skip to Main Content

The Blank Page and White Space in Poetry

Yesterday, I heard about a U.S. creative writing student who had handed in a batch of poems, one of which consisted of a blank page (I’m not sure whether the page had a title or not). The student felt the piece was ‘Zen’ or ‘experimental’. There is, of course, nothing experimental about it. The blank page is well trodden ground for poets and writers, as this site on empty texts shows. Some of the pieces there are interesting and were in turbulent dialogue with the political, cultural and social forces of their time but, to succeed with a blank page now, you’d need a new angle that hadn’t been covered before. I would love to take a look at Michael Gibbs’ book about blank books, part of the conference detailed here, which looks as arcanely fascinating as it’s possible for a book to be.

In recent times, Don Paterson’s ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’ (from his 1997 collection, God’s Gift to Women), followed by an otherwise empty page arguably succeeds due to the playful link with Zen and the absurd juxtaposition of wordlessness with the incredibly long title. Matthew Welton’s ‘Six Poems By Themselves’ from his second collection, We needed coffee but… (the full title is 101 words long) consist only of lines, 12 lines for each poem – no words at all. Whatever else these are supposed to do, they do draw your attention to the effect the shape of a poem has on an otherwise blank page, quite apart from any meaning we might find in it. In his new collection, Neptune Blue, Simon Barraclough has a poem about the recently demoted-to-dwarf-planet, Pluto, called ‘Plut’. The page below at first looks empty until you notice a tiny ‘o’ at its far margin. There is something rather touching about it. So maybe there is still life in the blank page, if you have a clever enough idea?

Blank pages only have so much mileage, I suppose. Most attempts to exploit them will either repeat what’s already been done or come across as lame gimmicks. On the other hand, white space has always been part of the poetry toolbox and will continue to be. At some point, I might try to write a post on more conventional, but nevertheless effective, use of poetic white space.

But, for now, I wonder what you think when you see books filled with short poems sharing individual pages. Do you long for white space? Do poems (as I have heard it said) need “room to breathe?” On the other hand, when you see books full of very short poems, each with a single page, do you feel the book could have been a much cheaper (and no less effective) pamphlet if several poems had been grouped on each page?

This Post Has 28 Comments
  1. Yes, white space is important – I learned that donkey’s years ago when working in advertising. And yes, I have bought chapbooks that proved to be more blanks than poems for my money. But a page that is too crowded is positively off-putting. Moderation in all things, even in the use of space!

    Senryu:

    Write when you’re able,
    think when inspiration fails –
    you will find your muse

  2. It seems to be a modern publishing fancy to publish one poem per page when more could fit, as many of my older poetry books make no such aesthetic decisions. I had not thought about it much until I bought a book of poetry to read on my iPad in which, presumably because the size of the font can be varied, poems seem to be crammed on any old how, sometimes with one first or last line orphaned by a turn of the page. And it is very disconcerting. I like white space .

  3. I was going to submit a blank page as riposte but it seems the technology doesn’t do blank spaces.

  4. Each poem however short deserves its own ‘frame’ (conventionally the page), in the same way a drawing or painting may have quite a large expanse of blank background, and some sort of framing boundary, in order to give the work of art life. So, no crowding of poems please for “efficiency’s” sake! The blank page I think has had its day – like the famous blank canvases of the 1960s/ 1970s, and the silent musical compositions of John Cage.

  5. Maybe some might say it’s art. But to not participate or give
    a something/anything about art or life maybe is to not let
    your heart out.

  6. I like to see white around even the smallest haiku. It is a similar preference for the contemporary custom of hanging paintings with plenty of white wall around them.

    But it is just a matter of preference. The Victorians loved their paintings hung close and several rows deep.

  7. I liked this blog post. It amused me but made me think as well. I’m a person who likes only one poem per page. But I grew up on anthologies that did quite the reverse, and at the time I never minded much.

    When I read Don’s Zen Master poem I got very cross. I knew he was a real poet and I thought it was a cheap joke. But apparently, it’s been one of his most anthologised pieces — at least I read him saying as much somewhere (sorry, can’t remember where).

    But on the serious and thoughtful side, the relationship between a poem and the page space that surrounds it, is very like the one between sound and silence, I think. All sound comes out of silence, until you start to suspect silence might be a sort of sound. And then the concepts get so hard to get hold of that it’s like lying on your back looking at the stars and finding yourself disappearing in the hugeness.

    But the space matters, yes. Perhaps most of all to those of us in the business of placing poems onto pages on a regular basis, and wanting them to do their business there as efficiently as possible.

    If the page setting works, the reader will step (mentally) straight through the poem, like Alice through the looking glass.

    If it doesn’t work, the reader will either feel baffled by too much blank page or browbeaten by too much clutter. And there the poem will be sitting, like an embarrassed guest at the wrong funeral.

  8. I just reviewed a book recently which crammed load of poems together – on one page there were two and a quarter poems. It didn’t work for me. You don’t go to a gallery and see two and a half paintings squashed into the same frame. For me it’s the same with poems – they should be free-standing.

    I see Greta has already made this point above. I was also going to continue with the notion of the page as a blank canvas, but instead I’ll say that empty page is a big room of silence, and the poem is the song that reaches out to its walls.

    I seriously get freaked out any page which holds too much ink. Those novels and weighty poems with page long paragraphs, or stanzas like blocks of concrete are too claustrophobic; there is no space for the reader. i.e me.

  9. I guess the blank page only means something by virtue of what it isn’t. If you don’t know what it isn’t, it’ll seem pretty pointless. You have to bring in some context to make the blank meaningful, and therefore it isn’t really “blank”, it’s blank within a larger “filled” space.

    So an electronic page could consist of a wide range of characters (tab, return, space and other non-printing characters) and therefore could be said to mean by virtue of the electronic signs presented but not seen, meanings that were “meant” but not “found”. But it would mean nothing without that explanation, maybe cued by a title like “Invisible ASCII” (or something a little more witty) which gave the reader a clue on how to read.

    And such devices, when not pretentious, perhaps would just reduce to a bit of a post-modern joke.

  10. It’s an odd thing: unless poems are part of a sequence I don’t like seeing more than one to a page in collections, no matter how short, but as Helena says, we expect that very thing in anthologies!

  11. Amused by a review of one of my pamphlets (20+ poems) which complained that 2 of them were of less than 11 lines! They could have been shoe-horned together, I guess, but a) that would have crowded them unhelpfully b) they would have been out of sequence and c) there would have been a blank page at the end. I guess I could have given that blank page a title – but this is a joke I’ve been seeing for decades (especially the zen connection) and the returns are diminishing.

  12. How often do I gaze at snow falling on a blank white sheet! Seriously though, I prefer only one poem to a page of A5 – other formats such as Magma’s can afford to be more flexible – but the worst layout is when poems are staggered on the page and the inner one cries out for attention.

  13. Poetry books are short, and expensive, enough without us being ripped off by blank pages.

    I don’t mind two short poems on the same page; though, like everyone else, I prefer a poem to a page. The worst culprit is starting a page with one poem and finishing with the start of a long poem which continues on to the next page.

  14. The musical equivalent to poetic white space is John Cage’s 4’33”, a piano composition of total silence. Well, not silence because of the adventitious noises from the audience, thus, Cage said, a work of sound changing each time it is played. Watch the performance by David Tudor at
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gN2zcLBr_VM.

    I tried to reproduce 4’33” as a ‘silent sonnet’ using punctuation marks only, so plenty of white space. The side lettering indicates the putative rhyme scheme.

    A Filtered Sonnet
    (After John Cage’s 4’33” *)

    a
    b , ,
    a .
    b — — .
    c
    d . ;
    c
    d . —

    e .
    f “ “ !
    e , ,
    f
    .

    g ( “ —
    g …

    cheers,
    Norbert

  15. “The Blank Page and White Space in Poetry”

    Creativity is an unexplained phenomenon. As humans from all walks of lives, we carry with us masterpieces we wish to share with the world. As someone who love words, and on several occasions is inspired by blank pages, I know for sure the poor student might have felt a sense of jubilation after conceiving his or her concept.

    In our thinking we normally are inspired by different situations. From where I am seated, I think the student goal was to introduce new approach in the way creative writers had to look at the world. I for one had gone to exhibition where I had view what I consider surreal artistic works. Before making any judgement I always try to interrogate where the creator was at the point of producing the final artwork.

    From time to time as creative we need to explore new meanings. In my own world albeit so small I have been enthralled by eccentric works. I want to think it is within our scope within the poetry society to embrace young and up and coming writers. I for one think the student is quite smart. In my own opinion he was giving the world a blank page, to write whatever they feel inside.

    While I pound the keys of my laptop after reading some of the comments, I can’t stop contemplating the influence of blank spaces. Here am I given space to explore and exploit the blank spaces. Before I spoil what was started by a sharp student, let me sign off, and leave some blank spaces which will give another creative person freedom to express their inner feelings.

  16. I’m often disappointed to see more than one poem on a page. One of my very favourite poets does this in some books and not others – Selima Hill. Never completely understood what the reasons might be for that, but I’d much rather it was only every one poem per page with her work.
    However, haiku anthologies regularly place more than one poem on a page, and I never question this. In fact, mulling it over, I think with haiku it works wonderfully well – especially when two poems using this single form “speak” to each other.

  17. We live in a very visual age, when most readers are sensitive to how poems look on a page. I doubt if this has always been the case and, given that poetry started as an aural art, it can’t really be a part of poetry to have white space or not.
    Perhaps one poem per page is closer the the aural – no distractions from another poem waiting to be read and intruding on the corner of the reader’s eye.

  18. I created the same link with Cage as Norbert, but came up with a different answer. 4’33” asks the audience to listen to other ambient sounds that they might otherwise ignore, and then re-interpret them as music.

    However a blank page creates a very different effect: one that relies not on the auditory equivalent (looking and seeing) but on an emotional response – feeling – generated by the blankness.

  19. It’s interesting how much discussion a blank page can generate. Just shows the value of such apparently ‘way out’ experiments.

  20. Many thanks for this intriguing discussion.

    I have published 2 collections of humorous poetry which have been illustrated. For the first one, the illustrator used the empty space around the poems to create his drawings organically. It was much more difficult for me to accommodate the drawings in the layout of the second book because, whilst inspired by the poetry, many were drawn as independent pieces of art.

    Many years ago I wrote a sonnet about the process of adorning a page with poetry, as if dressing a naked woman. The empty page has always been special for me and, like many people, I am still excited by a virgin note book!

  21. Do not risk trying to read the Emily Dickinson collection on a Kindle. While reading poetry on this device probably has a promising future, the new technology is no respecter of end-lines or even stanza breaks. The effect is maddening.

Comments are closed.

Back To Top