Gentle encouragement for the listless: On the non-writing of poetry

Now that the Dirty Thirty poem-a-day-for-a-month challenge is upon us, it seems an excellent time to write less than I ever have, and even that could be too much. There’s nothing like a challenge to make you not want to do it, and there are certainly a whole lot of poems I now wish I hadn’t done. I’m writing a poem about clouds at the moment, which for some reason I decided to write in strict Spenserian stanzas. What the hell was I thinking? What the hell was Spenser thinking when he wrote the first Spenserian stanza? “Oh, I’ll just take the Rime Royal and pop another rhyme in there” – why? There are only so many rhyming words in the English language, and you can’t use Nat-the-fat-cat-who-sat-on-the-mat in every stanza.

Really, the last thing poets need is encouragement. Some poets get into poetry for women, or alcohol, or the swearing, but my motivations were hardly so noble. I started doing it as a distraction from the work I was supposed to be doing, and if I attempted the Dirty Thirty now, I might end up actually doing work as a distraction from my distraction, and no-one wants that.

Not writing at all this month seems like a good place to start. I can’t quite come at that – what with this stupidly epic poem about clouds – but perhaps I can work my way down to it. You should try to set yourself a challenge a day, and come up with a new idea not to write. A love sonnet? A haiku about nature? A dirty limerick? All fine and easy ideas not to write – though the interesting thing is, the more detailed and specific is your idea for a poem, the less inspiration (and more unspiration) you will have to write. An abecedarian list poem about sous-vide cooking? Just writing out the idea seems exhausting. I shall enjoy not writing that one next Saturday; maybe I shall even not write it twice. And, lastly, there are the ideas you don’t bother having for the poems that you don’t want to write anyway, which you should definitely try to schedule in to your exhaustive non-writing timetable – they are maybe the easiest poems of all not to write.

From a little of a little to even less of a little
The gradual approach has its attractions; perhaps today we cannot quite discourage ourselves from writing poems, but we can try to work back. If we write 10 lines today, we can cut back to eight lines tomorrow, and seven lines the day after… before the month is out, we will have certainly achieved our goal of not writing poems, and plenty of them. You can actively look back at the previous day’s lack of achievements as motivating for the present day’s non-efforts.

Destroy! Destroy! Destroy!
In the Italo Calvino novel If on a winter’s night a traveller there is one character who rails against the obtrusiveness of reading, and the ubiquity of signs and information and language everywhere he turns. He is in the process of teaching himself to unread, so that when he looks at a scrap of newspaper or a menu he doesn’t recognise the words at all, but just sees a few shapes printed on paper. Imagine if, just like this fellow teaching himself to unread, we could teach ourselves to unwrite! Words disappearing back into our pen as it moves right to left across the page… We can’t, of course; that way we really could write less every day; maybe, if we unwrote hard enough, one day we would even have written less than nothing. Although we will have to leave this enticing prospect aside, we can at least indulge in the simpler pleasures of taking material out of our own – or someone else’s – writing. Words, stanzas, paragraphs, cantos, chapters – there’s no limit to how much we can take out if we want to. Technically, I suppose this practice is known as ‘editing’ but there’s no reason to stop where an editor would. Take the attitude of a psychopathic doctor when presented with a patient with a minor ailment: stubbed your toe? I’m sorry, but that whole leg is going to have to go…

Let’s face it, the only thing harder than actually writing something is not writing something, especially if you’re trying to, er, not write it. For instance, I just attempted to take a break in my writing of this article to go to the loo but not do anything in it, to go out and look at the chooks, then walk up and down a couple of stairs a couple of times. Imagine if I had actually been not trying to write something; I’d have ended up with about 100 or so heroic couplets by now. Which all goes back to my point about being distracted from my distraction by other distractions. I’m not sure what the moral of this is, but I suppose it’s something to do with it’s important, when you take a pause from your break, to quickly take a breather from your pause from your break before you accidentally take a rest from your pause from your break instead of a breather from your pause from your break… I think.

Perspective is beautiful thing, and it’s all the more important to have an incredibly refined and sophisticated perspective about all the things we haven’t written. It’s sometimes a little hard to step back, but you just have to remember that, just as quality is better than quantity, so is lack-of-quantity better than quality. We may not have entirely succeeded in our goal of not-writing a poem today, but perhaps we have started a poem and not finished it, or written down a few lines here and there that will eventually go into the middle of a poem. Well there you go: you have definitely not written the end to one poem, and you have failed to write the beginning and the end of another. And so it goes: a poem unfinished is merely a the start of a non-written poem; a poem where you have written the conclusion but not the start is merely an unfinished non-poem where you have accidentally unwritten the non-start (the terminology may take a little work). But you see what I mean: sometimes a mere fragment of a non-written poem is as good as an entire unwritten poem – which is surely something that experienced genius of non-writers, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, surely knew, with his famous concluding fragment of a non-poem, Kublai Kahn, after his inspiration from the famous person from Porlock.


On the whole, I see nothing wrong with the idea of writing poems at all, having done a number of them myself. If I appear to hold some cynicism about the idea of the Dirty Thirty poetry month, it is probably that it brings with it the idea that we can, and maybe even ought to, force poetic inspiration. As quoth the Bard: Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime – and neither does poetic inspiration, the bloody bastard of a thing. So this Dirty Thirty month, why not give non-writing a go? Go on; set yourself up in velvet nightgown on a comfortable couch with a glass of mead in hand, and get ready for a long day of doing absolutely fuck all. What’s the worst thing that could happen? A poem?

Photo by Miller

Tim Train