What We’re Reading: Deliberative Use of White Space and Form in Poetry

Posted by Caitlin O’Brien, Poetry Editor for issue 4.2

As the frenzied period of submissions review winds to a close, I find myself growing a little tired of white space. White space is almost invariably inescapable when putting together a literary magazine, and perhaps even more so when dealing with poetry, yet I’ve noticed a recurring aesthetic trend of white space in many of the submissions we read. From both a literary and an aesthetic standpoint, I can’t help but find this trend in poetry to oftentimes border on excessive. This is not coming from a staunch poetry elitist who refuses to read anything written after the 1800s—I love seeing poetry as a written art form interface with the visual, as well as with the spoken, and other modes of communication.

What gives me                           pause when I encounter a poem that makes ample use of white space is the intentionality behind its form. In the case of some submissions, the poets submitting to Gandy have made wonderful use of white space—we’ve received calligrams in clever shapes, as well as poems that can be read in multiple ways due to the way the words and stanzas are arranged. In the case of other submissions, though, the poetry team has often used the deliberative construction of the poem’s form as a strong measure of the poem’s overall purpose. Reading a poem aloud, the white space does not always inform the flow, so much as it makes the poem seem as though the poet was possessed of a hyperactive space bar. The most common aural effect of a form that relies on white space is a pause, yet these pauses do not create a rhythm that comes across as calculated. As one reader in the poetry section said, “if we have to guess whether or not the poet meant to do something, it’s not effective.” Similarly, the primary visual effect of non-traditional spacing is to set apart important words or allow the reader to focus in on a particular image or concept, rather than jamming the space bar an arbitrary number of times in order to make a poem look modern and minimalist.

I hesitate to call this trend of a white space-centric form a fad that many poets (particularly new ones) are eager to follow. My intention is not to be a no-fun-allowed naysayer who will accept nothing less than a perfectly standard, left-justified poem. However, when you read through a batch of submissions, commonalities in theme and form begin to stick out to you—and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Just as we in the poetry section begin to draw comparisons between the types of poems we see frequently, a reader of Gandy Dancer itself will notice similarities between the poems we’ve selected for publication. Thus, it falls to us as readers and editors to point out and critically examine the trends in the submissions we receive. Our goal as a section is to provide a variety of quality poetry, based not just upon our own aesthetic tastes, but also upon the craft and deliberativeness of each piece alone and in harmony with our other selections.

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