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A Poetry Handbook [Paperback]

Mary Oliver
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 12 2001
With passion, wit, and good common sense, the celebrated poet Mary Oliver tells of the basic ways a poem is built-meter and rhyme, form and diction, sound and sense. Drawing on poems from Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and others, Oliver imparts an extraordinary amount of information in a remarkably short space. “Stunning” (Los Angeles Times). Index.

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This slender guide by Mary Oliver deserves a place on the shelves of any budding poet. In clear, accessible prose, Oliver (winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for poetry) arms the reader with an understanding of the technical aspects of poetry writing. Her lessons on sound, line (length, meter, breaks), poetic forms (and lack thereof), tone, imagery, and revision are illustrated by a handful of wonderful poems (too bad Oliver was so modest as to not include her own). What could have been a dry account is infused throughout with Oliver's passion for her subject, which she describes as "a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind." One comes away from this volume feeling both empowered and daunted. Writing poetry is good, hard work.

From Publishers Weekly

National Book Award winner Oliver ( New and Selected Poems ) delivers with uncommon concision and good sense that paradoxical thing: a prose guide to writing poetry. Her discussion may be of equal interest to poetry readers and beginning or experienced writers. She's neither a romantic nor a mechanic, but someone who has observed poems and their writing closely and who writes with unassuming authority about the work she and others do, interspersing history and analysis with exemplary poems (the poets include James Wright, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore and Walt Whitman). Divided into short chapters on sound, the line, imagery, tone, received forms and free verse, the book also considers the need for revision (an Oliver poem typically passes through 40 or 50 drafts before it is done) and the pros and cons of writing workshops. And though her prose is wisely spare, a reader also falls gladly on signs of a poet: "Who knows anyway what it is, that wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem can live?" or "Poems begin in experience, but poems are not in fact experience . . . they exist in order to be poems."
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A book to read, and then, perhaps, forget. June 6 2012
By Ryan
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A Poetry Handbook -- I cannot say whether this really is a handbook about poetry, or if it is more an essay of the author's opinion on writing poetry. At time's, I felt enlightened and at other times I wanted to yell at Mary Oliver and say "That's what you think, and you don't represent all things poetic!!"

The major draw toward this book is that the author admits the archaic forms of metrical verse and, though she spends time boring with the theory, the book picks up and spends a considerable time on contemporary trends. It is clear that Oliver feels she is walking in unknown lands when she speaks of free verse. All-in-all she offers some good insights.

The continual thorn of this book is when after giving a thoughtful and reasoned opinion, Oliver goes to extreme opinions about what "should not" a poem make. Her extreme opinions (such as never to use offensive language) are for the most part, valid and sound, and yet in an evolving and emergent world of contemporary poetry, there are exceptions to every rule, and I had wished she would not confine the pupil/reader to some of her ideas which are too traditional.

There are many practical things to garnish from this book. The first few chapters will appeal to classic poets, and those who wish to reduce poetry to mathematics. The rest of the book appeals to the "now" contemporary poet. Discussions on diction, imagery, pacing, and the many techniques and how best to use them ensue.

For a light textbook on poetry, this book fits. For those wanting something deep and technical, they may have to continue searching. I have a feeling that in a few years this book will be in the discount bin.

It's worth reading, and it won't take you long. It flows quickly and the main body is only 122 pages.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A solid text for readers and writers May 20 2002
"A Poetry Handbook," by Mary Oliver, is a nonfiction prose text about the art of writing poetry. In the book Oliver, herself an excellent poet, gives a clear and painless introduction to some structural aspects of poetry. She defines many technical terms: alliteration, onomatopoeia, alexandrine, caesura, quatrain, persona, etc. She also discusses various poetic forms: sonnet, free verse, etc. Other topics addressed include imagery and diction. Throughout the book, Oliver illustrates her points with poetry by some of the greatest practitioners of the craft: Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, etc.
The book is aimed at both readers and writers of poetry. For the latter, Oliver reflects on such practical issues as revision and participation in poetry workshops. The book reflects Oliver's own philosophy of poetry. She stresses that poetry is a craft that requires work and discipline, and encourages the reader to think of poets as constituting a "tribe" that transcends all geographic and cultural boundaries.
The book is not without flaws. I found it quite Eurocentric; she never discusses the haiku, a Japanese verse form that has been embraced by many in the English-speaking world. Other non-Western forms are similarly neglected.
Some of her opinionated pronouncements also seem open to debate. She notes that a poem "gives pleasure through the authority and sweetness of the language," but I think some poems are effective conduits of rage or outrage and make use of unpleasant language to shake up the reader. Regarding the revision process, she notes that sometimes "it is simply best to throw a poem away" -- but, I ask, who is to make that decision?
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mary's Gift She Was Afraid to Give Sept. 6 1999
By A Customer
Sitting at a picnic table, I was given a book on poetry writing by Mary Oliver. I carried it around like a candy bar, taking bites of its peanuts in chocolate words about words. She states that she was afraid to write it because she loved the subject too much. Yet what a gift of love she has given. And what more do we have to give, or does Mary for that matter, than the words we are afraid to say? Thank you Mary.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Small Treasure March 12 2000
It's a small treasure for those who are about to embark on the arduous and mysterious journey of writing poetry. Her prose is as lyrical as her poetry, as she teaches about the essence of this magical process.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an inspiring guide to writing poetry Dec 31 1997
Mary Oliver's poetry itself can do some teaching on its own, but we can be grateful she's chosen to articulate the writing process so richly in this book. The book will almost certainly will wring some writing out of you; it will also inspire you to examine your work habits and technique. Oliver's intelligence shines through, and will make you a better reader of poetry. Small note on the previous review: Mary Oliver does, indeed, teach, at Bennington College currently. If you can't enroll there, this book is your next best choice.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Lasting Contribution To Poetry Nov. 26 2002
With _A Poetry Handbook_, Mary Oliver does for poetry what Strunk and White did for prose. This book is elementary, not in the sense of being remedial, but as a clear introduction to the fundimental principles of poetic criticism and craft. This is a book you will reference repeatedly, whose pages you will yellow with delight throughout your career -- however casual or professional -- in poetry.
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