New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Susan Salter Reynolds

This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
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Critical Review by Susan Salter Reynolds

SOURCE: A review of A Poetry Handbook, in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 12, 1994, p. 6.

In the following review, Reynolds applauds Oliver for going beyond a how-to format to "connect the conscious mind and the heart."

Most of us have a natural aversion to books that presume to tell us how to write poetry. [A Poetry Handbook] is not one of those books. 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, ostensibly written "to empower the beginning writer who stands between two marvelous and complex things—an experience (or an idea of a feeling), and the urge to tell about it in the best possible conjunction of words." From here on in it's all straightforward work: Oliver gives us tools "for the listening mind," tools we need to write poetry, excavating them from centuries of embellishment and obfuscation. First, there is Sound, that link between experience and expression that has somehow come unhinged. Without it, there's hardly any pleasure in poetry. Oliver reminds us that there are not just vowels, but mutes (b, d, k, p, t, q) and aspirates (c, f, g, h, j, s, x) and liquids (l, m, n, r)! Then there is the Line: Why do we turn it when we do (a question often asked of poets, particularly writers of free verse)? Originally, Oliver reminds, the length of the line was linked to the regular English breath, for which the iambic pentameter is best suited. But there are other patterns which, by their very sound, convey anger or tension or melancholy, like notes and phrases in music: the dactyl, the anapest, the trochee, the caesura, all tools to reunite sound and meaning. And there are others: Imagery, Tone (much more intimate, writes Oliver, in contemporary poetry) and Diction. Perhaps my favorite, however, are the brief sections on "Revision," and "Workshops and Solitude," for it is here that Oliver gives some unobtrusive hints for caring for that part of the person that writes poetry: "Athletes take care of their bodies. Writers must simply take care of the sensibility that houses the possibility of poems." "Rise early," and "live simply and honorably," Oliver suggests. "Think of yourself," she writes, "as one member of a single, recognizable tribe."

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This section contains 408 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Susan Salter Reynolds