Monday, November 28, 2011

Rules for the Dance by Mary Oliver

Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Poetry by Mary Oliver is a companion to her Poetry Handbook.  In this book she looks at formal poetry, whereas in the other she looks at poetry in general.  Because of this focus, her examples in Rules for the Dance are more traditional and less contemporary.

I love to read books that try to explain scansion because I always hold some modicum of hope that this time it will make sense to me.  (If you, dear reader, are one of my former students, the truth is out.  I know nothing about scansion and whatever I taught you was right but I don’t know why.  They say that those who can do, and those who can’t teach.  I am the poster child for that clich√© when it comes to scansion.)  Unfortunately, I can honestly say that I am still unsure about scansion.  I just don’t get it and no matter who explains it, I can’t seem to make sense of any of it.  I read the rules and they just slip through my fingers. Not like sand, because it isn’t about my trying to hold them. They slip through like air, insubstantial, meaningless.  Even Oliver’s explanation did not shed any light on my ignorance.

I just don’t get it.

But that’s me.  In spite of my ongoing incomprehension, I recommend this book with enthusiasm. Oliver accomplishes, in few pages, what many others take two or three times more to try to teach:  explaining the different forms, the ways rhyme, alliteration, and sound are all used to create poetry, the “how” of reading and writing metrical verse.  That the author manages to condense so much content in so few pages does not surprise me.  In her previous book, she managed to do so much and in this book she proves once again her facility for making her point.  What’s more, the book also includes a brief anthology, a collection of poems from which she quotes, allowing the reader to explore the ideas she’s taught.  Everything from assonance to consonance, from end rhyme to feminine rhyme, is touched upon and reflected both in the text and in the collected poems.

The truth is, with these two books by Mary Oliver, anyone who wants to better appreciate poetry can learn all that needs to be known.  The poet seeking to improve and the reader aspiring to appreciate can both do no better than to begin and end here.  As for me, I may never understand scansion but if that should change, I’ll be sure to give praise where praise is due.

I read The Poetry Handbook way back in 1999 and have wanted to read this book ever since.  So this book is another of the Books I Should Have Read By Now Challenge.  I'm about to finish another which will round out November with 3 books read for the challenge.  Yes, I didn't add any to October but I had read four and even five (if memory serves) in previous months so I'm still on target with my personal goal.  Yaaaaaaay!

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