The Poet’s Toolbox

  1. Your preferred handwriting implement and notebook. Personally, I think I write better in black ink, with an attractive hard-backed notebook which has large enough pages to avoid feeling cramped. Some people like a pencil because it’s quicker. I don’t like biros, but they might work well for others. Equally, some people like to write on loose sheets of paper, or in a spiral bound book. It’s always worth experimenting. I always carry a notebook and pen, and have some lighter notebooks for handbags and pockets.
  2. The means to type poems up when they are ready to move on to the stage of being shaped and critiqued. Again, there are people who prefer typewriters, and people who like to work on screen from the very start. I usually only type up when the poem is coming faster than I can physically write it, or the poem has reached the stage of coming together nicely after the first heat of writing. I do sometimes go through old notebooks and find half-finished, abandoned poems, that I may not have had the skill or detachment to write at the time, so these can be great fodder for new poems.
  3. Poems to read by other people. I have amassed a huge poetry library over the years, but I do recognise budget constraints. At the very least, do what I did as a teenager, visit the library and copy out by hand poems you love, always with the book title and poet’s name. Never write these in your notebook! They will get in the way. Put them in a file – I still have the ring binder I started aged 14, for poems I couldn’t live without. There is a huge free library on line, as well. You can’t write the best possible poems without reading the best possible poems, especially contemporary ones. Reading other people’s great poetry never fails to put me in the zone. It’s a tuning up before I make my own music.
  4. Space to dream and think. I don’t mean physical space necessarily, but it does help to be able to go somewhere where you won’t be disturbed. I find going for walks or doing physically demanding chores, or gardening, is a great space to think and dream. But I know plenty of fine poets who find it hard to get out of doors because of disabilities, but they manage to write well. There is always a window to look out of, or closing one’s eyes to see what’s inside one’s head.
  5. Interests, hobbies and cultural context. Being interested in the world around, and having enthusiams and hobbies fuels your poetry. It gives you a wider lexis to draw on – for example, I have used knitting, embroidery, art, cooking and gardening language in my work. Split Screen and Double Bill anthologies, published by Red Squirrel Press, were entirely made from poets’ fascination with popular culture, for instance. Hobbies also help with space to dream and think.
  6. Thesaurus and dictionary. Yes, there are both of these on Word, but the pleasure and breadth of using a paper copy of a thesaurus beats the computer version for me. Roget’s is the best one. A dictionary, a really good one, helps too. Thanks to being a library member, I can get the OED on line, but having a range of dictionaries around is really handy. I met a writer once who collected dictionaries and had some amazing ones. My favourite of his was a huge old American one, which, under Peach, listed all the names farmers had called their own variety of peach. What a treasure!
  7. Some people you can trust to give you honest feedback. Most poets have a few carefully chosen people they show their work to. These should preferably be poets whose work you admire and who will tell you what you really knew but hoped to get away with. People who tell you everything you write is marvellous are either lying, or they have no clue. Helpful criticism, even when it hurts, is the best compliment anyone can give you, because it shows they have read your work with care and want to help you make it better. No one wants to help you polish a turd, but a fine mahogany table, even with a wonky leg, will always be worth some mending.
  8. Time and patience. Poems are tricky little things. They may try to run and hide and there is no point chasing after them. Wait patiently, go and do something else, like washing the dishes, and they will crawl out and try to get your attention. If a poem is misbehaving, leave it a week to sulk and then try again. And if you are worried because you are not writing, maybe for once, don’t try to force things with a prompt. Do some reading, get outside for a while. Poems will come again – it’s just sometimes the brain needs a bit of respite.
  9. The ability to observe. All the truly great poems come out of noticing. Think of Frost’s ‘Nature’s first green is gold’. It sounds like a metaphor, which it is on one level, but it is also literally true. He noticed the colour of the leaf when it just starts to open from the bud, and named it correctly. Observation is not only needed for nature poems. Observe people and their little ways, observe the flames in the fire, look closely at people’s hands. Be the sort of person who sees things others miss. That is the very stuff of poetry.
  10. Words. As I used to say to my students when I was teaching: ‘words are out there, and they are free, go and collect them’. Collect words you like the sound of and write them down in your notebook. Or even coin your own neologisms, after all, Shakespeare did and some of his entered the language. Lewis Carroll made up the nonsense word ‘mimsy’ but I’ve used it in a poem. There are no plagiarism issues on a single word, because the language belongs to everyone.


I’d like to say that’s all, but to make a poet it takes a lifetime.I am still learning, and I’ve been writing poetry seriously since I was 14. But it is a pursuit which has brought me pleasure, friendship and joy, and that’s just writing, not publishing, which is a whole other chessgame.



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One response to “The Poet’s Toolbox

  1. ….wise words Angela thanks for your comments