Review: A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

Can I tell you, please, what a sparkling gem this book is?

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Thank you. I’ll be brief.

I came across Mary Oliver‘s A Poetry Handbook while frantically searching Amazon books for something that would communicate poetry in a say, more nuanced way than a list of poetic devices. My students are a mixed bag when it comes to everything, but especially poetry. If we have ‘lovers’ and ‘haters’ for any other academic area, poetry is what turns the classroom into warring factions. It’s what I imagine a gang-ridden classroom looks like, but with Keats and Collins instead of, you know, guns and violence.

The book contains a scant 122 pages and is divided into an introduction, 12 chapters, and a spot-on conclusion. Only a poet could fit so very much into so very little. Specific poetic device comes in the later chapters, and Oliver spends ample time exploring preparation for reading and writing poetry before delving into anything else. She makes a case for imitation as necessary practice, what one does in order to learn, in the introduction:

Perhaps sometime you will have an idea for a piece of music, you may actually “hear” it in the privacy of your mind — and you will realize how impossible it would be to write it down, lacking, as most of us do, the particular and specialized knowledge of musical notation. Why should our expectation about a poem be any different? It too is specialized, and particular (3). 

Sound and line (that is to say, prosody and scansion) come before an exploration of form and free-verse poetics. Oliver is unapologetically insistent that students, readers and writers, learn about these things. I have always struggled with anything more complicated than iambic pentameter, but I’ve been persuaded to try again.

One chapter encompasses diction, tone and voice.  Imagery directly follows. Informative and engaging, this little book is everything I’ve been looking for. Do read it.

I’m leaving you with two longish excerpts. Enjoy!

I like to say that I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now. This is a useful notion, especially during revision. It reminds me, forcefully, that everything necessary must be on the page. I must make a complete poem — a river-swimming poem, a mountain-climbing poem. Not my poem, if it’s well done, but a deeply breathing, bounding, self-sufficient poem. Like a traveler in an uncertain land, it needs to carry with it all that it must have to sustain its own life — and not a lot of extra weight, either (110).

Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision — a faith, to use an old-fashioned term. Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed (122).

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