Friday, December 9, 2011

Poetry and ebooks - what're you lookin' at?

Warning: this post gets a bit technical and nerdy at times, but had to go there. It seems the tech nerds that design all this stuff don't understand what a poem is. I don't know if any of them will read this post, but poets/publishers won't solve this problem alone the designers of HTML and CSS will, let's remind them that not all text is prose.

So anyway, I recently had a poem published in an ebook for the first time. Exciting, but also a bit scary. 4th Floor is a great journal, with a fantastic editor and brilliant contributors. So I was thrilled to have a poem in the anthology. Thanks to 4th Floor and Whitireia!

4th Floor ebook 

All was great until I downloaded the ebook and opened it in an ebook reader called Magic Scroll. I haven't tested on other ebook readers, but from what I understand they all should have fairly well established rendering of the ePub format.

So anyway I read through Hinemoana's nice editorial and went to the first poem, 'Dear Grandmother' by Renée. And lo and behold, it was mushed up horribly! The very first line didn't fit on the page, it was broken arbitrarily.

The line:
Husbands are a necessary part of the design
Husbands are a necessary part of the  
And let's be clear for those people (web developers?) who don't write poetry, this effectively ruins the poem. A line break in poetry is everything. It is in many cases what makes it a poem, gives it it's value. It is used for rhythm, as a pause, a beat, it can change the meaning of the words (people tend to read one line as a complete syntactical unit). It is even used to create a visually appetising image on the page, which is all part of the pleasure of reading poetry. I tend to spend just as much time if not more time editing line breaks as I do the actual words themselves. Okay so that rant is over, but what do we do about it?

So I thought oh maybe this is an ebook publishing problem, like they forgot to turn on the 'poetry option' or something, and being an IT nerd in my other life, thought I'd do a bit of research and maybe help with the next one.

And for the non-technical poets out there, an ebook is basically just a webpage. It uses HTML and CSS like a normal webpage to display text using tags and styles.

I searched and I searched and it seems there is surprisingly little discourse on this out there (if anyone knows where people are discussing this then please let me know).

I found many posts where some web developer provides examples of how to style a poem in HTML/CSS. Most of these were horrible, involving centring the poem and using prose syntax to try and fudge the shape of the poem. This doesn't solve any of the issues I've found with ebooks on small devices.

But then I came across this issue raised by Dr Olaf Hoffman to the W3C (who are responsible for improving this stuff). He is basically putting forward the case to add poetry elements to HTML. It  is very illuminating as to why this hasn't happened yet when you read the responses to his suggestion. Developers seem to view poetry as a sub-set of prose, like say legal documents or shopping lists. And the argument never gets past that as far as I can gather. He is doing his best to explain the elements of poetry and how they differ from prose, but still, judging by there comments they don't seem to get it.

The 'issue' remains unresolved as far as I can tell.

Again for the developers that might read this, prose and poetry are about the same as Chinese and English. In a simplistic way I like to think about it as...

Poetry = Is primarily about rhythm and words to create meaning
Prose = Is primarily about words and sentences to create meaning

Left Brain                Right Brain
Prose?                      Poetry?

...of course this is all fluid and there are hybrids of both of these. Obviously there is overlap. And there are historical reasons for the two approaches and why one now dominates the other. I would suggest reading Dr Hoffman's post if you want to go into that more. But suffice to say, they are two parts of something greater, our language.

So what started out as looking for a guide on 'how to e-publish poetry' turned into an issue at the core of the world wide web itself! Jeez.

I still can't believe poetry has been completely forgotten about?

Okay, so I know poetry is a pretty underutilised form of writing these days, so it is (kind of) understandable that it got missed, but still, most people know about it don't they? Know what poetry is don't they? Apparently not.

So what happens now?

Well first of all the web seems to deal with the issue fairly well. There are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of places (millions?) where poetry is published on the web and thoroughly successfully too.

But the web is different to an ebook. An ebook is also about accessibility and a book-like experience on a mobile device. So whether you have a tiny phone or a massive monitor you can read the same book easily. A great idea, but like I said, at the moment poetry on that little phone (and even on the big screen) looks rubbish.

I see two things happening. One, we all get behind Dr Hoffman (not sure how to do that exactly?) and push for poetry in HTML. Which I think makes sense, but there is probably a whole bunch of people who need to be convinced.

Or two, we don't do that and continue on. Either someone will make a 'workaround' for ebook readers to render poetry properly or poetry as we know it will disappear. Which is interesting I think. I'm not much into preservation, poetry does and will change with the times and with technology. That is how prose came about after all.

But you know there are poems NOW that need to go on to ebooks, not to mention that last several thousand years of poems that would do well in a digital format.

So please web developers, don't forget about us again. And if we can help move this along. Would love to, seriously.

ADDENDUM: Some interesting articles on ebook poetry problems


  1. Hi Bill,

    I created MagicScroll.

    In the physical world a book is going to be put together by a human who absolutely knows the difference between narrative and poetry.

    The problem is that the ePUB format does little to distinguish between the two forms of writing or between say a graphic novel and a dictionary.

    Optimizing for one format will absolutely affect the experience of another. If MagicScroll honoured line breaks it would be forced to limit the size of the font which would degrade the experience for people with poor eyesight or on a mobile device.

    In MagicScroll's case I always optimize for narrative which means that poetry, technical manuals, magazines etc don't always display very well.

    To ensure that line breaks are respected, you might want to publish in a format that is not reflowable (like PDF). You can also email a copy of the book to and I'll see if I can do anything to make it display a little better.

    Kind Regards
    Richard Wallis

  2. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for adding a comment on this.

    I didn't mean to single out Magic Scroll, it seems like a great product.

    I'm of the opinion that the rendering of a poem shouldn't come down to optimization, but that the ePub (HTML) format should specify what the text is (poetry or prose), so that it can be handled differently.

    And as I tried to explain in the post, I don't think you can lump poetry together with technical manuals and comics etc. Those two are subsets (or a hybrid in the case of comics) of prose writing, whereas poetry isn't. It has different rules for the display and reading of text, it is related but different from prose.

    Like say, if the internet had been invented 2000 years ago HTML wouldn't have 'paragraph' and 'break' tags, but would have 'stanza' and 'strophe' tags. It's just because prose is the dominant force at the moment that poetry seems to have been forgotten about.

    So in short I think you are doing the right thing by rendering text the way you do in Magic Scroll and trying to compromise that to incorporate poetry would be wrong I think. What we need are HTML elements for poetic text.

    Hopefully that happens before poetry disappears.

  3. Really interesting post, Bill. I find the idea that poetry = Is primarily about rhythm and words to create meaning, whereas prose = Is primarily about words and sentences to create meaning, something I want to think about a lot. It's a conversation I have with my supervisors in terms of longer, narrative poems. I think they're poems because I am focusing on words and sound, but because they have a narrative they're seen as short stories by some.

    As for ebooks, if there were more poetry ebooks out there I would buy an ebook reader. PDF isn't the same as a format that can shape and change for each different device. Maybe we should start a movement ... HTML elements for poetry ... or a petition that we could send to ... um. Not sure. Anyway, interesting post.

  4. Yeah, I'm not sure what we can do either. I'm kind of surprised there isn't more talk out there on this. Seems kind of fundamental.

  5. Nice article!. Thanks for posting this article. From this article I came to know that a line break in poetry gives, It's value, the rhythm but, sometimes it changes the meaning of the sentence. The cause may be due to an ebook publishing problem. This could be avoided so that the meaning of the poem or prose never changes.


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