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What advice does a professional poet have for a beginner?

Q: I’ve read lots of tips online, but what advice does a professional poet have for a beginner, like me? —Anxious Amateur

A: Award-winning contemporary American poet Mary Oliver has much to say on the subject. In 1994, she published A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry in which she first stresses the importance of reading poetry: “To write well it is entirely necessary to read widely and deeply. Good poems are the best teachers.” Oliver even urges, “If one must make a choice between reading or taking part in a workshop, one should read.”

However, don’t fall into the trap of trying to keep up with all new poetry. It’s an impossible task that comes at the expense of poetic classics. Oliver knows beginners “argue that, since you want to be a contemporary poet, you do not want to be too much under the influence of what is old,” but she counters with:

The truly contemporary creative force is something that is built out of the past, but with a difference…. It is created in imitation of what already exists and is already admired. There is, in other words, nothing new about it. To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like the fire through the mountain.

Oliver has given few interviews throughout her career, however, earlier this year she talked with Krista Tippett, host of the nationally syndicated program On Being. You can listen to the full interview online at, but for now we’ll leave you with these last words from Oliver: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”