Poetry’s Space: First (& Final) Frontier

'In Love with Poetry' Culture

An essay by Prartho.

By my best reckoning, what first called me to poetry (somewhere in my early teens) was not the words. Not the rhythms or rhymes. Not even the imagery or the metaphoric chicanery I later came to love. No, truth be told, from the very beginning, it was the airiness of the page—all that feral, fallow space. I was in it for the breathing room, the breezeways between thoughts, the rest a poem offered a word-weary soul.

Opening a book of poems was like stumbling upon a clandestine hideaway where idleness was the ideal—a retreat not only from the hurry and flurry, but from the superhighway of words themselves. But then, holed up in that quietest of places, what was one to do but nibble away at the ditties offered there—word by curious word, line by evocative line?

Basho's Pond Two
Illustration: Basho’s Pond Two by CaseyStudio

I heard things in the poems of TS Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Carlos Williams, ee cummings, that I’d been longing to hear, things at once hauntingly familiar and startlingly new. Whereas prose seemed to move as a mob—a rush-hour traffic of words elbowing one another across the page, poetry drifted in like a song. It held me in its lyrical patience until Time came to the door and asked to come in. All the Time in the World… for the first time since childhood summers at the lake… was mine again.

As writers of poems, doesn’t it still happen that way? We come to a well-swept page with high ceilings and generous windows. We invite Time to sit with us and start with what we know: teacups and moonlight, a bag of apricots, the family of raccoons clanging about in the trash. But then the skylight of the page opens and stars fall in. Or the floor drops out and instead of falling we float, weightless astronauts inside our own bodies.

How does a poem pull off such conjures? I’d like to posit that it’s the empty space the poem preserves around itself, and, by benevolent contagion, inside us.

The Japanese seem to understand the power of negative space better than any culture. We see it in their ikebana flower arrangements, where a single willow branch curls into a room and holds out its entire space for us to imbibe. And we see it in their haiku poetry—17 syllables afloat (or submerged!) in a pond of silence, which only serve to deepen it:

Ancient pond
frog jumps in
~ Basho

So bent we have been as a species on filling things up, it’s hard for us to imagine space as serving as anything but storage! We have waged all our bets on the stuff that inhabits space… on what can be measured, counted, and weighed. We are comforted by the weight of things in our hands. And because of our fondness for weight, we worship at the altar of gravity. It is the indisputable law of the land. What goes up must come down, we say. We never hear, What goes down must inevitably rise.

But perhaps space is gravity’s equal and opposite force, its purpose to lift. Maybe emptiness is our floatation device on the word-battered seas of life. Maybe what we thought was poetry’s packaging turns out to be the gift!

Prartho SerenoIn Pune 2, along with designing Osho’s swan logo, (Ma Prem) Prartho Sereno edited Osho’s books, was a writer for Osho Times International, and worked in the design shop. Since then, she has authored three prize-winning poetry collections and a book of personal essays. She is a California Poet in the Schools and teaches Poem-Making as Spiritual Practice to adults. Last April she became Marin County’s fourth Poet Laureate. prarthosereno.com

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