Review: A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

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


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).

My Day in Numbers


1 room

1 head cold

1 forgotten soccer banquet (also 1 mother-of-the-year award)

2 old, gummy, dirty cough drops scavenged from the bottom of my teacher bags

27 parent-teacher conferences

80 tissues – give or take


This brings me to the perennial question of parent-teacher conference week: Am I too sick to drink?

Prolonging the Magic

Colby did not want to trick-or-treat this year.

I didn’t push it, knowing that the more I pushed and cajoled, the more he would resist. And you know, trick-or-treating is kind of a pain in the ass, but I reallly wanted him to go. It wasn’t because of my overwhelming love of Halloween, but because in this new world of autonomy and music and girls and armpit hair (and an incredibly stressful election year) I wanted him to do something that allowed him to be a kid. Something silly and mindless and fun.
He finally decided, that tricky little monkey of mine, that he wanted to be Paul Bunyan. Then he told everyone that he was tricking me into buying him a new flannel shirt. One $12.99 LL Bean flannel later:


Paul and Babe

Then he and his cousin got the idea to go as Paul and Babe the Blue Ox. I was in heaven. Do you remember this book

Our copy has a lot of miles on it, and it was the replacement for the copy I had as a child. Steven Kellog (of The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash fame) tells the Paul Bunyan tale with wit and pacing and verve. To boot, the illustrations are intricate and nuanced and are perfectly paired to the story. If you don’t own a copy, buy one now. Here are some of my favorite parts:

Paul Bunyan was the largest, smartest, and strongest baby ever born in the state of Maine.

He soon grew into a sturdy lad who was so quick on his feet he could blow out a candle and leap into bed before the room became dark.

And then there’s Babe the blue ox.

Both Paul and Babe began growing at an astonishing rate, but the ox never lost the color of the snow from which he’d been rescued.

He has seasonal affective disorder:

The blizzard continued for several years … the crew… hibernated. Babe became so depressed that Paul asked Ole to make a pair of sunglasses for his friend. When Babe saw the world colored green, he thought he’d stumbled into a field of clover.

So he ate all the snow.

At that point, all those pent-up springtimes simply exploded, dissolving the storm clouds and the remaining snow.

Sigh. And then the pancakes and the gumberoos and the canyon.

Sometimes his great bursts of laughter can be heard rumbling like distant thunder across the wild Alaskan mountain ranges where he and Babe still roam.

Anyway. I was happy to prolong the magic just one more year. We made pancakes and ate them standing up at the kitchen counter. My aunt and I tried to get the boys (one mine and one hers) ready, but it felt a lot like what I imagine herding wet cats would be like. The boys went out and maybe did more aimless walking around than trick-or-treating, I walked with another mother not necessarily trailing the kids, but you know, just being in the general area.

A quick note: I was the only teacher dressed up at work. I went as Medusa which no one thought was really a stretch, but it was awesome. Awesomer than being Medusa? Having post-Halloween dreads as a result.

I should have kept them in.

Bicycle, bicycle . . .

Pretty please?

Before I re-started my running life, I wondered why it was that so many of my new co-workers were either marathoners or some other form of endurance sport competitors. While training for my first race, though, I realized that that marathon (or for me, 5k or 1/2 marathon) was the perfect metaphor for the teacher life. I pluck along each summer reading a teacher book here, writing a curriculum unit there. If I’m especially ambitious I take a class or two. I run, swim, and kayak.  I cart Colby from camp to camp and force him to go to the beach with me. We eat late because we are busy fitting everything in. The last couple of weeks in August, I taper. Everything slows down. I’m still doing the things I usually do, but more purposefully, much more slowly. Everything I do is aimed toward the general goal of beginning the school year with a reserve of energy, patience, good will and good habits.

This school year, finally, the starting gun was less intimidating. Like a smart athlete, I had goals that I worked toward all summer long (organization and routines) and I have been able to see my, um, training, pay off. I’m waxing poetic about this because I’m proud of the work I’ve done, and so far, proud of the results. I tend to be one of those “fuck it I do the best I can” people, which really isn’t as effective as I think it is. I’m all for cutting yourself a break, but I needed to cultivate an attitude with more push and less couch. This has not been easy. However, if I can sustain this pace throughout the year … awesome things will happen.

Really though, I’m nervous about the 1/2 coming up at the end of the month. I’ve struggled with a weird left tibia shin splint since the week before my last 1/2, and my training has been on and off. I’ve integrated more yoga and bike riding into my training and I shelled out an obscene amount of money for a pair of new (ohsodreamy) running shoes. I’m trying to build strength and endurance without killing myself, because I reallyreallyreally want to break 2:30 this time. And now, my knees really, really hurt. So I’m going for one good bike ride per week.

Which brings me to the constant playing of Queen in my head. Because really? I want to ride my bicycle. I ride this gorgeous 7-mile loop right from my house and when I’m done? I can still walk! My knees don’t creak every time I attempt to lift my leg to say, walk to the bathroom. I pass four horse farms, ride up and down challenging hills, and observe the subtle seasonal changes.  I have no plans to abandon my running life, but . . . I want to ride my (purple $20 yard sale little girl’s mountain) bicycle. The only thing better than riding that 7 mile loop on my yard sale bicycle would be riding the same loop on an actual road bike. In a pair of bike shorts with some, uh, strategic padding.

I want to go back out again right now, but I won’t. Thunder is rumbling, and I have a long run tomorrow, homework and housework today. And the looming presence of the Sugarloaf Marathon next Spring? I’ll keep the tab open on my computer, but will wait and see how the Maine Marathon 1/2 ends. Hmmm.

Summer’s End

Aren’t you glad I didn’t say ‘Summer’s Eve’. Bahahaha. I’m seriously the funniest person I know.

But seriously. It seems that this year, as summer ends, I am looking forward to the comfort of a schedule while mourning the loss my of mid-morning runs and watching of the  Nate Birkus show.

I’m less reluctant to return to school this year, not just because I have the worlds best colleagues, but because I finally have enough years behind me to relax. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still as anxious as ever, I just don’t feel like throwing up at the thought of the 8:05 bell. Weird. It’s just that now I realize that I can’t prepare for it all, but I’m pretty damned prepared. It’s a good feeling that I don’t get that often. So I’m enjoying it.

We’ve wrapped up this last weekend of summer quite nicely. Actually, it’s been all kinds of awesome. Let’s work backwards. As I sit by the fire, enjoying the contrasting warmth from the hearth and chill from the window, Matt is off grocery shopping. I’ve been clipping away at syllabi and lesson plans and rubrics and so forth for the last few days, and he’s really stepped up to help out. Grateful I am. We’ve been home all day, alternately puttering, working and sitting by the fireplace with the dogs.  I saw an old and dear friend at Mass this morning, and was so glad that I pried my fuzzy, post-champagne head out of bed to go. And really, I’m always happy to go. There is something about walking into that beautiful building with a squirmy tween who can’t stand for me to put my arm around him and leaving with him leaning on my shoulder. If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.

But the champagne head, that came from last night. One of my baby cousins married her sweetheart and hosted the most family-friendly and FUN reception at a local bowling alley. The bride and groom are family people, certainly demonstrated by their choice to put family (namely: kiddos) first on their special day. We had such fun visiting with family and friends and remarking on the very interesting ways in which our family trees intersect . . .  I’m not sure how things went down after Matt took us through the McD’s drive-through, but I woke up at 3 a.m. to find both dogs in bed with us, both of them wearing glow stick necklaces leftover from the wedding. I guess he got bored after I fell asleep. I earned my sleep, too, because I worked straight through yesterday. The only breaks I took were to ride (10 miles! Matt tried to take me off road, which wasn’t my cup of tea. I swore. I almost fell multiple times. I threw my bike. We went back to the trail shortly after) and run (2 miles. no exclamation point). Colby was with my parents, so I had the luxury of being in a quiet house and knowing that my kiddo was being spoiled silly. This led to extreme productivity. Again, weird.

In short, this has been the most fucking fantastic weekend I’ve had in a long, long time. I will need to hold this day in my pocket like a worry stone, and every time another weekend or day or moment takes a shit turn, I’ll remember that they all won’t be that way. Most, but definitely not all.

I have a busy evening of baking and cooking and tea drinking ahead of me. Off to see friends tomorrow and am so excited I may barely be able to sleep.



Life is good, people. Over the last few weeks I’ve recovered from an injury, read books (for fun), kicked my training in the arse (5 weeks out!), run a 5k with Colby and my friend Jane, visited with an old and dear friend, and ate a sit-down meal with Matt. Lots of fun and not-so-fun work stuff in between.

But now, it is April vacation. No other vacation compares to this, because we are close enough to see the end of the year AND no major holidays impede the pace of all things vacation. I could break into song at any moment.

Did I mention the weather?


Stuff that makes me happy

I’ve spent the week embodying that line “every day I’m shufflin”. Two positions have given me comfort; one in which I’m lying propped up on pillows, the other I’m walking around with my right arm tucked up in an invisible sling. While my body has been screaming, my spirit has been buoyed by the unexpected warmth and sunshine. This makes be happy.

Because I am uncharacteristically happy and because I’m sure Oprah has trademarked the phrase “my favorite things”, here is a look at some stuff that makes me happy.

This kid and his shenanigans.
bubble baths - which coincides with actually living in a house with a bath tub
These girls
... even though they act like drunken goats ...
Oh, and this guy and his collection of early- to mid-'80s gems. Hey! I'm an early '80s gem!
Sunny days!
Work/running/life buddy, Jane

Also: Amazon shopping, this book, Central Street Yoga, new running shoes, peanut butter ice cream, and the general feeling that I can thrive in chaos.

The Dog in the Car Goes Bark, Bark, Bark…

Oh my aching psyche. It’s Monday of vacation week. I’m scheduled to write my big exam all weekend. Then back to school to prepare for March (a month only to be rivaled by October in teacher-land). I’m trying to focus on getting through this exam, though, so I’m just reading away. Everyone’s pretty accepting of the fact that I am a mommy out-of-commision for the week. Colby’s helping with housework and cooking and Matt’s trying to get home to help out. Bella is getting spayed tomorrow and I am as worried as, well, as worried as a mama who has nothing critical or life-threatening to worry about.

Lucky for me, my darling friend (and frequent partner-in-crime), Angie, agreed to ride along with me on our trip to the vet today. Bella needed to go in for her pre-surgery visit, and I needed an extra adult-sized pair of hands to help out. I called her this morning to make plans. While I sipped my coffee, leaning against the wall so my dead cell phone could plug into the outlet, I told her “Good thing it’s Bella. She rides so much better in the car than Sam”. I should have heard the universe laughing. Not regular laughing but snot-dripping-gut-clenching laughing.

Who? Me?

We spent the entire ride to the vet’s with Bella alternately jumping into Angie’s lap, onto Colby, or trying to climb over the driver’s side headrest onto my lap. She would weasel her little head between the seat belt and my seat so that her head could rest on the window sill (totally know that’s not the real word for it, but it’s all I’ve got). Or she would crawl onto Angie’s lap and stand, full and tall, leaning her snout into the small space where the dash and windshield meet. She dripped drool like a cheap faucet wherever she went.

We made it safely to the veterinary clinic after navigating a closed road and a rogue wood truck. We waited with poor, anxious Bella for an hour before we were seen. It took Bella nearly 30 minutes to let the vet near her because she was

The ride home went as before. Except this time Angie and I were so carsick that we layered our arms, one on top of the other, between our seats to create a barrier for the dog. We must have looked darling, the two of us nauseated, tired ladies. Our back seat was full of barking dog and lanky boy (eyes closed, headphones clamped tightly over his ears, head bobbing almost imperceptibly). She and I spoke in the code of mothers’ and their friends, a code that I know will only last as long as spelling out curse words. Eventually Colby will say “Mom, you know I can spell, right?” and soon he will be the one speaking in code, and I will be the one trying to decipher what is really going on.

We dropped Angie off, and I used her bathroom as she barfed off her back porch. I tentatively munched on a couple of crackers before taking my wimp stomach back to the car. On the way back to our house Bella jumped square into Colby’s lap. He was laughing and half-crying as I yelled “if she’s squishing your balls push her into the backseat!” and “if the dog is on your sack, push her back!”. I was so tired. The dog was still barking. I had this deep, primal desire to fish around in the backseat to look for a pacifier and stick it in her mouth. But then I remembered that she was a dog and not a baby. I made up a song using the words “balls” and “sack” as many times as I could. By the time we hit Union Street I was convinced that she was singing along with me. I was also happy that I had taken Colby’s itouch away, otherwise he would have been recording it.

Sigh. We’re home. They’re fed. I’m putting on my sweatpants, pouring a hefty glass of red, and heading to bed with a book.


Happy Monday, friends!


While the cat’s away, the mice will eat tater tots.

Colby’s gone with with my parents for the weekend. He had a 1/2 day scheduled for tomorrow and I was in a childcare pinch. Also, Matt is still working round-the-clock on an endless restoration. I’ve barely seen him since Thanksgiving. My patience with the whole situation of being the only adult around most of the time is wearing thin, but I still know how to enjoy my quiet evenings. What will I do in their absence? I will eat tater tots for supper. They are in the oven right now.

We’re embroiled in this whole pre-adolescent “I love you/I hate you” dichotomy, with nary an end in sight. Everything is either fantastic or life-ending, and I can barely get a word in without a major conflict that will *usually*, eventually end with “oh, cool, you’re right”, but it takes a loooong time to get there. This is the point where I want so badly to write about what is going on, to ask advice from you all, because you’ve been there. But it is also where I remember that his stories are not necessarily my stories to tell anymore. I am squarely where my parents always wished me: “Some day… I hope you have a kid that is just like you!”.

And this whole balance thing? Yeah. Not going so well. I finally broke down and sent Colby to after-school care today, but was so worked up after a faculty meeting that I tanked. I couldn’t find my pace, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the mileage counter on the treadmill. Now, I am a happy runner, but I was just not feeling it. I gave up after two miles, and left feeling so off my game. On the other end of the activity spectrum, I cannot read. When my students tell me they have too much going on to concentrate, I believe them. I just didn’t think it would happen to me. Luckily, I can try again tomorrow.

My students continue to cheer me up when I am bogged down  grading and data and assessments. Some funny stuff:

Student 1 – “Ms. Webb? For five dollars, would you eat a crayon?”

Student 2 – “Shit, I used to eat crayons for FREE!”

“Ms. Webb, I’m going to buy you a carnation for Valentine’s Day” I turn around to look at the student. He grins. “Nah, that would be weird. But if it wasn’t weird I totally would”

Today some students asked me to find out if the groundhog truly saw his shadow. I google, announce that yes, he saw his shadow and we will have six more weeks of winter. None of us could figure out if this made our predicted winter shorter or longer! I don’t know if this says something about our collective cognitive capacity OR the fact that we are just Mainers.


Well, it’s Thursday, my favorite day of the week. I am going to eat tater tots for supper, pop in at an event at Colby’s school, and do my Thursday laundry (so there is less to do over the weekend!). I am always wary of wishing time away, but I will gratefully bid adieu to this long, long week.