Monday, 19 September 2016

On saying nothing, by Veronica Zundel

'I have nothing to say and I am saying it and this is poetry' said one poet famously (I might remember who it was by the end of this blog post). I think it was W H Auden who stated that poetry does not make anything happen. It was definitely my first steady boyfriend, when I was 16, who declared that poetry was rubbish. In spite of that, I went out with him for a whole four months , went on holiday with a friend, met someone much nicer but was faithful to boyfriend 1, only to find on returning that in my absence he had gone off with Julie Senior, the sportiest girl in my school, who would only know a poem if it hit her in the shape of a hockey ball.

I was going to write about having nothing to say, but now I find after all I am going to write about poetry. Does it, in fact, say nothing? Does it make nothing happen? And most importantly of all, is it rubbish? To answer the last question first, yes, lots of it is. Including many  sincere but  unimaginative poems by Christians (excepting present company, of course...) But the cream generally rises to the top. As for making nothing happen, I have read many a poem that has a) made me think, b) consoled me and/or c) filled me with the joy of words and the joy of life. Is that nothing?

Whether poetry says nothing is a more complex question. The fact is, when poetry tries to say something it is often bad poetry. Most somethings are better said in prose. If you try to write a poem to make a statement, it is very likely to come out as a bad poem, or not a poem at all. It's a bit like posters with texts on (let alone those plaques with which some nun ruins every beauty spot in Europe). Isn't a picture of God's creation, or indeed the real thing, enough incentive to worship God? Clearly God didn't do a good enough job in creating it then.

A poem is an arrangement of words which can do many things: enchant, inspire, challenge, amuse, arouse the senses, frighten, even deliberately alienate. What it is not good at is conveying a 'hidden' message a bit like a fortune cookie.  When T S Eliot was asked by an earnest woman what one of his poems meant, he replied 'The poem is what I mean'. The words he had put together were the best way of doing what he wanted to do with words, and no paraphrase could come  near. I saw a meme today that went: 'The bad news: there is no key to happiness. The good news: it's not locked'. I feel tempted to say the same of poetry. It doesn't need a key, because it's not a cupboard out of which to take something that's not poetry.

As I write, I am still waiting to hear whether I've got on the Poetry School/Newcastle
 University MA course in Writing Poetry. They'd better tell me soon; the induction course is in just over a week. Whether I get in or not, I will have the same resolve in my poetry writing: to say less and write more. A poem is a work of art, not a cartoon; it doesn't need a caption (though a title can be helpful). Like music, painting, sculpture, it exists for its own sake, and attempts to 'translate' it usually end up destroying it.

Veronica Zundel is a freelance writer whose latest book is Everything I know about God, I've learned from being a parent (BRF 2013). She also writes a column for Woman Alive magazine, and Bible notes for New Daylight. Veronica used to belong to what was, before it closed, the only non-conservative, English speaking Mennonite church in the UK, and is currently churchless. She also blogs at


  1. I wonder whether English Literature exams still have an "unseen poem". A teacher advised the O-level class to avoid that question, but I had no choice as the one about Macbeth defeated me completely! Your comments about poems not needing to be unpacked reminded me that understanding poetry is a skill, which is encouraged.
    Your desire to study how to write poetry makes me wonder whether I am overambitious trying to write it without any training beyond O-level. Sue

  2. Sue, if you have a talent, study is only a way of focusing it. Another way is to read lots of contemporary poetry (which I'm ashamed to say I don't). My main reason for applying for the course is to give me an external discipline to make me work harder on my poems.

    1. I found a Facebook group with challenges useful in that respect and I have friends in my local ACW group, who write poetry too.
      I'll be interested to hear/read more about your course, Veronica. Sue

  3. Fascinating post. I haven't written poetry since I wrote a poem for someone who thanked me profusely then asked me what it meant. Assumed I was rubbish at it!

  4. Fascinating post. I haven't written poetry since I wrote a poem for someone who thanked me profusely then asked me what it meant. Assumed I was rubbish at it!