On Blank Space

Before a word is written there is a blank white space. Traditionally this would have been paper and may have been cream or off-white. Now it tends to be a screen. By writing we seem to gather than space and give it form. True – it already has edges and texture but words make a place out of space. The space becomes margins and gaps between words. Even holes within letters. Blank space has the character of silence.

This blank space has been the stuff of poetry seeing as poets have had to combat that blankness. Consider John Keats’ sonnet:

Written on a Blank Space

To keep the reader in so sweet a place,

So that he here and there full-hearted stops;

And oftentimes he feels the dewy drops

Come cool and suddenly against his face,

And, by the wandering melody, may trace

Which way the tender-legged linnet hops.

Oh! what a power has white Simplicity!

What mighty power has this gentle story!

I, that do ever feel athirst for glory,

Could at this moment be content to lie

Meekly upon the grass, as those whose sobbings

Were heard of none beside the mournful robins.

Here Keats confronts blankness and power of white simplicity. His poem gets some power from this blankness and becomes a little copse – a place that stands out from the treeless space around it. Writing a poem is a little form of place creation that configures blankness. This resonates with Wallace Stevens’ account of the jar on the hill

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Here the roundness of the jar (roundness is repeated throughout the poem) orders the “slovenly wilderness” around it – it orders and regulates a kind of blankness (the wilderness) in a contrived and designed way. Culture brings nature into perspective and makes it make sense in much the way the marks of the poem make the blank space make sense.





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