests a comparison or a link to something else born out of nothing. Could that be God? Perhaps. And what, who is, the one heart. Again, for me, it makes sense if it is God.

And for me this small poem achieves such a largeness. A sense of a sky inside and outside. First the birds in the sky then the astonishing lines: The first sky/is inside you, open// at either end of the day. Yes! And if its true, the first sky being open inside me, how much bigger I feel. What a sense of expansiveness fills my spirit.

Read this poem out loud. Savour its meaning and its mechanics that amplify its meaning. Feel it on the tongue. How rich the poem’s music tastes in the mouth. Thank you Dorianne for your love of this poem. It’s a great one to memorize!

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 15 in a Series – Advice from Rukeyser: Burst Into Flower


Pink Iris
THE POWER OF SUICIDE

The potflower on the windowsill says to me
In words that are green-edged red leaves :
Flower     flower     flower     flower
Today for the sake of all the dead     Burst into flower.

Muriel Rukeyser, from The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, McGraw- Hill, 1982

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) is no stranger to these pages. I included her in a post late last year. To read that post click here.

 

American Poet Muriel Rukeyser

American Poet Muriel Rukeyser

Rukeyser didn’t write many small poems so it seems odd that for a second time I feature one of her small poems. Small, literally, but metaphorically huge. I don’t want to add much to what already bursts out of this poem, beginning with the title. This poem is a wake up call. A reminder to go for broke. Burst into flower.

And the poem seems somehow, these summer-like days, appropriate to the state of my garden here on Vancouver Island. We are in the midst of a frenzy of flowering. Iris (purple, pink, yellow, white); California lilac, poppies (red, pink, white), wild roses, yellow roses and tree-like rose bushes bursting white, pink and red. And in the picture below, a flowering tree thirty feet tall beside our house, festooned with purple blossoms that are beginning to fall, adding a purple tinge everywhere around it!

Flowering Tree

This call to flower! Yes! No matter the reason. No matter the season.

 

 

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 14 in a Series – May 15th, The Death Day of Emily D.

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Copyright: Lara Lasworth

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Copyright: Laura Lasworth

I Reason, Earth is Short
#403 (Franklin Edition)

I reason, Earth is short –
And Anguish – absolute –
And many hurt,
But, what of that?

I reason, we could die –
The best Vitality
Cannot excel Decay,
But, what of that?

I reason, that in Heaven –
Somehow, it will be even –
Some new Equation, given –

But, what of that?

Emily Dickinson from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited, R.W. Franklin, Harvard University Press, 1999

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Copyright: Barry Moser, from Emily:Opposites Attract, Horse Whisperer Press, 2004

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Copyright: Barry Moser, from Emily:Opposites Attract, Horse Whisperer Press, 2004

One hundred and thirty years ago today Emily Dickinson died, a virtual unknown who had written at least 1789 poems, many in various versions! Although none were published in her lifetime about 600 poems were sent out by her to  some forty recipients. Now, of course, she along with Walt Whitman are seen as the two pillars of modern American poetry. And surely she has entered the pantheon of world-celebrated poets, as well!

(Just to acknowledge a cheat. This small poem above is bigger than my self-imposed limit of ten lines! To compensate I have included an eight line poem below – one of her best known!)

Helen Vendler, the esteemed poetry commentator and author says this about Dickinson in her 2010 volume, Dickinson – Selected Poems and Commentaries:

Dickinson the writer: How do we characterize her? She is epigrammatic, terse, abrupt, surprising, unsettling, flirtatious, savage, winsome, metaphysical, provocative, blasphemous, tragic funny…

Many of Vendler’s adjectives could apply to poem # 403 . Unsettling, blasphemous (perhaps), surprising and, yes, provocative.  If ever there was a  perfect hymn to mindfulness and living in the “now” this poem might quality! Shocking might be another way to describe this poem. For me it has the impact of smelling salts. A stinging wake-up. A stinging rebuke to sentimental notions of our lives here on earth.

The poem’s repeated refrain: But what of that? is so dismissive that it forces me to a deep self examination. Does pain, suffering, death or even promise of an afterlife matter! And if it doesn’t, what does? For me, what matters to me, just weeks before my sixty fifth birthday, is to live wholeheartedly. Awake to all of it. Do I succeed? I’m working on it. Watching for those moments when I split-off and withdraw. Trying to stay present. Ouch!

Now, here is the promised “small” poem. What a great reminder this poem is to me when I want to be celebrated, acknowledged! In a world where so many seek celebrity status this poem is a good bromide. May, today, I feel like a fulfilled and contented Nobody!

I’m Nobody
# 260 Franklin Edition

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

Emily Dickinson, ibid

Notes on Images: I purchased the Lasworth portrait at an Image Journal event years ago in Seattle. The Moser portrait comes from a limited edition letterpress volume published by Apollonia Elsted, daughter of esteemed letterpress publishers, Jan and Crispin Elsted of Barbarian Press.

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 13 in a Series – The Double S in Sue Sinclair!

Canadian poet Sue Sinclair

Canadian poet Sue Sinclair. Photo: Brick Books


Belief

The floorboards creak overhead,
heavy with stars.
The sound makes you think of the dead,
as though they’re closer than you knew:
like the doubled s in essence,
an extra consonant slipped into the word
for the very truth of you.

Sue Sinclair from Heaven’s Thieves, Brick Books, 2016

It isn’t often I open a book of poetry, read, and then find myself trying not to look as astonished as I feel. The last time I felt that gob smacked was with Sarah Eliza Johnson’s book, Bone Map. Today, I felt that gob smacked again. By Canadian poet, Sue Sinclair’s latest book, Heaven’s Thieves, published this month by Brick Books. Sinclair, who was raised in Newfoundland and lived for many years in the various places in the Maritmes, is now based out of Montreal.

Sinclair’s small poem above is just a taste of this poet’s ability to word-play her poems into music and meaning. Her poem Belief works at so many levels, its lyric mysteriousness and its exquisite sounds: her rhymes and consonance; her alliterations, her susurrations! The doubled s in essence,/ an extra consonant slipped… Yes!

Her metaphor in this line, delicious: The floorboards creak overhead,/ heavy with stars. Then that move to add a layer to the creaking sound by invoking the dead. A ghost, perhaps? Then the move to sound and word play that reminds me of the American/Canadian poet Heather McHugh.

How Sinclair leaps from a sound that makes her think of the dead as though they’re closer than you knew to the double s in essence. And then to a surprising intimacy, unexpected self-reflection. On the narrators own essence: the very truth of you. Or is the very truth of something, someone, else. Does the title, Belief, point us to something supernatural? I’m not sure.

What I am sure about is how this poem strikes down deep in my emotional depths. To an essence deep inside me. To a question of who am I and why am I here? And how is it these feelings all began with a simple creak in a floorboard!? The surprise, the gift, of poetry. Sinclair’s poem will stay with me. So will her book which will live on my bedside table for days to come.

For those who aren’t familiar with Sinclair and her work (she has published four previous poetry volumes since 2001) check out this link.

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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

 


Suspended

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)

 Zona

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.