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?