Some Advice on Writing Poetry

Some Advice on Writing Poetry



Gavin Bantock

These notes were originally written for a young poet who asked me for advice. Some points mentioned here can be useful to any writer of poetry.

Please make use of anything here that you find helpful.

1. It seems that your poems fall basically into two categories: (a) poems that are rather like songs or lyrics for pop songs; and (b) poems that are for the speaking voice. [Of course, there are many other types of poetry.] There's no problem about this: you just need to know which kind is which when you are writing.

2. Some of your poems use rhyme, but this rhyme is not constant, not always true, sometimes rhymes are missing. I believe that if you use rhyme, it must be perfect, not just half measures. Shakespeare was always true to his rhymes; and I myself have tried to follow that way. If you check my rhymed poems in my own books, I think you will find that there is not one false rhyme, and also not one rhyme missing when a certain rhyme scheme is used. If you don't keep to the rhyme scheme, one gets the feeling that not enough effort has been made, or that the poet couldn't be bothered to find the right words to fit. Of course, I don't like forced rhymes either. It's not good at all to use a "wrong" word just because it fits the rhyme scheme; this looks artificial and is like padding. So what we have to do is go on working and working on the poem until the right words are found to fit the rhyme scheme, and so that they sound perfectly natural and not forced. We must never bend the meaning to fit the rhyme, but if we use rhyme, we must use it perfectly. This sometimes means a lot of hard work; but, anyway, I think that if we're going to write poetry it must be absolutely as good as we can make it, and after a lot of hard work and rewriting and numerous attempts, we will eventually arrive at a point when we "know" that "this is right". It takes time, but it's worth doing. So many so-called poets these days just think they can dash off a poem as soon as they feel inspired, but this is not real writing, it's just gush. Writing poetry is a highly skilled art, not just a pouring out of words according to one's feelings. Of course, that's how one STARTS writing a poem: just let it come. But AFTER that, when the basic idea has been put down on paper, then the real work begins; and this for me is the most exciting part. Having got out the basic idea/feeling, then I set to work "making" the poem perfect. The original English name for a poet was "scop" (pronounced sheop), meaning "shaper" or "maker" or "shaper of words". Some of your poems, I feel, have not yet been worked on to their perfect conclusion; you sometimes seem to have stopped before the poem is properly finished. (I'll show you what I mean later when I comment on individual poems). Of course, if the poems are INTENDED to be casual, like some lyrics for pop songs, then it doesn't matter so much about the rhymes; but in such cases it's better call the poems "songs" rather than "poems" (e.g. A Collection of Songs, or Songs for a Summer Night, or some such sort of general title for a group of poems of that kind.

3. You need two important books:

(a) A Thesaurus (dictionary of synonyms), in which you can search for the "best" word. I use Roget's Thesaurus, and I use it all the time. In fact, one of my poems in my book "Just Think of It" is ABOUT Roget's Thesaurus (taking inspiration from the sonnet by Keats called "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"). The best Roget book is not the one arranged alphabetically, but the one arranged with categories and you look up the words in the index at the back.

(b) A good Rhyming Dictionary. I have a few old ones, but now I use an online rhyming programme. It's free, and you can find it at:

4. You need to read as many poems by famous poets as you can. Try imitating their styles. Learn how to write sonnets, for example, and all the different kinds of metre and rhyme schemes from Chaucer onwards. If you like using alliteration, which I do, then you need to look at some Anglo-Saxon poems, in which alliteration is the main device used. (Ask me for more details if you need). Did I give you my book: "Pioneers of English Poetry"? If not, let me know, and I'll send it to you. It explains everything very simply about poetry that you need to know at first, including Anglo-Saxon.

5. Another way to ensure that your poems are the best they can be and as original as they can be, is to ask yourself during the second "making" part of poem writing, ask yourself all the time: Is this the best word? Has this word been used like this before? Can I use this word or these words in a new way? A poet needs always to be pushing the language forward, evolving it with new expressions, new images, new word orders, new ways of using words. If you take the easy way, as many would-be poets do, then your poems will be full of cliches, worn out expressions, overused images.