What Is White Space In Poetry

What is White Space in Poetry?

White space in poetry is an effective and intentional use of blank or empty spaces on a page. It is the elements of a poem not traditionally filled with words, but made up of negative space to draw attention to the words that are used. This can be white paper or canvas, text blocks, margins, columns or visual presence in the form of font or font size. White space can also be created by punctuation, such as line breaks, stanzas, blocks of blank lines, and refrains.
White space has multiple uses in poetry. Even when the poem is overflowing with words, the poet can select moments for white space to enable the poem to breath and allow pauses to settle in the reader’s mind. These pauses shape the conversation between the writer and reader. As Robert Lee Brewer points out, “by using white space, a poem can be more inviting, even adding an element of mystery depending on how it’s used.”
White space also allows for an easier read, as it has the potential to separate the poem into sections or phrasing that are easier to digest. This can come in the form of breaks into stanzas and giving each stanza equal amounts of white space. This practice elevates each stanza, allowing the reader to comprehend the poem as a complete entity.
White space further helps to create structure and rhythm in a poem. By arranging the text so that there are an equal number of lines in each stanza and by using white space to separate the lines and stanzas, the poem can be viewed in a greater light. As author and poet, Richard Fein, states “White space is like road signs and guideposts that direct the flow of ideas and emotions”.
Symbiotically, white space and words combined builds a poetic momentum and gives the poem balance, allowing the reader to impactfully experience the theme and strength of the theory or argument a poet is conveying. For example, if a poet is constructing a poem in which a metaphor is used to symbolise a hidden emotion, the poet can draw the attention of a reader to the metaphor by separating its lines with a greater amount of white space.
White space also adds visual appeal, inviting the reader to connect with the message being conveyed on a deeper level. Poet, P.J. Smith, mentions, “imagine a really long poem with no white space. It appears very daunting and may even seem distracting. It will be difficult for readers to find the words that are so crucial for a poem’s impact.”
A Few Examples of White Space in Poetry
By using white space, poets can create a gap to give emphasis, transition and distinction between parts of the poem. The American poet John Ashbery is renowned for including a larger amount of white space in his poem ‘This Room’. By separating each verse within larger intervals of white space, Ashbery marks out each individual stanza as its own space and creates fluidity between them.
Another example is T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Eliot expands on the white space between two or three verses and adds a single line that serves to heighten the intensity of the poem.

How to Use White Space in Poetry

Using white space effectively in a poem can be a difficult yet rewarding task. A poet should keep in mind the length of the poem when adding white spaces. While long unconstrained poems can be difficult for the readers to read and comprehend, the poet should ensure that the poem does not appear too small either. By dividing lines and stanzas into reasonable-length lines and stanzas, the phrase can give the poem a rhythm and a reasonable balance.
Poets should also pay close attention to line breaks. The rhythm and structure of a poem come from effective line breaking. Each line should receive equal weight, and the pauses that are created should follow the poetic structure as well as deliver an impactful meaning.
In addition, poets should use white space as an opportunity to draw the reader’s attention to a particular section, scene or thought. By offering a “launching pad” and a moment of commitment, white space enables readers to reflect on the poem.

The Functions of White Space in Poetry

The primary function of white space in a poem is to give it a breathing space and to allow pauses to set in. By allowing such pauses and breaks, poets can vary the rhythm of the poem and define its content in addition to clarifying the individual stanzas by breaking a group of words and thoughts apart.
White space can also be used to give special emphasis to certain words, lines or phrases in which the poet wants to draw special focus to. Poets can separate certain lines by using large amounts of white space around the line and using text alignment in the stanza, drawing the reader’s attention to those particular words and meanings that the poet wants to emphasize.

Historical Context of White Space in Poetry

The use of white space in poetry has its roots in classical Greek literature, in which it was used to indicate pauses in poems to provide a sense of rhythm. White space was also probably used by poet Virgil to add emphasis when creating a shape that guided the reader’s eye to particular words or lines. White space continued to play an important role throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance Periods, when it was used to very clearly separate poems and their parts.

Modern Day Applications of White Space in Poetry

In modern poetry, white space remains a very important tool for poets wanting to draw attention to particular words and lines or to give the reader pause to reflect. By arranging words into various shapes and forms and allowing white space to express breath or emotion, poets today can affect the reader’s experience in a much deeper way.
Even though “every poet has a personal approach to white space”, poets today study its characteristics and uses to determine its proper use. Well-known poets such as e. e. cummings, Gertrude Stein, and even Tupac made use of white space in interesting ways that gave their poems unique elements.

Interaction With White Space & Layout

The physical layout of a text affects how a reader readily absorbs the text’s message. White space not only adds visual appeal, but can also affect how a reader experiences the poem. That interaction can include its overall length, the width of the text block, and the number of words per line.
The amount of white space in a text influences how the poem’s rhythm appears on the page. It is believed that a large proportion of line breaks are unintentional and occur due to the way the paper is laid out. This can influence the formation of the text and alter the pace and weight of the poem.

The Power of White Space

White space is a powerful tool for the poet to add an extra layer of depth and emotion to their work. It also gives readers the opportunity to engage and interact with the poem in a more meaningful way. By twining white space together with words, the poet can create a poetic narrative that transcends the typical structure and confines of a written poem.
White space is often overlooked by many beginning poets; it is only after they become comfortable with and experiment with poetry writing, they see its immense power. Experienced poets often opt to use it in combination with other tools that come under the scope of poetry writing, such as metaphors, symbolism and themes.
Finally, white space can be used to create a greater amount of contrast within a poem. By alternating between loud and quiet parts of a poem, spaces help link lines, give prominence to certain parts of the poem and help emphasize certain concepts.

The Relationship of White Space to Other Poetic Aspects

White space not only affects the visual aspects of a poem, but creates an emotional element that encompasses the entire poem’s scope. The white space in a poem links all the parts together, resulting in a single piece of art. Through this the poet can link words and use the white spaces to express feelings and emotions.
White space also works hand-in-hand with poetic devices, such as metaphors and symbols. By separating and concentrating on a metaphor or symbol, the poet can emphasize, highlight and strengthen the message they’re seeking to convey.
White space also affects tone of a poem, as the use of specific line breaks can direct the tone in the poem, delivering a particular emotion or feeling. Since white space plays such an integral part in providing fluidity in a poem, punctuations such as commas, periods, and semi-colons can break text up into smaller chunks, allowing for a quieter or louder tone, depending on the situation.

Conclusion on White Space in Poetry

In conclusion, white space plays a vital role in the arrangement and appreciation of a poem. It is a tool for poets to use in weaving emotion and poignancy into the poem. White space can emphasize the words and convey the message of the poet. With careful consideration, white space can be used to create a meaningful poem that engages the reader and expresses the poet’s creativity.

Dannah Hannah is an established poet and author who loves to write about the beauty and power of poetry. She has published several collections of her own works, as well as articles and reviews on poets she admires. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a specialization in poetics, from the University of Toronto. Hannah was also a panelist for the 2017 Futurepoem book Poetry + Social Justice, which aimed to bring attention to activism through poetry. She lives in Toronto, Canada, where she continues to write and explore the depths of poetry and its influence on our lives.

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