During the month of August, I felt myself drawn to reread Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry (1994). If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a short, but rich text in which, as the title suggests, Oliver takes the reader inside of her writing process and shares what she sees as the core elements of poetry. If you’re not familiar with Mary Oliver, she was a prolific poet who has left a legacy of numerous collections of mostly poetry and some prose. Much if not all of her work is centered on her intertwining passions for nature and language.
I found that although I had read the book before, even annotated it, much of the content felt new to me. I don’t know if this was simply an issue of memory, or of approaching the book from a different perspective; it was probably a combination of both of those and more. As an aside, I wonder if others have had the experience of seeing what your “previous self” chose to highlight, as if you were looking over someone else’s shoulder at their notes. I was particularly struck, this time, by Oliver’s emphasis on the poet’s need for diligence, patience, a balance of solitude and community (mostly solitude), and the often long road from inspiration to revisions to completion.
After reading and reflecting on this book, I felt inspired to reread some of Oliver’s poetry, partly for the sheer joy and peacefulness of it, but also to read through the lens of seeing her craft moves and decisions more clearly than I had before. Whatever trail had brought me back to Mary Oliver was becoming a journey of inquiry into the relationship between the poet and the poetry. I chose to reread her collection Why I Wake Early (2004). That is the title of the book and of the first poem in the collection. This time, some of poems that stood out as favorites were different from ones I might have selected before, maybe because of more appreciation of intentional uses of craft. I noticed how she frequently spoke directly, conversationally, to the reader. I paid close attention, as she did, to the very specific natural elements that took on a fuller meaning as the poem unfolded.
Then, I decided to continue my inquiry by going back to Oliver’s Upstream: Selected Essays (2016). I had received this book as a gift, several years ago, from a family member who knew of my love for Oliver’s work. I had read a few of the essays, and then put the book back on the shelf for another time. This was the time. Revisiting the book, I was reminded of how Oliver’s love of nature, reading, and eventually writing were refuges through an often unhappy childhood. She treasured these passions early on, and went on to live her life with a clear sense of purpose and intention, making choices that fit with her true self. She had many writing mentors, seeing them as friends she had never met; foremost among them was Walt Whitman. In addition to the content, I was also interested in exploring how the craft techniques that I had read about and seen exemplified were or were not evident in her prose. I found that Oliver’s use of imagery and reverential description were employed throughout the book. I heard poetry in her prose.
Like most inquires, this experience left me with much to reflect on, and more questions to pursue. I’m wondering about the connection between the deliberate and definitive choices Oliver made in her life and her dedication to choosing the apt word, the precise image, in her writing. I’m contemplating the craft elements that I can aspire to in my own writing, both poetry and prose. Of the greatest value, perhaps, was the joy of reconnecting with an old friend, one that I had never met.
I invite the readers of this blog to reflect on any connections you might make to your own reading, writing, or inquiry practices, and/or those of your students. Responses are welcome in the comments section below.
Janice Ewing is a 2004 Fellow of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project, now the West Chester Writing Project, and a current member of the advisory board. Her interests include teacher inquiry, collaboration, and mentoring. She and her colleague Dr. Mary Buckelew, are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).