Example poetry

‘a poetry manual’ by mary oliver helps me write everyday poems

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  • “A Poetry Handbook” is a 1994 book by Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning poet Mary Oliver.
  • 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 create daily poems, which helped relieve my anxiety.

For years, I spent 10 to 30 minutes logging every morning. But in 2022, I wanted to elevate my morning routine to art. I wanted to have a complete draft of a piece so that I could start the day feeling like I had accomplished something. Poetry seemed like the best way to do it.

“A Poetry Handbook” is an exceptional short read for budding poets and poetry readers looking for a solid foundation for understanding the art form.

However, I have no training in poetry. So I thought I would learn from one of the masters: Mary Oliver, who won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award for her poetry. I picked up his 1994 book “A Poetry Handbook” because it’s cheap (under $10) and highly rated on Amazon.

the author writing a poem in a notebook with a poetry textbook and a fake skull nearby

Every morning, I write a poem, a cathartic and enriching experience.

James Brains / Insider


At 122 pages, it’s a quick read and kept me engaged as it explored the various forms and meters of poetry I’d fallen asleep learning in high school English class. While Oliver encouraged imitation of the styles of the masters, she also suggested readers branch out and pursue their own forms of poetry.

Every morning this year, I sat down and wrote a poem about what was on my mind the most. Many mornings I just want to get on with my day and hate stopping to write poetry. Yet my attitude usually changes after a few minutes of writing. Turning my anxieties into art – no matter how good – has been a cathartic experience that has helped my overall mental health as the pandemic drags on.

The 3 best things I learned from Mary Oliver’s “A Poetry Handbook”:

a page from Mary Oliver's A Poetry on iambic pentameter

The lessons taught in “A Poetry Handbook” can be applied to other types of writing.

James Brains / Insider


Oliver explains poetic terms that I had heard before but only vaguely understood. These include iambic pentameter, sonnet, stanza, and free verse. Not only does it define them, but it also provides alternatives to these popular tools, including additional rhyme patterns (such as couplets) and meter lines (such as the iambic tetrameter).

I started writing in precise meter (as is commonly found in classical poetry), but it slowed my flow too much. Still, I enjoyed the fact that it gave me a foundation for crafting poems and helped me pay more attention to syllable sounds, impact, and rhythms.

The importance of sounds and rhymes in changing the feeling of a poem.

a page from Mary Oliver's A Poetry textbook on letter sounds

Oliver explains how letters have a unique “felt quality” that can impact how a poem is perceived.

James Brains / Insider


Oliver defines several sound devices and gives examples: alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia, to name a few. She teaches true rhyme, counter-rhyme, and feminine rhyme and their uses.

One thing I hadn’t given much thought to is the impact different letter sounds can have and how that 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.

a page from Mary Oliver's Poetry Handbook on Finding Vivid Imagery

Oliver notes that successfully observing and peering into the world can be more critical than the ability to write when it comes to poetry.

James Brains / Insider


Oliver offers tips that can serve any writer well, whether you’re writing a product review, like me, or writing a screenplay. For example, she talks about the importance of using vivid images. This can be achieved by really observing the subject you are writing about, a lesson that builds on the


mindfulness

practice that I nurture (thanks to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, “Full Catastrophe Living”).

“A Poetry Handbook” also discusses what not to do. For example, clichés should be avoided, which applies to all writing.

Oliver also shares some tips on the overall writing process. She emphasizes the importance of solitude for quality craft poetry and also encourages poets to participate in workshops and share their poetry for valuable feedback.

However, she says that if you have to choose between a poetry workshop and reading poetry, reading poetry is more important to developing your skills. It inspired me to pick up Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” and add poetry podcasts to my regular rotation.

The bottom line

The author reading

The book provided a good basis to sublimate my worries and anxieties.

James Brains / Insider


Despite having worked as a full-time writer for over 8 years and having read countless books, I have found some useful nuggets in “A Poetry Handbook” that help me in my daily work. The book also served as a springboard for my daily practice of poetic writing.

While I admit I don’t follow all of Oliver’s advice, Oliver would agree that there are no hard and fast rules to poetry, and that’s what makes it such a nice way to me to start the day.


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