In 1993, I went on a three-day workshop with the poet Peter Sansom, who co-edits The North, and runs the Smith/Doorstop imprint. He’s also the author of Writing Poems, Bloodaxe’s perennial seller. And a nicer guy you couldn’t hope to meet. My aim at the time was to unclog the effect of years of writing parody, to find out if I had a voice of my own after years of impersonation. I’m still not sure.
Peter had one golden rule (it’s mentioned in Writing Poems, too): do not under any circumstances use the word shard. This might strike you as very peculiar. But if you were to start to teach poetry-writing, you would know exactly what he meant. There is something about the word shard that fatally attracts every other would-be poet, each of whom, quite innocently and separately, comes across it, and thinks ‘that’s a good word, a very good word. I’ll have that,’ rather in the manner of Burglar Bill. Of course, the entire group of writers (he must be sick of this) immediately wrote shard poems to twit him. But he was right. There are some words which turn up so often in the work of aspiring poets that an anti-preservation order should be slapped on them.
Here are a few more. They may seem irrational, but I promise you, they occur to people with an almost desperate frequency, and the result is an accidental smack of the hackneyed.
Seeps, seep, seeped: Don’t know why, but some variation of seep seems fatally to recur, usually to do with light, i.e. in a metaphorical, synaesthetic way. ‘Light seeped in through the window.’ Don’t do it.
Crimson: Much-beloved version of ‘red’, especially to do with dawn, but unfortunately also beloved of both Victorian poets and heavy metal lyricists. Avoid like the plague.
Translucent: looks good, but it’s actually quite a confusing word, since it seems often to be used to mean both ‘clear’ and also ‘as if through frosted glass’, i.e. not very clear. Usually used to make light seem posh. (Ditto pellucid.)
Myriad: poety word for ‘lots’, with a terrible whiff of archaism.
Languid, languour: these ones are marginal cases, but they always send me back to poems written between 1870 and 1920. They aren’t exactly archaic, but there are plenty of contemporary alternatives.
Evil: whether a noun or an adjective, this is just too heavy an abstraction for a contemporary poem – in fact, most abstract nouns are suspect (hatred; time – especially if capitalised; passion; and so on).
Curlicue: I was caught using this by a friend, who said that she was always seeing it in poems, and I think she’s right.
Soul, mind: usually soul is used to indicate deep feeling, and is redundant because of it. I think you have to be very good to get away with it. Mind usually pops up to indicate inner feeling or emotion, in which case it too is redundant. Just think of the hopeless Michel Legrand lyric ‘The Windmills Of Your Mind’ – a text-book example of how not to construct metaphors.
Woe, sorrow: abstract nouns for feeling very unhappy, but never heard in colloquial language (quite a good test) these days.
Pent: maybe as in pent-up, but otherwise, a relic of reading Wordsworth.
Hence, thence, whence: any word which makes you think that the nearby verb should end in -est, as in Whence comest thou?, is best given a wide berth. Too biblical.
Yesteryear, yonder: if used, you are probably writing poesy.
Then: obviously permissible, but in nine times out of ten, implied by the order of the words, and their sense.
I have more bugbears, but that’s all for the moment. Feel free to suggest others, and forgive me if you find them in what I write (or rather, don’t. I need to be ticked off).