Stephen King’s Toolbox
I recently read novelist Stephen King’s memoir On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read. If there was one point I got out of the book it is that King is a hard worker; he writes daily and sets himself a goal of something like 2,000 words a day. And he rewrites and edits meticulously. This has all paid off for King in one of the most, perhaps the most, successful writing career in history.
King is a novelist and not everything King says about the craft of writing is applicable to poetry. But a surprising amount is. In particular, I enjoyed the section where King describes what he metaphorically calls his ‘writer’s toolbox’; which is a list of tools that King brings to every writing task. The Chapter, called Toolbox begins on page 111 and continues through page 137. I particularly found pages 114 through 122 helpful. Let’s look at King’s toolbox and see how it applies to writing poetry:
The first tool, what King calls the commonest tool of all (page 114) is vocabulary. Vocabulary is the single most important tool for a poet as well. Vocabulary is what poets draw upon to make their poems. Vocabulary is like flour for a baker, or bricks for a bricklayer, or pitches for a tunesmith. As King notes, different people use different vocabularies; some have a very learned and complex vocabulary while some have a more ordinary vocabulary and, perhaps, one that is less complex. King suggests that the best way to increase one’s vocabulary is simply to read; and that makes great sense to me. For the poet, reading a lot of poetry is the single best way to cultivate one’s own vocabulary.
There is another way for poets to expand their vocabulary which King doesn’t mention; perhaps because it is more suited to poets than novelists. And that is to simply listen to people as you go through your day. When you go to the grocery store, the bank, wherever you go, just listen to the people as you walk by, as you are standing in line, passing them on the street. I don’t mean that you should snoop. I mean that instead of daydreaming or thinking about something-or-other, just listen to people as they are talking in a natural and unobtrusive way. My favorite location for doing this is at coffee shops. It is amazing what you can learn about how people use words in these kinds of ordinary situations. If you work retail you are in an ideal situation because you cannot pick and choose who you are going to interact with which means that you will be exposed to people whose word choices and usages are different from your own. While waiting on customers and engaging in the banter of buy and sell, listen to their speech, phrasing, the way they accent a syllable, or drop a syllable, the way they frame a thought, etc. I am suggesting that the poet be attentive to the waves of words they are swimming in. Listening in this way will naturally expand your vocabulary; it will also expand usage beyond what you engage in as the result of your upbringing and education. I have found that in ordinary speech people are often hovering at the edge of poetry and, sometimes, for short bursts, spontaneously speaking poetically. This can be hugely enriching.
But the important thing for a poet is to feel free to use the full range of vocabulary that one already has no matter what the source. It is important that a poet not think of some words as inherently ‘unpoetic’. The full range of our vocabulary, whatever it includes, is there for the picking.
The second tool is grammar; and I couldn’t be more delighted to read that King included this much neglected subject as an essential writing tool. It is my personal feeling, based on reading a lot of contemporary poetry, that this is a tool which needs to be consciously honed by many poets today. My impression is that there are a lot of modern poets who just don’t have a good grip on English grammar. I say this because of such simple things as observing an inability to distinguish between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’, or confusion over when a word is a plural and when a word is a possessive (let alone plural possessive).
I also sense a lack of grammatical chops when I read poems, mostly free verse, where there is zero coordination between lineation and grammatical structure. Yes, I know, no doubt the poet was using their ‘feelings’ to determine lineation. Sure, sure. But I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the primary reasons for the slovenly lineation which is so common among free verse poets today is simply a lack of understanding regarding basic sentence structure, parts of speech, phrasing. At least from my perspective, and from King’s as well, that is the conclusion one is forced to draw.
King has some interesting things to say about grammar which, I think, apply to the poet as well. On page 121 King writes, “One who does grasp the rudiments of grammar finds a comforting simplicity at its heart, where there need be only nouns, the words that name, and verbs, the words that act.
“Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence. It never fails. Rocks explode. Jane transmits. Mountains float. These are all perfect sentences. Many such thoughts make little rational sense, but even the stranger ones (Plums deify!) have a kind of poetic weight that’s nice.” Right on, Stephen. I can’t help but think that some of the weirder projects for cultivating a grammar in English Language Haiku that limits, or eliminates, verb usage is derived from a lack of basic grammatical understanding.
King goes so far as to recommend that you purchase Warriner’s English Grammar. I was not familiar with this grammar. When I looked it up online I found that it is a basic English Grammar that was widely used in grade schools for many years. Obviously King used it, remembers it, and likely still uses it. I agree with King; every poet should have on their shelf a basic grammar to reference and to refresh their understanding.
That’s the end of King’s first level of his toolbox; though he has more tools at lower levels of the toolbox. As a poet I would add one more to the top drawer of a poet’s toolbox: lineation. Lineation is not of crucial concern for the novelist; but for the poet it is absolutely essential. And for the syllabic poet it is doubly essential. I have written about this before, so I won’t repeat myself except to say that without a sure grasp of how to define a line, a syllabic poet’s work will, in all likelihood, end up reading like, and sounding like, free verse. It is lineation which distinguishes a syllabic approach to poetry from that of free verse and metrical verse.
King’s book On Writing is an easy read. The mixture of memoir and tips on how to write is well balanced and keeps the reader engaged. I learned a lot from this enjoyable book; perhaps you will as well.