Mind the Gap: poetry and the things unsaid

We talk to Helen Mort, five-times Foyle Young Poet and Poetry Book Society Next Generation poet, about crafting a poem around the things unsaid.


The blank notebook, the blinking cursor, the empty page…you might think that considering what not to put into your poem goes against all your gut instincts, but concentrating on the images and ideas that you don’t include can be a hugely powerful creative tool. Lines continuously fizzing with images and sodden with emotion don’t necessarily build up to create the best poem.

We asked Helen Mort to tell us a little more about exploring the ‘nots’ and ‘nevers’ in poetry:

When I’m writing a poem, I’m always thinking negatively. I don’t mean that I get down about the piece I’m working on, I mean I’m thinking about the things that aren’t being said – the things that aren’t happening in the poem.

Don Paterson suggests that you can learn to structure your poems as if they are films:

“….shoot your poem like a Hitchcock or Spielberg. (A poem of Seamus Heaney’s will often go something like: tracking-shot/zoom/flashback/dissolve/pan/fast- forward/jump-cut/tracking shot/still.) To accommodate those movements, you naturally have to write interesting, varied sentences.”

If a poem is a bit like a film, what isn’t shown is as important as what is on screen. What things are you going to leave out of your poem? What’s left unspoken? What’s just of sight? Where would you make the cuts?

Writing ‘nots’ and ‘nevers’

Taking that one step further, negatives can be used to powerful effect in a poem. You might decide to write a poem that denies that something happened at all. One of my favourite poems is called ‘Not an Ending’ by Andrew Waterhouse:

Not an Ending
He never lived in that valley
or anywhere else. On the night in question
he did not stand by the river or ignore
the new rain or drop stones into the water.
There were no tree songs around him,
no unidentified birds, no flowing to the sea.

Her eyes were not blue. Those were not her boots.
She walked more quickly. He did not hear
her last word or want to. He may
have shrugged, but never shook.
He had no regrets and would not think
of her again. He would not think of her again.

From Andrew’s 2000 collection InReproduced by kind permission of The Rialto Press.

The poem is structured around a series of ‘nots’ and ‘nevers’. The effect is an elaborate kind of double-bluff: we begin to think that those things did happen, even though they are denied.

Andrew Waterhouse immediately catches our attention with an impossible statement – we can accept that this person “never lived in that valley”, but what about “or anywhere else”? Surely he must have lived somewhere. We’re immediately intrigued and want to read on, even if we think we may be in the hands of an unreliable narrator.

There’s plenty in the second stanza to make us suspicious too – we’re told that “those were not her boots”, but that “she walked more quickly”. Perhaps the narrator did see this person after all. When we learn that “he may / have shrugged, but never shook”, this also feels like a bit of a concession, as if he’s admitting that he might have been there after all.

"Those were not her boots"
Those were not her boots…

With each of the details the narrator of this poem denies, we’re asked to vividly picture the colours and sounds and movements of the things he did not see.

Finally, the last lines of the poem do something very interesting. We’re told that he “would not think / of her again”, but this line is immediately repeated, suggesting that he is thinking of her again, and straight away.

‘Not an Ending’ shows how you can use negatives in poetry to create a poem that can be read in lots of different ways, suggesting parallel worlds and alternatives.

Writing exercise

  1. Read ‘I Am Not I’ by Juan Jamon Jimenez.
    Think about how the poem’s first statement influences the way you read it.
  2. Now listen to Michael Donaghy’s poem ‘The Excuse’.
    What significance is given to things that didn’t happen in this poem?
  3. Write down a list of memories, things that have happened to you – memories of people or places, perhaps. Add as much sensory detail to each memory as you can (smell, taste, touch, sound).
  4. Now make a second list of things that have not really happened to you – make things up, let your imagination run wild. Try to describe these in as much detail as the things on the first list, so that anyone who read the list might be convinced these are your ‘real life’ memories. For example – ‘the day I went to Mars, I had a cold and I sneezed at take-off, the lights of the town becoming small as candles.’
  5. Once you’ve had a go at making up a few invented memories, you could choose your favourite and extend it into a longer poem.
  6. Now try writing a poem structured around ‘nots’ and ‘nevers’ – things that never existed, didn’t happen. You could either choose one particular ‘never’ or ‘not’ or you could structure your whole poem around a series of ‘non-events’, like Andrew Waterhouse’s poem ‘Not an Ending’.

Here are some ideas you could use for your poem:

  • The town I never grew up in….
  • The name I never had….
  • That thing I didn’t say….
Helen Mort
Helen Mort

About the author

Helen Mort was born in Sheffield. She is a five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Her first full-length collection, Division Street (Chatto & Windus, 2013) was shortlisted for the Costa Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize and, in 2014, and won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize. Her second collection No Map Could Show Them (Chatto & Windus)  is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. In 2014 she was chosen as one of the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets. She is the Douglas Caster Cultural Fellow at The University of Leeds and has a PhD from The University of Sheffield.

If Helen’s ideas have inspired you to write, why not enter your poem into the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award  – this is for poems written by any young poet aged 11-17. The closing date is 31 July 2016. 

Published July, 2016

3 thoughts on “Mind the Gap: poetry and the things unsaid

  1. I think it is a brillant idea to hold competitions particularly like this one, as it gives young people the freedom to be creative and brings confidence in their work.

    1. Hi Wasfaa,

      Glad you like this – we think Helen’s pretty fantastic as well! That’s exactly what we want YPN to be: a creative, empowering space, so thank you for letting us know what it means to you.

      Young Poets Network

  2. Oh….Thanks a lot to this website!
    This really would help a budding artist like me!
    This tips would really spur up any artist to go beyond thinking and bring something innovative

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