Blank Space 4

I have been reading Glyn Maxwell’s rather wonderful little book, On Poetry and found some lovely ruminations on blank space and silence in poetry.

“Regard the space, the ice plain, the dizzying light. That past, that future. Already it isn’t nothing. At the very least it’s your enemy, and that’s an awful lot. Poets work with two materials, one’s black and one’s white. Call them sound and silence, life and death, hot and cold, love and loss….

Call it this and that, whatever it is this time, just don’t make the mistake of thinking the white sheet is nothing. It’s nothing for your novelist, your journalist, your blogger. For those folk it’s a tabular rasa, a giving surface. For the poet it is half of everything. If you don’t know how to use it you are writing prose. If you write poems that you might call free and I might call unpatterned then skilful, intelligent use of the whiteness is all that you’ve got”

(Maxwell, On Poetry, page 11)

Poems are patterns made from space. Even before a word is read you can see a poem’s shape – the black against the white in Maxwell’s terms. This is one of the most pleasing things about poetry and it serves no function at all in a novel or most other forms of writing.

This notion of the black space (writing) against the white space (the space beyond the poem that nevertheless defines the poem) can be retold as the creation of a “place” in “space”. Making a poem in this sense is place-making or dwelling. There are two spatial metaphors at work in the basic language of poetry that point towards this: these are the words ‘stanza’ and ‘verse’. Stanza means ‘room’ and refers to blocks of black separated by white on the page. These are rooms we pass between surrounded by outside. Verse comes from the practice of tilling the soil – agriculture – the root of culture. As the farmer (or farm worker) tills the soil they come to an edge, turn around the make their way back, pacing out the day. Verse can thus be found in ‘reverse’.  These two ideas – stanza – as a block of bounded space and verse as an action – a form of practice that brings those blocks alive and reminds us that they are only there because of movement – these two ideas describe something of the geography of the poem as the interplay of fixity and flux.

Poetry is often referred to as freezing time. In fact, many kinds of representation are said to freeze time (and thus, in some circles, representation has become deeply suspect). In poetry’s case, this could not be further from the truth. Poetry, to me, is a mobile form related to walking and, indeed, ploughing and reversing. We make our places by doing them –by beating the bounds rather than drawing a line in the sand. Beyond that place of movement is the white of silence. But even that space is being shaped, if only as the negative image of the poem.

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