There is There There

by Mark Zimmermann

For some time now astrophysicists have theorized that what we’ve commonly regarded with confidence as a universal Nothing, i.e., space invisible and therefore unknown to us, may actually be a Something; hence dark matter. I’m no physicist and poetry isn’t a science, but an analogous claim can be made for blank space in poetry on the page. It’s out there, it’s visible, and so are its effects. Far from being nothing, it’s a something.

When I read or write a poem, much of what’s usually on the page is blank space. Seldom do I notice this; less often do I even think of it. And why would I? Words are, after all, what I’m looking for—ideas, images, sound, and stories. Nevertheless, a brief reflection on the blankness itself brings home just how integral a part it can play in my experience of a printed poem as a matter of sight and sound, and I suspect the same may be true for at least a few readers and writers in ways that, perhaps, illuminate what a poem is or might be for us.

Among other things, blankness on the page frames the poem inside it. This framing may be conscious or unintended. For most poets it’s probably one here, the other there. Whatever the case, the visual effect derives from the poet’s voice and style—decisions involving line length and line breaks, metrics, stanzas, etc. This also bears on how the poem looks, which may subtly vary its sound and meaning. Consider, for instance, the sonnet: Lay it out with no spaces between any of its fourteen lines, or space its three quatrains and final couplet separately from one another. Exact same words, same poem. Right? Not necessarily.

A poet wanting to lay a bit more emphasis on the sound and/or meaning of any given quatrain’s fourth line, for instance, may well opt for a pattern of freestanding quatrains. She might also do so simply for the sake of appearance, letting each finely crafted four liner show off a bit. As for the reader, spaces between those quatrains are bound to result in a pause, however slight, as the eye flits from one line to the next. This may not be a big deal, but in matters of nuance it doesn’t have to be to matter. Just scope out some well-crafted sonnets or other poems.

See?

Most readers’ attention, of course, is rightly focused on a poet’s lines, where, just to be clear, I think a poet’s tendencies and intents are far better discerned or guessed at than anywhere else. Still, isn’t there pleasure in just looking at a poem as a physical artifact? Dickinson’s work has a distinctive, enjoyable look, and so does Whitman’s. Never send your poems to editors who can’t tell one from the other.

The seven concluding lines of the poem “Hide and Seek” by Gene James Gilbert in this issue of Bramble are a fine example of a poet using lines and spacing together to emphasize words to dramatic effect, and, in those last four lines, to slow the pace as well. Prior to these lines the narrator reveals a sometimes fraught relationship with a younger brother, framing some of it in terms of a childhood game:

I have searched for years
But still can’t find you
To end this stupid game.

I give up.

Enough is enough.

“Come out, come out
Wherever you are.”

Imagine these seven lines being squeezed into a single stanza—no, don’t even imagine it. The poet has his craft down just right: simplicity in service to pacing and dramatic closure. Space matters in this poignant and well-made poem.

In writing the poem “Two Full Moons,” also in this issue, I needed something to help the words on the page come across as a dialogue between two people. Typographic options included em dashes, italics, quotation marks, or indentation, but in the end I went with none of them because they seemed to complicate the look of the poem in a way that I thought distracted from the sense of immediacy and from the natural back-and-forth of dialogue that I hoped to convey. Instead I simply let the stanzas and individual lines stand apart from each other. I leave it to readers to make of the poem what they will, but I’m sure that whatever it is has much to do with how it looks.

Blank space and a lone poem on paper are good to look at and think upon: how easily the lines fit onto the page, their fullness unfolding with plenty of room to spare, air to breathe. What a welcome respite from the visual overcrowding of daily life. No ads imploring I hurry up and consume, no manic Jumbotrons insisting I make some noise, no pop-ups or screen fluff. Give me blank and silent space that seems to be nothing in itself, protean in its potential effects but having no substance—I need more of it—the empty and silent yin to the written voice’s yang. Want to have one without the other in a poem on the page? Good luck with that!

What else is there to say before we carry on with reading and writing our poems? Perhaps this: Although I’ve never had a near-death experience, I wouldn’t mind having one (many years from now), one in which a shimmering blank page looms over me as if to echo the earliest poets: In the beginning there was no writing or blank space, only the enduring sounds and silences of the human voice.

Well then, poetry lovers, good reading and writing to all of you!