Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver…

August 19, 2010 § 7 Comments


I cruise the bookshelves like a hound on the scent of not bones, but a book!
A book about writing. Not just writing, but about writing.
And this little tome pops out, its title stopping me in mid-scan.
it’s a surprise, more than I hoped for.
It’s a lovely little book.

Because, you see, I belive in many things about books about writing and here are two of them: 

     1) There is something, even only ONE thing in every writing book that somehow resonates.
     2) Certain writing books, especially one you’d never heard of,  fall into your lap at just the right moment.

Any writer’s writing can always use a spike, a switch away from a form or format always used, a reminder of how to make things work and no, it’s not all instinctive.

And so Mary Oliver’s THE POETRY HANDBOOK stuck its little binding out, stepped away from its peers on the shelf, and waited for me to choose it. I saw the word “handbook” which also gave me pause, then the word “poetry” and I know I need tons of poetry in my life – who doesn’t? –  and then I saw the author’s name – Mary Oliver.  

HM gave me a collection of Oliver’s poems last year.  Then as synchronicity would have it, I was runnning into mentions of her, her poems, and  Oliver discussions  everywhere and one of Snarl’s girlfriends said (often) how much she liked Mary Oliver, whether to endear herself or not, and OK, yeah, I’m exagerrating – but overall, it’s true. One day you’ve never heard of an awesome writer, the next day, bingo, the writer is referenced everywhere.

I recommend the book. It’s as spare as a contemporary poem. Favorite chapters include Getting Ready, Imitation, Sound, More Devices of Sound, The Line, Verse that is Free,  Revision, and Workshops and Solitude. 

Oliver says cool stuff, explains the  “poetic” difference between a rock and a stone (it has to do with hard edges and soft round sounds), discusses hard and soft sounds, fricatives, dipthongs, onomatopeia, mutes, longs and  shapes – so much about sound (and you think you know all this but really, you haven’t heard the half of it  in years) and her clear putting forth about something as small as the difference in the flick of a sound as opposed to the drawing out of a sound can potentially pump up the writing, at least pump your “word awareness.”

Geez, I love this stuff.

She reiterates something which for me, as a mere reader of poetry, always flummoxes –  the “turning of the line.”  “This subject is one that every poet deals with throughout his or her working life. And gladly, too, for every turning is a meaningful decision…”  Glad to hear her pronounce that. I have read some poetry, rather cavalierly I confess, and wondered ‘what the heck? Are the line breaks really doing something here?’   (ah, such a novice. Don’t mean to curl the hair of the poets; only that I am a neophyte and this book is helping to un-neophyte me.) Oliver goes on to disuc the power of hte line by examining a metric line, with its ‘feet’ and ‘stresses.’ You have likely rubbed more than shoulders with that gladsome iambic pentameter found in Milton, Frost, Shakespeare, ad classicum.

Ok, I’ll stop dishing on the particulars (though have only touched the top of the deep water that is poetry) at the risk of otherwise sounding like David Foster Wallace in that book on mathmatics that I mentioned several blogs ago, one that lost me, quickly, dropping me admist my geometric brain as opposed to his out-there-in-the-universe math knowledge….perhaps Oliver sounds like that to a non-reader/writer – I dunno.

but geez, i love this little book.
And hope it illuminates, elucidates and inspires those who put pen to paper, whether prose-ists or poets.

What she says: “Poetry is a river; many voices travel in it; poem after poem moves along in the exciting crests and falls of the river waves… But the desire to make a poem, and the world’s willingness to receive it – indeed the world’s need of it – these never pass.”

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§ 7 Responses to Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver…

  • Becca says:

    I adore “writing handbooks,” and I’m always newly inspired to scribble something whenever I pull one off the shelf. I’ve looked at this one a time or two, but you’ve convinced me to look more closely.

    I do love her poetry so much 🙂

  • Richard says:

    I consider this wonderful blog to be your “book” on writing. Your insights are 2nd:none!

    I hear you are soon celebrating your 30th wedding anniversary. Any thoughts on that multi-mile stone?

  • mandy says:

    Thanks for the suggestions both here and the ones you left on my blog a few weeks ago. I haven’t had much time to check them out this month (August has been slighlty crazy and chaotic) but definitely plan on working on my writing more in September. What a beautiful quote from Oliver.

  • shoreacres says:

    Two things.

    When I lived in Berkeley in the height of let’s-proclaim-our-allegiances-on-our-bumper fervor, there was a great bumper sticker around: Iambic Pentameter Rules

    And this – on my latest post, I got done reading it before hitting the “publish” button and added a tag I’ve never used: Poetry and poem-like things.

    A reader actually picked up on the tag and the reason I used it, and it was a startling realization that shouldn’t have been startling at all. Sometimes we can wirte poetically even when we’re not writing a poem. I like that.

  • jeanie says:

    Sounds like a wonderful book and one that happened along just as you needed it! Actually, it sounds as though some of it (like that rock/stone part) work for any kind of writing, not just poetry.

  • typehype says:

    I don’t know Mary Oliver’s poems, but I will check definitely check them out. Thanks for introducing me to new (for me) poet. This writing book sounds really great, too. As for DFW, I agree, “Infinite Jest” is a challenging book. That said, I am a tremendous fan of his non-fiction stuff. If you were to read only one essay by him, I’d suggest: “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” It’s phenomenal in so many ways. Moving, funny, endearing, cringe-inducing. He’s earnestly hyper-observant (my favorite quality of his, besides his humor).

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