On the Concept of Stillness in Poetry
Updated: Jan 23
There are many prominent television-broadcasting mega-corporations – Fox, NBC, CBS, CNN – the list goes on. Have you ever looked at NBC's logo? It is, in a word, simple. Six teardrop shapes, with the points all converging on a center. The points follow this color scheme: Yellow, Orange, Red, Purple, Blue, Green. It is a clean, appealing design – one that holds no significance other than that which has been assigned to it over years of browsing channels and seeing this logo watermarked onto anything that NBC produces. However, if you look more closely at the NBC logo, you may see that the purple teardrop has a chip in it, near its top left.
At this point, it is essential to note that since its conception in 1956, NBC's logo has not been a series of differently colored teardrop shapes converging in upon a center point. NBC's logo, indeed, is a peacock. The chip in the purple teardrop is that peacock's beak. The space in-between the teardrops, an obelisk-like space of white connecting to this 'beak,' denotes the body. The teardrops, the feathers. NBC's peacock is not heralded by a distinct representation of a peacock. Instead, NBC's peacock is composed of the space in between the colored teardrops. In art, using the absence of color, shape, etc. to define something has a name: negative space. In other words, what 'isn't' is just as important as what 'is.'
The Japanese are more graceful in expressing this concept than we are, with a single word, 'Ma.' According to a Columbia University piece on this subject,
"In Japanese, Ma, the word for space, suggests interval. It is best described as a consciousness of place, not in the sense of an enclosed three-dimensional entity, but rather the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form deriving from an intensification of vision. Ma is not something that is created by compositional elements; it is the thing that takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences these elements. Therefore ma can be defined as an experiential place understood with emphasis on interval" (MA, The Japanese Spatial Expression).
This Japanese cultural concept and its definition provide an easily understandable explanation of the presence and power of negative space. Alternatively, as Charles Baxter would call it in an essay on how the concept of negative space may be applied to writing, "Stillness." Both the title of this essay and its central concept, Baxter defines stillness as a moment in which "the atmosphere supplants the action" (379). The keyword in this definition is "supplant." I have oft heard this word used to mean "accompany." Its definition, however, is entirely different. According to the ever-helpful Google Dictionary, supplant means to "supersede (take the place of (a person or thing previously in authority or use)) and replace." In other words, Baxter would say that an absence of action, a moment of stillness, can, and should, completely replace 'action' as an equal, not as a complimentary inferior or a poor-mans imitation of substance.
Baxter writes that a film critic, James Agee, refers to the concept of stillness in film as "expressive air pockets of dead silence." The point here, Baxter says, is that we often think of stillness as being a lack of action, and this is utterly fallacious. According to Baxter, stillness is not just a moment in which nothing happens. It is a pregnant moment of atmosphere, and "an intensifier… it strengthens whatever stands on either side of it" (369). Baxter follows this up with a hypothesis: if stillness, or negative space, is easy to attain in visual art or film, that is a consequence of the medium. These forms of art lend themselves to moments in which this interval of stillness can be physically represented, allowing artists who work in these mediums to create moments of stillness, or negative space, that the consumer of the art is forced to confront and contemplate. The writer is not so lucky. As Baxter writes, "But how does anyone get them ['them' referring to moments of stillness] into fiction, where the flow of words must continue line by line, page by page, until the whole thing stops?" (369).
The very act of reading relies on constant movement, making the process of introducing stillness into writing a challenge. This laborious process can be made even more complicated when considering modern aesthetic preferences concerning the presentation of art. In this case, Baxter comments upon the modern need for action, identifying it as an inhibitor of stillness. "If you are a cigarette smoker, you know what it is like to need a cigarette when you do not have one, yet not even notice when you light up" (374). The American consumer of media and art, Baxter writes, is this way with "violent events" (386). According to Baxter, "It is a peculiarly American form of Zen enlightenment when stillness can only justify itself by planting itself amid uproar" (379). To a modern audience, the existence of stillness is only valid if it justifies a moment of action. In this mode of thought, stillness does not 'supplant' action, as Baxter suggests it should, but instead acts as action's slave, failing to be utilized to even a resemblance of its fullest potential.
So we know what stillness is, we know that it is difficult to convey through writing. We know that the typical modern reader, especially the typical American modern reader or consumer of art, according to Baxter, wants moments of stillness to justify an action, rather than wanting stillness to occupy the same importance as an action. This seems to create an environment rather inhospitable for stillness. However, Baxter still insists upon its worth, writing that stillness is "an intensifier, a marker, an ability to define what surrounds it, using anti-dramatic, anti-narrative means. What all stories want to get to, but cannot, for the most part, include" (385).
Additionally, just because stillness is made less attainable by the modern need for action, that does not make it any less integral to good writing. The loss of stillness, Baxter writes, cannot be suffered, for if we do lose the "ability to be interested in stillness… then we will have lost the capacity to be accurate about an entire dimension of our experiences" (386). Stillness is not a 'lack' of action. It is not emptiness, a void that must be filled. It is not subservient to some higher purpose. Stillness is, in and of itself, an entity that is equal to any other literary device. Stillness is an integral part of our existence, according to Baxter, and he is not alone in this evaluation.
A work by Sarah Manguso, "Ongoingness, The End of a Diary," is almost entirely a struggle to capture stillness. A documentation of various diary entries, and a magnificent musing on the nature of memory, time, and the need to capture or validate our existence, stillness may be defined as a foundational concept of this work. Manguso herself would undoubtedly agree with this, writing that time "isn't made of moments; it contains moments… I tried to pay close attention to what seemed like empty time. I made my writing students sit silently… then we all wrote about the almost nothing that had happened… I wanted to comprehend my position in time" (5). This excerpt seems inexorably intertwined with Baxter's concept of, and subsequent fascination with, stillness in writing.
For Manguso, the unlocking of stillness was a formative moment in changing how she wrote, and on a more consequential level, how she perceived life. As Manguso writes, "It was a failure of my imagination… all I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and, once recorded, safely forget. I knew I was getting somewhere when I began losing interest in the beginnings and the ends of things" (23). We tend to think of life as a series of important events, of notable moments. Indeed, if you asked most people to describe their life, they would give you a series of landmark occurrences that they consider to define them as a person. But life is not a series of moments, not really. We may remember it that way, but those moments are only those events in life that we have created memories for. Life is not only moments and memories, but also everything in between these moments and events that we forget. The absence of the moments we forget, or the stillness of our memory, constitute just as much of our experience of life as active memories of moments that we do harbor. As Manguso later writes, "Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moment – an inability to accept life as ongoing" (79). Both Manguso and Baxter acknowledge that stillness – the intervals between important actions that are as integral to our existence as the actions themselves – is a foundational part of not only good writing, but also a fundamental aspect of our human experience.
Of course, stillness is of little use to writers as an abstract concept with no concrete theory of implementation. Fortunately, Baxter has several, using a variety of works that he considers good uses of stillness as an example. The last example he gives is of Wright Morris' novel "The Works of Love." Baxter defines the importance of the work in that its storyline "renounces conflict in favor of meditation" (405). To illustrate this point, Baxter quotes a passage in which the lead character, Will Brady, "forgets to look at his wife during the ceremony" (409). The quintessential characteristic of this passage, and much of the novel in general, Baxter says, is that the "drama [Brady forgetting to look at his wife] has been pushed to the periphery, and the peripheries (the windmill, the mallet [that Brady notices instead of his wife]) have been nudged to the center, in the interest of stillness" (411). Stillness, then, can be invited into writing by focusing not on a series of moments, but on an ongoing experience, in which the atmosphere and the peripheries -- everything surrounding the focal point -- are drawn in until there are moments of stillness in which the periphery is the focal point. As Baxter writes, "It takes nerve to keep the action moving, but it takes more nerve to slow it down or stop it, and a particular kind of courage to keep what seems to be peripheral at the center" (420).
The invaluable positives of inviting stillness effectively into a literary space should not be underestimated. Often, pieces of writing condense their focus down to a series of specific, distinct moments. Actions and big, memorable events take center stage to give the reader something to latch onto, something to remember. Such a series of actions and moments may indeed make a piece of writing memorable. Nevertheless, Baxter would argue that just because a piece of writing is memorable, does not make it a good piece of writing, nor does it make it a piece of writing that -- perhaps more importantly -- is true to our human experience. Incorporating stillness into our writing allows writing to be truthful to our own human experience. The value of such truth fundamentally changes the experience of the reader, making the writing not only more impactful but also more wholly absorbing. The incorporation of stillness into writing creates an experience in which the reader is involved, rather than one in which they are simply a witness to a series of actions. Stillness in writing manifests itself in the power of works such as Manguso's, Morris', or another one of Baxter's examples, Fitzgerald's in The Great Gatsby. The poetic reward of such writing is that it is true, on a fundamental level, to the nature of our human experience of existence. Such truth is almost incalculably powerful and valuable, especially in an age when it is in danger of being disregarded entirely.
Baxter, Charles. Burning down the House: Essays on Fiction. N.p.: Graywolf, 2008. Print.
Manguso, Sarah. Ongoingness: The End of a Diary. N.p.: Graywolf, 2015. Print.
University, Columbia. "Ma, The Japanese Spatial Expression." Ma. Columbia University, n.d. Web.