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A Poetry Handbook

4.04 of 5 stars 4.04  ·  rating details  ·  2,038 ratings  ·  192 reviews
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.
Paperback, 144 pages
Published August 15th 1994 by Mariner Books
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The Crafty Poet by Diane LockwardThe Triggering Town by Richard HugoThe Poet's Companion by Kim AddonizioLetters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria RilkeIn the Palm of Your Hand by Steve Kowit
Best Books on Writing Poetry
8th out of 43 books — 62 voters
A World of Verse by Christopher  ShieldsMeeting With Christ and Other Poems by Deepak ChaswalIcarus and Other Poems by Pradeep ChaswalA Poetry Handbook by Mary OliverLes Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire
Poetry 101
4th out of 50 books — 36 voters

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Community Reviews

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Feb 02, 2011 Shauna rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people who want to refresh their knowledge of poetry
Recommended to Shauna by: Emily Jiang
This book does exactly what you'd want an introductory book on writing poetry to do: It briefly (120 pages) reviews the basics of poetry, defines many poetry terms, introduces the reader to some popular meters, and uses real poems for examples.

I had learned much of this information decades ago in high school, but had not realized it until I started reading this book and realized I had come across this info before. I found it an excellent refresher for someone who wants to try their hand at poet
Erin Stile
Mary Oliver remains beyond doubt one of the richest souls of poetry in contemporary Western culture, a strongly needed antidote to the rapaciousness and heartlessness of our society. I came to this book curious as to how someone so deeply enmeshed in the poetry of life would discuss the art of poetry-writing. (I hate to say "techniques" or "mechanics," words that so demean what fine poets do--although I grant that "art" itself derives from the same root as "artifice.") The prose is as clear and ...more
William Hurst
Mary Oliver is known for her blend of mysticism with Whitman's pastoral fixation. In that vein, this book on the craft of poetry does not disappoint. While other craft books may be more practical (such as the ever-popular The Poet's Companion), A Poetry Handbook probes deeper into the indefinable aspects of verse.

Some will tire of this quickly. Why write a book about the unnameable aspects of the art? Oliver's handbook is necessary because while skilled poets may see the strings of talent, beaut
The best little book on poetry I've come across. Oliver is a master of beautiful, unshowy simplicity. This book covers the basics of poetry, including sound, diction, tone, meter, rhyme, and imagery, and it explains in clear terms why each component is important, and says at least a thing or two about how to do it "right" (well?) and "wrong" (poorly?). Oliver incorporates good examples and useful quotations. The book is true pleasure: wise, measured, clear.
Richelle Wilson
Feb 18, 2013 Richelle Wilson rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: every lover of beautiful
A Poetry Handbook is something I wish I had read a lot earlier in my career as a student of literature, to say nothing of the tentative ventures I’ve made into writing poetry since I was young. A lot of people say this book is a good reiteration of things they learned in their college classes, but I sincerely think it’s an introduction we all need. I never learned about vowel and consonant sounds in my poetry seminars. Maybe somewhere down the line a professor glossed over the principles of scan ...more
This book is delightful and interesting to read, despite being a type of textbook or "bible" for poetry. I enjoyed Mary Oliver's descriptions and discection of sounds, and how they are used to magnify thoughts and messages within poetry or in any written piece. Her insight into the use of certain letters to convey feelings and/or tone is fascinating, and extremely helpful for the budding writer. Mary Oliver uses the same mechanisms she describes within the book itself, which makes for pleasant r ...more
Bill Martin
For the Lit. MFA, Mary Oliver's compact handbook may not offer an avalanche of commendable qualities. But for those of us without the luxury of formal training or professional mentoring, those who endeavor to become better readers of poetry as well as novices in the craft, A Poetry Handbook should fit in a welcome spot on our shelves and furnish our minds with a quarry of solid principles, foundation stones to build on.

I read the less-than-150-page text over a weekend. I have the feeling that I
If I hadn't looked at the copyright, I would have thought this gem was a recent work of Oliver's. She is so wise and informative and authentic in this short guide, and she speaks to the reader as if they are one of her students, a person she wishes to mentor. I guffawed and nodded in agreement at some of her honest advice. For example, she says calls poetic diction "a collection of real clunkers. It is language that is stale, mirthful when it does not mean to be, and empty. Avoid it." Bazinga! O ...more
Of course I'm a fan of everything Mary Oliver writes, so she is an excellent writer not only of but also on poetry. Her explanation on why Whitman is but one (oft-cited) example of free verse but is certainly not the last word in this dynamic form is itself a point worth heeding and one worth the the effort of the time it would take you to read this brief little volume. This example in particular showcases her lucidity and exemplary teaching style, which is shown again and again throughout.
This is the poetry writer's bible. Not only is the content absolutely comprehensive and presented in a simple and beautifully organized manner, but it's written by a true poet. And it shows in her writing. This is a book on poetry written poetically. If you want to learn to write poetry or improve your poetry, pick up this book first, then read others if you feel you need to. But you'll find you keep going back to this one. I sometimes pick this book up just to read something beautiful, to be in ...more
I usually read books like these more for the poetry than for the advice and this one was a little short on the poetry. Short in general, so a quick read.
It didn't make me want to lock myself in a room and start, so, while it was clear and concise, I'm only giving it 3 stars.
Not that my opinion matters.
Jan Duncan-O'Neal
Feb 16, 2008 Jan Duncan-O'Neal rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommended to Jan by: poets
Shelves: writing
While Oliver knows her stuff and is respected, I don't find passion in this slim handbook as I do in other books in the genre such as Ted Kooser's Poetry Home Repair Manual or Edward Hirsch's How to Read a Poem. The sample poems she includes are not fully explored or mined as I would have hoped.
Olga Hebert
I came across this book while browsing at the library. It's by Mary Oliver, and that gets it three stars before I even crack it open. It is a primer of the conventions of poetry. If you want to be able to tell a trochee from a spondee, you'll find that here. But it is also an essay on finding your own poetic voice through practice...practice reading poetry, practice writing poetry, practice paying attention to the world around us. This book is twenty years old, but I will get it for my personal ...more
Rob the Obscure
Brilliant insights from my favorite poet
Not a ground-breaking book, but a clear, skillful, personable take on, as Oliver puts it, "the part of the poem that is a written document, as opposed to a mystical document, which of course the poem is also."

Oliver handles the usual handbook topics--sound, figures of speech, lines, and so on--and her voice is distinctive, bracing but never strident, like a favorite teacher's...

She is wry and opinionated: A successful writing class is one "where no one feels that 'writer's block' is a high-prior
Feb 05, 2013 Maria rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Mary Oliver fans
Shelves: poetry
I read this book a few times before.
After the inauguration I read an article asking why poetry matters. I couldn't answer that. At first I thought that it offers a channel of written/spoken textured expression for those of us who love words, but don’t want to write a novel or short story. I reopened this book for the answers as it is my go-to book for poetry-foundation answers.
Unfortunately, this is the first time I disagreed with Ms. Oliver. The poem she holds in high regard, “Stopping by Wood
John Paterson
An excellent book about writing poetry and with good advice for the novice (and experienced) poet, who is encouraged to follow a course of study including the craft and history of poetry.

"It has always seemed to me curious that the instruction of poetry has followed a path different from the courses of study intended to develop talent in the field of music or the visual arts, where a step-by-step learning process is usual, and accepted as necessary."

The poet should not just develop a single sty
The technical information was a little too basic for me, but it was executed in a refreshingly non-pedantic way. For example, Oliver comes right out and admits that there are no clear-cut rules on how to scan certain lines.

Oliver's insights about writing are very sound to me, she specifically emphasizes exercise and imitation as vital for a beginning poet. However, the book could have gone into a little more detail about pretty much anything it mentions. This way, readers come away from the book
Elaine Nelson
I think there are lessons in life that I'm ready to absorb now that I couldn't 10 or 15 years ago. One of them is the role of craft & structure -- the formalities & technicalities -- in poetry. I've owned this book for quite a while, but this read is the first time that it resonated in a useful way.

Not that this book is overly formal, but it touches on scansion, which I've always had trouble with, and some of the other traditional aspects of poetry. It used to be that the stress symbols
Colleen Wainwright
Concise and useful, which is really everything a handbook should be. And it's really engaging in parts: the section on imagery is especially good, and in context, reading Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish" brought me to tears, which is just what a good poem one is prepared to read well and properly should do.

But the sections on meter and line and sound had me drifting off. I get that it's foundational stuff, drier than metaphor, and a little hard to make lively on the page: my duty as reader-student
Aug 05, 2013 Jeff rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: wanabe poets who've never taken a lit class
Allow me to begin with Chez Neophyte's specialité, mixed metaphors. "Getting Started" watered my desiccated soul. "Conclusion" nosed me out of the nest with good intentions and the belief that i might soar. The meat and potatoes of poetry's mechanics filling the space between those first and last chapters, respectively, provided little more than a refresher course. (ie, Every fledgling needs water. Flowers gotta learn to fly sometime. Nothing invigorates quite like a hearty squab and rosebud ste ...more
Mary Oliver is one of the more popular contemporary poets in the United States. Many Americans think she is all the beans and writes beautiful verse. Many Americans also believe in angels and think that Thomas Kinkade was a good painter. Why do these things happen? Because the educational system in America is designed to teach people how to get a job at McFuckers Emporium of Fuckery and the country is thus inhabited by great swathes of nincompoops who lack critical thinking skills.

Dr Seuss knew
What’s a Metric Foot?

Oliver, M. (1994). A poetry Handbook: A prose guide to understanding and writing poetry. New York: Harcourt Books.

I was looking for a quick, simple guide to understanding the rhythms of poetry, something like “Poetry For Dummies,” and there actually is such a book, but what I found in the bookstore instead is this excellent volume by Pulitzer Prize winner and National Book Award winner, Mary Oliver. It does not aim to be historically comprehensive, only a brief introduction
Celeste Rousselot

Mary Oliver's succinct handbook is definitely a keeper. As a beginner I acquired a significant poetic vocabulary through her definitions of slant verse, assonance, etc. Also I met several poets by reading their poems and Oliver's discussions of their styles, forms and use of imagery. By identifying appropriate and inappropriate language in her chapter on Diction, Tone and Voice, Oliver turned me in a new direction. Likewise I valued her discussion of "Turning the Line," in the chapter The Line a
Mary Oliver is arguably one of the most widely honored poets in the United States and has won many awards for her writing. In her classic guide to understanding and writing poetry, A Poetry Handbook, Oliver discusses literary devises such as sound, diction, tone, voice, etc. She also gives many forms of poetry such as the sonnet, couplet, and tercet, and eventually gives great tips on the revision process and information on writing workshops.

This book I feel is an important foundation for anyone
Carla W
Mary Oliver uses clean, clear prose to describe the nuts and bolts of writing poetry. Also useful for prose writers, the book contains good specific reminders of how language works (metaphor, simile) in addition to spelling out the various forms, lined meter, and appropriateness in each case. The introduction and conclusion inspire beginning and seasoned writers to set a time to write regularly, work hard, and have faith. Above all, writing poetry is to be taken seriously and this handbook provi ...more
A small volume full of information about the technical skills needed to write good poems.
I think in general there are two kinds of books on writing (or on any artistic subject): the kind that tells you that only self-expression matters, and the kind that tells you that unless you master the technical skills of the craft you can kick self-expression in its butt. Mostly I prefer the first kind because to me making art/writing is indeed more about process and the feeling of creating something out
Heather Williams
This book, along with The Rules of the Dance, gets 5 stars for totally bailing me out as a high school English teacher. I've always liked poetry but had no way to talk about it beyond something like "isn't that great?!" So when I suddenly found myself charged with the awesome responsibility of teaching poets like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and countless canonical others, I turned to Mary Oliver to help me sort it all out. She gracefully shows how to use words such as meter, rhyme, voice, d ...more
Nikki Magennis
Very short.

I was surprised to begin with that the tone was quite ... I don't want to say pompous, but it seemed a bit overinflated. Mind you, although I enjoy some of her poetry, I also harbour slight suspicions of Oliver's sentimentalism, so perhaps the two tendencies are connected.

Some nicely turned descriptions in places.

Book starts with a pretty thorough defence of metric verse, a clear and fairly detailed explanation of scansion, etc, and then sort of abruptly stops, just when I'd thought
Leonard Terry
Nuts and bolts plus Oliver's charming take on the craft of writing poetry. Quick read but pretty technical. Probably worth more than three stars but I wish it went a bit more in depth- particularly on free verse composition. Definitely for beginners, but it is a damn good foundational text.
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  • The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets
  • The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises From Poets Who Teach
  • The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry
  • Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words
  • In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop
  • The Making of a Poem
  • Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft
  • The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide
  • The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing
  • How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry
  • Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry
  • The Art of the Poetic Line
  • Poetry as Survival
  • Collected Poems
  • The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction
  • The Art of Description: World into Word
  • Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse
  • Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

“Mary Oliver. In a region that has produced most of the nation's poet laureates, it is risky to single out one fragile 71-year-old bard of Provincetown. But Mary Oliver, who won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1983, is my choice for her joyous, accessible, intimate observati
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“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. 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.” 282 likes
“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.” 24 likes
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