Line-by-line Poetry

A  nice piece in The New York Times this week points to the increasing traction that electronic formatting for poetry is gaining at small presses.

The report, Line by Line, E-Books Turn Poet-Friendly by Alexandra Alter, explains the macro-typography problem with poetry: lines, not paragraphs, are the fundamental unit. If electronic publishers of poetry attend to the formatting of every line, they can create beautiful presentations.

But in early e-books (and needless to say, in most web presentations of poetry), publishers rushed out poems without appropriate formatting and the results were awful. The Text Encoding Initiative and other projects developed enormously complex standards for historic poetry, but these were not appropriate for contemporary poets, because the rules were so ridiculously complicated to apply.

I worked through these issues 12 years ago in developing the poetry page of my Macro-Typography site. [Note: this shows broken at the moment in Firefox, but loads fine in IE.] Sadly, my efforts to devise a few simply standard units were too far ahead of the curve. At that time, poets did not understand the internet, and web designers did not understand poets.

I argued during the the introduction of HTML 5 that poetry should be taken into account. It wasn't.

Perhaps I was too impatient. It took centuries to establish the conventions used by typesetters in setting up poetry for printed books. It was bound to take a few years for web typographers to be understood.

The solution I propounded in 2002 is now gradually establishing itself. Poetry must be formatted in units of lines so that any spillovers when the screen is too narrow always appear indented, not flush left. The range of formats for lines must include various initial indentations, along with special cases such as the caesura and the flush-right line. Stanzas must be appropriately spaced from one another.

Alexandra Alter describes how eBook Architects, a company in Austin, Texas, is now developing virtuous web-display routines as it formats poetry professionally:
[T]he text was hand-coded and marked up semantically, so that the formal elements were tagged as lines, stanzas or deliberate indentations. When a line runs over because the screen is too small or the font is too big, it is indented on the line below — a convention that’s been observed in print for centuries.
Bravo. It's good that poets are gradually realizing that poetry can look beautiful on an electronic screen, and that Aldine blackletter on creamy white paper is not the sole way to publish. It's a pity it is still so hard to set up electronic publication that specialist companies have to be engaged to provide bespoke solutions. It ought to be part of standard HTML.