Negative Space

One of the poets in our local critique group recently brought a poem that dealt with the space that art tries to occupy. It’s a hard concept to grasp, but we talked for quite a while about the possibility, and I settled on the idea of negative space in visual art. Interestingly, a novel that I happened to be reading, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, uses that very concept in a significant way. An artist dies and his beloved niece is left to wrestle with her grief and his talent, which shows, partly, in negative space revealed in her portrait as the head of a wolf. She is fascinated by wolves, and this serendipitous discovery of the vision in his work stays with her as a reminder of him and the complexity of love and grief.

As a poet, I think about what to leave out of a poem after I’ve made a few rough drafts. I’ve learned to be ruthless in cutting out the parts that don’t earn their place. But now I’m thinking that this idea of not filling space is one of the very hallmarks of contemporary American poetry. We don’t fill all the available space. Not in a sentence, not in an image. And when a poem does feel over full we weed, prune, shave–somehow cut the excess. We don’t often fill the received forms that have come down to us like pouring water into someone else’s cup. So I think my friend Julie is onto a huge concept and turning it into a poem she demonstrated it. She managed to leave white space in the center of the poem, an illustration of the unfilled space. And that space is where the reader joins us. Voila!  

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