On ‘A Poetry Handbook’ by Mary Oliver – Part I

When you read a truly great poem, you know right away that it’s great. But can you say what makes it great? The words seem simple, the form logical, the title fitting . . . But there is something inexplicable left: the meaning. With a great poem, you cannot state the meaning, the emotional core, of the poem without quoting the poem itself.

This is what makes poetry difficult. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver thinks that it doesn’t have to be difficult though. Poems are made of words which have rules. These rules can help to guide you on your way to constructing a great poem. This series I am putting together takes a look at ‘A Poetry Handbook’ by Mary Oliver, a guide for one who wishes to learn to craft great, effective, beautiful poems.

In the Introduction to her book, Oliver likens the fledgling poet to a painter in training; just as the painter would follow a step-by-step process to learn painting (e.g. paint shapes, learn shading techniques, etc.), the poet should follow a learning process as well. This book teaches the craft, and by learning the craft one can better express their imagination.

– Be intentional when writing a poem. Have emotional freedom when writing, but control the language. Otherwise, the emotional freedom will not carry through to the reader as the language, the medium, is flawed.

– Read different styles of poetry. Take apart the style and see how it expresses its emotional content differently than other forms.

– Finally, a writer stands between two marvelously complex things: “an experience (or an idea or a feeling) and the urge to tell about it in the best possible conjunction of words.” Learning how to combine the two is possible, learnable, and essential to the crafting of great poetry.

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