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THE SPACE BETWEEN: Spatial caesura within a poem.

White space within a poem engages the reader on a visual level and evokes an aesthetic impression before the words are read. According to the typographer Jan Tschichold, "White space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background. It is the canvas and blank page, but it is also the silence." In a holographic sense, no space exists between elements; the apparent void is always full. White space, or negative space, is geography, through boundary and organization, and allows the white to flood and create a moat, providing the reader with a visual demarcation and shape to the words themselves. White space can represent a blank to fill, no longer passive, but active and wanting. The reader participates in the experience, as always, but in this instance, space is bounded with suggestion, limited only by the reader's imagination. The same white space can also provide a caesura: an interruption or break, a breath and pause. Punctuation and phonetics create natural caesura within both poetry and prose; however, the pacing of a poem is also impacted by the time it takes a reader to reach between words. Space can be employed actively as an antisymbol for punctuation or a metrical breath. Introduction of space or pause to the body of a poem--boundary, void, or medial--creates a spatial caesura, and the silence becomes an operating component of the work.

Silences are important. Saying much without saying anything, silence makes us uncomfortable. It creates stress. If you don't think so, try asking someone for something, especially involving time or money, and then be quiet. Let the silence hang. Quiet makes the mind race. It wants to rush in and fill the gap, an innate reaction, to make the peace. Good salespeople know this. They count on it. In sales, the first person to talk after a big question loses. In writing, it's not a matter of loss; it's a matter of semiotics, or making meaning of the space within the text.

Good typography depends upon balance between words and space. A wall of copy is interpreted by the brain as just that--a wall. Large blocks of text are broken into two and three columns to provide visual and mental air. This is the same with line spacing and kerning: If the lines are too close or the text too tightly jammed, it can be off-putting. By the same token, those elements can be manipulated in reverse to achieve a disconcerting effect, not dissimilar from tension and release in music theory: tension and suspense build, then a shoal of release comes upon return to the tonic chord--balance. Poems, like music, need silence to accentuate the stresses.

Caesura helps to distinguish poetry from prose by contributing to the overall composition of meaning, rhythm, and sound. In early works of Greek and Latin poetry, the audible pause was used for rhetorical effect, punctuation between metrical feet, or the result of phonetic construction. In Old and Middle English, the metrical and medial caesura became more evident as scaffolding to the form of the poem itself: an audible pause predictable through the meter. However, the caesura was an optional event and could occur at unexpected intervals to stress importance or change pacing. Indentions were an early use of initial caesura, a pause at the beginning of a line, denoted by space. And terminal caesura, at the end of a line, could be thought of as the earliest spatial pause, because of the white space that follows until the reader's eye returns to the next beginning.

Caesuras are often denoted by punctuation and, as in music, create breath pauses. In poetry, these pauses establish a counterpoint to the words, underscoring the rhetorical intention. Lines may begin or end with a pause, and contain one or several. In a sense, meter and silence comprise the music of language, its phrasing and rhythms.

White space focuses the reader on the word; it's the complement that completes the whole. It aids understanding of the main idea through stanza and line breaks, often functioning to separate parts and ideas. Like a spotlight, white space provides emphasis, highlighting words and order, subliminally reinforcing meaning--or not. Shape can work against meaning if it buries an essential phrase in a cluster of text or isolates a word or phrase that can't bear the pressure of such singular emphasis. How work is received goes beyond a literal interpretation of the lines, because space makes a visual impression as well as an impact on timing.

A short line after a pattern of longer lines can create the same effect as an interior caesura; for example, James Wright's "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" is a 13-line gem with a piled-on title, that begins with embedded and enjambed tercets. Then, suddenly, "To my right," brings the eye left like an old typewriter carriage, both a visual and aural event, setting up the longer sentence enjambed over four lines. The longer run needs the breath to start and begs a breath at the end, a natural pause. The next three end-stopped lines depend on the setup of the whole:
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
 A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

The rhythm and punctuated caesuras lead to the close, another half line, and we are devastated. In this ending, Wright creates a vacuum in both word and form. After the pattern of previous lines, this line is abrupt, like walking right off a cliff. "Harlem" by Langston Hughes does the same thing, but faster. He asks a series of questions, establishes a pattern of longer lines broken in couplets, and then hits us with the single line: "Or does it just explode?" We're leaning in because of the pattern and rhythm, and in the short line, the floor drops out.

Similarly, slipped or dropped lines break the line and "slip" the balance to the following line, also an effective use of white space and caesura to showcase text and to achieve a larger effect that complements the main idea. In Charles Wright's Sestets (2010), the poems are ripe with dropped lines that make the appearance length vary from seven to ten lines on most poems. However, the collection's title reminds us that the poet's intention is that the poems are, in fact, six lines each. Wright uses the breath and space of the shift for a purpose--the drop adds a beat and emphasis--and expands the idea of a sestet with the variation. A powerful example of this stands out in Donald Justice's "Absences":
Now, only these poor snow-flowers in a heap,
 Like the memory of a white dress cast down ...
So much has fallen.
And I, who have listened for a step
All afternoon, hear it now, but already falling away,
Already in memory. And the terrible scales descending
On the silent piano, the snow, and the absent flowers

Not only does Justice use the dropped line to create a parallel structure between the piano and the footsteps of a beloved, but he parallels the season with the season of the relationship. The dropped line is the turn--"So much has fallen"--the petals, the snow, the dress, the sounds in memory, all underscoring the loss.

To the same effect, William Carlos Williams's iconic poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" uses short couplets to impress the point of the opening line:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

The form is spare and avant-garde in its time, but not for artifice. The line length slows the pace and seems to mirror a rain bell, the trickling down-the first line pooling, then spilling over and under to the next. A form of chain, stripped of punctuation, that could be reordered almost to the same effect, with almost the same meaning; it is modulated by all of the elements in concert. So what creates the pressure on the words and meaning? The white space and silence.

When a reader encounters a poem, he or she forms a "gestalt," or perceives the whole as more than the sum of its parts. The poem has a reality of its own. Essentially, gestalt theory describes how the mind organizes visual data. The maxim: a stronger clarity of form, a more effective design. This idea intersects with poetry, as all elements act in concert to create another experience. Gestalt in text relates to several aspects: how proximate elements are, how similar, what patterns emerge, what's in the foreground, the reader's past experience, and the closure of elements grouped together.

There's the initial impression, as with the subjective triangle:

Not unlike a Rorschach test, immediate impressions are made. One might see pies, hamburgers, or pizzas--in which case, the subject might be hungry. One might see three Pac-Men. At that point, the triangle should be visible--implied. It exists in the white space, in the silence. Or as with the gestalt horses in this image:

The mind only needs a second to quickly assimilate the horses from the rocks, seeing the whole before the individual parts. However, as the eye gravitates to the most contrast, artist Bev Doolittle foregrounds the less covered rocks to "then surprise the viewer with the knowledge that the horses have already discovered you." The mind lingers on this delayed pleasure. Poems work on the subconscious in the same manner, and first impressions yield a trove of information. The mind makes groups from the spaces:

* Proximity. Words, phrases, and lines are visually perceived as groups if they are close to each other. Think stanza: even if it contains parts of enjambed lines, the stanza as item takes on meaning of its own.

* Similarity. Analogous words and elements are grouped, but not necessarily as metaphor.

* Continuity. Words and groups are perceived as wholes if aligned with each other. This is part of the art of the line break--the sentence itself has its own interpretation, but the parts broken across lines form new associative meanings on those lines, even if subconsciously.

* Figure-ground. Spacing can shift emphasis, causing the reader's subconscious to reorder and move words to the foreground of the visual field, making them more important and loud. Think preposition: above, behind, below ... Where does the eye go first or circle back to? Whatever word or phrase it is, it has visual emphasis. In a poem, spatial caesuras can create an image that may convey additional unintended information to the reader.

* Past experience. Elements tend to be grouped together if they were in the experience of the reader. Everyone brings something different to a poem, so it's important to be aware of what the structure suggests as well as the possible connotations to the meaning.

* Closure. Elements appear grouped together if they are parts of a closed structure, which is very similar to patterning, except it speaks more to sections or stanzas, isolated by white space.

Verbal gestalts, as poems, evoke big questions and leave a lingering effect. Often there is an understanding not present in the words alone. Modern language is complex and so ripe with idioms that, when we read, "time flies when you're having fun"--a level of gestalt comprehension is at work, but not if parsing the actual words. Poetry makes something operand transports us. To where is the genius of a good poem.

The landscape, how a poem is contained and organized within, cues the reader to many unspoken details. At the very least, it suggests a frame. This is geography--not to be confused with concrete poetry, the artifice of arranging prosody into a determined shape to first convey a distinct visual impression, like a banana. There is an art to the visual design of a poem, because it also conveys information. In using a fixed form with constant meter and syllables, lines are versified according to the ascribed rules. Readers become accustomed to established boundaries and recognize various forms as poetry through shape and stanzaic form (e.g., couplets, tercets, quatrains).

Using an excerpt from "Dog Weather" by Stephen Dunn, we see two couplets and a tercet, all three punctuated at the end of the stanza. The caesuras are noted with horizontal lines 11 and the spatial caesuras with brackets []:
My breath chalks the window
, []
   gives me away to myself
. []
   [                                          ]
   I like the intelligibility of old songs
   I prefer yesterday,
   [                                          ]
   Cars pass, || the asphalt's on its back
   smudged with skid.
 || It's potholed
   and cracked; || it's no damn good.
   [                                          ]

Demarcation by spatial caesura, in this case, the stanza break, cues us to pause. It also suggests the containment of an idea through the boundary of white space around it. The couplet "My breath chalks the window, / gives me away to myself" is one complete sentence as well as a thought. The next couplet, "I like the intelligibility of old songs. /1 prefer yesterday," is two independent clauses that interact with one another through subject and shared sentiment. There's logic to the pairing, and the same with the tercet that follows. The visual break between them reinforces that logic, as well as the audible pause. Each stanza has end-stopped punctuation, not making the spatial caesura between verses apparent; however, the pause itself may be slightly longer due to the reader finding her place at the beginning of the next stanza.

In an excerpt from another Stephen Dunn poem, "The Party," we can see and hear the spatial caesura at each stanza's end despite not having punctuation to cue it:
until dawn, || make love shamelessly in the open.
   A few enemies extended their hands
   and when the famous sentimentalist spoke
   about his inner weather || my heart sank so low
   [                                                            ]
   I poured myself || a large, || neat glass of Glenfiddich
 || I said. || "Tranquility Base here,
   the Eagle has landed." || And my best friend laughed
 || the century had begun to stir
   [                                                            ]

However, as the lines trail over to the next stanza to be punctuated, the portion within the stanza itself is relevant to it: "until dawn, /make love shamelessly in the open. / A few enemies extended their hands / and when the famous sentimentalist spoke / about his inner weather my heart sank so low." There's a series of images within the stanza in conversation with one another, regardless of the last sentence being incomplete or whatever follows.

Spatial caesura allows the poet to do many things all at once--punctuate with an absence, denote time, add breath, modulate rhythm, and enhance meaning of words before or after the gap. It also allows for arrangement of words without adherence to standard grammar, opting instead for a more rhetorical syntax. And unlike concrete poetry, which it riffs upon--where shape dominates and is the informing impression a reader enters the work with--the use is not fixed; rather, it's like painting from a palette that includes invisible. Whatever the poet conceives, potentially, becomes more dimensional through the employ of interior space.

In e.e. cummings's "chansons innocentes: I" we see the shape first, then we enter the words:
in Just-
 [] when the world is mud-
   luscious the little
   lame balloonman
   [                                                  ]
 [] far
 [] and wee
   and eddieandbill come
   running from marbles and
   piracies and it's
   [                                                  ]
   when the world is puddle-wonderful
   [                                                  ]

The construct of "whistles far and wee" is visually spaced, giving breath that standard punctuation would be incorrect to employ (not that cummings minded changing those rules either). Whistling is an action using breath, and the spatial caesura after "whistles" connotes that experience. This is the same with "far," and also "wee," which takes on the aural quality of "wheeee--," as on a ride, cummings also eliminates space between words, as with "eddieandbill" or the later "bettyandisbel," creating togetherness and movement, the inseparability of childhood friends in the thick of a moment; this is further embodied by de-capitalization of the proper nouns, morphing the names into symbol words for the boys and the girls.

cummings also makes use of geography, the white space between breaks framing conversations: "and eddieandbill come [] running from marbles and [] piracies and it's [] spring." The verse has image and action, giving spring the meaning of its season as well connoting the verb. The same verse has declining line length, speeding the eye and breath to the next measure, a breathlessness that embodies the verse. Without punctuation, "spring" stops abruptly, and aurally, there's a hidden exclamation point there: --spring!

Likewise, with an excerpt from "Dunes; That Day" by Lynne Potts:
We stood by the hedge and could not think;
   [   ] it was your yard,
 [  ] your rose thicket with
   [    ] we loved
 [] your
 [] mind
 [] you said
   [        ] with holes
   [                    ] no longer able to hold.
   Outside we couldn't see the dunes move
   [                               ] but they had.

Potts uses spatial caesuras to embody a sense of recollection, the pauses of trying to catch the next piece, which is further symbolized in the shape, scattered. The spaces, pace, and shape serve to flesh the meaning of the words: "We stood by the hedge and could not think: [] it was your yard, [] your rose thicket with rabbits [] we loved [] your mind [] you said [] with holes [] no longer able to hold. [] Outside we couldn't see the dunes move [] but they had." Not only has she crafted the geography to mirror meaning, she's used the metaphor of sand to represent time and aging. She's cued us with the word "think," and an image of a yard or garden, a metaphor for mind. The added "rabbits" inside the "rose thicket" conjures the way rabbits hide, and perhaps how the "you" has thoughts that evade her. Potts has also given us "holes" and visually represented them within the space--not as something to fill per se, but to bridge, connecting the thoughts. Unlike a linear text, Potts's poem is more radial in representation. Her subject "you" is perceived by the narrative persona to have lost ground mentally, reflected in the image of miniscule sand dunes moving, undetectable in process, but unmistakable after the fact.

In Anne Simpson's prose poem "Above," she utilizes the interior geography of a square space to represent sky and ground, deepening the context for the words. This lends itself to the definition of concrete poetry; however, for the purposes of how the white space is being used inside the poem, it's another example of boundary. As told to this author, the poet's intent with the separation was to create a spatial caesura occupying measures of breath commensurate with the space between.
Imagine this village
 || in the early twentieth century
. ||
        Pluck the cenotaph out of the
grassy knoll above the post office.
 || Replace the cars with
       wagons and  horses.
      [                                                                     ]
   You can open the roof of a small white house at the road's elbow
        and look down on
a child colouring at a kitchen table.
 || The child's grandmother
        rocks by the Marvel
 || singing a hymn. 
 || Sings a hymn, 
        sips the tea. ||
        [                                                                    ]
   You can't hear the words,
 || but you can see the child's
         || a man on a winding
 || teardrop buttons on his clothes. 
 || always, 
 || beside the house she's
   [                                                                         ]

One interesting aspect to note in a prose poem is the effect of typesetting on the sound of the poem, depending on the line breaks. A random caesura could be created, changing the inflection and geographical context of the words.

In another space, recall Mad Libs from elementary and middle school, the cloze exercises designed to review parts of speech and grammar skills, and imagine them as a form to frame the blank, or white space. The reader is following the author's trail when they come to a void that requires them to deposit a word, a phrase, something, to keep going. This white space is negative, unlike boundary, and needs input to restore the balance. Here is an example, excerpted from Ben Lerner's "Mad Lib Elegy":
The world is a rare case of selective asymmetry,
   The capitol is redolent of burnt monk.
   [] 'I'm going to my car. When I get back
   []I'm shooting everybody.'
                     [line omitted in memory of

The white space is denoted by both a referenced omission and a blank. The author invites the reader to guess the attribution and the victim, for which the number of possible answers is large, so the answers become embodied abstracts: an offender and a victim. There are many opportunities with this technique that could transcend a gimmick.

Another approach is aposiopesis, or interruption of thought, indicated by either an ellipsis or an em-dash, which also leaves the reader something to fill in. The line is broken, a sidewalk comes to its end, and the reader must cue what to do next: jump over it or linger and consider. The ellipsis establishes a drift of thought or speech; the em-dash indicates an abrupt interruption; and both punctuations visually represent a void, an unexpressed thought. Aposiopesis often depicts being self-conscious or overcome with emotion (fear, anger, excitement). Consider this example:
Life: too many spaces to fill
 and not enough of

Of course, standard punctuation could mimic aposiopesis with the pause in thought so large as to stop the reader as in Yeats's "The Second Coming":
Surely some revelation is at hand;
 Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming'. Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight:
 [] somewhere in sands of the desert

With the caesura at the colon [:], Yeats gives visual action to the line when it wanes and is taken away, an example of form mirroring content. As much as the poet seems interrupted, the caesura leaves the reader imagining the scene and similarly speechless. The words "vast image" and "sight" enhance the effect. The big questions are in the void.

In Jenny Boully's avant-garde, book-length prose poem The Body, she reimagines the void and annotates footnotes to a missing "body" of text. Boully uses a familiar tableau to establish a new form: a white space "text" with visible footnotes resting beneath a black line. The footnotes comment on the unseen text above it, as in this example, the footnote to no. 29:
   After my sister and I stared at the magazine, we were, the both
   of us, afraid to part our legs or even to pee. For months, we were
   inseparable in the bathroom, but then, we became brave and decided
   to look for our holes, and if the spider did in fact come out we
   would kill it.

In Brian Olszewski's review of Boully's poem, he notes, "Many footnotes directly confront the absence of the text to which they refer, or at least cultivate a sense of the absent through snippets of anecdotes, musings, quoted passages, and information that purports to extend our understanding of the text we lack, the text that inhabits (or seems to inhabit) the white space." How Boully approaches what she's saying is more important than the actual words: every word in the footnotes is there with purpose; however, the point is the absence of the primary text. She's commenting on the whole. This, as in each previous example, shows how poetry works with both the words and surrounding space.
                AS SILENCE

In Jia Oak Baker's poem "Gone Incognito," she creates an organic pause, dependent upon the reader:
From someplace inside, I want to say, Fuck off
   You ignorant bastard, but I've been taught to be
 [phrase omitted]

Whether read silently, or spoken aloud, anyone from a non-Korean culture will fill that space with silence, accentuating the indignation of the speaker in the poem. The translation gap forces silence to resonate. So the poem speaks in different ways to different audiences, and in some ways, politicizes the silence, which is another area of engagement with the reader.

Marjorie Perloff, the noted poetry critic, says of "[placing] words in particular spatial configurations, white space (silence) [is] at least as prominent as the spoken and written language itself." The event of a poem is such a condensed experience, every element is relevant and active, either as a positive or a negative--and the shape of the whole translates something akin to a symbol. It's walking into a room and surveying the environment. The brain quickly processes the information, and key details make immediate impressions: the scale of the room, colors, the furniture arrangement, the feel of the space, the smell, the sounds in the fore-and background--and people. Within a minute, ancillary details flood, based on the individual questions the mind considers. The room is inviting. I like the accents of red. The style is eclectic, but clearly he loves the Scandinavian aesthetic. He reads a lot. Chekhov!! And a book on Julian Schnabel. Hmm. The light in here is awesome--it expands the room. I hear a wind chime outside, soft, as if in the distance--and footsteps on the wood floor. Entering a poem is similar. It's a first impression; it's sorting and comparing preconceived ideas of the shape of a poem; it's quickly identifying key elements. Oriented, we begin to read. But that's just one part of the whole.

Inside the poem, just as the room, there is architecture. Decisions the poet makes to translate her ideas. Words are arranged in a manner according to form or feeling, and of course, the reader interprets the information, bringing along his or her own associations to the elements. If a poem is crowded with long lines, without stanza breaks, dissonant meter or stresses, and multi-syllabic words not found in the common dictionary, it has little air, like a stifling, hoarded room. The poem may even be stressful to the reader. If the poet recognizes elements compressed into a piece may function in this way, there is opportunity to add breath and white space.

In the same manner, a poet may recognize words within an existing text, much as the gestalt principle of figure-ground, and make a new creation by blacking out, striking through, or erasing the inessential words to create a transformative work.

In Srikanth Reddy's Voyager (2011), a collection of erasures extracted from the former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim's memoir, the relevance of Reddy's transformative work against the originating memoir is the discovery that Waldheim was formerly a part of the genocidal Nazi regime, yet his voice is captured on the time capsule launched on the Voyager representing humankind. An example, in Reddy's "Monday's Poem":
Is is.
 There is no distinction. One.
He records his name on a gold medallion. Two.
The philosopher must say is. The
world is legion.
The self is a suffering form. Is is.
Waves rise and fall, but the sea remains.

Paragraphs of prose were erased; new form, new structure emerged; and something larger that speaks to the whole results--something loud from the silence. The erasure is in conversation with the original piece, but is at the same time squelching it.

We read poetry differently than prose for more than stylistic reasons. We take more time because of the white space. We make immediate decisions and judgments before we begin to read. Of this, LA. Richards states, "The mind after reading a line or two of verse, or half sentence of prose, prepares itself ahead for any one of several possible sequences, at the same time negatively incapacitating itself for others. The effect produced by what actually follows depends very closely upon this unconscious preparation and consists largely of the further twist which it gives to expectancy." As readers, we enter a poem with a short willingness to give it its due. In a craft talk regarding strong beginnings, Major Jackson says a poem only has four lines to capture his attention when he's making editorial decisions. He's speaking more to originality and craft, but a strong takeaway is that every component counts within a poem.

Poetry doesn't have to be easily accessible, but the enduring, anthologized poems tend to have layers of understanding and reward for a wide audience of readers. When a poem begins, there's a clarity that allows the reader to move through the piece. Maybe the poem is a sonic event, leaving its greater impression through sound--as the words coalesce with the reader's experience with the language--or maybe it's a gallery of images.

Once the curtain rises on a poem, every element is in play until its close. The introduction of spatial caesura, whether as a boundary, a void, or in the middle of a line, implies gravity and presence: Something exists in the white space and is acting upon the poem. The poet signals, and readers interpret; that space acts in complement to the words. Whether a poet makes conscious decisions regarding white space and silence is known only to them--perhaps intuitive or organic. In either case, the critical reader has a responsibility to acknowledge the overall composition. The role of spatial caesura and white space within a poem serves to enhance meaning, better informing the work in the minds of both the reader and the poet.

Tanya Grae is the author o/Undoll (YesYes Books, 2019), a National Poetry Series finalist. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, Ploughshares, New Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, Post Road, Barrow Street, and elsewhere. Grae teaches at Florida State University while finishing her PhD. Find out more at:
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Author:Grae, Tanya
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Sep 1, 2018
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