Reading journals and new poetry collections, it seems that now more than ever, poets are finding ways to use the white space of the page, engaging with a long tradition of moving across the field of the page.
In “Projective Verse,” Charles Olson defines “composition by field” as a way of writing that’s in opposition to more traditional methods of composing based on received form and measure. To be honest, his essay can be difficult to understand, but here are some of my takeaways:
- “A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it…all the way over to, the reader.” Instead of being a creator then, the poet is transportation: finding something, filtering it, and sharing it. (I would argue that the poet does a lot more than that, but there’s value in considering Olson’s idea: poets must be sure to consider the energy of their subjects and how that vitality may shape our poems during the act of composition.)
- Olson privileges the syllable. “It would do not harm, as an act of correction to both prose and verse as now written, if both rime and meter, and, in the quantity words, both sense and sound, were less in the forefront of the mind than the syllable, if the syllable, that fine creature, were more allowed to lead the harmony on.” In other words, don’t think about musicality as much as its building blocks. I take this to mean that when thinking about composing across the space of a page, we should think about not each word but its parts. Maybe this gives poets permission to break up the lines in unconventional ways, using caesura and line breaks.
- The two halves of a poetic line, according to Olson, are: “the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE” and “the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE” So this means what? In every line, we are conveying intellect and emotion. Intellect comes through at the syllable level (which words? Why?) and emotion comes through in the breath as the line stretches across the page.
- If the syllables make up lines, then the lines make up the FIELD of the poem. I think it’s very useful to think of a poem this way, as a field: an open space (with its own understated ecosystem). We can do so many things in a field: laze and lounge, consider each leaf of grass, wander, plant sunflowers, hunt, play soccer. It’s not nothing; it’s space and possibility.
- “If a contemporary poet leaves a space as long as the phrase before it, he means that space to be held, by the breath, an equal length of time. If he suspends a word or syllable at the end of a line he means that time to pass that it takes the eye—that hair of time suspended—to pick up the next line.” I think Olson here is giving poets permission to use whatever tools are on hand in order to work across the space: commas, semi-colons, hyphens, caesura, backslashes. Each indicates timing differently.
This summer, I must admit, I’ve been watching a lot of soccer (like, at 8 AM, again at 11, and again at 2 PM). The Women’s World Cup is fantastic, and it’s amazing to see the ways in which these athletes use the space of the field to their advantage. I can almost immediately tell which team is better based on the way they use the space across the field. Here’s a fun clip.
The best passes don’t go directly to a player but a few yards ahead of them. The smartest players think of the space and how to use it, not just the current locations of the players but where they could be.
To get the ball in the back of the net, the players must use the width of the field—spreading out across. They pass across and even back, going all the way back to their own goal keeper, if necessary. By spreading across the field and using space, they can control the game through possession.
However, there’s a difference between using the space to advantage—keeping control, passing it back, crossing the field—vs. just booting it up towards the goal, regardless of who’s there. Often, that’s how possession is lost. Understanding where the space is and how it can best be used—together, those are the keys for strength.
I think the same could be said of poems. Poems can stretch out across the page, but we should always ask why. What’s at stake? How is this design strengthening the poem? Are form and content working together?
Where and how can passing the line into empty space create an absence that resonates with meaning? Is it worth rethinking “form” in relationship to the head and heart; ear and breath; syllable and line?