A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry (Oliver)

Though Oliver asserts that “[t]he language of the poem is the language of the particulars,” she ignores her own advice in this book. This short handbook is full of vague insights and little information that couldn’t be found elsewhere. The chapters seem like sketches of (cranky) lecture notes, lectures, one hopes, that she elaborated on in her classes.

There are a few insights I found interesting. I think she’s right about the utility of exercises that ask students to imitate a poet’s style. It was good to be reminded that the notion of free verse is relatively new in terms of the evolution of poetry.

She wavers (and is, once again, quite abstract) on the interesting question of whether some inherent genius is required of a poet or whether hard work and a strong foundation in fundamentals can help make a poet great. And her bias toward nature, though understandable given the subject of much (if not all) of her poetry, is short-sighted.

The most disappointing aspect of this piece is her limited use of the poems she does choose to include. She makes casual references to excerpts or even whole poems, but does not go into much depth. Okay, so Elizabeth Bishop uses a great deal of detail in “The Fish.” To what end? With what effect? A section on revision could have used a discussion of how and why a particular poem was revised.

I wanted more.

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