The Problem with Prosaic Solutions

Our first guest post of 2015 is from Artie Moffa, who spent six years setting textbooks at a Big Six publisher before switching to the indie scene. In 2014, he started The Yellow Buick Review, an open-source journal of lorem ipsum poetry, to explore best practices for formatting poems in the age of ebooks, which also happens to be the topic he’ll be discussing at ebookcraft this March. Now here he is explaining the unique needs of poetry versus prose.

Emily Dickinson and her beloved KoboEmily Dickinson and her beloved Kobo.When all you have is a <p> tag, every block of text looks like a paragraph.

Stanzas are not paragraphs. That’s the biggest hurdle, the concept of a poem as a larger work, a denser use of letters on the page. Get comfortable with that idea, and the rest is easy.

Typesetters who mistake stanzas for paragraphs get far too stingy with their <p> tags and get far too spendthrift with their <br> tags. Break tags, also known as “soft returns,” leave you with clunky, rigid lines in ebooks. Of the poems you find on Project Gutenberg, 90% were formatted this way:

The air is silent save where stirs <br>
A bugling breeze among the firs; <br>
The virgin world in white array <br>
Waits for the bridegroom kiss of day; <br>
All heaven blooms rarely in the east <br>
Where skies are silvery and fleeced, <br>
And o'er the orient hills made glad <br>
The morning comes in wonder clad; <br>
Oh, 'tis a time most fit to see <br>
How beautiful the dawn can be!<br>


This kind of formatting never worked elegantly, but it worked okay in a Netscape 3.0 world of straight HTML and SVGA monitors.

Overzealous use of the <br> tag is an example of a little knowledge being worse than none at all. Because it is the rank amateurs, the poets pasting from MS Word into WordPress (or into Smashwords), who end up slightly closer to the truth:

<p>Wide, sparkling fields snow­vestured lie </p>
<p>Beneath a blue, unshadowed sky; </p>
<p>A glistening splendor crowns the woods </p>
<p>And bosky, whistling solitudes; </p>
<p>In hemlock glen and reedy mere </p>
<p>The tang of frost is sharp and clear; </p>
<p>Life hath a jollity and zest, </p>
<p>A poignancy made manifest; </p>
<p>Laughter and courage have their way </p>
<p>At noontide of a winter's day.</p>

This approach looks terrible in WordPress—it looks terrible almost everywhere—but at least it treats lines as distinct units, and that’s progress.

If all you had was HTML, then those <p> tags would be liabilities. But of course you have CSS, too. And by assigning classes at the level of the line, you can produce reflowable, responsive poems that hew to the basic tenets of poetic form. To do that, however, you can’t just settle for plain <p> tags. You need to create poetry-specific classes in your cascading style sheet:

<p class="PoemLine1">Faint music rings in wold and dell, </p>
<p class="PoemLine">The tinkling of a distant bell, </p>
<p class="PoemLine">Where homestead lights with friendly glow </p>
<p class="PoemLine">Glimmer across the drifted snow; </p>
<p class="PoemLine">Beyond a valley dim and far </p>
<p class="PoemLine">Lit by an occidental star, </p>
<p class="PoemLine">Tall pines the marge of day beset </p>
<p class="PoemLine">Like many a slender minaret, </p>
<p class="PoemLine">Whence priest­like winds on crystal air </p>
<p class="PoemLine">Summon the reverent world to prayer.</p>

Which is the whole point. To create specific classes for poetry lines and stanzas is to embrace the useful conceptual truth that poetry is different than prose.

Poem “A Winter Day” by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Public Domain.

ebookcraft speaker Artie MoffaArtie will be continuing this discussion on March 11 at his ebookcraft session, It’s 2015: Poetry ebooks have run out of excuses. For more information, and to register while early-bird pricing lasts, visit