“A Poetry Handbook,” by Mary Oliver

A Poetry HandbookNot a ground-breaking book, but a clear, skillful, personable take on, as Oliver puts it, “the part of the poem that is a written document, as opposed to a mystical document, which of course the poem is also.”

Oliver handles the usual handbook topics–sound, figures of speech, lines, and so on–and her voice is distinctive, bracing but never strident, like a favorite teacher’s…

She is wry and opinionated: A successful writing class is one “where no one feels that ‘writer’s block’ is a high-priority subject.”  She is directive: “You cannot swing lines around, or fling strong-sounding words, or scatter soft ones, to no purpose.” She is confident: “A stanza break will inevitably result in either a felt hesitation or a felt acceleration.” She is appreciative and creative: Keats’s commentary on negative capability “is as up-to-date as a sun-rise.”

And she tempers her views, without ever weakening them, by acknowledging other ideas: “I don’t mean that this is all there is to it by any means.” And by honoring those who gloss things differently: “Neither of us has to be wrong; we may both be in the bounds of the reasonable.” And by an openness to try the techniques of others: “There are other ways…there are innumerable ways.”

The few hours I spent reading Oliver’s Handbook felt like the opening review week of master-class in poetry-writing, and I put the book down remembering much that I’d known before and feeling ready to read, write, and learn what’s next.

(Click here to buy A Poetry Handbook.)

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