The elusive art of poetry isn’t so hard to master if you know how to set the stage. Here are a few handy rituals from some of history’s greatest poets.
1. Make time for teatime
Samuel Johnson once said of himself: "[I am a] hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has, for twenty years, diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea, welcomes the morning.” The end result was that he reportedly drank 25 cups in a single sitting.
2. Get really amped
Tea isn’t strong enough for everyone. W.H. Auden took more aggressive stimulants: amphetamines. Auden took a dose of Benzedrine every single morning, though his affinity for the chemicals is likely to blame for his heart failure at age 66.
3. Practice your eternal rest
Dame Edith Sitwell was known for delivering dramatics, the most notable of which might be her practice of lying in an open coffin to prep for writing. The Shia LeBeouf and James Francos of the world might want to take note.
4. An apple a day …
... is best eaten in the tub. Agatha Christie would chow down on the fruit while taking a bath and dreaming up ideas. If fresh apples aren’t your thing, Friedrich Schiller had an alternative use: letting them rot under the lid of your writing desk. Whenever he needed a hit of inspiration, Schiller would lift the lid and let the putrid stench lead him to brilliance.
5. Grab a stogie
Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Lowell famously chain-smoked cigars, which she claimed were preferable to cigarettes because they lasted longer and therefore allowed her to keep her focus on writing.
6. Don your birthday suit ...
James Whitcomb Riley—known as the “Hoosier Poet”—would rent a hotel room and strip down to do his writing. Counterintuitively, this was actually a means of self-preservation, as the nakedness kept Riley from going to the bar.
7. ... have a soak while you’re at it ...
While Riley fought to keep himself out of the world in order to write, Edmond Rostand fought to keep the world out of his writing space. He became so frustrated by interruptions that he ended up sitting naked in the bathtub to work.
8. ... then take it one step further
While we’re on a nudity kick, D. H. Lawrence liked to climb mulberry trees in the buff because it tickled his imagination.
9. Book a hotel room
Maya Angelou holed up in hotel rooms like Riley, but stayed clothed (as far as we know). The author would rent a room in her hometown by the month as a dedicated place to do her writing. Angelou had all the decorations removed and requested that housekeeping refrain from cleaning, for fear that a valuable scrap of paper might get discarded.
10. Throw a rager, then leave
Sometimes environmental stimulants are as good as liquid ones. Hart Crane was known to take leave during parties to tap away at his typewriter with records spinning nearby. Later on he’d return with pages, saying, “‘Read that. Isn’t that the grrreatest poem ever written!’”
11. Get frisky
The verdict is out about whether it helped George Sand’s (a.k.a. Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin) writing, but her lover, fellow author Alfred de Musset, found it exciting when Sand would waste no time between lovemaking and writing. That’s probably for the best, since Sand often wrote between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
12. Befriend a feline
Edgar Allan Poe wrote works “Annabel Lee” and “Ulalume” with his beloved cat—named Catarina—sitting on his shoulder. While she wasn’t black, Catarina is also believed to be the inspiration for the 1843 story, “The Black Cat.”
13. Take a walk
William Wordsworth famously loved to set out on foot at all hours of the day to clear his mind, and even went on a walking tour of France in 1790.
14. Hop in the car
If the comfort of home is just not confining enough, get in your car and stay parked. Gertrude Stein used to do it, writing on scraps of paper in the automotive quiet.
15. There’s always opium
It’s not one to try at home: Samuel Taylor Coleridge wasn’t shy about his use of opium and even said that Kubla Khan was inspired by an opium dream. Coleridge was interrupted while writing the poem and ended up forgetting the lines he needed to complete the structure as originally intended. It wasn’t published until some 20 years later, and only then because Lord Byron encouraged it.
16. Adopt an alias
It might serve you well to escape within yourself, just as T.S. Eliot did after the success of The Waste Land. Eliot started renting rooms in London’s Charing Cross Road and became “Captain Eliot” or “The Captain.” If that’s not enough, incorporate makeup into the mix. Captain Eliot was also fond of wearing green face powder and lipstick to look like a cadaver.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise noted.