Inspiration, advice, or a fresh perspective, whatever you might be looking for in a how to book about writing poetry, Mary Oliver's book, A Poetry Handbook, offers something for everyone. The book explains her view on some of the fundamentals of writing poetry such as meter, rhyme, sound, word choice, and form. Beginning poets will find great value in the education Oliver offers. At the same time, experienced writers will find this review of the basics (and not so basics) a refresher that might help refocus or reground writers in important aspects of the "ancient art" of writing poetry (106). The later half of the book offers examples and scholarly discussion of wonderful poets Oliver clearly admired, and she discusses form in more depth, her philosophies on figurative language, revision, and the benefits of workshops as well as working in solitude. She provides a fresh way of thinking about many forms of figurative language that I particularly appreciated. She said, "Figurative language can give shape to the difficult and the painful. It can make visible and 'felt' that which is invisible and 'unfeelable.' Imagery, more than anything else, can takes us out of our own existence and let us stand in the condition of another instance, or another life. It can make the subject of the poem, whatever it is, as intimate as honey--or ashes--in the mouth. Use it responsibly" (108). This last piece of advice, I cannot help, as a mom of three boys, think of Spiderman ("With great power comes great responsibility") and I giggled when I read it, but in reality, it is so very true. Poetry, she says, "Without figurative language would be as dull as a mumble," but figurative language overly done can give readers "whiplash" (107, 108). No one wants that. Her prose is written beautifully and is full of what she does best as well--although she doesn't select any of her own poems for the work, many parts are written in beautiful poetic language. One particular lovely metaphor she uses is as follows: "The natural world is the old river that runs through everything, and I think poets will forever fish along its shores" (106). Of course Mary Oliver would encourage her readers to live in the world as much as possible, especially in the natural world. Her belief in the power of observation is clear when she says, "No one could think, without first living among things" (1-5). She encourages writers to really see the world in which they live, no matter where that is. Furthermore, she suggests that if a poem fails, it is not because the poet lacks the right words or skill, it is because the poet "has not stood long enough among the flowers--has not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way" (99). A poem is "a confession of faith;" it is meant to provide some intimate view into life: "For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry" (122). How could readers not be inspired by these parting words? How could writers not feel the importance of their work as writers? This book is a worthy resource as readers clearly learn as Oliver gives instruction and reminds readers that a "poem is an attitude, and a prayer; it sings on the page and it sings itself off the page; it lives through genius and technique" (114).
Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1994.
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