- white space by Gary Lehmann  


White Space  


By Gary Lehmann

Most pages of poetry consist of 99% white space and only 1% print, and yet, critics for centuries have focused 100% of their attention on the smallest aspect of poetry on a page. It’s time to discuss white space.

White space is not simply the space left over after the black type marches over the page. In fact, white space is an active part of effective poetic communication in at least 4 ways.

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1) Where the white space appears on the page sends out a subconscious signal to the reader about the meaning of the words. When the white space is set to the right of the poem, the words take on some aspects of prose in that the stanzas appear to function as paragraphs. [see T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock or Langston Hughes’ Theme for English B] When the poem marches down the center of the page, leaving white space on either side of the words, the poem appears to take on a kind of spine. The white space isolates and focuses the readers’ attention on the self-sufficiency of the words. [see Marianne Moore’s Poetry] When the white space appears on the left hand margin, as is very infrequently does, it appears to suggest some kind of instability in the text. The words poke out into the center of the page. This disquiets the reader who is not used to having to seek out the first word of each line on a jagged left-hand margin. [see Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill or Frank O’Hara’s Ave Maria ] In these ways, white space communicates subconsciously.

2) When white space appears within a line of poetry, it is frequently intended as a guide to how to pace the reading of the poem. [see e e cummings’ In Just - “whistles far and wee”] Sometimes the poet denies words their customary spacing to make a point. [see e e cummings’ In Just - “eddieandbill,” “bettyandisbel”] Occasionally, a poet will establish a kind of caesura with extra spaces which will reinforce the theme of the poem. [see the last line of Langston Hughes’ Harlem 2] The white space serves as a kind of underlining of certain words or ideas.

3) Since poetry is visual as well as verbal, stanza breaks have traditionally been used as aids to the reader’s understanding of the structure of the main idea in the poem. White space functions to divide stanzas with distinctly different ideas or parts. [see A. E. Housman’s To an Athlete Dying Young]

4) Finally, white space allows poets to step back successive lines in a stanza to indicate a kind of poetic outline. This sort of subordination creates cross-stanza parallels and sets up implied repetition. [see John Keat’s Ode on a Grecian Urn] Another example occurs in Shakespearean sonnets which are frequently set such that the couplet at the end is preceded by three or four blank spaces to highlight the capstone idea of the sonnet. [see Shakespeare’s That time of year thou mayst in me behold]

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Even when these methods are not used, white space still has a role in that it conveys the sense that the narrative should be read for continuity. [see Robert Frost’s Birches or Mending Wall or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias]

However white space is used, it is not simply the unused portion of a page of poetry. It is an active ingredient in poetic communication. Poets have the freedom, largely denied to prose writers, to redefine the rules of language in an effort to express the subtle thoughts that poetry attempts to convey. White space should be a vital part of every poet’s vocabulary.

Gary Lehmann teaches writing and poetry at the Rochester Institute of Technology. His essays, poetry and short stories are widely published -- about 60 pieces a year. He is the director of the Athenaeum Poetry group which recently published their second chapbook, Poetic Visions. He is also author of a book of poetry entitled Public Lives and Private Secrets [Foothills Press, 2005]and co-author and editor of a book of poetry entitled The Span I Will Cross.

Contact Gary: glehmann@rochester.rr.com
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