A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver

Oliver has produced an excellent introduction to poetry. Although it is written for the beginning writer, the book is also tremendously useful for the beginning reader, someone who would like to read poetry but would like some guidance on what to look for. Many of us were persuaded by grade school English classes that poetry was complicated and difficult to understand. Even if we thought we understood a poem, it turned out there were all kinds of hidden meanings that we’d missed.

Oliver lays it out clearly with plenty of examples to illustrate her points. She covers the use of sound, not just of words but of their components. She goes into detail, explaining semi-vowels, aspirates and mutes. She takes Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening apart to show how the sounds work, but then reassures the despairing beginner, that these tools of alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia are things anyone can learn and then, once confident, forget. You will be able to use them without consciously thinking of them.

In an extended chapter on the line, Oliver explains how meter and line length contribute to the emotional experience of the poem. She reviews all those pesky terms like dactyl and spondee and anapest, showing how they are used to imbue the poem with movement and emotion. Even for an experienced poet, reviewing these basics can be helpful. I appreciated being reminded of patterns I rarely use.

She gives examples of ways to vary the rhythm of the line for different effects, adding that “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures.” She also notes something that has interested me lately: that different readers may find different rhythms in a poem, stress different syllables. To illustrate, she provides four ways to read Keats’s line “Bright star! would I were as steadfast as thou art—“.

Because of my interest in individual words, I especially enjoyed her chapter on diction or word choice. She notes that the factors one considers as one selects or discards a word are sound, accuracy and connotation. I also found her chapter on form and free verse to be exceptionally useful for those recurrent discussions of whether a particular poem is really prose broken into lines.

Imagery of course lies at the core of my poetry. I like the way she brings in sensory detail. Also, this strikes home: “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.” She says that if a poem about flowers is “thin”, it is most likely because the poet “has not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.”

I highly recommend this book to beginning readers and writers, as well as to experienced poets who would like a refresher.

What book would you recommend to someone who wants to learn how to appreciate poetry?

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