Come for the instruction in how to write poems. Stay for the poetry that flows from Mary Oliver like an undiminished spring.
“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision—a faith, to use an old-fashioned term. Yes, indeed. 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.” (122)
I’m a late-comer to Mary Oliver’s 1994 guide, A Poetry Handbook. After reading a book of her poetry following her death earlier this year, I discovered what many a preacher has told me through the years—they see God in her simple, lucid poems about the natural world. I wanted to know more about how she views the craft.
A Poetry Handbook exhibits the same qualities that make her poetry so appealing. On the one hand, it is a thin, accessible book with clear instruction for those who want to know the basics of writing poems. Iambic pentameter, blank verse, texture, voice, and tone—you’ll get good introductions to all of these. But the technical information never overwhelms the blazes of ethereal light that sneak in to Oliver’s text, reminding you why you took up the book in the first place.
“The poem is not a discussion, not a lecture,” Oliver says, “but an instance—an instance of attention, of noticing something in the world.” (74) As such, the poet must give attention, not only to form, but to the world.
“The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely, or anyway that part of the world he or she has taken for subject. If the poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because he or she has not stood long enough among the flowers—has not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.” (99)
Without feeling that thrill and weight of the thing perceived, poetry dies on the vine. So practicing poetry requires “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.” (7)
As a place to start in understanding the workings of the craft, A Poetry Handbook is as good a guide as you could hope for. It’s also poetry itself.