Refining your craft

Excerpt from The Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

Photo by Orfeas Green on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver.

Everyone knows that poets are born and not made in school. This is true also of painters, sculptors and musicians. Something that is essential can’t be taught; it can only be given, or earned, or formulated in a manner too mysterious to be picked apart and re-designed for the next person.

Still, painters, sculptors, and musicians require a lively acquaintance with the history of their particular field and with past as well as current theories and techniques. And the same is true of poets. Whatever can’t be taught, there is a great deal that can, and must, be learned.

This book is about the things that can be learned. It is about matters of craft, primarily. It is about the part of the poem that is a written document, as opposed to a mystical document, which of course the poem is also.

It has always seemed to me curious that the instruction of poetry has followed a path different from he courses of study intended to develop talent in the field of music o the visual arts where a step-by-step learning process is usual, and accepted as necessary. In an art class, for example, every student may be told to make a drawing of a live model, or a vase of flowers, or three potatoes for that matter. Afterward, the instructor may examine and talk about the various efforts. Everyone in the class recognizes that the intention is not to accomplish a bona fide act of creation, but is an example of what must necessarily come first—exercise.

Is anyone worried that creativity may be stifled as a result of such exercise? Not at all. There is rather, a certainty that dialogue between instructor and student will shed light on any number of questions about technique, and give knowledge (power) that will open the doors of process. It is craft, after all, that carries an individual’s’ ideas to the far edge of familiar territory.

The student who wishes to write a poem, however, is nicely encouraged to go ahead and do so, and, having written it, is furthermore likely to be encouraged to do another along the same lines. Quickly, then, the student falls into a manner of writing, which is not a style but only a chance thing vaguely felt and not understood, or even, probably, intended. Continuing in this way, the writer never explores or tries out other options. After four or five poems, he or she is already in a rut, having developed a way of writing without ever having the organized opportunity to investigate and try other styles and techniques. Soon enough, when the writer’s material requires a change of tone, or some complex and precise maneuver, the writer has no idea how to proceed, the poem fails, and the writer is frustrated.

Perhaps sometime you will have an idea for a piece of music, you may actually “hear” it in the privacy of your mind—and you will realize how impossible it would be to write it down, lacking, as most of us do, the particular and specialized knowledge of musical notation. Why should our expectation about a poem be any different? It too is specialized, and particular.

Poems must, of course, be written in emotional freedom. Moreover, poems are not language but the content of the language. And yet, how can the content be separated from the poem’s fluid and breathing body? A poem that is composed without the sweet and correct formalities of language, which are what sets it apart from the dailiness of ordinary writing, is doomed. It will not fly. It will be raucous and sloppy—the work of an amateur.

This is why when I teach a poetry workshop, I remove for a while the responsibility of writing poems, and order up exercises ealing with craft. Since every class is different, the assignments, of course, differ too. Any instructor who agrees with the idea can easily think of suitable and helpful exercises. So can the students themselves.

When each workshop member is at the same time dealing with the same technique, and is focusing as well on the same assigned subject matter, these exercises also are fo great help in making any gather of writers into an attentive and interacting class. Each writer quickly becomes interested in and learns from, the work of the other members.

A poet’s interest in craft never fades, of course. This book is not meant to be more than a beginning—but it is meant to be a good beginning Many instructors, for whatever reasons, feel that their “professional” criticism (i.e.s, opinion) of a student’s work is what is called for. This book is written in cheerful disagreement with that feeling. It is written in an effort to give the student a variety of technical skills—that is, options. It is written to empower the beginning writer who stands between two marvelous and complex things—an experience (or an idea or a feeling), and the urge to tell about it in the best possible conjunction of words.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

A Poetry Handbook – Summary

In case you’re interested, here is the book summary from Goodreads:

“Mary Oliver would probably never admit to anything so grandiose as an effort to connect the conscious mind and the heart (that’s what she says poetry can do), but that is exactly what she accomplishes in this stunning little handbook.”
— Los Angeles Times

From the beloved and acclaimed poet, an ultimate guide to writing and understanding poetry.

With passion and wit, Mary Oliver skillfully imparts expertise from her long, celebrated career as a disguised poet. She walks readers through exactly how a poem is built, from meter and rhyme, to form and diction, to sound and sense, drawing on poems by Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and others. This handbook is an invaluable glimpse into Oliver’s prolific mind—a must-have for all poetry-lovers.

Copyright © 1994 by Mary Oliver.

More details can be found on Goodreads and on Storygraph.

Leave a Reply