Blank Space 2

I have just come back from New York. I spent a lot of time in a hotel room in a once smart hotel near Time Square. All around me was the grid of Manhattan above Houston. It made me think of stanzas. Regular blocks extending out imposing a kind of spatial equality on the unbuilt terrain. And that extends, of course, out across the continent as anyone who has flown over it can testify.

This stands in contrast to some common-place assertions about the difference between British and North American poetry. Americans and Canadians, it has been suggested can write big gangly poems with lines that tumble and spill because of all the open space – not quite blank perhaps but often imagined as such. Brits, on the other hand are tightly bound, poems are often more formal, lines shorter, more stanzas. You can hold a British poetry book open and recognise it from a distance. And this is because we have no blank space – just a crowded and long urbanised island.

Naturally none of this holds much water for very long -the exceptions come think and fast – Emily Dickinson was hardly known for long lines and some contemporary British poetry spills out over a whole book (think of Oswald’s Dart). And these blocks that shape New York and then the continent west of the Appalachians seem neat and ordered and stanza-like. So much for environmental determinism.

I spent some time in Strand Books – 18 miles of books. The poetry shelves were bliss. I like to find poets it is tough to find in London and I like to find the American editions of British poets with their different covers. So I picked up Robin Robertson’s Slow Air alongside a collection by the Canadian poet Molly Peacock and Wideawake Field by Eliza Griswold. WS Merwyn and Mary Oliver both say they like it on the back – so I hope I agree.

On Blank Space

Before a word is written there is a blank white space. Traditionally this would have been paper and may have been cream or off-white. Now it tends to be a screen. By writing we seem to gather than space and give it form. True – it already has edges and texture but words make a place out of space. The space becomes margins and gaps between words. Even holes within letters. Blank space has the character of silence.

This blank space has been the stuff of poetry seeing as poets have had to combat that blankness. Consider John Keats’ sonnet:

Written on a Blank Space

To keep the reader in so sweet a place,

So that he here and there full-hearted stops;

And oftentimes he feels the dewy drops

Come cool and suddenly against his face,

And, by the wandering melody, may trace

Which way the tender-legged linnet hops.

Oh! what a power has white Simplicity!

What mighty power has this gentle story!

I, that do ever feel athirst for glory,

Could at this moment be content to lie

Meekly upon the grass, as those whose sobbings

Were heard of none beside the mournful robins.

Here Keats confronts blankness and power of white simplicity. His poem gets some power from this blankness and becomes a little copse – a place that stands out from the treeless space around it. Writing a poem is a little form of place creation that configures blankness. This resonates with Wallace Stevens’ account of the jar on the hill

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Here the roundness of the jar (roundness is repeated throughout the poem) orders the “slovenly wilderness” around it – it orders and regulates a kind of blankness (the wilderness) in a contrived and designed way. Culture brings nature into perspective and makes it make sense in much the way the marks of the poem make the blank space make sense.





The Meaning of Varve

varve is an annual layer of sedimentary rock associated with glacial lakes. The word ‘varve’ is derived from the Swedish word varv which means variously  ’revolution’, ‘in layers’, and ‘circle’.

This blog will be sedimented too. As with stuff under a glacial lake the newest stuff will be near the top and old stuff, almost solid rock, will be deep down.

The purpose of this blog is to sediment thoughts and writing on the themes of place, mobility, landscape and poetry. I am an academic geographer (at Royal Holloway, University of London)  who writes on these themes (see link) and a practicing poet who writes poems about similar themes – I have poems coming out in magazines such as The NorthSmiths Knoll, and The Frogmore Papers.