Facing the blank page can be one of the most intimidating things about writing. That’s one of the reasons a lot of poets keep a poetry journal. It not only provides pages of inspiration when you sit down to write, but it helps you think about poetry without the pressure of writing poetry at that very moment.
What is a Poetry Journal?
A poetry journal is a notebook you keep with you at all times so that you can jot down inspiration for future poems. This can be as simple as a plain spiral-bound notebook or a Moleskine notebook, or you can buy elaborately designed blank books on Etsy.
It’s important to keep your poetry journal with you as much as you can, because the simple act of carrying it in your backpack or purse or keeping it in your car or by your bed will remind you to adopt a “poetry mindset” and keep yourself open to ideas. It’s easy for the mind to be consumed by the daily activities of life – the little worries, the next show you want to watch on Netflix, or the errands you have to run – but after a little practice, you can tune your mind to notice the small, intricate details of life instead.
A poetry journal is different from other types of journals because it will mostly be full of one-line notes or small phrases, instead of long paragraphs. You’re not writing long entries about your feelings or what happened to you that day – you’re just observing and thinking. The best poetry journals look like a mess – they’re full of newspaper clippings, doodles, crooked writing and copies of poems you like.
Elements of a Poetry Journal
Here are some ideas for what to include in your poetry journal:
Often, when we’re sitting in the car or on a train or airplane, our mind wanders to the past. Memories can make the most wonderful poems – small fragments of moments that have already happened. When a memory comes to you, it’s helpful to have your poetry journal nearby so you can jot down a reminder of the memory and any details you remember.
The best poems are made up of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Most poems won’t include all of these senses, but they’ll include at least two. Poets who are first starting out are usually quick to write about visual images, but they forget about the other four senses.
In your poetry journal, keep notes on sensory observations and see if you can come up with a creative phrase to describe what you’re smelling or hearing. When we’re caught up in our thoughts, it’s especially easy to miss auditory details and smells. Does your walk bring up the smell of maple sap? Do you hear the sound of a birthday party happening in someone’s backyard?
These observations are also a great place to practice coming up with unique similes and metaphors. What does a sound or an image remind you of? (Tip: Don’t go with the first thing to come to mind).
Here's another tip: Go outside as much as you can. Nature provides so much poetic inspiration.
A List of Active Verbs
One secret to writing great poetry is using verbs instead of adjectives when you’re trying to describe something. This is because adjectives can quickly become cliché, and a lot of them don’t really add much to an image, with the exception of color adjectives (pretty, happy, bright, warm).
But verbs will become your best friends. It’s easy to go to “to be” verbs (is, was, are, etc.), but keeping a list of other, more active verbs will help you choose better phrases for your poems. Pair these verbs with nouns in unexpected ways.
Examples of active verbs: stutter, leap, dance, cough, clap, squint, drum, wobble, chew
Favorite Lines from Other Poems
You should ideally be reading at least one poem a day by another author, to keep yourself attuned to the poetic mindset. Reading a poem also helps your mind slow down. Really study and absorb the poem: How does it make you feel? What are its best lines? What is it about? What kind of literary devices or form does the poet use? Are there any subtle rhymes?
If you have a poem or a line you particularly love, put it in your poetry journal. This isn’t so you can reuse the line in your own poems but to inspire you and remind you of the joy poetry can create in someone.
Conversations You Overheard
Strangers’ conversations can make for some intriguing writing. Remember Ernest Hemingway’s famous story “Hills like White Elephants”? It was all about overhearing a conversation between a man and a woman at a train station. The next time you’re in a coffee shop, a library, an airport, or another public place, listen to what is going on around you.
Paste in magazine and newspaper clippings that intrigue you. The news can be a fountain of wonderful inspiration. Here’s a tip: Don’t take anything from the front page. The best stories for poetry are always found in the later pages.
Ideas for Poems
As you get used to observing, remembering, and playing with words in your journal, you’ll also start to get ideas for poems. Keep these in your journal so you can mull them over before you decide to start writing. They’ll typically just be one line (“the boy who helped his friend at the playground” or “the cashier at the grocery store who got a text message” or “that story Mom used to tell me about her high school graduation”).
As you start writing daily in your poetry journal, even if it's just a few lines, it will quickly become an important part of your poetry journey.
About the Author
Victoria Kelly is the author of the poetry collections When the Men Go Off to War and Prayers of an American Wife. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Harvard University and received graduate degrees in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Trinity College Dublin. Her poetry has appeared in Best American Poetry, The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwest Review and numerous other journals and anthologies. She is also the author of the novel Mrs. Houdini, which was a People Magazine Best New Book and a USA Today New and Noteworthy Book.