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A Poetry Handbook

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  3,971 Ratings  ·  349 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, 130 pages
Published August 15th 1994 by Mariner Books
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Richelle Wilson
Feb 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
William Hurst
May 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
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
Jul 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
Great introduction and refresher.
Jan 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Oliver doesn't disappoint, her beautiful words inspire. The technical part of this book was a little harder for me to dig through, but if you are patient she has gems waiting for you. The honesty about how much revision goes into good writing was sobering and a relief in some ways. She doesn't just sit down and write these gorgeous things instantaneously, huh? ;)
Aug 27, 2009 rated it really liked it
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.
Erin Stile
May 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-i-own
I want to take a long walk through a misty forest discussing writing with Mary.
Bill Martin
Apr 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
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
Oct 26, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2016, art, poetry, writing
I liked this, I did.

I'm spoiled by John Ciardi's How Does a Poem Mean? Nevertheless, this was a helpful overview of essential elements to good poetry. Perhaps because nothing seemed new, it didn't strike me as a "must read."

Oliver articulates what I've always believed:

To write well it is necessary to read widely and deeply.

When she talks about revision, she admits that her poems have roughly 40-50 drafts. Well, now.

The crowning jewel of a quote came at the end. These are her closing words. I'v
Jan Duncan-O'Neal
Feb 07, 2008 rated it liked it
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.
Mar 17, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2017-reads, poetry
I suspect the problem I had with Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook was that I really, really wanted it to be Strunk and White 2: This Time it's Verse-onal.

Oliver presents a concise and straightforward introduction to the art of poetry, focusing on the importance of both exposing yourself to many different poems and poets and of imitating some of those many, techniques which are considered traditional in the visual arts but not so much in the written. Having laid her foundation, she moves on to the
Jul 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Erik Akre
Jan 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: beginning and aspiring poets
Shelves: poetry, artmaking
I thank Mary Oliver, for wasting not a minute of my time with this book. The poet is amazingly succinct in her explanation of the poem, and the writing of the poem. The word "handbook" does seem appropriate; it tells the new poet what he needs to know, and absolutely nothing more. From here one can begin to experiment, with the confidence that he at least knows enough to begin. Extremely practical and informative it is, but also inspiring. Oliver's love of poems comes right through; it is infect ...more
Feb 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 26, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry
Perhaps my expectations were too high, since I admire Mary Oliver’s poetry so much. It was probably naïve to think she could pass along some of her genius to others in a handbook. However, the book could at least have had more depth, more exercises, and been more entertaining. This is a book for a novice and much too basic for me (yes, I know novices need a book that doesn’t overwhelm them). I was also recently spoiled by Stephen Fry’s thorough, sometimes too thorough, handbook, The Ode Less Tra ...more
Jul 06, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
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.
Oct 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry, nonfiction
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
"How patient are you, and what is the steel of your will, and how well do you look and see the things of this world? If your honest answers are shabby, you can change them."

I read this book slowly, slowly, slowly, over a period of more than a year. I do not write poetry, but I love to help my students write it, and there is much here that is applicable for more than poetry -- for all writing is connected in the end.

There is little here that is revolutionary, but there is much that is helpful f
Nov 21, 2007 rated it liked it
I forgot I had already read this until,I came on Goodreads. Well, I gave it only one star last time and I admit I'm still disappointed. Mary spends a good 2/3 of the book reviewing everything I already know about other writers' poems and not ever divulging how she packs so much magic into her own. I picked up a few hints, but nothing near the satisfying insight I was hoping for. Why so many chapters on rhyme and forms when she never uses these? How about an explanation of how she exploits or exp ...more
Sep 17, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
I was handed this book as I was soaking my feet in water to avoid an infected toe. It's really much more interesting than that, however, and explains, poetically, the essential tools used by the author and others to write poetry. It goes through each of the different processes and devices but does so in a manner that isn't repetitive or tedious. It is one of the most well-written books I have read.
Aug 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing, poetry
This is the shortest book I've read about crafting poetry, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it's very useful for poets. Mary Oliver is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the language and instruction she uses here is lush and useful. She breaks down the mechanics of poetry. She also strongly advocates that even though most of today's poetry is written in free verse, serious writers and readers of poetry should explore and be grounded in the classics.
Jun 08, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: 1990s
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.
Nathanael Green
Jan 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
I use this book in one of my courses and have found it's one of the best at explaining poetry both to new poets and also to those students who thought they didn't like poetry. It's clear, concise, no-nonsense and incredibly helpful for new poets and those polishing their craft.
Rose Peterson
Jan 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A practical poetry handbook bookended by some of the most beautiful writing about writing I've ever read. I will now always ask of myself, "How patient are you, and what is the steel of your will, and how well do you look and see the things of this world?"
Aug 22, 2016 rated it did not like it
Shelves: poetry
taking this advice on poetry in 2016 = bad. keep in mind this book was published in 1994. a lot of the insights / advice she shares are so cringeworthy / wrong / outdated. avoid.
Coe Douglas
Oct 03, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant, concise and inspired. A must for any writer, poet or storyteller.
Rob the Obscure
May 05, 2009 rated it really liked it
Brilliant insights from my favorite poet
Rebecca Schwarz
Mar 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A slim, delightful, and necessary book about the elements of poetry.
Mar 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
"If you are reliably there, [the poem] begins to show itself - soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all. Why should it? It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime. Who knows anyway what is it, that wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem can live? But we do know this: if it is going to enter into a passionate relationship and speak what is in its own portio ...more
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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
  • The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide
  • Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words
  • The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms
  • In the Palm of Your Hand: A Poet's Portable Workshop
  • Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft
  • Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry
  • The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing
  • The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems
  • How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry
  • The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction
  • The Art of the Poetic Line
  • Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry
  • Poetry as Survival
  • The Art of Description: World into Word
  • Words Under the Words: Selected Poems
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

“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 observations of the na
More about Mary Oliver

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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.” 377 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.” 25 likes
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