A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver


This 122-page book on the subject of reading and writing poetry, one could say, enacts its subject matter.  Not a word is wasted.  It trusts that the reader has come to the text with an open heart and a desire to engage fully.  It was written in 1994, so I’m late in reading it.  But better late…

Oliver’s Table of Contents speaks for itself:  Getting Ready; Reading Poems; Imitation; Sound; More Devices of Sound; The Line; Some Given Forms; Verse That is Free; Diction, Tone, Voice; Imagery; Revision; Workshops and Solitude.  Every point she makes is accompanied by an example, which is key to understanding.  Her language avoids unnecessarily academic terminology without shying away from relatively complicated things such as meter.

As a sometime writer of poetry, I appreciated her advice as to certain practices which are inappropriate in almost any poem:  1) Poetic Diction (language in which all freshness is gone); 2)  The Cliche (unless you are writing a poem about the cliche); 3) Inversion [changing the normal word order for an indefensible purpose–say, you are manipulating things to put the only thyme you can think of at the end of a line? :)]; 4) Informational Language (say, the language you’d use to describe how to operate a can opener:  cold,  not reaching beyond the functional.)

Well, now, that’s probably more than you wanted to read about poetry, if you’re still reading.  I recommend this book to anyone who does engage with, or is interested in engaging with poetry.  You won’t be disappointed, AND you will want to do something about it!

10 comments on “A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver”

    1. Oh, goody, Barbara–I love interviews with poets! Thank you for this. I think Mary Oliver has opened many hearts. So beautifully put.


      1. I like the uncut interviews. They are longer, but I feel like I’m there. Coughs…are not edited out. Imperfect and more natural..


    2. Barbara, Mary Oliver says in this interview something like this: Writing with attentiveness, but without emotion, is just a report. I hope that sticks with me.


      1. I grew up in the 50’s and was formed by a culture that taught me that it was important to repress emotions and “report” THE TRUTH (especially as a woman). During my graduate education at UTS (1988-91), I had to do lots and lots of writing. I would receive feedback that I needed to write in “my own voice.” It took me a long time to realize that meant I needed to really dig deep to uncover all those repressed emotions and have the courage to express them. Integrating my thoughts and feelings is an ongoing challenge at almost 72. Mary Oliver’s advice is succinct and wise.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Barbara, Emily Dickinson is on my mind these days. Proto-modernist, proto-feminist. Your comment pointed me to poems such as “She rose to His Requirement” which we have scheduled for discussion in ModPo. Also “My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun” and “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Have you read them?


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