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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

The Secret Life of Things – More Poems and Poets on Paying Attention

Poet David Whyte

Poet David Whyte

 

Everything is Waiting for You

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

David Whyte (1955 – ) from Everything Is Waiting For You, Many Rivers Press , 2003

My most recent blog has created a lovely back and forth discussion with a few readers on other poems that address the mystery of everyday things we so often take for granted. In particular, my long-time friend and blogger Rory mentioned David Whyte’s poem Everything Is Waiting For You which introduces this blog post. And acclaimed poet and friend, Heidi sent me the poem The Writing Life by Charles Wright (1935 -), current U.S. Poet Laureate.

It was wonderful to hear from Rory about this poem which we both heard together for the first time about ten years ago in Vancouver at a reading with David Whyte. Since then Rory has attended David Whyte events countless times and as it just so happens (synchronicity!) Rory will be with Whyte today in an all day event in Vancouver. I am envious.

I still remember the look on Rory’s face as he turned to me after hearing Everything is Waiting For You for the first time. It did what good poems are supposed to: it surprised him (and me) and jolted us out of a so-called normal complacency in how we view the extraordinary world around us. A world we diminish when we allow it to become ordinary!

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Paying Attention – Rilke and Hirschfield

Petal of the poor man's orchid in Ossie Murray's garden in Jamaica

Petal of the poor man’s orchid in Ossie Murray’s garden in Jamaica

 

 

from The Ninth Duino Elegy

Nor does the wanderer bring down a handful of earth
from his high mountain slope to the valley (for earth, too, is mute),
but a word he has plucked from the climbing: the yellow and blue
gentian. Are we, perhaps, here just to utter: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit tree, window -
at most: column, tower…but to utter them, remember,
to speak in a way which the named never dreamed
they could be? Isn’t it the hidden purpose
of this cunning earth, in urging on lovers,
to realize, through their rapture, rapture for all?

Rainer Maria Rilke, Translated by William Gass in Reading Rilke by William Gass, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000,

I was put in mind of the German poet Rainer Marie Rilke (1875-1926) this morning when I read today was his birthday. Specifically, I remembered the lines from his Ninth Duino Elegy which make the epigraph for this post.

In February 1922 Rilke composed the last four of the Duino Elegies and the fifty five Sonnets to Orpheus. Some literary critics say these remarkable poetic outpourings have no, or few, equals in literary history. Translator Stephen Mitchell says: The Duino Elegies are widely acknowledged to be the greatest poem of the twentieth century.

The lines in the epigraph to this post are my cold-water wake up call especially in moments of self focus, worry or grief. Those moments when I stop paying attention to the so-called ordinary things of everyday. When I no longer, as if I really mean it, say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, tower, jug, fruit tree, window.

Here in Jamaica, after the death of my beloved Father-in-Law, Oswald (Ossie) Uriah Murray, I am reminded of the names of his favorite trees and flowers from his garden. I have tried to avoid them and not say their names. They remind me too much of his absence. But now after reading Rilke I utter them: yellow Allamanda, sugar banana, guango, blue mahoe, poor man’s orchid, red ixora, red hibiscus, pink poui, lychee, mango and otaheite apple.

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Choose Life – The Gospel According to Spencer Reece

American poet Spencer Reece. Photo copyright The New York Post

American poet Spencer Reece. Photo copyright The New York Post

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chiaroscuro

When the ficus beyond the grillwork darkens,
when the rind cools down on the lime,
when we sit here a long time,
when we feel ourselves found, when the red tile roofs deepen to brown,
when the exhausted beach fires with blues,
when the hush of the waves reminds us of regrets,
when the tides overtake the shore,
when we begin to place God in our sentences more,
we will turn at last,
we will admire the evenings fading clues,
uncertain of what the dark portends
as another season ends
and the fabulous visitors depart in luxury cars,
we will savour the sharp light from the summer stars,
we will rejoice in the fronds tintinnabulating down these empty streets,
these beautiful streets with all these beautiful names –
Kings, Algoma, Via Bellaria, Clarendon, Via Vizcaya,
Via Del Mar, El Vadalo, Banyan, El Brillo, El Bravo, Via Marina.

Spencer Reece (1963 – ), from The Clerk’s Tale, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004

What a hymn of praise and hope. This poem has such a sense of life ebbing and receding as the sun leaves the world but it still manages to evoke the beauty that remains, especially the lovely list of names of the empty streets. Such light the poet conjures even as the dark gathers. Such a sense he creates of being in the now, of a wide-eyed seeing that leads to praise in spite of tides that overtake the shore.

If nothing else this poet does not let dark tides of despair and loss conquer him. For example, this gay man, this poet, this priest, this former Brooks Brothers salesman, Spencer Reece, figures his first book was rejected two hundred and twenty five times over fifteen years. I thought I had lots to whine about with five rejections so far of my current manuscript!

Can you imagine – two hundred and twenty five rejections! But then, former U.S. Poet Laureate Louise Gluck accepted it for the Bakeless Prize in 2003. And in a wonderful twist of synchronicity his second book, The Road to Emmaus, published this year, was long-listed for the National Book Award along with Louise Gluck’s latest book which ultimately won the prize.

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Acceptance or Anger – Poetry and Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day Poppy

Remembrance Day Poppy

Prayer

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

Galway Kinnell (1927 – 2014)

This small poem may  be  the bravest, if not most reckless, poem I have read. I discovered it about seven years ago during the unexpected end of my second marriage. I resisted it. I resisted its profound and astonishing acceptance. And it angered me. How could the poet, Galway Kinnell,  be so rash? How could he dare the gods to throw a suitcase full of woes his way? For a recording of Kinnell reading the poem click here.

When I read the poem first in the shadow of a long and mostly good marriage I refused it. I did not want the failed marriage. The pain and disruption to our family. But even more I didn’t want the horrors I had seen in Africa especially in eastern DR Congo. The women there I had met before or after their fistula surgeries to repair their inside-rips from violent rape. My list of the “whatevers” I could not countenance went on and on.

And today, of all days, Remembrance Day, how can I say I would want the “whatever” of that horror: the First World War which left more than nine million dead, which ended  ninety six years ago today. Kinnell’s poem may seem simple and almost prose. But it cries out  as poetry in its repetitions, astonishing use of three “ises” in a row, and in its complexity;  the size of the emotional bomb blast it leaves behind. When this poem ends, the poetry, the argument, inside the reader, is just beginning.

Galway KInnell, American Poet

Galway KInnell, American Poet

The more I chew on this poem I see it as a terrifying praise poem. One that accepts life in all its range of joy and sorrows. We are going to experience the “whatevers” no matter what. What Kinnell does for me is to say a huge “yes” to them, to life. To say this is life. And to say I chose it. I do not deny it. I am not just a passive recipient of what it doles out. I chose it. In truth, I cannot say this whole heartedly every day. But this poem reminds me what’s at stake. Asks me if I am brave enough, big enough, to live this way.

And Galway, you who died just a few weeks ago, you,  who wrote some of the finer poems of your generation of great American writers, how can I say that your death, the what of that, is what I want?  Just that? I have no choice, I must accept it. But Galway, I never wanted it. And I never wanted the death of my great uncle in the mud of France in 1916 and I never wanted the  death of my uncle in the jungles of Malaya in 1941. And I never wanted the deaths of all those who have fought in wars, especially those who are dying today in too many places around the world.

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Where The God Waits To Eat Us – Patrick Lane’s New Poetry Collection, Washita

Patrick Lane Reading From His Latest Book - Washita

Patrick Lane Reading From His Latest Book – Washita


FOR THE WOMAN WHO DANCED

WITH THE ASHES OF HER SON

Strange how beautiful when we are diaphanous,
a bit of ripped muslin set against the sun, the wind
soft as a child’s skin. Tragedy does that to us
and we are made the greater for our smallness.
A bright pebble among the discarded shells.
There are times I am a questing mole, fierce
in my love, lost as anything alive.

Patrick Lane from Washita, Harbour Publishing, 2014 (With Permission)

Tonight, in Victoria, Patrick Lane launched, Washita, his twenty seventh book of poetry, three years after the publication of his Collected Poems and fifty four years after he began writing poetry in 1960. In his afterward to his Collected Poems Lane says: The poem asked of me that a life’s work be done, that the presence of one stone or one leaf could be paradise and that the making of a poem, the making of a beautiful thing could defeat time……The poem is, I believe, an emblem of my desire to salvage some beauty from a fallen world.

The great American poet Jack Gilbert says sing going down and Lane echoes this in the line from his poem The Beauty: And still we sing. At age seventy five, Lane is still singing. Singing for the  beauty of a fallen world. And if the making of a beautiful thing can defeat time then Washita beats it hands down as shown by the “small” large poem that acts as the epigraph for this blog post.

In this epigraph poem Lane turns the tragedy, the death of a son, into a fierce beauty as he describes the grief dance of a mother. He transforms it into something diaphanous. a bit of ripped muslin set against the sun. That mother will remain in the beauty of her raw dance long after both her and her son have been forgotten. In this way this poem becomes a poem for all mothers through time who have lost a son. And also a poem for all of us who face tragedy and in that moment are made the greater for our smallness. Greater for how we survive it. The  fierce beauty of that.
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The Kiss of a Shark and Feet of a Sparrow – The Poems of Tim Seibles

American Poet Tim Seibles

American Poet Tim Seibles

Edge

Traffic: solitude,
the city — walking around.

So many of us lost in it.
Is love the secret

nobody tells? In a small park
daylight pulled its knife

and a tree moved
toward me: what are you

doing here?
I remembered then: I lit

my eyes which had
gone out

Tim Seibles from Fast Animal, Etruscan Press, 2012

Watch Tim Seibles walk on stage and you better have a fire extinguisher handy or else you might burn up! This man has lit his eyes! Watch out. There is wildfire in his words! This is a man who embodies his passion for poetry. The words fill him and he fills the words. His rendition of Theodore’s Roethke’s poem In a Dark Time at this year’s Palm Beach Poetry festival made me hear it as if for a first of first times. Especially the last stanza:

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

Theodore Roethke from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, Doubleday, 1963

What a definition of the soul: my soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,/ Keeps buzzing at the sill. The way Seibles delivered that line I felt the madness of my own soul! The madness of it buzzing at the sill of my body, trying to break free. And feeling that feeling Roethke’s ecstatic release, at the poem’s end, hit me like an epiphany:

…………..…I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

This poem and Seibles’ poems were an epiphany last January in Delray Beach, Florida.(For a link to Seibles reading his poem Lobster for Sale at the festival click here.) I bought three of his books and devoured them. What I hadn’t expected was to be hit by his impassioned plea for an impassioned poetry in the introduction to his 2004 volume Buffalo Head Solos. What a poetic call to arms. Here is a taste:

What the hell happened to the notion of poet as town crier, rabble rouser, court jester, priestess, visionary madman?….Writing poems in SUV-America can feel like fiddling amidst catastrophe, but if one must fiddle shouldn’t one play that thing until it smokes? And, in stirring the words with our tongues, our paws, our long nights, and the smoldering tangle of our brains, maybe we could move our general kin to listen.

Seibles, in  despair, wrote this in the aftermath of the Iraq war but he could have as easily  written it yesterday. There is a new/old war Iraq, Syria remains brutalized by violence, the Ebola virus remains unchecked in Africa and has crossed over to other continents and terrorism visited my country last week in attacks on our soldiers (claiming two lives) and on our Parliament Building. Rough days. The days he could be describing at the end of his introduction:

 These are rough days. Desperate times. Times when our language is publicly tortured and forced to mean so much less than it means. There must be a way to stop this dying, a way to make a literature that does more: a poetry with the kiss of a shark and the feet of a sparrow, a poetry at intervals beautiful then ruthless, frank but full of quickening delusions.

Tim Seibles, from Buffalo Head Solos, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2004

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Christian Wiman and Greg Orr — How To Lighten Grief’s Gravity

I sometimes think art is useless in the face of extreme suffering, but then I remember Miklos Radnoti, Paul Celan, Anna Akhmatova, or Mandelstam—and I bow my head (to them) in awe. I suppose I do believe that the greatest art consoles a wound that it creates, that art can give you the capacity to endure and respond to the pain it forces you to feel. Psychological pain, I mean.

Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry Magazine from an interview with Caitlin MacKensie in The Rumpus, Oct.7th, 2014

Christian Wiman, who now teaches at the Yale Divinibooksty School,  has been getting a lot of press lately with his 2013 memoir My Bright Abyss and his new book of poems Once in the West which came out this Fall. Wiman is noted for his unapologetic Christian faith that has sustained him through grueling rounds of cancer that have taken him to the edge of unbearable pain and death. But his Christianity and belief in God is not a flag he waves but more a worn blanket with rips and tears he holds to himself with honest dignity.

This week’s tragic events in Ottawa, which are for me such a reminder of senseless deaths happening everyday everywhere on this good earth, brings me right back to the question of how art can possibly console or even heal in the face of tragedy.

And as luck or poetry would have it I came across Wiman ‘s quote in The Rumpus which seemed spot on with my own musings but also expressed something I couldn’t articulate.

I suppose I do believe that the greatest art consoles a wound that it creates, that art can give you the capacity to endure and respond to the pain it forces you to feel. Psychological pain, I mean.

What an insight: art consoles a wound that it creates. Then more: art can give you the capacity to endure and respond to the pain it forces you to feel.” Here’s the key thing Wiman is saying. When you write a poem on a tragic or difficult event you recreate it and with this creation you are no longer just a victim. You have some power over the reshaping and remaking of it.

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Let’s Go Fly a Kite – Heaney and Pascoli – Part Two

Let's Go Fly a Kite

Let’s Go Fly a Kite

The Seamus Heaney translations  of two poems by Giovanni Pascoli (1855 – 1912) published in the New Yorker after the death of Heaney (1938 – 2013) last August sent me scrambling to find out more about Heaney’s connection to Pascoli.  I didn’t have far to go.

Heaney discovered Pascoli in Urbino, Italy in 2002 and was introduced then to Pascoli’s poem L’Aquilone (The Kite), which Heaney,  in a sense, translated twice: once in its entirety and later as a modified version, A Kite for Aibhin (after L’Aquilone by Giovanni Pascoli).  The modified version is set in Ireland not Italy and was included in Heaney’s book The Human Chain, published in 2010.

For a commentary by Heaney on Pascoli’s  The Kite and Heaney’s full translation Click here.   For an article by a professor at the University of Urbino, Gabriella Morisco, describing how she introduced Heaney to Pascoli,  click here.

Heaney’s interest in the kite as an image did not begin with Pascoli. It was one of the wonderful links between these two men that Heaney had already seized on it as a vital image in a poem he had written for his sons about 30 years before — A Kite for Michael and Christopher – a poem that startles me again and again with these lines:

take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.

That’s a whooper of a line. And when Heaney died last year he might have been surprised to have seen that line quoted in  tributes to him to refer to the grief of his passing.

Here, below is Heaney’s version of Pascoli’s, The Kite.

A Kite for Aibhin

After “L’Aquilone” by Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912)

Air from another life and time and place,
Pale blue heavenly air is supporting
A white wing beating high against the breeze,

And yes, it is a kite! As when one afternoon
All of us there trooped out
Among the briar hedges and stripped thorn,

I take my stand again, halt opposite
Anahorish Hill to scan the blue,
Back in that field to launch our long-tailed comet.

And now it hovers, tugs, veers, dives askew,
Lifts itself, goes with the wind until
It rises to loud cheers from us below.

Rises, and my hand is like a spindle
Unspooling, the kite a thin-stemmed flower
Climbing and carrying, carrying farther, higher

The longing in the breast and planted feet
And gazing face and heart of the kite flier
Until string breaks and—separate, elate—

The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.

Seamus Heaney from Human Chain Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

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The Large Piccolo Cose (small things) of Giovanni Pascoli

Giovanni Pascoli (1855 - 1912)

Giovanni Pascoli (1855 – 1912)

Washerwomen

Out in a field half-fallow and half furrowed,
A plough is standing, no oxen-team in sight,
Forgotten looking, half-hid in a mist-cloud.
From the mill-pond comes the wet slapping and surge
And rhythmic rinsings of the washerwomen,
Each splish-splash keeping time with their sing-song dirge:
The wind is blowing, the bush is snowing,
You’ve not come back to your native heath:
When you went you left me sorrowing
Like a plow left out in a fallow field.

Giovanni Pascoli (1855 – 1912), trans. from the Italian, by Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), The New Yorker, November 8th, 2013

The best poetic craft is never self-conscious or obvious. And that’s why the craft of Giovanni Pascoli , as translated by Seamus Heaney, intoxicates me. Pascoli is a new discovery but made familiar through Heaney’s voice which obviously echoes inside the Pascoli poems he translates. I owe the discovery to the American poet Marie Howe at a workshop this summer in Venice where she introduced us to two  of Heaney’s translations. Venice was intoxicating enough without the spells cast by Pascoli whose popularity internationally is so opposed to his obscurity here. Pascoli’s spare images dogged me in Venice and dog me still.

On the Poetry Foundation website  Pascoli is described as arguably the greatest Italian poet writing at the beginning of the twentieth venture. While certainly no modernist, his almost imagistic focus on piccolo cose (small things) and his scaling back of the era’s grandiose language and rhetoric both contributed to the modernization of Italian poetry.

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The Black Dog Speaks – Poetry and Depression – The Robin Williams’ Aftershock

 

 

Robin Williams 1951 - 2014

Robin Williams 1951 – 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Depression in Winter

There comes a little space between the south
side of a boulder
and the snow that fills the woods around it.
Sun heats the stone, reveals
a crescent of bare ground: brown ferns,
and tufts of needles like red hair,
acorns, a patch of moss, bright green….

I sank with every step up to my knees,
throwing myself forward with a violence
of effort, greedy for unhappiness–
until by accident I found the stone,
with its secret porch of heat and light,
where something small could luxuriate, then
turned back down my path, chastened and calm.

Jane Kenyon from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 1996

We’re going to miss you Robin…Rest in peace, man.  This is not me speaking although it could be me and thousands of others. No, this is Marc Maron, the comedian, who broadcast a tribute to Robin Williams the day Williams took his own life on August 11th, 2014. Maron’s tribute consists, mainly, of the interview he did with Williams in 2010. The humanity of Williams, his vulnerability, pours out of that interview. It is in a strange way a glorious self-tribute to Williams, remarkable actor, comedian and, most of all, human being. To listen to Maron’s tribute click here.

What makes the interview almost unbearably poignant comes near its end when Williams is discussing his triple recovery: from a relapse back into alcoholism after 20 years of sobriety, heart surgery and divorce. The subject of suicide comes up and Williams dismisses it with grace and self-deprecating humour. He responds: First I don’t have the balls to do it and then he gives a remarkable riff on an inner conversation with himself where at one point he says to himself in response to the impulse to kill himself: Can I put this one here in the ‘What the Fuck” category?

It is clear in Williams’ interview with Marc Maron that taking his life was not an option. But a week ago that changed. What the Fuck became somehow Why the Fuck Not. And now so many of us grieve his passing. And I am reminded of the title of a remarkable book my friend Donaleen Saul wrote after her brother took his life: Did You Know I Would Miss You? 

The epigraph poem for this blog post comes from the American poet Jane Kenyon ( 1949 – 1995) who struggled with depression ( what Winston Churchill called his black dog) for many years. Kenyon in her poem finds a way back, finds a place of refuge from her black dog. Williams, last Sunday, could not. When I heard of William’s death last week when I climbed off a flight having just watched Williams’ last film The Angriest Man in Brooklyn I immediately sought solace in poetry. I thought first of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ so-called six Terrible Sonnets, his poems of black despair, especially his poem: No worse, there is none. But then I thought of Kenyon and her poems on depression. Read More »