The Apostrophe Blog
“Every poet’s ambition should be to write as well as [the masters]. Anything else is only a flirtation.”—Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver is a beloved contemporary poet. Her work is read at weddings and funerals and by Garrison Keillor on his radio show, “The Writer’s Alamanac.” Even my yoga teacher in Corvallis, Oregon, often began our class with inspirational lines from Oliver’s work.
I remember these lines from “The Buddha’s Last Instruction”—
“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal—a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
The lines stick in your mind long after, too, because in her work, Oliver often asks pertinent questions of her readers: Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?
I knew Mary Oliver had long been a teacher of poetry workshops but I didn’t know until fairly recently that she penned a pretty terrific primer on craft called The Poetry Handbook way back in 1994. I decided to give it a look and was mightily impressed by its thorough yet friendly approach to explaining the (often boring-sounding and boringly explained) building blocks that go into writing a poem—things like meter and rhyme, form and diction, sound and sense.
What does Oliver’s book do differently? First off, there’s something about her tone. Her introduction invites you in, and pragmatically announces her intentions: to share with us information about things that can, indeed, be learned about the craft of writing poetry. First, before we get to the heady, esoteric part, Oliver writes: “[This book] is written in an effort to give the student a variety of technical skills—that is, options. It is written to empower the beginning writer who stands between two marvelous and complex things—an experience (or an idea or a feeling), and the urge to tell about it in the best possible conjunction of words.”
Whew. That’s a relief.
But Oliver doesn’t let us off the hook. Not quite so fast. We are in for a fairly formal, step-by-step solo course in the craft of the art form itself. If you stick with her to the end of The Poetry Handbook (as I have done) you’ll become obsessed with the structure of lines, the energy and rhythm of repeated sounds, the diction and tone and form that best suit what you are trying to say.
You’ll follow her down a winding path through some pretty funky linguistic nitty-gritty about the alphabet and its family of sounds including the more familiar consonants and vowels before meandering along to make friends with semi-vowels, aspirates, and liquids as well as the vocals, the mutes, and the hard stops.
Yes, indeedy, she takes you through the sound properties of each and every letter!
You won’t be able to escape the fun-and-games that surround learning about meter either. And there’s an entire chapter that (yet again) offers all aspiring poets an opportunity to learn the of course esoteric difference between metonymy and synecdoche. It sounds terribly nerdy and un-fun but in Mary Oliver’s skillful and earnest hands, I found it far from that.
Because she is passionate about poetry. And about the handful of subjects that she believes stir all of our human hearts. About the journey that every individual poem can take us on. About the need to hone our poetic craft as best we can in order to inch closer to embracing our ideas and thus our art.
Oliver constantly urges us to view poetry as paying attention to the particular, “an instance of attention, noticing something in the world.” She encourages the value of imitation as a way to find grounding as you study and master particular skills. She happily surveys devices of sound and gets up on her kindly soapbox to preach about the importance, and I mean importance, of the line. She’s no-nonsense about the value of studying more formal poetry and mastering meter. At the same time, she doesn’t “dis” free verse; for her, it’s “the music of conversation” and takes great pains to give it wide berth in her discussions.
Imagery, diction, tone, and voice all get some time on the stage as well. Oliver offers the same advice Stephen King gave to would-be fiction writers in his volume: “To write well it is entirely necessary to read widely and deeply.” And, of course, she talks about that bête noire to so many beginning writers: the need for revision, revision, and yes, even more revision.
In the last pages of A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver mentions two inspirational statements she keeps close by at all times. The first one, talking about skills, is from Gustave Flaubert: “Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and intense observation.” The second is paraphrased from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The poem is a confession of faith.” For Oliver, this gives the poem a purpose other than simply being its clever, word-playing self.
Which leads her to this:
“Writers must take care of the sensibility that houses the possibility of poems…A mind that is lively and inquiring, compassionate, curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling, is a mind full of possible poetry. Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision—a faith, to use an old-fashioned 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.”
On that note, I’ve got to get back to studying the differences between a trochee and a dactyl, an anapest and a spondee. But not before we raise a toast, and give three cheers for the flexibility of the English language—iambic pentameter, yes!