A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

By Mary Oliver

With ardour, wit, and stable good judgment, the prestigious poet Mary Oliver tells of the elemental methods a poem is built-meter and rhyme, shape and diction, sound and experience. Drawing on poems from Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and others, Oliver imparts a unprecedented quantity of data in a remarkably brief house. “Stunning” (Los Angeles Times). Index.

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There are no absolutely right or wrong ways to divide a poem into stanzas, except, of course, when one is following a pattern that includes a particular strict formation of stanzas and stanza breaks. It may be useful, when considering the stanza, to recall the paragraph in prose, which indicates a conclusion of one thought and the beginning of another, a sensible division. I don't mean that the poet should necessarily use the stanza in this way, or this way only, but that the poet might think of the sensible paragraph as a kind of norm (as the iambic pentameter line is a norm in terms of line-length expressiveness) from which to feel out the particular divisions that are best for a particular poem.

This line naturally would have to affiliate itself more with the iambs and dactyls of natural speech patterns —the forward-reaching feeling of speech—than with the measures of meter. That, I think, is the long and the short of it. Speech entered the poem. The poem was no longer a lecture, it was time spent with a friend. Its music was the music of conversation. Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855, wrote almost all of his work in long, unscannable, usually end-stopped lines,* and he is frequently cited as the first American poet to write in free verse.

What it sets up in the beginning it sings back to, all the way, attaining a felt integrity. The initial premise is made up of everything the old metrical premise is composed of—sound, line length, and rhythm patterns, but in this case they are not strict, they are not metrical. They do, however, make emphatic use of stresses, as speech does. Is speech not musical too? It is, indeed, and many of the old devices, such as refrain and repetition, are therefore still effective. Alliteration and assonance are as important as ever.

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