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Chapter #1 - Resources for Poets

i. Make Friends with your Dictionary

College Dictionary Of the resources available to poets, the first and most important is a dictionary. Many people know little about how to use a dictionary, beyond looking up a word and finding what that particular dictionary says it means. A good dictionary is a record of a group of educated people's adventures in tracing words' histories and uses. If the dictionary has College in it's title, it is likely to tell more about the words than just superficial definitions. When you look at dictionaries in the stores ask the clerk to unwrap one of each type so you can examine it. The better dictionaries are likely to be shrink wrapped to protect them from damage. You can not examine a dictionary in such wrap. You have the right to see what you are contemplating buying. Don't ever buy a dictionary you haven't been able to examine. The samples on the back cover may be of a little help to you but don't trust them to be typical of the interior. First, look for the different pronunciations of words. The one listed first is the most widely preferred pronunciation among the scholars who produced the particular dictionary.

The next thing to look for in the dictionary is the origin of the word. Somewhere in the dictionary, unless it is a children's dictionary, there is a list of abbreviations for the various languages of origin. For example, if a word is taken from an Old English word it will say OE. If it is French it will say FR. IE indicates Indo-European. When you learn the different origin and language of each word you may discover why the word has very different meanings in its different uses. You may also discover new similarities between seemingly unrelated languages.

There are often interesting similarities in the relationships between certain letters. The word one, for instance, is uno in Spanish and ein in German. The vowels are different but the consonants are all the same, 'n.' In Finnish the dental sounds, d and t, and popping sounds, b and p, are combined, rather than separate as in English. Poika, the Finnish word for boy, or son, may be pronounced more like poy than boy, but the similarity can be seen.

A good place to look for dictionaries when you are online is or Next, the dictionary will give several definitions or usages common in English. If the dictionary is American, it will tell of common usages in the US. If it is a British dictionary it will tell of usages on that side of the pond. Spellings are often different on the two sides of the Atlantic. Color and humor, in the US, are colour and humour in the UK. Also, there are common differences in the hissing or buzzing sound. Civilization in the US is civilisation in the UK.

ii. Make That Dictionary Work Hard

There are many uses for dictionaries just as there are various kinds of dictionaries. Although I don't read in foreign languages, I keep dictionaries that translate from each language to English. I don't use them for translating, but for looking further into word origins, and subtleties of the word's world-wide use. I have been able to find these books at used book stores. There are many specialized dictionaries, including science, computers, slang, regional speech, art, music, and others. There is probably a dictionary for each of your special interests.

A note of value to poets: older dictionaries will give you older usages, which you might not find in newer ones. If you are looking for a word from a classic poem, you might do better to look in an old dictionary if you don't have access to the several hundred dollar Oxford English Dictionary. I always look closely and consider buying old dictionaries I find in used bookstores. See if you can get your grandmother's old discarded dictionary. It may have lost its covers but still have a lot of heart, just like Grandma.

You can find the many-volumed OED at some public libraries. Remember that the OED is a British dictionary and is likely to be of much more value in traditional literature categories or tracing the history of old words. For searching technological or popular American culture references, a specialized dictionary may be much better.

Don't forget to examine the special features in the front and back of any good dictionary. Don't stop with just definitions.

iii. Get Prehistoric or Modern Similes from a Thesaurus

Webster's Thesaurus A thesaurus is a valuable book for poets. It is a book of similes. It has been said that there are no similes. Every word has shades of meaning that distinguish it from all other words. A thesaurus will give you a list of other words that have somewhat similar meanings that may enrich your poetry.

A useful thesaurus must have a great degree of redundancy to be well cross-referenced. If you can't find your word in the thesaurus, think of a similar word and look it up. Then look up each of the closest words you found. You may have to chase a word around a few turns in a thesaurus to find the one you seek.

iv. You May Want a Rhyming Dictionary

You can get a rhyming dictionary that gives you words to match your rhymes. Such a dictionary can be very helpful if you write chiefly rhymed forms.


v. Learn the Name of Your Reference Librarian

Other resources for poets include a good library of poetry classics and modern poetry as well as current issues of poetry magazines. Various kinds of reference books are of value to writers. Encyclopedia are good for historic references as are college textbooks. Travel books or reference books in your special interest areas are also helpful.

The public library or college libraries are useful and often available to the public free. Don't be intimidated by colleges or college textbooks if you know how to read. Introductory college materials are easily understood by most readers. Colleges are just places like malls, that sell stuff. The stuff they sell is information; but they are happy to sell it to anybody. Abraham Lincoln taught himself law by reading on his own. If you can't afford college, feel free to read their books. Reference Librarians are valuable friends to a writer or researcher. Don't hesitate to ask questions and tell your research needs to the reference librarian. You may learn to use a library better.

Reference books may clutter your work area if you have limited work space as I do. I often find it convenient to take some of my work to the library where I can spread out for awhile and do some study or writing among a greater variety of reference materials. Luckily, many libraries also have internet computers; so you can grab some quick searches online for items more available online than in the library stacks.

vi. Searching the Internet and Bookstores

A Quick Search Tip:

If you are looking for an organization online, a quick way to search is to just type in the name of the organization or acronym as BMI in the location finder rather than taking extra steps through a search engine. If it doesn't come up, type in the rest of your domain such as Then try ending with org or edu if necessary. As the World Wide Web becomes larger and more complicated the search utilities keep learning to do more. The next step is to learn the different search engines. A good URL that contains an abundance of search engines is: Christian Search Engines If you don't know how to use boolean modifiers, try to learn. Boolean modifiers are found in many forms such as the use of the word AND and NOT the use of & and | or the use of + and - for including or excluding words. Different search engines use one or another of the combinations. Learn what modifiers are used by your search engines.

vii. Become a Student of the Language

I like to use word play as an amusement; so I read books about the history and development of the English language. Every writer needs style books and English textbooks of quality. If you have a good textbook from school days, don't lose it. It may prove useful as a reference book.

An advantage of a textbook over another similar book is that you have studied it and are already somewhat familiar with where to find information in it. As you use it more it will become even more useful. I have an art history textbook from college that has been a very useful reference in later years for identifying the art of various periods. It was made much richer by an excellent instructor.

Poet's Market, by Writer's Digest, is a valuable place to find publishers, and The Official Netscape Guide to Internet Research is good for exploring this valuable resource. There are probably similar resources for other browsers. Strunk and White's little book, The Elements of Style is required reading for writers of any kind. It introduces the writer to many basic problems to consider, and solutions to practice, in making yourself understood without ambiguity. (See the URL at the end of this chapter.)

viii. Every Poet Loves Poetry Links & the Used Bookstore

There are many books available on the history of the English language. One I have enjoyed greatly is 'The Mother Tongue, English and How it Got That Way' by Bill Bryson. It offers new insights into the language. Another interesting book for any writer is Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, a book about outmoded rules of English usage, by Theodore M Berenstein. 'Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins' is out of print, but well worth tracking down through a bookstore who finds out of print books. If you are still stuck in the rules you learned in elementary school and have learned nothing new about grammar, this book is for you. It can help set you free from rules that are made for children to get them started. Grammar is much more complex than can be comprehended by the rules alone. Learning them is the first step. The next step is understanding them. After that you have to learn what to do in situations where two rules may be in conflict or there are no rules to cover the situation.

Almost any bookstore will help you find such a resource if they do not do such searches themselves. Also if you are any kind of surfer, try finding it on the web.

ix. Don't be Intimidated by Experts

If you can drive your car and pay your taxes, you have some expertise. Don't be intimidated by people who know something you don't. Your expertise is in the things you know that they don't. You have to follow your own nose when you are in the woods. The rules you know when you start out are the ones you are stuck with for most of the trip.

Even the spell and grammar checker on your computer probably doesn't know all the words you do. Nor does it know when to use their, they're or there. You have to learn those things somewhere else. If you are unsure of the usage of such words, look them up in the dictionary. It will tell you the uses or parts of speech they represent. In a poem the use may often be intentionally ambiguous. You should still try to learn how others are likely to take it.

Look on the Internet for a list of commonly misspelled words or commonly misused words. Don't get caught not knowing when to use lose and when to use loose. Lose is the one that is most commonly used as a verb. Loose is more commonly used as an adjective. Don't go off like a loose cannon and lose your mind.

Go ahead, disagree with any of the books or experts if you are pioneering. But remember that the paths have been there for thousands of years, and often for a good purpose. The experts also disagree among themselves and it's worth the effort to learn their reasons before you reach your own conclusions.

Resources are only valuable if you choose to use them. Pick the ones you enjoy and the ones you will use. You are always in charge of what you write and where you allow it to be published.

The resources are best used to help you reach your chosen market or readers. If you write it, you can find someone to read it. If you want to reach a wider readership, you may have to familiarize yourself with their needs and interests and their language preferences. In the meantime, keep writing!

Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. Great Books Online

Article written by Don J. Carlson. All Rights Reserved

For more information, please contact: Don J. Carlson

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