“[Y]ou have to use the language of prose to define poetry,” or, Poetry and the e-world are not the best of friends.

Over at the Poetry Foundation’s site, Alizah Salario has a long, informative, and well-reported article about the difficulties that face publishers when they try to turn books of poetry into e-books.

The problems lie, primarily, with the difficulty of getting an e-pub format–and thus an e-reader–to render the careful lineation of poetry correctly. Like prose, poetry has to be coded so that the reader knows how to display it; unlike prose, poetry’s needs aren’t really met by the current coding vocabulary:

All the aspects of the poem—including irregular line breaks, indentations, and spaces (essentially, all the nuances that make a poem a poem)—must be described in a language the e-reader understands. . . . The problem for ePub, the Kindle, and poetry is that the markup language doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe the minutiae of poetry.

It’s worth reading the whole article: Salario does a great job of explaining the problems and the not-quite-good-enough solutions currently available, and she also talks to staff from a number of small-and-medium-sized poetry presses, all of whom have differing takes on the situation.

I’m familiar with this problem, in simpler form, from my work as the poetry editor of the Quarterly Conversation: no matter how much work I do with &#nbsp; tags to try to get unusual spacing within and before lines to display properly, it seems like at least half the time, the result doesn’t really approximate what’s found on the page.

Ultimately, I’m just a review editor: I want to get lines right because I want to help the reader understand the poetry under consideration, but the primary goal is met so long as the review itself is clear. The responsibility a publisher owes a poet is much greater. Salario writes,

Yet for many poets, a severed line is no less egregious an error than blowing the entire poem to smithereens. A poem is diminished if its digital presentation doesn’t mirror the text on the page. The poem’s integrity and the poet’s intent are diluted, and who wants mangled poetry?

For now, I’m inclined to mark this down as one more point in favor of physical books, but in the long term, I know that poetry faces enough hurdles in the marketplace already–it certainly doesn’t need more impediments to reaching the e-book audience.

{Robot photo by rocketlass.}


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  1. “[Y]ou have to use the language of prose to define poetry,” or ……

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

    Posted by World Spinner | November 12, 2010, 11:42 am
  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Scott Esposito, Maureen Doallas. Maureen Doallas said: RT @scmfa: The problem with publishing e-poetry http://t.co/N1nfWZV (via @ScottEsposito) [...]

    Posted by Tweets that mention The Constant Conversation | “[Y]ou have to use the language of prose to define poetry,” or, Poetry and the e-world are not the best of friends. -- Topsy.com | November 15, 2010, 5:42 am

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