Poetry Friday: Negative Space

February 8, 2013 @ 6:23 pm | Filed under:

I loved this post at Barb Riley’s Written Not With Ink about “white space” in art and poetry, “the things unfinished and things left unsaid.”

“I’ve been spending more time reading poetry lately, and finding myself drawn to the absence of explanation on the page. In an age where answers are one millisecond away by the gods of google, my soul longs to contemplate the unknown.”

The gods of google, indeed, our magic answer machine supplying the ends of questions even before we’ve finished asking them.

The post reminded me of a poem from my MFA thesis, which I’ll share here because it’s Friday, and Friday is for poems. The challenging thing, for me, about sharing poems I wrote long ago is resisting the temptation to get in there and tinker some more, but I’ll resist and present this as I wrote it at age 23.


Negative Space

Still new at this, I cannot grant my hand
The freedom Porter’s “stroke” and “glide” suggest;
I’m scared to wreck a curve with poor command
Of pencil. “Loosen up!” he barks. “It’s just
A sketch. In here there’s no such thing as ‘messed

Up’.” But that bristly frown belies
Him. I lose the body’s edge. And paper snags
My lead; now nervous dashes fleck the sides
Of my drawing’s head. Above her sausage legs
And torso jut two arms like long thin bags

Of bread, lumpy and stiff. At least—thank God—
The model’s clothed. Too much, to spoil the grace
The undraped body wears.
……………………………………..Start over. See not
The model but the shape she prints on space,

My gentle dream instructor guides. Just trace

The edge your eye perceives. Porter fades
Like graphite dust—for just a flicker,
I can see it—No—It’s lost. He strides
To easel, flashes out an arm. The figure
Rippling from his charcoal pencil lifts her

Perfect arms and twirls and sings, “Like this!
Like this!” That’s it. I’ve had enough.
I snatch up my things.
My stool rings out against the floor,
Porter’s like a grizzly in the doorway.
Something shifts—the light, my gaze—
I’ve a sudden view of him an empty white,
A pattern cut from cloth of students, tables, wall.
The blank slivers of his beard pierce the quiet air.
Astonishing and lovely is the shape he’s left behind.


This week’s Poetry Friday roundup appears at A Teaching Life.

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7 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. sarah says:

    Wow. Now that’s poetry. There’s so much I’d like to say about it, all the wonderful and clever things I notice in it. But I will restrain myself.

    See though, this is the thing that’s sometimes hard to get my head around : you are such a talented writer for young children, and yet you also write this incredibly strong, deep poetry. How does one small woman get such an abundance of ability – and great hair to top it off? It would be easy to hate you if I didn’t adore you so much.

    (No flattery intended. I’m actually trying not to sulk.)

  2. Karen Edmisten says:

    “It would be easy to hate you if I didn’t adore you so much.”

    Ha! 🙂 Who wouldn’t/couldn’t adore Lissa?

    I love this poem. I’m glad you didn’t tinker with it — a little Saturday morning present, to see a glimpse of 23-year old artist/poet/you.

  3. Melanie B says:

    That’s a lovely poem.I like all the enjambments. They really capture that sense of hesitancy, the pencil lead snagging the paper. I’m curious about the Porter allusion.

    Like Karen says, I love seeing through the window to the 23 year old you. But I’m also curious to know what it would look like if you did tinker with it now. What bits would you change and how and why?

  4. Mary Lee says:

    This brings back some not so great memories of some not so great teaching strategies of one of my undergrad English professors.

  5. Barb Riley says:

    Thank you so kindly for the mention here on your blog. 🙂 I can certainly see how my thoughts on white space niggled the memory of your thoughts about negative space. I love how your poem captures the frustrations and the epiphanies of student life as well. Such eloquence at age 23!

  6. Melissa Wiley says:

    Thank you, my dears. Melanie, even at this distance I’m happy with the structure of the poem—I remember I was doing a lot of work, at that point, on structure that mirrored meaning, and I loved off rhyme and internal rhyme (still do). I think, though, that I could have pushed farther with the language; there are some flat phrases and a bit of cliche. “My stool rings out against the floor.” —I remember how much I wanted to capture that sound of pushing back a stool in a quiet room, and I chose “ring” because it hints at triumph or celebration, I wanted a rush of jubilation there, but I think I could have done better. 🙂 Oh, but I was also wanting the internal rhyme with “sings,” wasn’t I?

    Re the teacher’s name, “Porter,” at first I called him “Parker” (no significance intended, it was simply the name that seemed to fit), but in workshop a classmate (the very fine poet Leigh Palmer, who publishes now under her married name, Elizabeth Leigh Hadaway) pointed out that Parker is a brand name for fountain pens, and the reference could be confusing. Quite right. I changed it to Porter to keep the meter and the plosive. But in hindsight, I wonder if a nameless instructor would have been stronger. I think I wrestled with that a bit—it seemed to me he was such a strong and controlling presence (entirely fictional; no autobiography here) that he ought to have an Identity. But I’m not convinced, now. 🙂

    Fred Chappell once asked our poetry workshop—not the one I wrote this poem for, that was Alan Shapiro’s—how you know when a poem is done. “When it’s published,” he said, answering his own question. You go on tinkering and tinkering until some editor takes over and says: Good enough.

    (But even then…)

  7. Melissa Wiley says:

    Sarah, I want to add that your praise means a lot to me, because you’ve become one of my favorite poets. Even your prose is lush with poetry. I haven’t written poetry seriously in a long time—not since grad school, really; by the second year I was working mostly on short fiction, and after my thesis reading one of my classmates said, “I think what you’re really wanting to write is novels,” which is what happened. 🙂 I write children’s verse now and then, doggerel, but nothing I’ve felt compelled to publish. But lately, lately, I’m finding phrases hanging in the air, and I jot them down and brood over them. So perhaps…we’ll see.