Poetry is ever-evolving. Sometimes what looks new (read: “prose poetry”) has actually been around a long time (read: since the 1840s). But what about space in the middle of a line? I see more and more of it. What does it mean? You can’t look it up in your Poet’s Glossary. I mean, where would you search? An entry for “line”? For “space”? For “blank”?
Maybe it’s the cool thing to do in poetry, like the latest fashion or name brand being worn by the popular kids in middle school. I don’t know. I am, as usual, behind the curve. Bewitched and bewildered. Late to the party.
So let’s try to figure it out together. Here is a segment from the title poem of Meghan O’Rourke’s collection, Sun in Days, which I have been reading this week. I’m enjoying a lot of her work in the book, but some of the poems do this…sudden space thing. It’s like “we interrupt this poem to do the Star Trek space-the-final-frontier thing. We will get back to our regularly-scheduled line as soon as Scottie beams words down.”
from Part 2 of “Sun in Days’ by Meghan O’Rourke:
The pond near the house in Maine
where we lived for one year
to “get away” from the city the pond
where the skaters on Saturdays came,
red scarves through white snow,
voices drawing near and pulling
away, trees against the clouds.
My first thought was, “Ah. It’s a line break in the middle of a line, so as to avoid overly-short lines!” It was a Eureka moment. In O’Rourke’s lines above, this theory seems to work in the fifth line where you might not want to see a two-word line such as “red scarves.”
Or maybe the whole purpose of the space is to signal the reader to pause. This theory looks reasonable in line 3 where the gap between “city” and “the pond” serves as a logical place for a comma, perhaps. The problem with the theory, though, comes with line 4. Why would a reader pause between “skaters” and “on Saturdays came” when they logically flow together?
Is it like concrete poetry, then? Do we connect the white space to form something pleasing to the eye, a treasure-map secret to the poem’s meaning, possibly?
As they say in the UK, I’m gobsmacked. Still, that hasn’t stopped me from trying to innovate. I’m considering trying some of this in my new work. I’m eight poems in to Poetry Collection Number 3 (working title: “Poetry Collection Number 3“), so it might prove handy. And cutting-edge. And cooler than a penguin in Reykjavik.
But, to be boy-scout honest, I’d be doing it without a clue. Kind of like when I attempt a ghazal, which sounds too much like a poem running amok on the Serengeti.
Anybody care to enlighten me with a theory?
No Comments “Space In the Middle of a Line”
Perhaps the words are suggesting the movement of the skaters. The few times I’ve played around
with layout have been to suggest movement within the description: spider webs, ants crawling, a child turning fasterandfaster in circles till she falls
Hmm… movement. Of course, if I gave you a bigger sample, the movement theory wouldn’t always work, either, but you could be on to something. Space as an implicit cue to other senses…
I think it is subjective perhaps, or a sort of personal subtlety, which may just be another way of saying subjective. I, if i do use them, which is rare, tend to use them for suspense, expansion, pause, a drop in tone. Probably pretty obvious, but dramatic, at least to me.
Good point. Maybe it’s another technique that must be used sparingly, like salt, lest it distract the reader….
I fine it quite annoying. It’s as though the poem is stuttering. I did use it once in a poem about a friend with AIDS dementia, and it seemed to capture the abrupt change in thought of dementia. I like the idea of connecting it to movement.
That sounds like a great way to use it, Nina–a graphic depiction of the poem’s subject’s mind.
I don’t know how you define the spacing either but does it need to be? After all it is on the page. Nobody questions the breaks on stone tablets. Are they paragraphs? Accounting notation? For thousands of years since writing was invented, way before Monks with their Illuminations and picturesque first letters, scribes and artists have been combining art with their inscribing. The sizes, shapes, colors and styles of text all hold emotion. Sometimes the pages are hand painted or printed through out the breaks in the text. I own some of these. I too have used their technique including (whatcha m’ call it) spaces which MS Word accommodates pretty well. Maybe the printer had instructions that were not carried out. It does not work on e-books I have been told. It doesn’t work as you show above because the shape preserving art is not in the program for the presentation desired . The final paper book or a pdf will better carry the visual art presentation to the reader who has it in his hand or the machine to display it as the writer intended. I wish you well on your own poetic style endeavor.
Thanks, Doug, for weighing in. I like the historic and artistic angles you bring to the discussion!
Pass the dog bone, please. Thanks. I had a friend who was a food package illustrator (artist). I learned from him, in so many words, that the whole package “talks.” I.e: space too. The text is just part of it. Sometimes you don’t want it all read or not easily. Consider inserting a word, letter or line upside down. You have a whole page. Dance on it.
The comments so far all point to one explanation—the space is a kind of line break without being a line break—it asks the reader to pause, perhaps not as much as he/she might do at the end of the line but not to read through the line as if it were unbroken. I don’t use the technique, I’m too anal to have words appear spread all over the page, but the only way to judge such spaces is the same way we judge line breaks—do they add to the poem’s expressiveness? Do they force the reader to read the piece, emphasis, suspense, etc., as the poet intended? If so, more power to the spacey little thing.
And (because I’m like an old dog with a bone I won’t stop chewing), let me add my two-bits to the prose poem topic: the term is an unfortunate misnomer. I call “prose poems” poetic prose pieces. The difference between prose and verse (notice how useless that never-satisfactorily-defined term poetry really is) is how each is organized: verse by lines and stanzas, prose by paragraph. I don’t get why folks write “prose poems”; without line breaks and stanzas, such pieces lose an important expressive tool. Check out W.C. Williams to see how crucial such tools can be.
“Poetic prose piece” DOES sound better than the oxymoronic “prose poem.” It’s just another fascinating aspect about poetry–you have to worry not only about content, but about how organization enhances or detracts from content. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at the same poem broken up different ways (couplets, tercets, quatrains, etc.) to see which seems to suit it best. My final decision tends to be instinctual.
Same for me, it’s a matter of taste and love for white space. I’ll also add that the first space jump in O’Rourke’s poem brings home the phrase “away from the city.” I really like that. Some poems lose me by jumping all about, but this poem doesn’t get lost in the sprawl. Poems in two wavy columns confuse me.
Meghan would be pleased to read this!