Lessons from Mary Oliver’s “A Poetry Handbook”

“Oh, you don’t know anything about poetry, so how can you say this poem is bad? You shouldn’t presume that you can judge poetry. So you ought not even try.” The voice continues on.

With that “You don’t know anything,”  I stop listening, holding the phone six inches from my ear.  Instead, I fumble through the top shelf of my bookcase, looking for Mary Oliver’s slim book, A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry. Yellow, I’m looking for yellow, I tell myself. Ah, there it is.

It is, I’ll be honest, no longer a copy worth much on Amazon. Page after dog-eared page scrawled with black Pentel Wow! ink. A well-read copy, in other words.

I say to the voice, when it stops for a nanosecond, pausing for breath, “I know what I like and … .” Cut off by another onslaught of words, I move away from the phone and thumb through Oliver’s book. There, on page 110, lie the words I would shout if I could squeeze them through the mouthpiece, beam them up to a satellite, drop them into the voice’s ear.

Clearly they are very clever poems. Forsaken however in such writing is the pace – the energy between the start and the finish, the sense of flow, movement, and integrity. Finally the great weight of its glittering pulls it down. 

The fault in bad poetry lies not in the stars. It is the universal that falls to the sword of the personal in so much contemporary poetry.  It doesn’t take a person with an MFA or English lit degree to know that.

Oliver puts it this way, in speaking of the “finest” contemporary poetry:

And the finest of these poems brim from the particular, the regional, the personal, and become – as all successful poems must – “parables” that say something finally about our own lives, as well as the lives of their authors.  … they [poems] slip from the instance and become the exemplum of the general … .” (p. 80)

Yes, it is prudent to know the rules, the manner of arranging a poem, the many literary devices available to poets and other writers. Oliver dives into brief discussions of the following, clearly and concisely, using examples from skilled poets. I notice she doesn’t include her own work as examples.




Line length: monometer, dimeter, and so on (and – of course – the famous pentameter)

Rhythm:  iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, spondee



In the end, it is rhythm that underlies everything. Not the singsong, but rather cadence, pleasing to the ear, swathed in imagery.

I know what I like. And so do most readers.




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