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Getting Ready: An Excerpt from A Poetry Handbook

The following excerpt is from A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry (1994) by the poet Mary Oliver published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. The chapter is titled Getting Ready.

Oliver writes about the delicate courtship between the Creative Genius and the poet/writer - a courtship that must be serious to produce any results.


"Writing a poem is not so different—it is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that is courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen. Or, they make appointments with each other but are casual and often fail to keep them: count on it, nothing happens.

The part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem—the heat of a star as opposed to the shape of a star, let us say—exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious. It learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be. Say you promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself—soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.

Why should it? It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime. Who knows anyway what it is, that wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem can live? But it won’t involve itself with anything less than a perfect seriousness.

For the world-be writer of poems, this is the first and most essential thing to understand. It comes before everything, even technique."


Supplement this with What Mary Oliver can teach us about handling criticism with grace and Mary Oliver’s Advice on Writing.

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