Friday, January 18, 2008

A Poetry Handbook: A book review with personal comments

Saturday morning update: In the review below, I refer to Garrison Keillor's reasoning for men writing poetry. I decided to see exactly what he said and this is what I found... In "Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, Jim Dandy says there are two kinds of love poems: "I love you more than anything" and "I love you so much, how come you treat me so bad." (234) In Wobegon Boy, John comes to the conclusion: "it was suddenly clear to me why men have written poems all these centuries--it is to impress a woman in the hopes she will sleep with you." (304)

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook (San Diego: Harcourt, 1994), 130 pages

As those of you who have read my blog for any length of time know, I occasionally post poetry. I started playing with poetry the summer I got out of college. I’m not sure why. At first it was haiku. Over the nearly 3 decades that have followed, I have played around with various styles of poetry, sometimes more intensely than others. I’m not really sure all my motives for doing this. Sometimes I delve into the craft when I want to remember an incident or capture a feeling. Sometimes I wonder if Garrison Keillor might be correct when he talks about guys who write poetry do so for only one reason—to seduce. For whatever reason that I’ve attempted to write poetry, I have never bothered studying the craft. That’s right; I’ve yet to take a class in poetry, but now I’ve read a book (now if I just stay in a Holiday Inn Express, I’ll be ready to go). Somewhere, it may have been in Gautami’s blog, I read about Mary Oliver’s, A Poetry Handbook. Having become familiar with Oliver’s poetry in her book, New and Selected Poems, I obtained the handbook and read it. The time I’ve spent with this book consist of my only formal study of the art.

Before I get into the review, I should give credit to Gautami and her wonderful writing for raising my interest in the various styles of poetry. Gautami’s work often follows precise parameters. At times she’ll identify the style of poetry using English words that could have just as easily been Hindi. I had no idea what a Terza Rima might have been, for all I knew it could have been a four-course Indian feast. I can thank Gautami for getting me curious about the styles. Another poet on the net whose writing I also enjoy is Pat Paulk. I encourage you to check them both out.

The Poetry Handbook is kind of like a dictionary, a place to learn the difference between a couplet, triplet, quatrain, terza rima, and a Spenserian stanza (59) or the differences between the syllabic and free verse (62-66). Did you know that a sonnet is 14 lines, traditionally in an iambic pentameter line (36, 59)? Did you know there are both feminine and masculine rhymes? (53) Did you know that by dropping the definite article, you’re making a move toward the abstract (94), and that by the length of your lines will also help the reader to interpret action (40-41)? Even after reading this book, I can’t profess that I’ve mastered all this material, but at least now I know where to look to find the answer! This handbook is packed with information. Mary Oliver explains the type of lines, the way sounds and diction works in poetry, the uses and types of figurative language, the need for the poet to read other poetry, to have the feedback of others, yet ultimately to work in solitude.

Here are a few quotes that I found helpful and enlightening:

Most of what calls itself contemporary is built, whether it knows it or not, out of a desire to be liked. It is created in imitation of what already exists and is already admired. There is, in other words, northing new about it. To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like the fire through the mountain. Only a heat so deeply and intelligently born can carry a new idea into the air. (11-12)

Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision—a faith, to use an old-fashion term. Yes, indeed. 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. (122)

Mary Oliver’s handbook is short and concise. It’s intended to be a beginning, but the 130 pages are packed with information. I expect I’ll keep it on my bookshelf, right next to a similarly concise work on writing by William Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style. Both contain material that will take a lifetime to fully comprehend.

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.

For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.


  1. I think I'm in agreement with Garrison. I haven't written much poetry since I got married.

  2. You are well aware that I simply loved this book. Although I knew most of the parametres mentioned by her, it still is a veritable treasure. I like the reference. Somehow this is one book, where you learn something new each time you pick it up. I had not read The Read Wheelbarrow before this. The way she explained it here, was a revelation. Well, you know that already.

    Thanks for giving me credit. I made it a point to learn about various forms of poetry. That is the only way I can discipline myself.

    However, if you read my poety for sometime time now, I am writing more of prose poetry with absolutely no rules. Uneven lines.

  3. Not really into poetry since my "Roses are red..." childhood days only because it's not something I think of.

    Glad you bring it to light, Sage.

  4. Ed, I had to look up Keillor's quotes. In "Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, he says there are two kinds of poetry: "I love you more than anything" and "I lov eyou so much, how come you treat me so bad."

    In Wobegon Boy he writes, "it was suddenly clear to me why men have written poems all these centuries--it is to impress a woman in the hopes she will sleep with you."

    Gautami, I have noticed your shift in style, but back when I first started reading your blog, you often would give names for the styles of poems and I had often found myself looking up the meaning of the words you were using (which was educational for me, I'm not complaining).

    Karen--Roses are red, violets are blue, Karen is a Democrat... how can I finish it? lol

  5. Hi Sage: A cool post. I am forever stunned how difficult it is to get a random House to publish a book of poetry. I guess that's one of the nice things about the artist, Jewel. When you are well known the suits say "Let's publish it. It will sell"!

  6. Roses are red, violets are blue, Karen is a Democrat... how can I finish it? lol

    ... and so are you!


  7. Sage I thank you for your kind comments about my blog. Mary Oliver is probably my all time favorite poet and I have to confess I've never read her Poetry Handbook. I will be at the bookstore tomorrow. Having read some of your "untrained"(if that's a word)poetry, I can't wait for the new.

  8. sage - I always enjoy your poetry, and this book sounds insightful. I have to admit that I have had very little experience with poetry; I never took any classes in HS or college, and haven't read alot. I do have a couple of books, and I must spend some time with them. And I think your and Keillor's reasoning on poetry and men is likely correct . . .:-)

  9. Michael, thank God that there are a lot of good small presses that focus on poetry, if poetry was market driven, the only poetry you'd get would be from Jewel and Jim Morrison.

    Karen, see, you are a poet! LOL

    Pat, now that I've bragged about you, you got to get busy--I remember when you did five poems a week (and I was amazed and still have no idea how you, and Gautami too, keep the production up)

    Diane, Keillor's thoughts probably say more about men in general than our poetry..

  10. Is it possible to 'grow out' of poetry?
    My favourite poets are still Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen who illustrated the horrors of WWI in poem. Earthy, warm, touching and horrific in turn, they brought The Great War to our doorsteps.

    Michele sent me back to say hello - and thank you, Sage :-) Your comment was very touching :-)


  11. Strunk and White...I remember a couple of writer friends telling me it's a must-have on the shelf. Funny, that's just where it ends up, dusty and unused. Who can understand it?

    Have you ever tried reading anything by Harlan Coben? If you like suspense, you'll like "Promise Me." I notice you don't read a lot of suspense.

    The Kite Runner is also on my must reads (after your review).

    Have a good Sunday, Sage!

  12. Good to see you getting into craft. The mechanics under the hood have a lot of interesting bits.

  13. Oh yeah, and I forgot to comment about writing poetry to get laid, which is, I'm obviously a very bad writer.

  14. I have linked this review with mine. As some kind of blog HW, we are linking our review posts with each other!!