Publishers Weekly has an article on this topic today.  Anyone who is interested in poetry should take a look.  Here’s a snippet:

But poetry publishers do have one issue that most publishers don’t in terms of e-books: those pesky line breaks, the things that happen to make poems what they are. It turns out it’s pretty hard to preserve line breaks in EPub and other e-book file formats: one of the ways reflowable text adapts to readers’ preferences in terms of font size and reading device is to wrap lines on the screen differently depending on those preferences. So, on one reader’s Kindle, the first two lines of “The Road Not Taken” might appear correctly (“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/ And sorry I could not travel both”), whereas on the same reader’s Kindle smartphone app, in a larger font, it could, for instance, look like this:

Two roads diverged
in a yellow wood
And sorry I could
not travel both

That’s just an example, and it may not seem to matter much—it’s the same words, right?—but poetry is about not just content but form. The packet of thought that is “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” is different from the one that is just “Two roads diverged.”

Michael Wiegers, executive editor of Copper Canyon Press, publishers of current poet laureate W.S. Merwin as well as recent NBCC winner C.D. Wright, has a rather poetic way of phrasing this issue: “How can we maintain the intentionality of the poet on devices which by design strip out that intentionality? One of the analogies that I use is that with a lot of the devices, it’s like they’re taking sheet music and they’re getting rid of the staff; they’re giving us all the notes but we’re not getting the rhythm or how the notes should fall on the staff,” he says.


  1. A really important (and well-known) issue, and one that reveals the limitations of HTML, not just ebook/epub.

    The problem is that when you mark it up there is no semantics for it. (The only languages which seem to have semantics for it are TEI and — soon– docbook publishers schema . Project Gutenberg has done a pretty good job with their poetry markup — although it’s a lot of manual space and line breaks….

    Actually the solution for poetry seems to be just sticking with PDF. Tablets like the ipad have great PDF readers.

  2. Jeez some people will whinge about anything.

    This is clearly not a flaw or limitation in html which is incredibly flexible. It is a limitation caused, if anything, by readers who set fonts too large and “force” lines to flow over.
    It is easily corrected by reducing the font size or reading in landscape. Get over it FGS.

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