The 9 Habits of Highly Successful Poets

The 9 Habits of Highly Successful Poets

(From Immersed in Verse by Allan Wolf, from Lark Books, 2006)

Habit #1: Don’t Be a Naked Fashion Designer.

Poetry is a lot like sports. There’s more to being a well-rounded athlete than playing the game. To play it better, you might do some weight training. You study the plays and the strategies. You work on your techniques, and maybe even subscribe to a magazine that focuses on your sport. Same with poetry.

Just writing poetry is fine, but if you don’t take an interest in poetry in general, then you are in danger of getting stuck on one of the low rungs of the poetry ladder. The more you learn about poetry, the more you memorize poetry, the more you experience poetry, the higher up the poetry ladder you’ll climb.

You can simply write poetry if you wish. Many people do and they do just fine. But, writing poetry without experiencing all the poetry around you is a bit like being a fashion designer who doesn’t wear clothes. The act of writing is only part of the overall process of poetry. Begin to balance your writing with other poetry experiences. Get to know poetry. Read it. Go to a poetry reading or two. Talk to poetry lovers about poetry.

Habit #2: Get Gonzo Over Words.

A painter loves her paints. A sculptor loves his clay. Skateboarders love their skateboards. And poets love their words. Try these three things.

A) Read.

B) Get a dictionary and use it. Make a mark in the margin next to each word you look up. You may end up with multiple marks next to the same word. You live. You learn. You forget. You learn again.

C) Carry a notebook and pen with you at all times to write down any good words you come across, scenes you experience, or images you see. Become a collector of words, phrases, sayings, clever ideas, and verbal pictures.

Habit #3: Live Life as If Only Two Things Matter.

You: Enter into a relationship with your Self. We are all works in progress. Be sure to reflect on who you are. Don’t become complacent. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but I really think author Geneen Roth put it best when she said that awareness is learning to keep yourself company. Choosing to spend an evening at home reading a book or working on a poem will NOT make you an instant geek. Of course if you are a geek, then by all means, embrace your geekness. Write your own Geek Manifesto! Whoever you are, get to know yourself.

The World: Enter into a relationship with the world. Read the newspaper. Find out what’s going on, and do your best to form an opinion about it. Get out of the house and get involved. Experience something daily, and then take out your pen and get writing! There is no such thing as a bored poet.

Habit #4: Eat Your Words!

Be sure that your reading diet is well balanced. Little chocolate doughnuts may be an essential part of my personal diet, but I always add variety—chips, beef jerky, goldfish crackers. It’s the same with reading. Most of us live within easy reach of an all-you-caneat buffet of words. Newspapers, novels, non-fiction, Teen People, X-Men comics, cereal boxes, and of course, poetry of all sorts.

Habit #5: Do More. Watch Less.

Know the difference between doing and watching. Unlike watching, doing resonates in your soul, sticks to your ribs, and satisfies you longer once you’re done doing it. Most TV and movies are a waste of your valuable poet time. Because I think television is evil, I don’t watch it or even have one in my home. But I am also super weird. Just be sure to balance your doing and your watching in healthy proportions.

Habit #6: Realize Poetry Ain’t Always Pretty.

Show me a picturesque pond with regal swimming swans, and I’ll show you a muddy bank full of swan poop. Without ugly, there would be no beautiful. Likewise, the subjects of your poetry need not be huge and important (divorce, death, world hunger). Don’t forget that there are worlds of wonder within a robin’s egg, a cast-off shoe, or the contents of your pockets. So train yourself to be a hunter of the small and insignificant. And while you’re observing the “good,” don’t forget the “bad” and the “ugly.” They come as a set. The rainbow and the rain go hand in hand. The mighty oak was once an acorn. Note the grace of the swan on the water as well as the trace of the swan on the land—the poop.

Habit #7: Learn to Love Your Gorilla Words.

I guarantee that nearly every professional writer has looked back at his or her first draft and winced in pain. “Ugghh! Did I write that? I must have been writing in my sleep! It looks like a four-year old wrote that—a four-year-old gorilla—a stupid four-year-old gorilla who is one banana shy of a bunch.” In fact I said it myself—just now. The point is that’s how it’s done. You need to get the gorilla words down first. Most “writer’s block” is created by unreasonable expectations. If you sit down and decide that you’re going to write an award-winning, perfect, awesome poem, you’ll likely fail. Writers who approach the blank page (or computer screen) this way are being unfair to themselves as well as to their poor unborn poems. Don’t be afraid to generate a lot of gorilla words on your way to creating a top-banana poem. So write a little bit at a time. Take baby steps. Two lines here. Two lines there. And don’t concern yourself with the quality of these early attempts.

Habit #8: Read and Write Every Day.

I’m not saying you need to squander the ever-fleeting moments of your youth hunkered over your desk, ruining your eyes and developing a callused, leathery bump on your finger. But write every day. Read every day. Even just a little. Even just a couple words. Find a good sturdy notebook and set yourself a reasonable goal: two sentences every day. Be sure to date each entry. It doesn’t matter what you write. And you’re more than welcome to go over two lines. But set it up so you’re not allowed to write FEWER than two. “But what will I write about?” you cry. Write about your day. You don’t have to get deep (although you can). The object is to write automatically. It’s enough to simply jot down an outline of how you passed your day. After a month you’ll be surprised by how much life there is in a simple accounting of your normal routines. Your journal will become an honest and beautiful display of boring little miracles. You’ll also begin to understand that your writing and your life are works in progress.

Habit #9: Play!

Unlike your food, it’s perfectly okay to play with your words. Spell them wrong on purpose. Turn them upside down. Read them backward. Rhyme, don’t rhyme, repeat. It’s good to know the rules. Why? Because it’s fun to break them. Whether the poems you like to write are serious, playful, mournful, or silly, playing and experimenting with your words will help fill your poem with life and vitality.