Ma? Ma! We’re All Crazee for Negative Space


by Ron Hayes

Thirty spokes meet in the hub, but the empty space between them is the essence of the wheel.    -Lao Tzu

When I was just a young lad, rooted still in the halcyon days of high school life, one of my first jobs was as a busboy at a restaurant my friend’s family owned. It was a good gig and we had a lot of fun—so much so that I very nearly made a career of it. I was drawn to the creative side of the restaurant industry and to the discipline that was required to make everything look and taste the same every time it was prepared. In addition to learning how much fun it could be working with food and alcohol, I learned a good bit about life without really knowing it; two things in particular—consistency is key, and people eat with their eyes. Who knew I’d ever have reason to apply these lessons to my writing life?

More so than any of the writing disciplines, poetry is like the art of cooking. Nouns are proteins and adjectives enhance just like a well-chosen sauce. Verbs are technique and adverbs, like spices, are used best when used judiciously. Poet is to Chef as page is to plate, and, regardless of whether we sit down at Sally’s Diner or Le Bernardin, Ploughshares or JimBob’s LitMag, what matters first is how that plate looks when it is presented to us. It’s human nature: if it doesn’t look good, we won’t be quite as satisfied when at last we consume it.

When designing a dish a good chef carefully considers each element of that dish, where he or she will place those elements on the plate, and in what proportion or relationship to the others. A chef will take into account current trends, modern conventions, and traditional methods of presentation, each an integral part of the design. So it is with the poet. Trends, conventions, and tradition inform the way a poet presents the poem on the page. And while it’s true that formalist poets have some of their decisions made for them—a sonnet is a sonnet and will retain at least some of the conventions that define a sonnet—contemporary poets engage predominantly in free verse, which empowers them to do as they please. A good example of this is the prose poem. Where once lineation and stanzaic composition were essential to the definition of a poem, today’s prose poems are, essentially, micro-essays following the conventions of the essay—blocks of text, no lineation, no stanzas, no enjambment, no caesura… just “poetic” language.

Because prose poetry rejects these traditional conventions, it blurs the line between what is poetry and what is not poetry. We as readers cannot immediately see, as we can with our ideas of conventional poetry, that what we’re reading is a poem. If a prose poem isn’t in a book of poetry or a literary magazine or a newspaper under the heading “Poetry” it isn’t likely we can tell at first glance that it’s a poem. Traditional poetry doesn’t suffer in this way. Like a delicious meal served on a well-composed plate, we can see at a glance the conventions that make a poem a poem: lines, stanzas, end-stopped rhymes perhaps. And like a carefully considered plate, a well-rendered poem will take into consideration things like traditions, conventions, and trends and make use of one of the most overlooked, least talked-about elements of poetry—negative space.

Artists for centuries have grappled with, embraced, tinkered with, and exploited the idea of negative space in their work. Sculptors, for example, must by definition “see” their work in terms of negative space; they must be able to see what has to be taken away in order to leave behind the finished work. Composers and musicians must use negative space otherwise we wouldn’t appreciate the silence that creates tension or the staccatoed notes that show emphasis. And negative space is important even beyond the arts. Few in the scientific world have been able to fully reconcile the idea of matter in the universe until the theory of dark matter was postulated and proofs of theory forwarded. In essence, without absence, presence is taken for granted. And thereby lessened.

The Japanese have a word for the concept of how negative space contributes to the greater whole: ma. Loosely translated, ma means “gap” or “interval” and is a great way of conceptualizing what it is a poet does when he or she decides where to break a line, why to break the line there, and how many lines should or should not be of similar length. More than just a way of naming what’s not there, “ma” shows us how what isn’t on the page can show us with more certainty what is on the page.

In closing, an example. In my poem, “The Rothko Progression,” I attempt to imitate what artist Mark Rothko accomplished in his unique body of work, large paintings composed entirely of blocks of color highlighted with bands of similar or contrasting colors. In order to facilitate this imitation I had to take ma into account. Each line of each stanza had to be of roughly equal length to mimic the squares and rectangles of color Rothko used. To imitate paintings where bands of contrasting color offset the predominating color, I used single lines or couplets amid stanzas with five or six lines. In short, I used the white space of the page to add non-linguistic meaning to the textual meaning.

Just as screenwriters create tension and meaning with pregnant pauses in dialogue and and musicians with bars of rests in their compositions, poets have at their disposal things like line breaks, stanza length, and even meter, a sonic complement to ma to assist them in relating meaning, tone, and weight to their work. Want your poem to be read quickly and leave the reader a bit breathless? Relentlessly drive the poem down the page with short lines and no stanza breaks. Want to lend solemnity and heaviness to a poem? Try long lines with a regular meter and regular stanza breaks. On the page, unlike the plate, what isn’t there can be as important and as satisfying as what is.

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