Much discussion of white space and its use in the lyric essay tends to divert to discussions of fragmentation and its functions, rather than on how the white space in and of itself is functioning. Is there a difference in the quality or quantity of that white space in a piece, and what it indicates about the text?
Essays that use a lot of white space are often described as fragmented. But Robert Root uses the term “segmented essay” or “segment,” as opposed to “fragment,” in his lecture “This Is What the Spaces Say,” and Randon Billings Noble categorizes such pieces as “Segmented” in her anthology A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays, though she notes, as does Root, that such essays may also be known as fragmented, paratactic, or collage. This seeming conflation of terms returned to me during a Q&A after a recent multi-author Zoom reading that included Elissa Washuta. I asked a question about the authors’ use of fragmentation and how they saw fragments functioning in their writing. Washuta responded that she doesn’t think of her work as fragmentation, but as segments with leaps between them. She added that she thinks of segments as longer, a page or more. Her distinction got me wondering about the difference, if any, between segments and fragments.
Segment comes from the Latin secare, “to cut,” while fragment is from frangere, “to break.” Both suggest separate pieces. But what is the role of agency in each? Is there more of a surgical intent in cutting your writing into segments? Is breaking more violent – to be ripped, shattered – what Sam Cha, in his fragmented essay on Sun Yung Shin’s fragmented collection Unbearable Splendor, calls “Torn into sections…. A torn form for the torn identity”? And who does the breaking – the author? Or is the content already broken, and the brokenness is just being represented – Eliot’s “fragments I have shored against my ruin”? It is this – the way they’re separated, and how we characterize the energy of that separation – that gets at how white space is operating here.
Joanna Eleftheriou demonstrates how the need for naming the “lyric essay” made it possible to theorize about the form and its features, “how a fragmented structure permits representation of selves that claim to be experienced as fragmentary, or as having restricted access to their own (frequently traumatic) memories…. Remaining faithful to the impossibility of representation permits the lyric essay, also, to convey the experience of the victim, whose violation often causes a rupture between self and world.” Sandra Beasley posits a similar, pragmatic use: “a personal episode in which the author lacked power. Lyric moves, particularly fragmentation and passive voice, enact a lack of agency on the page.” Both of these essayist-critics suggest that the fragmented form seems to pair with a certain kind of content, but specifically that the white spaces represent rupture and lack: of access, agency, power.
This raises the question: are fragments necessarily informed by trauma? And if so, what is the relationship of the white space between fragments to fractures, ruptures, fault lines, sutures? Are they characterized by violence, even if there’s an attempt to heal that breakage – call it a suture, a scar?
And what then of Elissa Washuta’s work? By cutting her traumatic experiences into what she distinguishes as segments, is Washuta exerting more control or agency over her material? If I use this logic, am I saying that Sun Yung Shin exerts less control? That doesn’t seem right. Perhaps it’s that she’s making the breakage more visible? This also seems to suggest that the less text, and the more fragmented a text is, and the more white space there is as a result, the more charged that space is, for both writer and reader. In particular, the reader must balance that space against the given text.
Perhaps the problem of the ratio of white space to text stems from an issue of perceived wholeness: whether a text in segments or fragments represents a whole experience, or a loss of wholeness, and whether one suggests more “wholeness” than the other. Eleftheriou concurs: “Reckoning with fragments (and the elusive illusion of wholeness) is something the lyric essay can do, and its connection to the history of the fragment both before and after the Romantic era merits further attention.” Montaigne’s fragments, written to represent the inevitable decay of memory and time, suggest that he saw the form as representing a lack of wholeness.
By the Romantics, the pendulum has swung the other way: Schlegel’s embrace and imitation of the surviving fragments of classical literary texts (like those of Sappho) suggests a sort of sublime chaos that point to a whole beyond the fragments (cf Eleftheriou). Then back again: the Modernist fragment is about loss of wholeness, the artist assembling the broken 20th century into something else, Eliot’s fragments. Borrowing language from Language poet and theorist Ann Lauterbach, in Modernism there isn’t a connection across white space between fragments – each fragment is “a discrete whole” in itself, but it does not “cohere” to the others to make a larger whole, a narrative. Finally, the contemporary impulse seems to be a return to wholeness, but one that honors the breakage as part of the intentional design, a sort of kintsugi, what Heather McHugh calls “a declared partiality.”
Speaking of her own work, Ann Lauterbach goes further: “For a while I have been interested in the notion of a whole fragment.” In a Q&A on her piece “On Flaws: Toward a Poetics of the Whole Fragment,” she explains, “I wanted the gaps to show. When the gaps began to show, a new sense of possibility came forward. . .hinges or places of contact became an important location of meaning, as in musical composition.” White space is what allows for the ruptures, gaps, hinges to show, the slash marks she includes making that space hypervisible. What’s especially significant here is that the white space here can function not only as a gap, but as a “place of contact.”
These ideas of “whole fragment” and “place of contact” may provide a third and neutral option: more recently, critics and writers have theorized a rhizomatic model, based on fungal networks. In this case, the fragments would represent the mushrooms, the fruiting bodies popping up, seemingly random yet connected and communicating below the surface. This assumes neither a positive nor negative value, but simply another way to conceptualize the fragmented essay: not a whole that has been broken, but as content that is an organic whole, connected in the writer’s mind, but of which we are only seeing what text the writer chooses to reveal.
It appears that the more white space – the less “whole” the text appears, the more fragmented, the more visible the breakage – the more charged that space becomes for the reader. That also means more work on the part of the reader. Ultimately, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the reader considers the pieces segments or fragments. Or rather, what they are called may be more accurately determined by how the pieces relate – are they suggesting brokenness, a partially-revealed whole, or something assembled? – and by how the white spaces are functioning – a controlled cut, violent tear, or a place of contact? Therefore, it’s the white space, and the quality of resonant energy contained, that’s most important. This is what the spaces say.
- Beasley, Sandra. “On Lyric Essays.” Chicks Dig Poetry (author’s blog), March 26, 2014.
- Bonnaffons, Amy. “Bodies of Text: On the Lyric Essay.” The Essay Review (2016)
- Cha, Sam, “Unbearable Splendor: Against ‘Hybrid’ Genre; Against Genre” Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies (5.2)
- Eleftheriou, Joanna. “Is Genre Ever New? Theorizing the Lyric Essay in Its Historical Context.” Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies (4.1)
- A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays. Ed. Randon Billings Noble. (U. Nebraska P. 2021)
- Lauterbach, Ann. “On Flaws: Toward a Poetics of the Whole Fragment” Theory & Event (3.1), 1999
- McHugh, Heather. Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (Wesleyan UP, 1993)
- Q&A American Poetry: Ann Lauterbach (Poetry Society of America)
- Root, Robert. “This Is What the Spaces Say.” Transcript of presentation at Conference on College Composition and Communication. Creative Nonfiction Blog. Weblog posting. Kansas University. 15 Mar. 2001.
- Washuta, Elissa. Zoom reading, The Raven Bookstore. May 11, 2021.