“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

Happy Birthday Tony Hoagland – Two Days Late!

American Poet, Teacher and Essayist, Tony Hoagland

American Poet, Teacher and Essayist, Tony Hoagland










from Faulkner

That is what I learned from Faulkner: there is evil in the world
like a virus, or a lingering disease
that sleeps inside the rivers and the trees—

the reason for suffering isn’t some bad choice you made,
or something you did wrong,

it isn’t anybody’s fault; it just exists,
it is a condition of this place;

and the only purpose it serves
is that it wakes us up,
at certain moments in our lives, it rouses us

to get up on our feet and find the door.


Tony Hoagland (1953 – ) from Application for Release from the Dream, Graywolf Press, 2015

American poet Tony Hoagland, who turned 62 on November 19th, just might be one of the bravest poets of his generation. I say this not just based on his past four books of poetry but especially his latest book which came out a few months ago. He has a way of challenging complacency: not just his readers’ but his as well. He has a fearlessness wrapped inside a vulnerability of feeling that makes me feel sometimes he not only sticks his own hand inside a light socket, but mine too!

I have taken the risk of excerpting the huge “tell” statement, which I use as an epigraph for this post, from Hoagland’s longer poem, Faulkner. The complete poem can be read below. (But first an apology to Hoagland and my readers. After hours of trying I cannot make WordPress keep the indents that are required in Faulkner.)

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Poetry-As-Prayer – Calgary Nov. 27th and 28th, 2015

Richard Osler At One Of His Retreats

Richard Osler At One Of His Retreats
























I sing for you.
I am made for song.
It is my purpose, to invent new music, as a kind of prayer
that everything is, a cane tapping, a child running, the way
a leaf falls in its arpeggio. Everything states “consort”,
“orchestration”, and even music is to Him what is unrecognizable
to us:
the poor conversation, the bad day; it is our forcing
of a called tune that makes us deaf. For his musics weave
like wind, taking a sudden turn, holding up leaves, blowing the
We tap into his musics and call it a page, a song.
When our will is congruent to what we hear,
we are poets,
and people of prayer.

Pier Giorgio Di Cicco (1949 – ) from Names of Blessing, Novalis Publishing Inc.2009

Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, a man of so many parts. He is or has been a urban planner, professor, priest, poet laureate of Toronto from 2005 to 2009 and author of twenty two books of poetry including his latest released by The St. Thomas Poetry Series in October – Mystic Playground.

When I think of Di Cicco, who lives north of Toronto, I think of him not just by what he has achieved but as one of the patron saints for me of the Poetry-As-Prayer retreats I lead across North America two to three times a year. His poem above, says it all; says the truth that lives at the heart of these retreats:

We tap into his musics and call it a page, a song.
When our will is congruent to what we hear,
we are poets,
and people of prayer.

For any of you reading this from Calgary I invite you to experience the reality of this at a poetry-as-prayer retreat I am leading at Hillhurst United Church on Friday evening November 27th and all day Saturday the 28th, 2015. This will be my third poetry-as-prayer retreat this year – most recently, for the seventh time, I led Surfside Poetry-As-Prayer retreat in October on the Texas Gulf Coast. For more details about the Calgary retreat please see below.

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“THE ACHE” – The Delicious Peril of the Poetry of Sara Eliza Johnson

American poet Sara Eliza Johnson

American poet Sara Eliza Johnson

From View From the Fence, On Which I Sit and Dangle My Legs

The horses are beating inside the field.
The horses are the night’s blood

congealed. Moon-whipped horses,
frost-spun, clicking their teeth

against dead grass. Horses
with stomachs full of dust, how the flies

pick at their eyes, in love.

Sara Eliza Johnson from Bone Map, Milkweed Editions, 2014

How to corral a pack of wild mustangs; how to contain the lyric riches and surprises of the poems of Sara Johnson, her bravura metaphors and images? How to describe the world where her poems dwell, a world I know yet one also unfamiliar and wrapped in a sinister strangeness, still somehow beautiful, that changes everything, like snow on first leaves at dusk in Spring.

And what am I left with after reading Johnson? I am left with what my friend Nancy describes as “soul sadness”. I call it a soul ache from from an “isness” inside her poetry that portrays the unrelenting ache of being human, the ache of too much beauty, too much suffering. It’s the ache that for me defines great poetry.

In his back-cover blurb for Johnson’s book, Garrett Hongo, has no trouble describing Johnson’s poetry: Hers is a cunning and dangerous poetry, deceptive in its apparent innocence, drawn from a well of the beautiful and macabre, a crystal cup of roses dipped in the tongue-blood of wolves.

Hongo’s description rises to the same metaphoric pitch Johnson seems to hit much of the time. Maybe that’s why I like it. Yet I want to reach even further to describe a poetry that seems to exist not just in three dimensions but in four! A poetry that seems to open a portal into a new reality.

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One Poet Out of Five – Terrance Hayes Makes the National Book Awards Short List

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

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










from How To Draw A Perfect Circle

………..Before that day the officer had never fired his gun
In the line of duty. He was chatting with a cabdriver
Beneath the tracks when my cousin circled him holding a knife.

The wound caused no brain damage though his eyeball was severed.
I am not sure how a man with no eye weeps. In the Odyssey
Pink water descends the Cyclops’s cratered face after Odysseus

Drives a burning log into it. Anyone could do it. Anyone could
Begin the day with his eyes and end it blind or deceased,
Anyone could lose his mind or his vision. When I go crazy

I am afraid I will walk the streets naked, I am afraid I will shout
Every fucked up thing that troubles or enchants me, I will try to murder
Or make love to everybody before the police handcuff or murder me.

Terrance Hayes from How To Be Drawn, Penguin Poets, 2015 and Poetry Magazine December, 2014

Last month in a blog post I featured Jane Hirschfield, one of the ten poetry long list nominees for the 2015 National Book Award and I promised a second part to that post that would feature Terrance Hayes, another long list nominee, for his collection How To Be Drawn. But because of a month long trip away I never followed up with the Hayes post before the short list was announced a few days ago. I am disappointed Hirschfield didn’t make it; but glad Hayes did. To read my August blog post on Hayes click here.

In his poem How to Draw a Perfect Circle Hayes writes: Everything is connected. He breaks the line at the end of this fragment so that even though the fragment is part of a longer grammatical sentence it stands out as a complete thought on its own. The beauty of a great line break.

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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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