Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Silence | Poetry | Kindle Gaps

“I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.”
Pubillius Syrus

Poets, playwrights, musicians and film directors are always playing with the tangibility of silence. We are told that the blank space on a poem’s page is a frame of silence, much like the etiquette-enforced hush in an art gallery. I like this, it’s a good thing. Within the parameters of a book’s binding it allows the poet to give their work space to breath; to draw the eye’s ear away from the silence into something worth hearing.

As a teacher, I have to reconcile this need for a respectful white canvas with the slipping sands of my photocopy budget.

There are certain effects that writers achieve with an uneconomic use of space; I’m thinking here of Ahren Warner’s rhythm-gaps or Mario Petrucci’s illustration of nuclear winter in Chernobyl with empty pages. But these are choices that are not made with the rainforests in mind.

Over the past few years I have discovered all manner of tricks to typographically condense thirty pages into six. I do this using naturally smaller fonts, always size 10, columns, extended margins, double-sided copying, etc. In so doing, I feel smug at not having to cut any of the words out to reduce the page-count, but am I not losing something just as important by treating the page as a microdot?

I remember buying a collection of poetry a couple of years ago, and feeling baffled at the fact that there were twelve empty pages at the back. Whilst I understand that this is an unavoidable part of how a book is bound, could the poet not have been called upon to do something worthwhile with all that silence? Not necessarily throw in some more poems for the sake of it, but use it to give his poems more space to spread their legs?

My grandfather would have seen it as a waste. He was a great fan of silence, that man. When the family reunions were at their banter-bustling peak, he would often absent himself to the empty front room with a book. I have since discovered that the shelf closest the chair that he would occupy in these moments is where he housed all of his poetry – here was a man who knew silence’s enhancement of poetry.

Which brings me to the Kindle. It hasn’t happened yet, but the Kindle will, very importantly, change the shape of poetic composition. At present, we all think and write in the shape of an A4 page and then we put this through a procrustean bed of approximately A5 proportions when we come to publication.

Without the fixed form of the A4 sheet we will be mildly freed.The dimensions of a screen will still frame our flow, but with no need for worrying about wasted paper, where will we go? 8000 pages with two words on each page will no longer seem like an obscenely decadent artistic indulgence, nor will three pages of blank resonance in the middle of a longer sequence.

At first, as with the Wachowski’s ‘bullet time’, it will seem like a gimmick, and it will be to start with. People will wantonly write blank pages into their poetry collection just because they can, but the art will be refined over the years, reserved for deserving cases; writers will have to earn it.

With the death of paper, the modern poet’s first new toy will be an infinite abundance of silence.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

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