A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

I have this fascination with poetry handbooks.  I think it started after receiving my rejection letter to the MFA program at Colorado State. Looking back, the portfolio I submitted was atrocious, but I was still heartbroken. I’ve loved writing since the third grade when I wrote a story and totally ripped off the ending of Roald Dahl’s The BFG. Why do so many children love the “it was all a dream” ending? Anyways, after getting rejected I didn’t do any creative writing for about 6 months. I don’t know why I took it so personally, but I was defeated. Eventually, I decided to try and figure out what was wrong with my poems–why weren’t they at an acceptable level for an MFA program (I know, getting rejected from one program doesn’t mean the poetry was bas–even though it was–but due to certain constraints I was only able to apply to one. I put all my eggs (or ego) in one basket and promptly dropped it off a cliff). This was five years ago. Since then, I’ve purchased Michael Bugeja’s Art and Craft of Poetry, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, and Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry. If anything, these books taught me to read more poetry than I could possible imagine. In my poetry class this past fall at University College, we discussed various titles that had good exercises to keep the creativity flowing. Well, as I was perusing the poetry section at Barnes and Noble a few weeks agao, I came across Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. In my mind, I was convinced that this was one of the title we talked about. So I promptly bought it, went home and checked the list I had jotted down in my notebook, and realized it wasn’t even mentioned. So here I am with yet another handbook. What else to do but read it?

And it was a great read.  There wasn’t anything new or earth-shattering, but as a creative writing teacher at the high school level, I can use some of Oliver’s explanations for students who don’t really know too much about poetry (especially outside of the emotional blurts that high schoolers seem to thrive on). Oliver does a fantastic job of explaining sounds from letters to words to lines. She shows the differences between short and long lines and how rhythm impacts a line. She also goes through and explains the form of free verse and the necessity of imagery in very understandable ways. She concludes that poetry is hard work and should be something beyond a one-time word blurt. Oliver finishes with this quote:

A mind that is lively and inquiring, compassionate, curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling, is a mind full of possible poetry. Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision. . . . 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.

So if you’re looking for some high-level exercises or insight into the world of poetry, this book may be a bit of a bore. However, if you teach at the high school or college level, this is a great springboard for familiarizing students with the craft of poetry. This short book is also useful to those who may want to simply learn how to read poetry to see what all the hype is about.

There’s still so much to learn about poetry, as both a teacher and a writer. I may never get over this fascination with poetry handbooks, but I have gotten over my disappointment of rejection. And hopefully, my poetry has gotten a little better of the years too. We’ll see. Happy new year everybody!


3 thoughts on “A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

  1. Thanks for the recommendation Joel. I will certainly be checking some of the books linked above out.

  2. Thanks for recommending Oliver’s poetry handbook. As a mom and a teacher, I long for resources that will help me to understand how others think (and read poetry) when their thought processes are so different from my own.


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