Mind the Gap
Think of a drop of rain hitting a roof, sliding down the roof’s slope, falling through the air then touching the surface of a puddle before slipping into the puddle, becoming indistinguishable and yet, other. What has changed in the drop? Of course it has gathered in its globe whatever dirt or leaflitter or bird excrement that accumulated on the roof, and of course, it mixes with whatever composes the puddle, and is even transformed molecularly by the very air it sunders—but what has changed in the drop metaphysically? What happens in the mind when the reader makes the leap from title into poem?
William Butler Yeats once said, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” What inexplicable residuals are created in the reader between the world of the title and the world of the poem, and to what extent can this moment prepare or disarm the reader? While a poet cannot comprehensively anticipate what experiences the reader will bring to the text, the poet must abridge and transcend these histories. Mind the gap! Between text and intent exists an unspoken negotiation. Connotation influences denotation amidst the paranormalcy of written language—and it’s somewhere in this territory between language, meaning (or is it language meaning?) and solipsism I’d like to circumnavigate.
Yes, I’m thinking of the physicality of the words on the page—the literal whitespace separating the texts, but also questions of whether or not the title appears in larger/smaller, italicized/boldfaced or altogether different font, etc., but more abstractly, what transpires between the title and the first line, and how has the spacing and font informed the reader. Consider Lachlan Mackinnon’s poem (in the cllection of the same name) “The Jupiter Collisions,” which begins: “Curled like the scrolled end of a chair’s arm, swaddled”. The title appears centered on the page, in the same font as that of the text except that it’s slightly larger; the first line occurs 1 ½ spaces down, left-flush on the page. The centering of the title suggests that we are in the midst of something (in the middle of the page = middle of action); whereas the flush-left first lines seems to stabilize the reader.
As “The” is the first word we encounter, it is responsible for establishing the rhythm. Say the word “Jupiter” aloud. Feel what it does to the muscles in the mouth. Now say “The Jupiter.” Feel how the word “Jupiter” as softened? Without the article “The” in the title, the title would read as two dactyls; including “The” changes the two dactyls into a rhythm pattern of two iambs followed by a dactyl. Aurally, it seems to be the difference between walking across a creek’s stones (“The Jupiter Collisions”) versus walking across thin ice (“Jupiter Collisions”). Mind the gap!
This abbreviated space between title and text accelerates the abridging of distance through rhythm and as demonstrated in the imagery itself—we have Jupiter in repeated collision (because in the title collision is plural) with an unknown ‘other’ (that with which Jupiter collides) amidst the vast, seemingly uncontainable backdrop of the universe. [To collide with another object is the penultimate erasure of physical distance—being completely absorbed as through osmosis seems to be among the ultimate erasures.] If the whitespace between title and first line was greater, I think the reader would be suspended in the ethers longer; it would cultivate distance whereas the poet intends to create more immediacy and therefore intimacy of a moment.
If this were a movie, the 1 ½ spacing between title and text would act as a quick panning of the camera cutting into another scene, sharpening its focus on the intimate detail of the chair’s arm (which is reinforced in the reader’s mind through the language: to curl is to shrink—the word is an agent of proximity). The imagery of the chair suggests a room for the chair to exist in—which both situates and encloses the reader in a sharp contrast to boundless outer space. How does the reader feel when she/he arrives at the end of the first line, and how has this feeling been manipulated by the text itself? These elements—denotation/connotation, spacing/pacing, for example—establish tone, atmosphere and mood. It is the poet’s work to challenge or reinforce these elements as the poem progresses to prepare the reader for the poem’s linguistic and mental leaps. A deft writer should not only mind the gaps—but also mine them.