I’ve been thinking about white space recently. Perhaps it’s the heat and hubbub of summer that has me pondering that cool place where there’s room to breathe. That quiet space for contemplation.
In poetry, white space, though lacking words, is as alive as any text it surrounds. It reverberates with the echoes of the words that came before. It shimmers with possibility—what will come next?
Without white space, there is no poetry. It reveals the shape of the poem on the page, and in that way, it feeds the eye. It marks the end of each line, and so guides the voice, sometimes encouraging it to run on, run on! Sometimes commanding, stop here and rest.
Like a pale velvet cloth, white space lets the gem of the poem shine. This is particularly true of haiku, a form meant to shine a light on the fleeting moment. How refreshing it is to let the eye and the mind land on that handful of well-chosen words. Maybe we could use a bit of refreshment now (as I write this, it’s 91 degrees), so here is a haiku by the American novelist Richard Wright, best known for his novel Native Son, but who was also a prolific writer of this Japanese form.
In the summer lake,
The moon gives a long shiver,
Then swells round again.
Of course, a long line—even lots of them!—can be a wonder, too. Then the narrowed white space shows how full the poem is, how embracing or urgent its words are, how tumbling or tumbled.
No matter how voluminous or spare the poem, it needs to live in its sea of whiteness, its (if it’s not too much to say) amniotic fluid. Because white space is what’s left of the blank page, the place where the poem came into being.
Most poetry is composed of stanzas, a gathering of lines separated from other such gatherings by white space. Stanza comes from the Italian and means room or chamber, so in a poem, the white space provides the walls of the room, the place where the words reside, or more rightly, live.
Not unlike a bookstore.
A bookstore is white space that exists to reveal the dazzling wonder of books. To open the door to one, no matter its size, is to open a jewel box. And in it are treasures of all sorts, from acorn caps and buttons to precious charms and rare stones—books playful, silly, enduring, ephemeral, discomforting, nourishing, transforming.
Here, too, is a place for contemplation and respite, like the white space of a poem, a place of anticipation and memory. A bookstore is a shelter for books, as well as their readers.
It’s a cool place to be, summer or winter.