Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Poetry, White Space, and the Letters of the Alphabet

I've been thinking, lately, about those elements of poetry we tend to ignore: the actual letters used to write the words, and the white space that surrounds a poem on the page or screen.  I wrote a little something about the first of these some months ago, and another piece, on poetry and white space, has just appeared in the most recent issue of Plume.

The piece on letters and alphabets appeared in Ilanot Review.  Here's a sample:
In the kingdom of poetry, the letters, like many immigrants, tried hard not to draw attention to themselves.  They were, in a sense, invisible, at least most of the time, and were resented if they asserted themselves—a situation that continues even now. The other day, for example, I spoke to my publisher, Marc, who complained about another writer he published. “He’s impossible!” Marc said, “he spends hours asking us to try new fonts, or to make them a point larger, a half a point smaller. It’s driving me mad!” Letters aren’t supposed to be that important in a poem. Indeed, while a poem translated into a different language is only the same poem in some qualified, limited sense, a poem in a different font, a different typeface, a poem written out in cursive script or printed on a page, is always considered to be the same poem. The letters do the work of making the poem appear, but they, themselves, are unimportant, interchangeable.  They’re like the seamstresses whose nimble fingers make possible the fashion collections we see on the runway, people we pay no attention to whatsoever as we clap at the name of Ralph Lauren or Vera Wang. 
Letters. Can we imagine poetry without them? Even the spoken word poets draft with letters. But we usually see right past the letters, ignore their shapes, let them be invisible.  Humble and happy just to be in such glamorous company, the letters don’t complain. They ask for little, demand no attention. 
Except for when they do.
The whole essay can be found here.

Here's a sample of the companion piece to the essay on letters, the essay on white space or, perhaps more properly, on the semiotics of 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 whole essay (quite short) can be found here.