When I became a copywriter, I started writing poetry - and so should you.
Updated: Nov 20
What are words worth? Simple etchings on a page given life by the breath of thought. Or uttered with meaning specifically wrought upon scholars, down cables, across coffee shop tables. In diaries and essays and novels and screenplays. The lyrics to ditties, on billboards in cities, or love letters whispered to silent committees. With lies and confessions, and wise old expressions, and rambling blusters of newfound obsessions.
As writers, we know the great power of words. It’s the only reason we exist in the first place – it’s the basis upon which we are employed. If we didn’t think we had the potential to inform, influence, or at the very least entertain people with our words then we may as well spend each day writing letters to the UK government.
And although professional writers spend the majority of their time plonking words down in a pattern that seems pleasing (or more accurately, procrastinating and feeling guilty about all the words going un-plonked), how many of us can say we still write for pleasure? Because, for a fair few of you, I’m betting it’s something you used to do a lot before this craft became your livelihood. Admit it, the first four chapters of a novel are gathering dust somewhere on your hard drive, aren’t they? All those thrillers that didn’t quite get around to the thrills. All those whodunnits where you’ll never know who dunnit. I’m certainly guilty. Each night I cry myself to sleep knowing that my LGBTQ+ Young Adult Sci-Fi Mystery story will most likely never see the light of day.
At least for me, when something becomes a job, it’s difficult to also keep it up as a hobby. I studied songwriting at university, and I stopped getting pleasure from music. I became a video game journalist, and my trusty Xbox slowly became a source of stress and drudgery. I worked in a call centre, and my desire to phone up random strangers and get yelled at mysteriously disappeared. I was determined not to let it happen with writing. So I found the answer.
Wait, err.. I mean poetry.
Like most things in life, the imagined difference between prose and poetry is largely arbitrary, and many influential figures have smudged the line we’ve drawn to separate them. Whitman, Kerouac and Dylan have all grappled with the question, but not a soul has provided a definitive answer. According to Robert Frost, "poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words." But do we as copywriters not also follow this pattern? When I write a marketing headline, I start with a feeling. A feeling generates thoughts, and those ideas become words. I choose my words based on their rhythm, their melody, their cadence. I choose based on what they evoke. For all intents and purposes, Nike’s “Just do it.” is one of the most influential poems of our generation.
So yes - somewhat to my surprise - I found taking the time to ponder and weave the perfect line of a poem incredibly relaxing, and when I hit the rhythm of a phrase just right, immensely satisfying. Not only that, but I also started to notice an effect on my professional writing. When the weight of a deadline is pressing down on my writing hand, and the pen of fate is rendered paralysed by the carpal tunnel of destiny, it’s easy to fall back on tired clichés and route-one thinking. But the more familiar I became with the act of shaping the perfect line of a poem, the easier it felt to avoid those pitfalls. It started to feel more natural stepping outside the box and coming up with something distinctive, something different. Something that hits the tone that you’re looking for in a way that stands out from the crowd.
The process of writing poetry and writing copy may often feel similar, but it’s different enough to trick my brain into not immediately rejecting it. It’s like how I can still drink banana daquiris, even though neat rum gives my stomach traumatic flashbacks of the night I threw up on stage at the Camden Barfly (I was not performing). The poems don’t have to be long, in fact one of my personal favourite forms is the haiku. Three simple lines and you’re left with something that can be as moving as a 500-page novel. But even if they’re not striking emotional masterpieces, that’s okay too. You don’t have to be the next Laureate, you just need to enjoy the process (and if you want to feel better about your attempts at verse, feel free to enjoy a cringeworthy collection of my own poems on the Instagram account @vithemaybepoet).
So when you find that the spark has gone from your relationship with Lady Literature, I encourage you to give the enigmatic Professor Poetry a call. And I’ll leave you with this:
The difficult part is pretending That I can come up with an ending To save me some time I’ll draft a quick rhyme As better ideas are pending