The Poem in White Space
White space comes first, for the poet and the reader. I don’t mean anything as interesting as the idea that poetry exists primarily in the space of whiteness, conceived as a racial identity, as a field dominated (at least in these United States) by white people, white norms, the white past, and white structures of power and privilege. That’s certainly the topic for an essay, and an essay more substantial than this one—a topic for a book, really, or more: a topic for a field of academic study. If it were a book, perhaps it could begin with a meditation on how very easy it is for someone like me, ensconced in the citadel of my whiteness, to brush the question of poetry and white identity aside and proceed to another, more literal idea of whiteness: the white space beyond the margins of the text, the white space that physically surrounds the poem.
There may well still be poets who still compose the way Wordsworth did—without paper, without pencil or keyboard, trudging the gravel trails of Cumberland, “Scattering to the heedless winds/ The vocal raptures of fresh poesy.” I imagine they feel as proud of this ancient practice as any writer of beautiful longhand feels about the letters he self-consciously seals into envelopes and hauls to the post office—letters unreadable to the young, whose thumbs type faster, and with more immediate consequence, than anyone can wield a pen to write in cursive script. All honor to these holdouts and their ancient ways. But the poets I know all begin with the white space of the blank Word document or the white space of the unmarked Moleskine page. White space comes first for them, and comes first, too, for the reader of poetry—or for the reader who, seeing by the presence of white space around the lines on the page that she is confronting a poem turns hastily away. It is by the space surrounding the lines, after all—by the margin of whiteness—that we know at first glance, even from a distance, that the words before us constitute a poem.
The white space surrounding the poem is more than incidental, too, as the semiotics of that space make plain. White space is a sign of poetry, of poem-ness. Without the white space that surrounds it, the poem is halfway to not being a poem at all: it is a prose poem, with all the eccentricity to, or marginality in, the field of poetry that entails. “Yes, yes,” I remember a friend saying as he paged through a copy of Claudia Rankine’s book of prose poetry Citizen, “I’m on her side but… is it poetry?” One thinks of our grandparents coming across free verse, and reacting much the same way. Something that signifies the presence of poetry—white space for us, regular meter for our ancestors—is absent, and the status of the words becomes intriguingly questionable as a result. And one consequence of the marginal status of the prose poem is that we may now leave it behind us and mention it no more.
When our grandparents worried over the dis-identification of poetry and regularly metrical verse, they were reacting to a long tradition: at least as far back as Philip Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry,” poets had on occasion theorized that verse was not the essence, that “it is not riming and versing that makes a poet—no more than a long gown makes an advocate, who, though he pleaded in armor, should be an advocate and no soldier.” But, as those distinguished scholars of French literature, Denis Hollier and Jeffrey Mehlman, have noted, it was only with Mallarmé and the Symbolists that the break became decisive. “Since that time,” they write, “poetry identifies more and more with the often straying search for its essence: the question ‘What is?’ has replaced the more traditionally craft-oriented ‘How to?’”
If we wish to understand the meaning of the white space surrounding poetry, we could do worse than to consider the pervasive presence of that “What is?” question haunting poetry. We have, now, no dominant answer, but rather a palimpsest of answers drawn from the history of the art. Many of us still feel the force of Sidney’s assertion that the poem is simply an imaginative act, leaving the ordinary world behind for a golden world, where the poet ranges freely “within the zodiac of his own wit.” Others are drawn to the related Romantic notion that identifies the poem as an analysis and expression of the inner, psychological world: poetry as the language of feeling, say, or poetry as a means of tracing (as Wordsworth might have muttered as he plodded the trails of Cumberland) “the primary laws of our nature.” Just as attractive is the sense that poetry is language somehow more qua language than it is in any non-poetic context, an ideal Roman Jakobson formalized as “the poetic function” of language, an emphasis not on the content of a message so much as on the message itself. “The set toward the message as such, focus on the message for its own sake,” he wrote, “is the poetic function of language.” “Poetic function is not the sole function of verbal art,” he continued, but is “its dominant, determining function.” But except for ideologues of one or another poetic faction, we find ourselves answering the question “What is?” in the manner of the grand old French poet Michel Deguy, who chose, as the title for his poetry journal, the typographically adventurous word Po&sie. The ampersand, as et—a homophone for the French vowel it replaces—indicates the necessary plurality of any well-founded definition of poetry in our time.
A note inside the first issue of Po&sie signed only by “The Committee” reads as follows:
“In the middle of the word ‘poésie,’ a man scratches himself and grumbles” (Paul Eluard, 1920). The sign Po&sie is intended to express the et (and) in poésie, an “and” of diversity, of plurality. &: not an abbreviation (rather, the opposite) but an ideogram symbolizing instability, novelty, and space for connection and interaction. Po&sie is also a reminder of the one-in-two of translation, of the disjunction and conjunction that are part of the work of poetic writing, of poetry’s anxiety about its essence, of the danger of poetry’s modern dismemberment, and of a sense of an impending reconstitution.
We impose no restriction on our collaborators other than that they be willing to publish under the heading “poem,” even though they may not believe in the “purity of the genre.”
To publish something—no matter how outlandish, no matter how traditional—in a literary journal under the heading “poem” is a gesture inviting the reader to approach the text in a certain way, with certain expectations. In our day, those expectations are plural, complex, hybridized. They contain the entire history of poetry and poetics, including but by no means limited to Sidney’s golden world of imagination, Wordsworth’s psychological world of powerful feeling and the laws of our nature, and Jakobson’s insistence that the poem directs attention to the message for its own sake. And the most powerful way to indicate that one is making this gesture, and affiliating one’s words with the deep, conflicted, and ongoing history of poetry, is to arrange one’s words in lines, and to surround them with a deeply resonant white space.