16 Tips From Famous Authors for Writing Better Poetry

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The elusive art of poetry isn’t so hard to master if you know how to set the stage. In honor of World Poetry Day, 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 20 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.

A photo of W.H. Auden
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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.

A photo of Dame Edith Sitwell
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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.

4. AN APPLE A DAY ...

A photo of Agatha Christie
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... 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.

An illustration of Amy Lowell
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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 ...

A photo of James Whitcomb Riley
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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.

Edmond Rostand
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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. CLIMB A MULBERRY TREE (IN THE BUFF).

D. H. Lawrence
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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.

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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.

A photo of George Sand, a.k.a. Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin
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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
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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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Dorothy Parker

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Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

As a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table—a circle of writers that also included Harpo Marx and Robert Benchley—Dorothy Parker was renowned for her scathing wit. Here are 10 fascinating facts about the legendary wordsmith.

1. Dorothy Parker was born in New Jersey.

Dorothy Parker was born at her parents' beach cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey on August 22, 1893. She liked to say they rushed back to Manhattan after Labor Day so she could be a "true" New Yorker.

2. Dorothy Parker's mother died when she was just a child.

Parker's mother died when Dorothy was just four years old. Her father remarried two years later, but Dorothy was not a fan of her stepmother and refused to call her anything but "the housekeeper." Ouch.

3. Dorothy Parker married the same man twice.

Parker and Alan Campbell were great writing partners, but were perhaps no more than that; she often (affectionately) described him as "queer as a billy goat."

4. Dorothy Parker could be sentimental when a job called for it.

You know Parker came up with plenty of sarcastic quips and biting observations, but she also wrote some rather treacly stuff: She was an uncredited screenwriter for It's a Wonderful Life and wrote lyrics for the Bing Crosby song "I Wished on the Moon."

5. Dorothy Parker's uncle was on the Titanic.

Parker's uncle, Martin Rothschild, died in the great Titanic disaster of 1912.

6. Dorothy Parker reviewed books for The New Yorker.

Parker wrote book reviews for The New Yorker under the pseudonym "Constant Reader." She hated Winnie the Pooh and wrote of The House on Pooh Corner, "Tonstant Weader Fwowed up."

7. Dorothy Parker was tiny.

Parker might have been an enormous presence, but she was only 4'11".

8. Dorothy Parker was a staunch civil rights activist.

When Parker died in 1967, she left her entire estate to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Foundation, and then to the NAACP when King was assassinated.

9. Dorothy Parker's ashes went unclaimed for years.

While she left her money to the causes she cared about, Parker left her ashes to playwright Lillian Hellman, who never bothered to collect them. They went unclaimed for years and were passed around rather unceremoniously, spending about 17 years in her lawyer's filing cabinet. The NAACP finally claimed what was left of Ms. Parker and erected a memorial garden in her honor. You can visit her there and read what she suggested for her own epitaph: "Excuse my dust."

10. There is no shortage of great Dorothy Parker quotes.

But as a writer, I think this one might be my favorite: "I'd like to have money. And I'd like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that's too adorable, I'd rather have money."

9 Facts About The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On its surface, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a straightforward story about a boy and a runaway slave floating down the Mississippi River. But underneath, the book—which was published in the U.S. on February 18, 1885—is a subversive confrontation of slavery and racism. It remains one of the most loved, and most banned, books in American history.

1. Huckleberry Finn first appears in Tom Sawyer.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Twain’s novel about his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri. Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast-off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.” Huck also appears in Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Tom Sawyer Abroad.

2. Huckleberry Finn may be based on Mark Twain's childhood friend.

Twain once said that Huck is based on Tom Blankenship, a childhood friend whose father, Woodson Blankenship, was a poor drunkard and the likely model for Pap Finn. “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was,” Twain wrote in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1: The Complete and Authoritative Edition. “He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had." However, Twain may be exaggerating here. In 1885, when the Minneapolis Tribune asked who Huck was based on, Twain said it was no single person: “I could not point you out the youngster all in a lump; but still his story is what I call a true story.”

3. It took Mark Twain seven years to write the book.

Huckleberry Finn was written in two short bursts. The first was in 1876, when Twain wrote 400 pages that he told his friend he liked “only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn” the manuscript. He stopped working on it for several years to write The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi. In 1882, Twain took a steamboat ride on the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minnesota, with a stop in Hannibal, Missouri. It must have inspired him, because he dove into finishing Huckleberry Finn.

“I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn’t name the number of days,” Twain wrote in August 1883. “I shouldn’t believe it myself, and of course couldn’t expect you to.” The book was published in 1884.

4. Like Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s view on slavery changed.

Huck, who grows up in the South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether to send Jim’s owner a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell,” and tears the letter up.

As a child, Twain didn’t question the institution of slavery. Not only was Missouri a slave state, but his uncle owned 20 slaves. In Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, Twain wrote, “I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.” At some point, Twain’s attitudes changed and he married into an abolitionist family. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and helped Frederick Douglass escape from slavery.

5. Emmeline Grangerford is a parody of a Victorian poetaster.

Huckleberry Finn parodies adventure novels, politics, religion, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and even Hamlet’s soliloquy. But most memorable may be the character of Emmeline Grangerford, the 15-year-old poet. Emmeline is a parody of Julia A. Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who wrote bad poetry about death. So does Emmeline, according to Huck: “Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her ‘tribute’ before he was cold. She called them tributes.” Along with bad poetry, Emmeline paints “crayons” of dramatic subjects, such as a girl “crying into a handkerchief” over a dead bird with the caption, "I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas."

6. Many consider Huckleberry Finn the first American novel.

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn ,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in Green Hills Of Africa. “There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was the first novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or "it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.” Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed how Americans wrote.

7. Many people consider the end of the book to be a bit of a cop-out.

A major criticism of Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured. To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many critics, including American novelist Jane Smiley, believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.

8. The book is frequently banned.

Huckleberry Finn was first banned in Concord, Massachusetts in 1885 (“trash and suitable only for the slums”) and continues to be one of the most-challenged books. The objections are usually over the n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. Others say that the portrayal of African Americans is stereotypical, racially insensitive, or racist. In 2011, Stephen Railton, a professor at the University of Virginia, published a version of the book that replaced that offending word with slave. Soon after appeared The Hipster Huckleberry Finn, where the word was replaced with hipster. The book's description says, “the adventures of Huckleberry Finn are now neither offensive nor uncool.”

9. Twain had some thoughts about the book's censorship.

In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library removed Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from the shelves because, as a librarian wrote to Twain, Huck is “a deceitful boy who said 'sweat' when he should have said 'perspiration.'" Here’s Twain’s reply :

DEAR SIR: I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave. Ask that young lady—she will tell you so. Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defense of Huck's character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than those of Solomon, David, Satan, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood. If there is an unexpurgated Bible in the Children's Department, won't you please help that young woman remove Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship?

Sincerely yours, S. L. Clemens

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