Lines into Columns
One of the problems of Agamben's dialectical approach is that, like all dialectical approaches, it is extremely limiting and reductive. Oppositions feel right and they give good structure, but the gradations of the semiotics of space in the poem are subtle and various, and a prose/poetry dichotomy simply does not do them justice. No, to better understand the semiotics of space in relation to the line the main source remains poets themselves, not their poetics, but the actual work. Although lineation and space are fundamentally important to poetic language, nothing has really been written on the subject that comes near to tackling the remarkable usage of semiotics in contemporary poetry.
Recently, in my own work on the poetics of loss and mourning, I have been looking at the interface of the semiotic and semantic in that of all the semantic areas space could address, obviously the theme absence/loss is the easiest. In particular I have been looking at the right hand margin, mysterious zone of poetic definition that speaks with the eloquence of the poetic by remaining almost permanently silent. I have also been looking at the tendency of memorial monuments to be articulation semiotically through the use of a broken line suggesting links between the aesthetics of commemoration and the basic conditions of poetry.
This has led me increasingly to think about columns. (Blogger doesn't allow right margin flush it seems)
In a traditionally ordered poetic field, the left hand margin is flat and ordered like prose is, while the right is jagged and confusing the way poetry is. The imposed semiotic event of the space brought about by line-breaks, suspends the eye and consciousness in this locale of familiar alterity. That space is, semiotically, of massive importance as without it there is no poetry. However, its semantic capabilities are restricted by the fact that nothing is written there. How do we come to terms with space when seen in this way, can one actually read space or is it just there as material to arrest the progress of the eye/voice/mind enough to allow poetry a space to come to being?
What I have discovered in looking at the column poems of Ashbery ("Litany"), Derrida (Glas), Blau duPlessis (Toll), Raworth (various) and my own experiments with the form, is that the jagged, empty right hand column is a very real presence in all lineation. I have concluded that all poems consist of at least two columns, the left-hand inscribed column and the right hand, jagged and empty column. That this has not been commented on much if at all is typical of our inability, as readers of text, to read that foundational part of text, the gap or space. All this is changing now the distribution of the poem across the field of the poem is becoming so central to contemporary poetic measure. This has the benefit of making us look to the right hand column and also the move away from the order of the left. It also allows us to find space interior to the line as well as at its furthest extremes.