7 Bits Of Poetry Advice From Mary Oliver

7 Bits Of Poetry Advice From Mary Oliver


In this post, we share seven bits of poetry advice from Mary Oliver, the American poet.

Mary Oliver was an American poet. She was born 10 September 1935 and died 17 January 2019.

The New York Times described her as America’s best-selling poet. She was the author of A Poetry HandbookA Thousand Mornings, and House of Light.

Her work reflects a spirituality and deep communion with the natural world.

According to Poets.org, her first collection of poems, No Voyage, and Other Poems, was published in 1963. She went on to publish more than fifteen collections of poetry. They included New and Selected Poems (1992), which won the National Book Award; House of Light (1990), which won the Christopher Award and the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award; and American Primitive (1983), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize.

In an interview with NPR, she explained how she thought about poetry, saying: ‘Poetry, to be understood, must be clear. It mustn’t be fancy…  I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary should not be in the poem.’

The accessibility of her poetry made her one of America’s most popular poets.

These bits of poetry writing advice are all taken from her book, A Poetry Handbook.

7 Bits Of Poetry Advice From Mary Oliver

1. Poetry Is A Necessity

‘Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.’

2. Pay Attention

‘The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely, or anyway that part of the world he or she has taken for subject. If the poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because he or she has not stood long enough among the flowers–has not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.’

Suggested reading: Why You Need To Pay Attention If You’re A Writer

3. Be Specific

‘The language of the poem is the language of particulars.’

Suggested reading: Write Small – 5 Ways To Make Your Reader Care

4. Writing Poetry Requires Solitude

‘It is no use thinking that writing of poems – the actual writing – can accommodate itself to a social setting, even the most sympathetic social setting of a workshop composed of friends. It cannot. The work improves there and often the will to work gets valuable nourishment and ideas. But, for good reasons, the poem requires of the writer not society or instruction, but a patch of profound and unbroken solitude.’

5. Write About Things That Move You

‘The subjects that stir the heart are not so many, after all, and they do not change.’

6. Live A Little

‘Athletes take care of their bodies. Writers must similarly take care of the sensibility that houses the possibility of the poems. There is nourishment in books, other art, history, philosophies–in holiness and mirth.’

7. Read Poetry

‘But, to write well it is entirely necessary to read widely and deeply. Good poems are the best teachers. Perhaps they are the only teachers. I would go so far as to say that, if one must make a choice between reading or taking part in a workshop, one should read.’

Suggested reading: Why You Need To Read More Books

The Last Word

I hope these pieces of poetry advice from Mary Oliver help you to write your poems.

(Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

If you’re looking for more poetry posts, read:

  1. Poetry 101: What Is A Poem?
  2. 17 Of The Most Powerful Excerpts From Poetry
  3. 33 Quotes By Poets On Poetry
  4. How To Write And Talk About Poetry When You Don’t Have A Clue
  5. 15 Reasons To Write Poetry

 by Amanda Patterson

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