Thursday, October 13, 2011

poetry in "e" major

There seems to be a mindset in the poetry world that poetry is primarily to be published in print, and that electronic versions are an afterthought or annoyance. As one publisher (who publishes print and now electronic books) wrote, "For poetry and eBooks to REALLY work, you need short lines. Even the indentations on longer lines bug me (poetry is so much about form and intended line breaks)."

I think this is completely wrong. If you look at how Whitman or Ginsberg poems (which have lots of long lines) reflow in a properly marked up ebook, it is vastly more pleasing to see the long lines indented when they need to reflow than just being flushed left as if they were new lines (indistinguishable from the actual next line). When that happens, the poems are virtually unreadable. (In fact, print books reflow these lines depending on the publisher. There are always constraints, even in the print world.)

I recently bought a poetry book from Smashwords and this "feature" (of not indenting longer lines when they needed to reflow) was annoying. So I put it into Sigil (an ePub editor) and added two lines to a class selector definition (the one in that particular ebook that "wrapped" each line of the poems) in the stylesheet.css file:

padding-left: 1em;
text-indent: -1em;

Now the poems are visually pleasing and readable.

(Want proof? Go to Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" at Poetry Foundation (, do a View→Page Source, and you can how this principle is applied in their markup. And it's for a reason they do that: It's to make sure the poem is readable whether on desktops/notebooks or on smartphones. I am looking at it right now on my MacBook and on my iPod Touch and lines are reflowed correctly in each case. This poem would not be readable otherwise.)

I think a lot of people produce content (poems in this case) in Word or something like that (really meant for producing things to print) and then rely on some automatic conversion (perhaps at Smashwords) to produce the HTML/CSS that ends up in an ebook. Markup that one intends to control how the ebook looks can be lost. This is the completely wrong way to do things if one cares about how their poems look on nooks and Kindles and smartphones. Unfortunately, this is the case of many poetry ebooks on the various vendors it seems.

I’m a believer in poets doing (or getting help to do) their own HTML/CSS coding. It turns out that that code is part of the poem itself, just like the words.

And actually, the reluctance to change from a "p" (print) perspective to an "e" (electronic) pespective is beside the point. The public wants "e" now, and interest in "p" versions is waning. So moving to an "e" perspective for creating and disseminating poetry is a given. It's a new age.

Printed books are the hallmarks of elite societies, but today "e"-devices are proliferating in underdeveloped countries like those in Africa <>, enabling youth to access thousands of books they would never have access to in a print world. The "e"-world is liberating, the "p"-world one of confinement and isolation.