Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Gappy poetry

In "Tears in the fence" No.59 Spring 2014, Mark Goodwin's "Mind Will" begins with

wind th    rives in sky's grasp the   wind
ing of cloth pulls   the sky's hear   t open

and takes the p   ush of clouds & distant
land into the text   ure of corn's matt talk

Some of these gaps are between words, denoting a pause or break that's rather less than a line-break (they sometimes replace commas, or they're like the gaps in anglo-saxon verse). Poets not usually considered avant-garde sometimes use such gaps too - for example, Kim Moore's "Some People" (in "The Art of Falling") and Liz Berry's "Bird" (in "Black Country") use them. The gaps within words are more challenging. "In Tears in the Fence" (No. 65) Mark Goodwin writes about what he describes as his gappy poetry - "with the development of the gappy poetry there was never really an aim, not an an intention, certainly not to begin with. It was all about play". I can see that the gaps allow a little Joycean wordplay, bringing out new meanings. There's disruption too, stopping the reader using a standard novel-reading method of processing - letters rather than words need to be processed, and the 2nd line's "ing" will cause most readers to backtrack. In the 4th line, readers are likely to sense "text of [the] talk" and "corn stalk".

Having written the poetry, he later thought about the style -

  1. as I thought about it, and tried to analyse what I was doing, and no doubt also constructed reasons for what I was doing, I began to see, especially as most of my gappy poetry is concerned with landscape and place, that this gappy form has much to do with the way we continually attempt to read and reinterpret the layers of our worlds … and how we get from one layer of landscape to another, how we go over horizons, how we get from one valley to another. We go via gaps, gaps in hedges, or via a col, or pass, or gap between mountains. What is a path but a form of gap - a strip of place where material has been worn away
  2. words on the page are governed by the gaps … By re-arranging the gaps, and adding gaps, you are still left with the base-layer interpretation/score/material of the original poem (or landscape) before the procedure was imposed on it, but you also have a new surface that reveals, from a new angle, or point of view, or position of hearing, some of the pure sound or music of language detached from what we usually experience as familiar speech, and also you get sudden shifts in meaning, all generated by moving or adding space(s)
  3. Perhaps I can say that my gappy poems happen to be a particular pattern at a particular time, but that the gaps can lead on or rather invite another reader-maker to break the poem (or even world) down again, and re-map as they will


  1. gaps aren't necessarily a lack of something, they can be a means of going from one place to another (a corridor, an airlock) or a space waiting to be filled - he writes "I often approach writing poetry … much as a painter might approach a canvas, and also in some ways how a dancer might approach and proceed across a floor")
  2. gaps can destablize the readers' attempt to organise their sensory input into layers. It does so without making the original text inaccessible
  3. gaps offer the reader more interactive play between the parts

These aims aren't new of course.


  • Line-breaks - Much of what applies to using line-breaks also applies to gaps - if poetry is cut-up prose, then gappy poetry is cut-up poetry (see my The End of the Line for Modern Poetry article). Linebreaks have lost their power to disrupt, but gaps haven't. Rosmarie Waldrop wrote that "Perhaps the greatest challenge of the prose poem (as opposed to "flash fiction") is to compensate for the absence of the margin. I try to place the margin, the emptiness inside the text. I cultivate cuts, discontinuity, leaps, shifts of reference, etc. 'Gap gardening,' I have called it"
  • Mimetic expression - Olson proposed that nuances of breath and motion to be conveyed to the reader through typographical means. Gaps are an obvious means.
  • Negative space - rather than looking at the gaps, one can look at the clusters thus formed, and consider how the gaps create a framing effects - "Typographic isolation does not "emphasize"; it frames, rendering a familiar word or phrase momentarily unfamiliar ... Emphasis limits the range of possible meanings", Stephen Cushman, "William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure", Yale, p.60
  • Clustering - words are in sentences, grouped into clauses determined by syntax. The freedom to move words around on the page provides a different way to create word clusters. The idea is similar to the use of phonemes - matching phonemes can be spread amongst words not connected by syntax - or how a realist painting can sometimes be viewed as an abstract - a "study in blue" where the blueness by chance belongs to various objects.
  • Disruption - In "Broken English" (Wesleyan Univ Press, 1993), Heather McHugh points out that "[Poetry] is a broken language from the beginning, brimming with non-words: all that white ... the making of lines is the breaking of lines ... All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn ... The poem is not only a piece, like other pieces of art; it is a piece full of pieces".
    In informational prose, letters or sounds create words which in turn have meanings that a sentence organises into higher meanings (see my Ingarden and the Sense of Resolution article). Disruption of this mode of comprehension can remind people of the arbitrariness of spellings, classifications, etc. of course, it's not a new idea - e.g. "The radical indentations [in "Tintern Abbey"] let space into the verse column at irregular interval, signaling the abrupt discontinuities and shifts associated with the Romantic ode", Stephen Cushman, ("William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure", Yale, p.57). But such disruption seems to me the moon/June, love/dove of modern poetry - easy to do, with a deadened effect through over-use.
    That said, Ralf Webb writes of Emily Berry's poems that "Several of these use “tabulation”; large blank spaces appear mid-line, as if the poems’ sutures had been ripped out, creating irregular, staccato, breathless rhythms, so that to read them is to enact and experience the urgency of the speaker’s appeals" showing how gaps can produce a different effect to that of line-breaks.


"Spacing in poetry is nothing to do with space and everything to do with time" wrote John Fuller in "Who Is Ozymandias? and other puzzles in poetry" (Chatto and Windus, 2011, p.22). When poetry is read out, it can be hard to hear where the line-breaks are. Nevertheless, poetry readings often successful, bringing into question the importance of the line-breaks. What about gaps?

Mark Goodwin wrote "Encountering my gappy poetry as a reader is of course completely different to encountering it as a listener, and not least because when performing the gappy poems to a live audience I tend to read the poems twice, in different ways: once honouring the gaps, reading in a very clipped style; and once reading the poem without honouring the gaps, and generally by reading in a more natural way. I've found that an audience that might be driven away by the appearance of the gappy poems on the page, once they've heard the two differing but connected musical versions of a gappy poem, well, they 'get' it. That's not a 'get it' so much to do with 'understanding', but rather they 'receive' the music"

I'd like more evidence, but it's an interesting observation.

Mind the gap?

End-rhymes add an effect, but usually at a cost. If gaps offer extra effects without consequences we'd all be using them (in the way that poets use line-breaks nowadays, there being nothing to lose). While we're at it we might as well use coloured text and multiple fonts - they too add meaning-laden features without destroying the original. But we don't.

When New Formalists write about the positive effects of rhyme they usually don't mention disadvantages. Similarly it's not surprising that those who promote gaps don't list their disadvantages -

  • they distract the reader from considering "meaning" (visual effects are often considered more superficial than "meaning")
  • the use of gimmicks (uncommon notation) can put readers off (gaps aren't common - they still seem rather quirky)
  • the use of apparently random devices can put readers off

Even some practitioners have doubts. In an interview Emily Berry says that "These spaces appeared initially as a way of indicating a kind of stutter or inability to speak/write except in a fragmented way (which is probably a textual representation of how I feel when trying to talk about emotions!). They started appearing in other poems I wrote, mainly the ones about dealing with absence and I guess you could also see them as symbolising the way in which someone’s absence can seem so physical. I don’t seem to be using them so much any more. I like the way they give you a bit more freedom in terms of line breaks, but they’re also quite annoying to work with, you end up spending ages deciding how many spaces a particular gap should be, which is not the greatest use of one’s time".

In "Tears in the fence" No.65 Mark Goodwin's "Mind Will" is quoted from -

wind     thrives in sky's tigh     t lipped pert
progress the winding     of cloth pulls heaped
eyes & speech     less beetles sky's heart open

which is different from the version I quoted earlier. Perhaps I've miss-typed.

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