White Space: Bloodaxe Archive Challenge #2

Poet Sinéad Morrissey asks maybe the most fundamental question about poetry: what’s the point of all that white space? Show us what you think with your creative responses!

The challenge: write a single-stanza poem of up to 20 lines that plays with white space.

Look at this poem in the Bloodaxe Archive by Philip Gross from The Wasting Game (Bloodaxe, 1988):

Why do you think this poem is set out on the white page in the way that it is?

What is the relationship between the long lines and shorter lines?

Why does the poet choose to change the length of each line? How does this decision affect the poem’s meaning?

Unlike prose writers, poets choose where to break their lines. Unlike in prose, these line-breaks are nearly always independent of the right-hand margin of the page – in other words, unlike paragraphs in a novel, poems have a raggedy right edge (except for prose poems). Line-breaks are also often (but not always) independent of the sentence: you can break a line right in the middle of a thought if you like.

This act of breaking the line is a kind of wilful violence which the poet enacts on the body of the text. It interrupts readers’ expectations, and it has all kinds of exciting effects. Line-breaks increase the energy down the right-hand side of a poem, they add weight to the final word of one line, and to the first word of the next, and they make the words of a poem interact, in a dramatic way, with the white space which surrounds them. In other words, line breaks bring words and white space into a dynamic relationship with each other. 

Try rewriting Philip Gross’s poem as solid blocks of lines, all the same length (you can choose the length). What changes? What’s lost? What is the white space doing in this poem? What does it come to mean?

If every poem is a negotiation between the words on the page and the white space which surrounds them, how do you read the meaning of white space?

The poet W. S. Graham said that, for him, words were always the land and white space was always the sea. The meaning of white space in a poem can mean many things. For instance, time, absence, silence, grief, and death can all be signalled by white space. By definition, white space is the unsayable.

Now look at this poem from Anne Stevenson’s Granny Scarecrow (Bloodaxe, 2000):

Arioso Dolente (for my grandchildren when they become grandparents) [a hand-written note by the poet: “Neil: can you centre the last four lines of each stanza? (on your computer)”] Mother, who read and thought and poured herself into me; she was the jug and I was the two-eared cup. How she would scorn today’s ‘show-biz inanity, democracy twisted, its high ideals sold up!’ Cancer filched her voice, then cut her throat. Why is it none of the faces in this family snapshot looks upset? [a hand-written note by the poet about the final four lines in the first stanza: “move this over to a central position, as below”] Father, who ran downstairs as I practised the piano; barefooted, buttoning his shirt, he shouted, ‘G, D-natural, C-flat! Dolente, arioso. Put all the griefs of the world in that change of key.’ Who then could lay a finger on his sleeve to distress him with ‘One day, Steve, two of your well-taught daughters will be deaf.’ Mother must be sitting, left, on the porch-set, you can just see her. My sister’s on her lap. And that’s Steve confiding to his cigarette something my mother’s mother has to laugh at. The screened door twangs, slamming on its sprung hinge. Paint blisters on the steps; iced tea, grasscuttings, elm flowers, mock orange… A grand June evening, like this one, not too buggy, unselfquestioning Midwestern, maybe 1951. And, of course, there in my grandmother’s memory live just such another summer – 1890 or 91. Though it’s not on her mind now/then. No, she’s thinking of the yeast-ring rising in the oven. Or how any shoes irritate her bunion.

In the light of what we’ve just been thinking about, why do you think the poet asks the editor to move the last four lines of each stanza to the centre of the page? What difference does it make to the poem?

Look at this poem from Gillian Allnutt’s book Lintel (Bloodaxe 2001) and the instruction she gives the editor.

[Where | is marked, the poet has hand-written “L#” in the margin, to indicate that she would like an extra space in those places.] In the Fens | 1920 the two of us then | as if the two of them unfallen apple blossom dabble of light | muslin gown plate of plain bread and butter and the | may must’ve come early that year to Grantchester to that tea, / garden | now and then | no road and nowhere now to hide the pollarded willow | the Cam the abrupt stump of the Somme the wounded in the university garden the wind the unending | black almost | bloodless land I have found [A handwritten note from the poet: “The voice is stunned, disconnected, almost disembodied – the double spaces, as the only form of punctuation, are intended to reflect that.”]

Gillian Allnutt has marked on her proof where she would like to include double spaces (i.e. a bigger gap between some words: ‘the unending  black almost  bloodless land’). Why does she want double spaces in this poem, in those places? Will this use of white space gain the effect she desires?

The challenge

Write a poem or poems in which you deliberately control how white space works, via the shape of your lines.

How much white space do you choose to let in, and how much white space do you choose to keep out? What does white space come to mean in your poem?

Write no more than twenty lines. Make the poem a single-stanza poem (i.e. like the Philip Gross poem, and not like the Anne Stevenson or Gillian Allnut poems). Surprise yourself by how much work you can make silence and whiteness do for you if you manipulate it intelligently enough, and with the respect it deserves.

If you’re stuck for ideas or themes, browse through the Bloodaxe Archive and use a word, plucked at random, as a theme. Alternatively, you could write in response to one of the poems above, or another poem found in the archive (or another poem from anywhere at all).

Here are some more poems that play with white space, to spark off some ideas:

Prizes

Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, Bloodaxe poetry books and other goodies, and invited to perform at the prestigious Newcastle Poetry Festival in May 2020.

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world (though we can’t pay international expenses to attend the poetry festival). The deadline is midnight, Sunday 9 February 2020. Your poem must not exceed twenty lines (excluding the title, any epigraphs etc.), and your poem must be a single-stanza poem. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it; please also send a typed version so we can see your use of white space.

Remember to include a short explanation of how you’ve created your poem in response to the Bloodaxe Archive!

Send your poem(s) to educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk with the subject line ‘Bloodaxe Archive challenge #2’, along with your name, date of birth/age, gender, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in and how you found out about this challenge (e.g. YPN email/Twitter/Instagram/through a teacher/through a friend etc.).This data is used for statistical purposes and help us reach as wide an audience as possible.  These anonymised statistics will be shared with our partner Newcastle University.

If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 9 February 2020, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.

We welcome entries from schools and youth groups. Use this class entry form to enter students from your class or group.

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society and Newcastle University to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk.

Sinéad Morrissey was born in Portadown, County Armagh, Northern Ireland and was Belfast’s inaugural Poet Laureate. She has published six collections, including Parallax which won the 2013 T. S. Eliot Prize and On Balance which won the 2017 Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection.

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