“Framing” has many connotations when we talk about art. We might describe it as a boundary that sets off a photograph, the silence that surrounds notes of music, or the stillness that informs the movements of a sculpture or a dance. In the literary arts, writers frame images and ideas with line and stanza breaks, punctuation, titles, and white space, the latter being a frame that works on visual, auditory, and conceptual levels. Framing is the artist’s instinct. Through juxtaposition and compression, framing in poetry often functions in metaphor-like ways—for, by setting off a selected combination of elements, new meaning emerges beyond the literality of the summed parts. The white space, itself, functions in a metaphorical way in poetry, and framing elements with white space fosters narrative.
Juxtaposition: White Space as Threshold
Think of a pair of stone lions marking either side of an entrance to a woodland path at the edge of a cemetery, such as I have near my home. Being made aware of this boundary between the cemetery lawn and the wood sparks a special receptiveness, making the passage from one environment to the other feel special, even magical, in a way that changes one’s awareness. Depending on the time of year, we might notice the sudden change in light and the different leaf-shades of green, yellow, or red, or we might pause to think about the outline of tree branches. We might experience a new feeling upon entering, perhaps taking on the role of mystic... The juxtaposition of environments, and the transition from one environment to another, leads us to brim with meaning.
Similarly, the experience of white space between the parts of a poem (e.g., titles, lines, stanzas, sections) are those instances of change and liminality that Jane Hirshfield writes of in her book Nine Gates as “the enduring transformation of the threshold.” These threshold-shifts engage with the reader’s expectations, prompting him or her to compare the “before” to the “after,” the presence to the absence, and to create something greater, both emotionally and conceptually, than the sum of the words on the page. This is a basic feature of poetic compression. Certainly, shifts, pauses, absences, and silences are integral components of our work—what poet Heather McHugh, in her book Broken English, calls “indispensable connectors.”
Elements of Meaning-Making
In poetry, when we “cross” a threshold created by the white space around and within a piece, we become more receptive to resonances from words and images, and our sense of them is heightened. This response is part of the ineffable meaning of poetry that can’t be analyzed in the end, but which the reader feels and intuits.
A number of contemporary writers have described the value of white space to meaning-making in combination with other elements. Poet Li-Young Lee writes, in The Alabaster Jar, “I think we use language to inflect silence so we can hear it better.... Inflected silence could be explained by the way everything seems quieter after you hear a bell ring. It’s almost as if we’re using language, but the real subject is silence.”
In Nine Gates, Jane Hirshfield describes “poetry’s fertility” as the “marriage of said and unsaid, of languaged self and unlanguaged other, of the known world and the gravitational pull of what lies beyond knowing.” She speaks of the silence of white space as something that “removes the mind from the thought-stream of the quotidian, turning it toward the wellspring from which original thought may rise.”
Hirshfield also writes about how transformation can take place between elements that aren’t always explicitly metaphorical: “The leap may take place in metaphor, in narrative, in a pivot word. It may also be made through simple juxtaposition, two flashes of perception creating a virtually electric current between them.” Indeed, the kind of metaphoric meaning created by the framing function of white space is not necessarily an X = Y proposition, but often one in which some of the meaning is supplied by the the reader. Hirshfield continues, “Some part of a poem’s good weight will be found outside the poem, in us. All image in this way involves the mind of metaphor: it is only tasted and understood when carried into the self.” We can say that white space as an element of metaphor, like image, also is not logically defined but is an element of transference, leading to new meaning through juxtaposition and subjective association.
In Robert Creeley’s short poem “Box,” the poet uses white space in the form of line and stanza breaks, as well as other instances of compression, to literally give us space to consider the different meanings of “box” and the different personal boxes we might experience, metaphorically speaking.
but of what
you can’t locate.
You love yet
the body’s change,
yourself inside it.
The four stanzas of the poem are like the four sides of a box, each building in an element of foreboding about the feeling of being somehow “boxed in.” We could thus think of each stanza break as a folding of a box edge. Complementing this “four-ness” is the way a version of the word you appears in each stanza. Then the fourth stanza metaphorically identifies the body as a box:
The body’s change,
yourself inside it.
But it is “fear” that is the true box, which is treated in the first three stanzas and finally located in the body in the fourth.
It is this slow building, this folding, one by one, of the different sides of the box that creates the emotional impact by the time we reach the end of the poem. And these effects are created by Creeley’s use of white space around the words. The addition of space at each stanza break – “you’re afraid,” “you can’t locate,” and “distracted fear”—adds to the sense of unease. The final stanza, framed, of course, by white space, simultaneously leads us back to the title—“Box”—and presents a physical and a psychological box, with one’s inability to locate the fear being what ultimately creates the claustrophobia. It’s as if the poem is saying that we can’t entirely locate ourselves because we are inside “the body’s change”—something that can’t be pinpointed or prevented. Perhaps, then—even scarier—the box is empty! Or perhaps it is the closeness of our consciousness to the “change” that, like being unable to see the forest for the trees, renders us unable to perceive.
But Creeley’s poem illustrates that the poetic frame itself is not a box; to the contrary, its very boundaries liberate the words from their usual habits. Each turning, each fold, each line and stanza break is a threshold that adds open-ended meaning to our ideas about “box,” “fear,” “love,” and “body”—open-ended it because it resides in emotion and imagination. The form of the poem is metaphorical but does not operate according to an X = Y formula because the vehicle is not a word-idea; it is a form-idea the leads us beyond the form.
It appears likely that our meaning-making in the transition between text and white space is a result of our biological evolution. In her book What Is Art For? anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake speculates that, as a species, we have evolved both to respond to changes in our environment and deliberately to incorporate variation in the objects, rituals, and ceremonies that we create. She calls this kind of behavior “making special”—that is, purposely adding embellishment or emphasis to an object or activity, going beyond what is necessary for mere functionality. She says that doing so puts “the activity or artifact in a ‘realm’ different from the everyday,” a tendency that is “distinguishing and universal” in human beings.
Comparing art to ritual, Dissanayake writes that “in both, there is also patterning, channeling, formalizing of emotion. A form is provided for otherwise unruly or diffuse content, and this shape or structure allows the emotional meaning to be conveyed. Art makes use of out-of-context elements, redirecting ordinary elements (e.g., colors, sounds, words) into a configuration in which they become more than ordinary.”
Poetry is one of the ways human beings “make special”—using, among other techniques, metaphor, symbol, meter, sound, line breaks, and white space—to redirect “ordinary elements” by taking words out of their ordinary usage or “realm.” We respond physically, emotionally, and intellectually to the transitions between text and white space. We are more able to tap depths of meaning in everyday words or images when they are set off from other text, and our sense of them is heightened. In their book More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson talk about how metaphor is rooted in our physical experience; I suggest that the meaning arising from poetic framing—our feeling of crossing a threshold between text and white space—arises from the same fact of our embodiment.
The Voice Inside the Stone: White Space As Narrative
“In any good lyric poem – even one as brief as a haiku – a tiny narrative exists: there is a moment of transformation.” – Jane Hirshfield
We feel how a word framed by white space resonates against the words coming before and after it, across the distance of the white space. We enter into a word, phrase, or image in a space where shades of meaning emerge that we might not consider otherwise. By leading us to become more receptive to resonances of meaning, the thresholds of white space between text build emotion and, through heightened emotion, narrative.
In What Is Art For? Dissanayake writes that human beings have a need to give “form to the amorphous or erratic.” She adds, “Narrative, for example, is a peculiarly human formalizing or structuring device that belongs to life as well as art.... When we report an occurrence to a friend, or recollect our own experience in reverie, we select salient details and omit others.” In our writing, that structuring, that selection and omission, of necessity involves white space as part of how we convey content—and it is matched by meaning inside the reader. Without white space, the structure of the work would not be apparent. Even with a loose structure, we will narrate. McHugh writes, in a discussion of the fragments of Archilochus, “We can’t help, as readers (or as spectators, for that matter—the science of moving pictures was predicated on this fact) putting together the separate frames into a coherent or continuous experience. For the mind is not only analytic but synthetic.” White space is where the words it frames resonate with contextual, associational, and emotional meaning.
In Breaking the Alabaster Jar, Lee talks about the “manifold” nature of poetic language: “Prose means mostly in one direction. But poetry means so many things because it’s an instance of total or manifold presence.” Meaning, created from an interplay of internal and external, is in this way narrated in the interstices of a work of art. Quoted by Charles Tomlinson in William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems, J. Hillis Miller comments, “It is the gap between words and forms that gives poetry its chance to exist and go on existing.” We can say that these gaps—these in between places that are the borderlands of presence and absence, if not outright metaphor—add meaning to verbal metaphors and to the synthesis of positive and negative space. As McHugh writes, “That is the poetic measure...that limit within which the endless can be evoked, that song in which the breaking off is constantly continued.” We therefore can say that white space—framing—allows metaphorical meaning to arise. It is in this space—which includes the movement between word-meaning to meaning within ourselves—that we feel transformed, narrating our imagination, which is boundless.
("The Box" by Robert Creeley, in The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945-1975. (c) 2006 by the Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press.)
Jennifer Burd has had poetry published in numerous journals, and in the anthology The Way North. She is author of Body and Echo (poetry), and Daily Bread (creative nonfiction). Burd received her MFA from the University of Washington and works as an editor for HighScope, in Ypsilanti, Michigan.