Blank Space 4: Page and Canvas

I have been thinking about the difference between the painter faced with a blank canvas, and the poet with the page/screen. They are clearly not the same thing. In most painting the canvas is covered. I am sure I have read somewhere that the first thing many painters do is cover a canvas with paint and then start to work on the detail. The canvas is obliterated. The poet, on the other hand, cannot fill up the space he or she is confronted with. The poem needs to play with the space and allow the blankness to be part of the process. Don Paterson puts it this way:

“Our formal patterning most often supplies a powerful typographical advertisement. What it advertises most conspicuously is that the poem has not taken up the whole page, and considers itself somewhat important. The white space around the poem then becomes a potent symbol of the poem’s significant intent. This white space is both literally and symbolically equivalent to silence” ((Don Paterson, The Lyric Principal, The Sense of Sound, Poetry Review 97.2, 62).

The space around the poem once written advertises the poem’s importance as special words. The poem is noise in the silence. The painter may paint blankness, applying white paint perhaps but rarely leaves the canvas untouched.

But there are also similarities between the blank space of the painter and the poet. One similarity is suggested by Gilled Deleuze in his meditation on Francis Bacon – The Logic of Sensation. Here he suggests that the blank canvas that confronts the painter is not blank at all but invested with every painting ever done before.

“In fact, it would be a mistake to think that the painter works on a white and virgin surface. The entire surface is already invested virtually with all kinds of clichés, which the painter will have to break with”. (Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation, page 11).

The image Deleuze gives us is of a painter confronted with the whole tradition of painting right there on the blank space which is no longer blank. This is the same for a poet who has to face the page/screen with the knowledge of all the poems that have gone before (leaving aside those who try and write poems without having read that much of course). There are all the ballads and sonnets, the free verse and the sestinas, Caedmon’s Hymn, the long lines of Whitman, the dashes of Dickenson, iambic pentameter, half rhyme, sprung rhythm, spondees (if they exist), syllabic experiments, language poetry and limericks – all of these pre-figure the first letter written or typed. The space is not blank but dizzyingly full. Returning to Deleuze:

“It is a mistake to think that the painter works on a white surface. The figurative belief follows from this mistake. If the painter were before a white surface, he – or she – could reproduce on it an external object functioning as a model. The painter has many things in his head, or around him, or in his studio. Now everything he has in his head or around him is already in the canvas, more or less virtually, more or less actually, before he begins his work. They are all present in the canvas as so many images, actual or virtual, so that the painter does not have to cover a blank surface, but rather would have to empty it out, clear it, clean it….In short, what we have to define are all these “givens” [donees] that are on the canvas before the painter’s work begins, and determine, among these givens, which are an obstacle, which are a help, or even the effects of a preparatory work. (Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation, page 87)

Blank Space 3

Silence is the acoustic space in which the poem makes its large echoes. If you want to test this write a single word on a blank sheet of paper and stare at it: note the superior attendance to the word the silence insists upon, and how it soon starts to draw out the word’s ramifying sense-potential, its etymological story, its strange acoustic signature, its calligraphic mark; you are reading a word as poetry. (Don Paterson, The Lyric Principal, The Sense of Sound, Poetry Review 97.2, 63).

Here, Paterson suggests that the self-aware special-ness of the poem is created by its being surrounded by silence and blankness. Once again there is the merging of sight and sound – pure blankness and silence. The blankness is not just something to be filled but an active component in the creation of the poem. The blank page is the friend of the poet allowing an infinite variety of form in the simple sense of shape. Philip Gross’ masterful command of space in his poems may be connected to an admiration for silence that comes from a Quaker faith. Consider the opening section of his poem, White Sheet.

Note to self: might have to work

to break the beauty of white pages:

not much gets conceived

on an unsullied sheet.


Might have to sweat it a bit – not,

not in bounden duty but

with all the ruthless lack

of circumspection


of pure play

The silence is beautiful but needs the sweat of words to create the play of silence and carefully chosen noise. Gross suggests a kind of ludic creativity at work in the forming of word and space. We have to break the beauty of the blank and yet we depend on it for our artfulness. And then the reader sees what has emerged from the careful and playful dance of the word and the space. There is still silence there. The space around, within and between the words stands as a sign for what has been achieved – a point made well by Paterson.

The white page is also a sign to the reader that our poems were won from silence, drawn out of it – when we went there, and sat in the as-yet-consonant-free breath of our inspiration, and begin to try and articulate the inarticulable, those beyond-words relations and feeling, and then were granted a few strange words that seemed to adhere to them. (Don Paterson, The Lyric Principal, The Sense of Sound, Poetry Review 97.2, 63)