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
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

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.

A photo of Maya Angelou
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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.

A photo of Gertrude Stein
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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.

An illustration of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
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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.

The Gruesome Medieval Masquerade That Inspired Edgar Allan Poe

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In March 1849, Edgar Allan Poe published a short story with one of the most macabre dénouements in his entire body of work. Called Hop-Frog, it was the tale of an eponymous court jester who endures repeated humiliations from an abusive king and his ministers before finally exacting his revenge. Like other works of the great horror master, it may have been inspired by historical events—in this case, by a particularly grisly episode from 14th-century France.

In Poe's short story, both Hop-Frog and Trippetta are people with dwarfism stolen from their respective home countries and brought as presents for the king from one of his generals. Hop-Frog is described as having a disability that makes him walk "by a sort of interjectional gait—something between a leap and a wriggle." Forced to be the court's jester, he's the target of the king's practical jokes, and while enduring near-constant humiliations grows close to Trippetta, whose status at the court isn't much better.

One day, the king demands a masquerade, and as the evening draws near, he asks Hop-Frog what to wear. After a scene in which he and Trippetta are abused once again, Hop-Frog sees the perfect chance for revenge. He suggests the monarch and his ministers dress as escaped orangutans chained together, which he calls "a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades." The king and his ministers love the idea of scaring their guests, and especially the women. The jester carefully prepares their costumes, saturating tight-fitting fabric with tar and plastering flax on top to resemble the hair of the beasts.

On the evening of the masquerade, the men enter in their special outfits just after midnight. The guests are duly terrified, and amid the hubbub, Hop-Frog attaches the chain that surrounds the group to one hanging from the ceiling that normally holds a chandelier. As the men are drawn upwards, he brings a flame close to their bodies, pretending to the crowd that he's trying to figure out who the disguised men really are. The flax and tar ignite quickly and the noblemen burn to death, suspended above the crowd. "The eight corpses swung in their chains," Poe writes, "a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass."

Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Rijksmuseum, Europeana // Public Domain

The gruesome scene was likely inspired by a historical event: the Bal des Ardents (literally, "the Ball of the Burning Ones"). This obscure episode took place during the reign of Charles VI of France (1380-1422), known to posterity as "Charles the Mad." His periods of illness are well-documented by contemporary chroniclers, who tell us that he ran through his castle howling like a wolf, failed to recognize his own wife and children, and forbade anyone to touch him because he believed he was made of glass. After his first bout in 1392, when delirium led him to kill several knights, his physician prescribed "amusements, relaxations, sports, and pastimes."

Meanwhile, the royal council was controlled by his brother Louis d'Orléans and his uncle the Duke of Burgundy—who both had their eyes set on the throne. It was also the middle of the Hundred Years' War, and England was seen as a severe threat to national stability. In spite of the unrest, on January 28, 1393, Charles's wife, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, held a ball in the royal palace of Saint-Pol to celebrate the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting Catherine de Fastaverin. The plan was also to entertain the king, as the royal physician had prescribed. One of the guests, the knight Sir Hugonin (sometimes Huguet) de Guisay, suggested that a group of nobles dress as "wild men" or "wood savages," mythical creatures associated with nature and pagan beliefs. The king liked the idea so much that he decided to join in as one of the masked dancers.

The six noblemen wore garments made of linen covered in pitch and stuck-on clumps of flax, so they appeared "full of hair from the top of the head to the sole of the foot," according to contemporary historian Jean Froissart. Poe preserved these details in Hop-Frog, though his characters weren't dressed as wild men, but as orangutans—an animal he had also used in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) to great effect.

Unlike his fictional counterpart, Charles VI was aware that the costumes were highly flammable, so he ordered all torch-bearers to keep to one side of the room. As they entered the ballroom, five of the wild men were chained to one another. Only the king was free. The men probably humiliated the newlyweds, howling and dancing; some historians believe the wild dance was a charivari, a folk ritual intended to shame newlyweds at "irregular" marriages. (As a widow getting married for the third time, Lady Catherine would have been a target.)

But there was an important guest missing: the king's brother, Louis d'Orléans. He arrived late, carrying his own torch, and joined the dance. While the exact sequence of events is unclear, before long his torch had set fire to one of the wild men's costumes. The fire spread quickly. Two of the knights burned to death in front of the guests, and two more died in agony days later. Court chronicler Michel Pintoin, known as the Monk of St. Denis, describes the dancers' "flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood."

Only two of the wild men survived. One of them, named Nantoiullet, had reacted to the blaze by throwing himself into a barrel of water, which spared him a horrid death. The other was the king. He was saved by the Duchess of Berry, who used her gown to extinguish his costume before it was too late.

The event shook French society. It was seen as the height of courtly decadence, causing outrage and further unrest. That the king had engaged in this extravagant amusement, and that his life had been spared only by chance, was further proof that he was unfit for the throne.

Meanwhile, the part that Louis d'Orléans played in the tragedy was subject to some debate. Most chroniclers blamed his youth and recklessness for the terrible accident; some reportedly suggested it was a prank to "frighten the ladies" that got out of hand.

Although it seems that the Bal des Ardents wasn't a planned crime, the king's brother must have felt responsible for the fatal accident, since he founded a chapel in the convent of the Célestins shortly afterwards, hoping it would buy him a place in heaven. It didn't save him from a violent end, however: In 1407, Louis was assassinated on the orders of his cousin and recently minted political rival the Duke of Burgundy, which triggered a civil war that divided France for decades. The Duke of Burgundy justified the murder by accusing Louis of having used sorcery and occultism to attempt regicide on several occasions—one of them, he claimed, during the Bal des Ardents.

Regardless of the truth behind the matter, the horror of the event filtered down through the centuries to inspire one of Poe's most macabre works. (It's not clear where the author first heard about it, but it may have been in the pages of The Broadway Journal, where he was soon to become editor, and where a writer likened it to the accidental onstage burning death of the dancer Clara Webster in London.) Today, the shocking historical event lives on in Poe's story—and in Hop Frog's memorable final line: "I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest."

Additional source: Chronique du Religieux de Saint-Denys

25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes

By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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