Writers on Writing #51: Todd Fredson
Caesuras and White Space: Room for the Reader
“[F]or I was not aware of the importance of health, I mean the absolute necessity of having a healthy body to avoid disaster in the liberation of the mind. More important yet, the necessity that others be with me… .” --Remedio Varo
I am thinking right now of how to create spaces for the reader, places where the reader is absorbed into the encounter with the text—with its speaker, its language—where the reader is truly welcomed into the architecture of the writing. For the writer, this must be an act of turning outward. And there are a two terms I will associate with this act of turning outward: caesura and white space.
Typically, a caesura is a transition within a line of poetry, the break in rhythm or cadence where a line naturally divides. Philosophically, this term has been used to discuss a fundamental Before and After. A caesura is an aperture in time revealing the “emptiness of pure time” (Gilles Deleuze); in that space the relationship between being and time is mutual, not causal. Musicians often observe this threshold as that space between notes, from which one emerges and the last disintegrates. Generally, I would like caesura to indicate a transition point, a shift where the edges of an idea—intellectual, emotional, etc.—rise into prominence.
Alice Fulton’s discussion of fractals, of fracturing the surface of the (poetic) text, provides a good reference. She discusses the unique and re-iterable patterns that provide a micro to macro guidance. Breaks and fragments often give motion to the text—new angles of approach, new launch vectors—and allow the author to make use of the many textual dimensions or levels of awareness that might engage a reader: very self-conscious gestures, for example, or alternatively, disguising the artifice entirely.
These breaks or shifts are highly leveraged by authors. As a friend who works in and against marketing (perception management, he calls it) explains, these disjunctions are where an audience is searching for a reconciliation, and are where the audience is the most susceptible to suggestion. These are spaces of immersion or confrontation for the reader; they are moments of vulnerability, as the reader has already committed, has initiated a contract in opening the book and turning the page, a contract the author typically assumes to be valid and in issuance henceforth. The equivalent of the reader’s “safe word,” as it were, is to close the book.
However, what I am thinking about is how to maintain a flat surface, placidity. I want these openings for the reader to happen without disturbance, really—perhaps they are not even signaled. This is where I enter the second term, white space.
Conventionally, white space might be defined as a contrast to the writer’s work on the page, as contrasting the place where work is occurring. Like this, the term seems to indicate the extremity of fractured space. But I think there a kind of white space within and surrounding each word, each phrase—a tonal presence, perhaps? Like this, white space is not just an absence of text or a state of being absent from the text. To borrow a phrase from Maurice Blanchot, in his essay “The Narrative Voice,” this white space is built by a “speech that does not illuminate and does not obscure.”
It lets the reader absorb and consider, allows the reader to formulate a response while still reading.
It provides a bit of a horizontal drift against the presumed forward necessity of a poem or story, against the vertical insistence of the page.
It is, perhaps, a matter of repetition and analogy (of possibility rather than precision). While it might seem that the reader must be ignoring what is read while moving into a private sphere of thoughts, thinking outside of the text while reading through this space, this is not wasted space. It is not meaningless. The author remains present with the reader, but does not instruct the reader, does not tell the reader anything.
Some years ago, while speaking to a Nigerian-American friend, Mr. Otu, I recognized this as a distinct conversational style. Mr. Otu spoke at a pace that gave the listener time to feel, and to find, recall, or create a response that took its origin from something he, the speaker, was saying.
In a conversation, this requires self-governance by the listener. Even if a response pops to mind, there is a code of honoring the speaker—the speaker, too, is constantly gauging the connection he or she is making, aware when a listener’s frequency jumps to a high pitch, a sign of readiness to gouge one’s way into the conversation.
The restraint cultivates responses that are, perhaps, less accusatory, engaging the intention of the speaker’s words rather than culling them for semantic treatment. This is a simultaneity that I am courting, white space that allows the reader to think outside of the text, even while the reader continues to stay with the text. The speaker and listener shape a co-habitation during that moment.
Look for your own patterns, rhythms—where you break, so to speak. Look for the caesuras, when time stops, or converges to eliminate itself. Being is held in high relief there. Look for the white space, when time gets washed out and being is multitudinous; what does the presence of readers reveal?
[Note: This work first appeared in The Southeast Review Writer’s Regimen for Adults (posted Oct. 8, 2012).]
Todd Fredson’s poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Blackbird, Gulf Coast, Interim, Poetry International, West Branch, and other journals, as well as anthologies. He received his MFA from Arizona State University and is pursuing his doctorate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California. He is the author of The Crucifix-Blocks (Tebot Bach 2012), winner of the 2011 Patricia Bibby First Book Award. Visit his website for links to other blog posts, poems, nonfiction, and collaborative projects (like stop-motion lego movies).