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- “A Poetry Handbook” is a 1994 book by Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning poet.
- The book describes and gives examples of the many elements that go into writing great poems.
- I read the book and it gave me the tools to craft daily poems, which have helped with my anxiety.
For years, I’ve devoted 10-30 minutes to journaling every morning. But in 2022, I wanted to elevate my morning routine to an art form. I wanted to have a complete draft of a piece so that I could start the day feeling like I’d accomplished something. Poetry seemed like the best way to do this.
“A Poetry Handbook” is an outstanding short-read for aspiring poets and poetry readers who are looking for a strong foundation for understanding the art form.
However, I don’t have any background in poetry. So, I figured I’d learn from one of the masters: Mary Oliver, who won a Pulitzer and National Book Award for her poetry. I picked up her 1994 book “A Poetry Handbook” because it is cheap (under $10) and highly rated on Amazon.
At 122 pages, it’s a quick read and kept me engaged as it explored the different forms and meters of poetry that I’d fallen asleep learning about in high school English class. While Oliver encouraged imitating the styles of the masters, she also suggested readers branch out and pursue their own forms of poetry.
Each morning this year, I’ve sat down and written a poem about what’s weighing most heavily on my mind. Many mornings, I just want to get on with my day and loathe stopping to write poetry. Yet, my attitude usually changes after a few minutes of writing. Transforming my anxieties into art — regardless of its quality — has been a cathartic experience that’s helped my overall mental health as the pandemic drags on.
The 3 best things I learned from Mary Oliver’s “A Poetry Handbook”:
The differences between popular poetry forms (and how to riff on them).
Oliver explains poetry terms that I’d heard of before but only vaguely understood. These include iambic pentameter, sonnet, stanza, and free verse. She not only defines these, but also provides alternatives to these popular tools, including additional rhyme patterns (such as couplets) and metric lines (such as iambic tetrameter).
I started writing in a precise meter (as is commonly found in classical poetry), but it slowed my flow too much. Still, I appreciated that it gave me a foundation for crafting poems and helped me pay closer attention to the syllables’ sounds, impact, and rhythms.
The importance of sounds and rhymes in changing the feeling of a poem.
Oliver defines several sound devices and gives examples: Alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia, to name a few. She teaches about true rhyme, off-rhyme, and feminine rhyme and their uses.
Something that I hadn’t thought about much is the impact the sounds of different letters can have and how this changes the feel of a poem. Or, really, it can impact the feelings conveyed in any form of writing.
Broader lessons that can serve well in all types of writing.
Oliver offers advice that can serve any writer well, whether you’re writing a product review, like me, or crafting a screenplay. For example, she talks about the importance of using vivid imagery. This can be achieved by really observing the subject you are writing about, a lesson that piggybacked on the mindfulness practice I’m nurturing (thanks to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, “Full Catastrophe Living“).
“A Poetry Handbook” also touches on what not to do. For instance, clichés should be avoided, which applies to all writing.
Oliver also shares some advice about the overall writing process. She stresses the importance of solitude for crafty quality poetry, and also encourages poets to join workshops and share their poetry to get valuable feedback.
However, she says that if you have to decide between a poetry workshop and reading poetry, reading poetic works is more important for developing your skills. This inspired me to pick up Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” and add poetry podcasts to my regular rotation.
The bottom line
Despite working as a full-time writer for over 8 years and reading countless books, I found some useful nuggets in “A Poetry Handbook” that help me in my everyday work. The book also served as a springboard for my daily poetry writing practice.
Though I admit I don’t follow all of Oliver’s advice, Oliver would agree that there are no strict rules to poetry, and that’s what makes it such an enjoyable way for me to start the day.
Home & Kitchen Reporter, Insider Reviews
James is a Home & Kitchen Reporter for Insider Reviews, where he specializes in sleep, HVAC, and kitchen appliances. He has tested more than 30 mattresses from startups like Casper and legacy brands like Tempur-Pedic, using his background in experimental psychology to develop objective tests and evaluate comfort, support, motion transfer, and more. He authors our guide to the best mattresses. In addition to being Insider Reviews’ mattress expert, James has extensively covered robot vacuums, air conditioners, air purifiers, and more within the HVAC space. He’s tested more than 20 robot vacs from brands like iRobot and Roborock over the years and is no stranger to keeping his house at a chilly 60 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks on end all in the name of testing air conditioners. He’s a multifaceted writer who has covered everything from health and fitness to consumer technology. His mission is to help people get the most value for their money by guiding them in making informed buying decisions. James is currently based in Lansing, Michigan, where he lives in “The Barn Mansion,” a three-story Dutch colonial home, with his wife, two sons, two cats, and a rambunctious rat terrier. When James isn’t testing products and writing for Insider, he’s helping to run a popular local Facebook group, Lansing Foodies. See below for some of his work: The best mattress for every type of sleeper in 2021, according to our rigorous testing The 6 best robot vacuums we tested in 2021 The 6 best air conditioners we tested in 2021 The best Instant Pots and electric pressure cookers we tested in 2021 10 grilling essentials that chefs and pitmasters swear by for making the best BBQ The 5 best mattress toppers we tested in 2021 Contact info: [email protected] Learn more about how our team of experts tests and reviews products at Insider here. Learn more about how we test kitchen products.