Poetry Shelf Paragraph Room 3: No ideas but in

I have always played around with the William Carlos Williams notion no ideas but in things in my head. Sure no ideas in things but what about in music or mountains or sky or line breaks or on blank paper or silence or heaven forbid feeling? 

Or what about: No words but in music. No politics but in the personal. No silence but in noise. No noise but in silence.  No heart but in mountains. No poetry but in movement. No anarchy but in order. No order but in protest. No poetry but in yes. 

For my final paragraph room in this current series, I invited poets to play around with this notion. Grateful thanks to everyone who participated. I have so loved spending time in this room.

No life but in stillness

‘… here and there the rocks shining and glittering– / It’s this stillness we both love.’
– Louise Glück, Celestial Music

Lately I’ve been thinking about stillness. My family and I have been isolating, so that probably helps! I’m writing poems about still life paintings and considering the relationship between the words ‘still’ and ‘life’ – about all the life that burgeons there in stillness. About what it might mean to live a more still life, everything able to be heard, or ‘marrying a kind of spaciousness’ as poet Cyril Wong so beautifully articulates it. One of the amazing things about poetry is that it can create that still space for the poet and reader, and what shimmers in that space is intimacy – the ability to hear and be heard. I was in a poetry workshop once which was totally silent for what felt like ages, until finally a poem was read out. I remember thinking, oh, it’s a bit like being in a church – the silence and stillness create what can feel like an almost sacred space, in which to properly hear whatever it is that wants to be heard, whatever it is you need to hear. That was a revelation to me, as someone who had struggled to let stillness in.

Sarah Scott

No energy but in rest, no writing but in waiting

I’ve been thinking about the times when work doesn’t progress, words don’t come, or only the wrong words come. I have a quotation from Ursula K. Le Guin pinned up on a cork-board in the kitchen, the room where I often felt most disconnected from my writing, particularly when my children were very small — because the urgencies of feeding them were one of the demands I couldn’t timetable or procrastinate on! The line is  ‘Waiting, of course, is a very large part of writing.’ It comes from Le Guin’s collection The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. It’s been pinned there for so long now that I’ve forgotten the exact, richer context it came from: I just remember its simplicity hitting me like a lightening bolt, as in, a bolt that made me feel lighter and less burdened by the struggle both to carve time out of family and work life to write, and the struggle to lift things to a good enough standard. It helped me – still helps me – to trust that even when I feel defeated by a project that seems to be failing, or a line of thought is disrupted by the realities of the daily (chores, family needs, work, personal flaws!), even that apparently ‘lost’ time is still part of the same current. It’s time to reflect, to rest, to get distance and perspective; it’s still part of the stream of experience that one day will run into the catchment of the poem, the story, the novel.

Emma Neale

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about poetry as both a singular and communal act. I’ve been thinking about the shifting relationship that poetry can have to identity. I’ve been thinking about how curation can transform journals and anthologies into something greater than the sum of its parts. I think this applies on a more macro scale too. We have so much interesting and vibrant poetry floating around right now, and I like the way it talks to each other. Whether it’s book to book, poem to poem, even performance to performance, the small moments of connection bring unexpected joy. I like poetry that bumps and shifts like tectonic plates, I like to stick my ear to the ground and wait for rumblings.

Jordan Hamel

No poems but in linen

Linen is special the salesgirl at Farmers tells me when I buy a linen shirt. Nurses wrap newborns in linen; linen allows airflow and restricts abrasion; it wrinkles and doesn’t need ironing; it has almost zero fluff. Just like a poem, I think. A poet may have wrinkles but a poem needs airflow and who wants fluff? Abrasion might mean the wrong word or a grating rhythm. When I get home and iron the shirt it seems to want to revert to wrinkles. It prefers to be warmed by the heat of the body. After scribbling feverishly I have managed to iron a poem. My head feels hot as if I have been sitting an exam but the linen shirt stays cool against my skin. It is so strong it was once used for bowstrings and even a type of body armour. And were Yeats’s Cloths of Heaven, despite heavy embroidery and various shades of blue, plain linen underneath? There’s no better fabric for writing about dreams. I think I’ll buy another linen shirt so I can always have one to write poems in.

Elizabeth Smither

No worries but in reality. No reality but in worries. No promise but in time. No data but in range? No range but in the-far-north. No excuses but in Whenua. No trees but in water. No harm but in danger. No relics but in time-liqueur. No remedy but instinct. No plotting but investing. No premise but interest. No guesses but informal. No-nonsense but in time. No quiet but in process. No cutting but in diamond. No diamond but in cutting. No promise but in time.

Courtney Sina Meredith

No self but in slips 

Poetry has always felt like a collaborative process; for me, the poem is only truly written when it is shared (no matter the reach) and defined by the truths that a reader might also bring to the work. Obviously, there’s something a bit too trusting in this, too naïve, but the more and more I explore the world of words, the deeper I want to wade nonsensically through the world of image and for others to find space too, in the intangibles. In the slips of meaning that might only ever come through by feeling your way between the words yourself. I definitely have my interpretation of the poems I write but these are still very much tied up into my “self” of the poem. I like the possibilities of other selves of the poems more. It makes a poem live and breathe as a separate entity. At the moment, something I’m interested in is: how do we subvert the limitations of language in order to get closer to whatever a poem wants to do rather than what we expect it to do. As a poet, I’m not sure I’m all that interested in whether someone sees me in a poem, only that they might see something of/for themselves within the slips of the poem. 

Amber Esau


I’ve been reading lots about Janet Frame lately, so I couldn’t help doing this exercise with the great novelist in mind: ‘No fantasy but in childhood / No tragedy but in family / No shyness but in silence / No madness but in metaphor.’

Frame voluntarily readmitted herself to Seacliff Hospital, a mental asylum, in 1954. Hospital notes show she wrote her ‘reason for admission’ that December in the form of a poem:

As I was walking on the stair
            I met a thing that wasn’t there
            It wasn’t there again today
            I wish the thing would go away

Back then, such abstractions were dangerous in New Zealand’s mental health system. Frame often spoke of literary characters—in Shakespeare and Tolstoy, for example—as if they were real people. Her child-like, nonchalant way of moving between fantasy and reality was one of the many reasons she was misunderstood (and, more gravely, misdiagnosed) as someone who couldn’t lead an ‘ordinary’ life. This got me thinking about how, as we get older and adapt to the ways of the world, we forget how it feels to be imaginative. There’s nothing strange about a five-year-old having an imaginary friend. But Frame’s adult imaginary friends of Prospero and Pierre Bezukhov (who she viewed as real people), were seen as further signs of a serious affliction. Not only does poetry lend itself to imagination, it’s perhaps the only written form that doesn’t have to make sense. Poetry allows us to step into that childhood space. We can forget about what’s rational for a moment and appreciate an image or feeling without necessarily understanding it.

Tim Grgec

No ideas but in

no ideas but in things / no iris but in garden eyes / no brusqueness but in telegrams / no symbol but in low parkway bridge / no lion but in yellow mop hair / no skin but in water / no happiness but in your snore-nings / no gaps but in peering through hair gaps / no patience except in delays / no appetite but for pattern / no generosity softer but in tree shade / or home-cooked meals / no pitchers but in the mountain-poured night / no slip but in information / in dress over hips / in jealous flashes / in cash deposits / no silkiness but in vodka pasta / no raised voice but in bad dreams / no willpower but in deadlines / no horsepower but in physics classes / no person is a poem but in your own tinted eyes / no fish but in surplus bread baskets / no laces but in fingers beside pillow-head / no recoiling but in coughs / no harsh categories but in people / no freedom but in people / no priorities weighed but in dog-eared book / small damage / life-changing quotes / no communion but in sitting together / at the level of the floor / or projects together / after the train ride / no waiting but in those news-bearing rooms / no light but in all of the sky / no fleetness but in climbers’ feet / no firn but in crampons / no decisions but in averseness to making them / no harm but in dissatisfaction / no relief but in pain / confirmed in a monitor / a machine / nothing buried in yourself / but in good moments / and the many others / radiating opposite / or just beside

Modi Deng

No grounding but in leaves

Second to the moon—another thing that always changes its shape I suppose—one of the most harped-on-about things in poetry must be leaves. But it’s true they’re a constant source of interest and hope to me as they perish and reappear and move; abundant and intricate, noisy and silent, singular and mass. There’s a Matthew Zapruder line I remember about the endless origami made by their light and shadows. My mum has always pointed them out to me, and for a long time I’d roll my eyes and tell her we were going to be late, but I guess I’m turning into her. Their lacy afterlives are around the place at the moment, white skeletons where you can trace the routes rain once took after it had fallen. In lockdown last year I’d sometimes walk late at night and look up through the huge banana palm leaves on my street. Illuminated by the street lights above, I could see the silhouettes of the insects perched on top of them like an x-ray. It’s one of the few things I remember from that blurry time.

Manon Revuelta

No poem (yet) but in preparation

As someone who is short on time for writing poems, I’m often wondering if it’s possible to leapfrog the distracted-by-the-dishes sort of warm-up that seems necessary for the stillness to emerge that’s required to write a poem-with-potential. But some things I’ve read lately have encouraged me to be more accepting of this process. Helen Garner writes that through all the ‘wandering about pointlessly … you have to believe you’re preparing the ground for something to manifest out of the darkness’. Rebecca Solnit says ‘so much of the work of writing happens when you are seemingly not working, made by that part of yourself you may not know and do not control’, and Elizabeth Bishop reflected that unproductive writing time is not wasted time because it’s all going towards creating an ‘atmosphere’ in your brain that will produce a good poem. I think Teju Cole captures the kind of writing experience we’re all hoping for when he describes Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry: ‘the sense is of the sudden arrival of what was already there, as when a whale comes up for air.’

Frances Samuel

No hope but in metaphor  

Hope exists in the metaphor of possibility, always pegged some place onwards. Greener grass, silver linings, lights at the end of tunnels. Poetry is the playfulness of counterfactuals, the hope of extending a concept beyond its brute reality. Hope happens in metaphor, the outstretching of a thing ad absurdum. What is hope but a prising away from the prospect of pain and boredom? Sometimes we hope for the best but expect the worst – and that kind of hope is equipped to meet the End Times with a twelve-pack of toilet paper, Wattie’s spaghetti, a buoyancy vest and a whistle. Hope summons nouns even where the adjectives are feeble, summons escalators even when the malls are on fire. Emily Dickinson said “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”. It is the ‘little bird’ in as much as metaphor breathes animal into abstraction. Metaphor is the celebrating of the outer-most reaches of human creativity in the face of the white noise that issues from a vehicle set to autopilot. When I’m desolate, when the engine cuts and I’m left in the loneliest circumstance, I find my ray, kernel, or shred, of hope in the poems of other voyagers. Which is not to say, for me at least, the poem needs to be sunny-side-up. At its core, there is hope in the audacity of pegging life’s agonies to words. Sometimes it is enough for a poet to wink at you from a line break, and for a poem to mouth I know this. I know this pain too.

Elizabeth Morton

No Seeing but in Closeness

Parked at the window, hunkered down in his streamlined self, I missed his face but even in my mask he knew me. His sight was on the blink, form was unravelling. He was blind to the Autumn wither of sun; I recited the view. Poached blue of sky, Opoho rise of trees positioned like cut-outs to define a transition. Happy Easter he said, reading a sticker on the window. Are you taking the piss Mr Olds? No. No. Not that he replied, pulling me back into usual conversation. Our last conversation? The last blessing of language? No. No. Not that. It was the gift of the window. Just as it is.

Jenny Powell

No lift but in laughter. No laughter but in joy. No joy but in tears. No tears but in knowledge. No knowledge but in mind. No mind but in mountains. No mountains but in fall. No fall but in blankness. No blankness but in lift. No lift but in the words. No words but in poetry. No poetry but in the lift and the fall.

Harry Ricketts

No perception but in action

I recently had lens replacement surgery for developing cataracts. When I entered the operating theatre––this alien space lit with bright lights, filled with smooth, clean, empty surfaces, where the floor, walls and ceiling are white––I saw the surgeon in his grey scrubs wheeling himself on an office chair from a table to a screen. He turned to face me, didn’t say anything, gave me a wave. I was reminded of my dad waving from the cowshed each school morning after I stopped my bike beside the yard and rang the bell until he looked up from an udder or turned from the cow he was walking towards the bail. As I readied myself, prepared to put myself in the surgeon’s hands, this momentary notion of familiarily embued me with a sense of trust.

The next thing, I am writing a poem. I am “fixing a fleeting emotion about an ephemerical vision,” as Anna Jackson says in Actions & Travels: How Poetry Works  (p. 49). Or, as George Saunders says in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: “What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we ‘know’ something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple. But the ‘knowing’ at such moments, though happening without language, is real. I’d say this is what art is for: to remind us that this other sort of knowing is not only real, it’s superior to our usual (conceptual, reductive) way” (p. 100).

Janet Newman

No Existence But In Chance

While walking, I exchange greetings and smiles with other walkers, their acknowledgement a validation for my place in the world, and vice versa. As I turn to cross playing fields, I notice how each blade of grass hugs its own tiny rainbow. In front of me as I walk, a multitude of rainbows spark like the disco lights on the soles of my granddaughter’s sneakers. Being able to witness this minor phenomenon is simply a matter of being here at the right time, the angle of the sun over my right shoulder perfectly positioned for refraction to occur in a single dewdrop on a blade of grass. Trajectories of self, place and time crossing paths. I arrive home with a head full of loose thoughts that may be grist for poetry, or may not be. It’s up to me to knit together the intersecting threads. It’s up to me to acknowledge my own experience and the role that chance plays.

Kay McKenzie Cooke

No thoughts but in feelings

I’ve heard a lot recently about the need to say something, to have something to say if you’re going to write. As there is so much to want to say, so many problems to address, don’t writers have the responsibility to do so? I think about this a lot, but in the end I wonder about the wisdom of that sort of approach. If writing a poem is discovery, I worry that having something that desperately needs to be said will detract from the saying. That is, such well-intentioned efforts risk producing work whose main thrust is argument, whose emotional heft is at the mercy of persuasion, whose poetics will be subsumed by rhetoric. Not that ideas shouldn’t arise in poetry, but arise from seems about right—the pleasure for me as a writer is in the surprising discovery of what it is that might be said. I go into a poem with a feeling in my gut or a phrase in my ears. The ideas take care of themselves.

Bryan Walpert

No wars but in words

When I was at school, my friends and I used to have long philosophical arguments about whether or not it was possible to have a thought which wasn’t initially in words. I was a strong believer in the idea that a thought could precede the words which expressed it: that it often had to be translated – imperfectly – into words, after being conceived in musical or architectural or simply relational terms. Of course I couldn’t prove it, as our discussions were conducted entirely in words. We were also very concerned about the status of mathematics. Was it really a language? Did its axioms constitute words, or were they somehow superior to those slippery entities (as the budding scientists among us tended to argue)? Now that I’m older, my trust in words has not grown greater – but I think I love them more. In fact, “words are windows” was the first phrase that came to mind for this paragraph, until I realised it lacked a “no” and a “but”. Words are windows. They show us things. But they don’t do so clearly. And when you read – as I did in the online news today – that in Russia now you can “speculate freely and quite calmly on the prospects of nuclear war,” I’m again terrified at what treacherous little disease-laden free radicals words can be. I’d like to set against that the opening of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain … There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.” That is to say, choose your words wisely, or they may blow up in your face.

Jack Ross

No words but in corners. No scarlet but in red. No sunsets but in sunsets. No right word but in accidents. No cumulus but in another cloudy day. No beauty but in breakfast. No moment but in meandering. No grace but in my clomping shoes. No parenthesis but in trying to fit inside them. No alchemy but in dirt. No pa rum pa pum pum but in conundrums. Nothing to say but in two hours, all on your own.

Susanna Gendall

No comedy but in sadness

A comic moment in a modern poem is not the same thing as a joke or a gag, even if the form is superficially similar. When comedy is deployed in poetry, it is inevitably seen in the long context of that art form, with its moral obligations, self-serious canons, and futile bids for immortality. Even if we don’t realise it, this casts a shadow over the comedy. The comic moment in contemporary poetry is a pantomime horse at a funeral, a squirting flower at a presidential debate. We can still laugh at the incongruity and absurdity of it all—perhaps we laugh harder because the incongruity is especially great—but always a little ruefully.

Erik Kennedy

I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but the thing I like most about WCW’s line is its certainty of tone. I’m an uncertain person (I think) and usually suspicious of certainty (or secretly drawn to it) – those poems that batter you with their messages. Good poetry is always more about the how than the what. WCW’s line is clever and simple, but it’s the structure that seduces. No [whatever] but in [whatever]. Yes sir. Sign me up.

James Brown

william  carlos williams goes swimming

no ports but in storms/ no movement but in gulls/ no peace but in surrender/ no surrender but in ferrymen/ no coins but in paper boats/ no power but in horses/ no herrings but in court/ no soldiers but in slippers / no flags but in wings/ no boundaries but in cliff faces/ no heart but in swimming /no strokes but in dog-paddling/ no pause but in breath/ no breath but in small litanies/ no faith but in the three hearts of octopus/ no clasp but in floating/ no children but in drowning/ no dreams but in nightmares/ no nightmares but in anchors/ no anchors but in the turning of the tide  

Frankie McMillan

No abandon but in design

With writing specifically intended for the page, I’m very invested in the status of poems as visual documents. The words that make up a poem are only one part of the equation; we also owe a great deal of our reading experience to the format of the thing. I think the container a poem arrives to us in (left-aligned cascade; pseudo-pinball machine) can massively shape how we receive it, how we understand it, even the pace at which we read. It does for us what the melody accompanying a lyric, or the nonverbal performance of an actor, might. The form of a poem is, quite literally, its body language. So it’s important to be conscious, both as a reader and as a writer, that nothing simply falls onto a page. Just as the words have to be conjured up, so, too, does the shape they take. Whether the poem reads as chaotic or even untouched, its indents and line breaks—its pillars of seemingly-disembodied punctuation—have all been placed there by the poet’s own hand, and ought to inform how we consume the work. It reveals to us something essential about the poem, or about the poet themselves(!): is this an aesthetic inclination? Why does this stress me out? How’s there so much blank space? Are these common alignments clues to something bigger? What’s manufacturing a pause for me? How is this so visually beautiful that I love it before I’ve even got to the words? I am obsessed with form (and formatting), both as a reader and as a writer. Everything in a poem is a choice! And I love it. I love seeing exercises of restraint; I love seeing how far people extend when experimenting. The margins (and HTML) are the limit! And sometimes, even then, there’s farther to go.

Tate Fountain

Poems occupy stanzas, which is to say ‘rooms’, which is to say contained spaces that together make up something greater than the sum. Poems need space: the spaces between words, the spaces between stanzas, the things left unsaid. The space is where the poetic alchemy happens, where readers bring experiences and ideas to the poem and a new poem forms. No poems but in space. We might find solace; we might find rage. The poem is a building where we wander from one room to the next, passing a series of images as though in a gallery, lingering where something grabs us. The rooms may be small and dense, or expansive and airy. Perhaps a stanza might also be a forest clearing or a star in a distant constellation. Perhaps a stanza is a rock in a river and leaping from stone to slippery stone gets you to the other side. Because poems must take you somewhere, move you from one state to another, one idea to the next. It may be a steady journey or a rocky one. You may fall in. No poems but in journeys. A poem might leave you on a railway platform without your luggage. It might take you to marvel at a distant galaxy. It might lead you through the electron microscope to the intimate workings of atoms. It might dredge the bottom of your sea floor and show you things you thought you’d long forgotten.

Janis Freegard

No rage but in poetry. No rage outside this paper room.
No rage if not articulate. No grief if not correctly punctuated.
No terror but in em-dash. Nothing broken but in stanza.
No abuse unless poetic. No rage-poem without resolution.
No rage-poem but in PSA. No anger I can’t put a bookmark in.
No rage-poem here, but you are so brave! Great rage-poem
but have you considered a happier ending? These new poets
are all oversharers. These sad poems are selling like hotcakes.
These new poets are self-victimising. These self-victims
are making folks anxious. These anxiety-inducers stir up
the silt. These silt-stirrers get all the clicks.
No rage if not urgent. No rage if not necessary.
No rage if you expect action. No rage but in full-stop.
No rage without pity. Yes rage about pity. Love the rage poem
but I am remaining impartial. No rage but in blood. No blood-poem
without apology. My blood-poem will make everyone apologise.
Not a rage-poem but a horse. A fucking wild biting horse.
Not a rage-poem but something rotting. No rot but in the body.
No body-poem bleeding. No rot-poem paid for. No rot-poem
where the harm is too sharp. No harm-poem if you are too harsh.
Do not hate those who have harmed you. No poem but in forgiveness.
No rage but in quiet. No poem but in the after. All quiet after the rage.
After the rage.

Lily Holloway

no ending but in the title
no wholeness but in the spaces
no fulfilment but in what you have drawn in from your paper straw, sucking minerals and a chain of fatty acids
no season finale but in the early morning sky
no perfection but in our imagination
no ticking off the to do list but in fantasy
no neatly wrapped Christmas parcel with ribbons and bows and folded edges but at the mall
no meaning but in what we
see / create / perceive
no meaning but in what we
connect / absorb / supply
no meaning but in what we
apply / imagine / create

no blessings but in actions
no prayers but in actions
no reverence but in action
no ritual but in spirit
no meaning but in what we stitch together
no meaning but in choices.

Many of us strive for fulfillment, completion, perfection, the perfect ending. We seek that magical feeling of a blank sheet of paper in front of us unmarred by scribbles or mistakes. But life doesn’t always allow us the chance of a proper ending, a final farewell or a perfect celebration. Poetry offers a way to make sense of a lack of closure, a lack of the ideal, often through unexpected means – the juxtaposition of objects or ideas, the sour taste of anxiety, the bumpy or satin smooth feel of hands running along a railing, a moment of connection between two people, a demeaning or humiliating experience. Poetry has the power to bring about meaning to these things and to draw out a sense of peace or fulfilment. Poetry can be described as imperfect – there are line breaks, there are fragments of images, there are characters that we don’t fully understand, there may not be a definitive ending, there are questions. Despite these imperfections, or rather because of these imperfections, poetry opens up possibilities and a diversity of understanding – there are so many ways that poems can offer meaning both for the writer and the reader or listener. My poetry captures family, religious and cultural rituals, often ordinary and daily occurrences such as lighting a lamp, making chai, going to school. Poetry allows me to pull these experiences out of their preserves of myth and memory and pull them out of their preserve of the sacred. No meaning but in choices. No meaning but in what we stitch together.

Neema Singh

1 thought on “Poetry Shelf Paragraph Room 3: No ideas but in

  1. Pingback: Poetry Shelf update: the blog and health | NZ Poetry Shelf

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