Poetry in the Digital Age

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An ongoing project of Zeigeist is to identify innovation gaps, places where technology falls short or doesn’t address problems at all. We place a premium on real-world issues, but we want to make sure that we address artistic and aesthetic ones, too. So we’re dedicating two posts this week to exploring poetry in the digital age. This first post addresses the nuts-and-bolt (or zeroes and ones) of putting poetry online: designing it, coding it, and making the most of digital opportunities. Tomorrow’s post will explore the realities of publishing poetry online, with suggestions for how to support the poetry community, real and virtual.

Poetry publishers are starting to take advantage of e-book editions, and there are new, shiny apps for anyone who wants to look up a favorite Shakespeare quote on his or her phone, but poetry has lagged far behind books and other types of writing in making use of digital opportunities. One of the main reasons for this is that poetry poses a big challenge to publishing software and content management systems. Many e-book readers render poetry unreadable by introducing line breaks, eliminating deliberate spacing, and devaluing poetic form. On the web, most content management systems make life challenging for bootstrapping writers and editors who seek to publish poetry without strong (or, in many cases, any) programming support.

Poetry as Content

Many of the boundaries between text, images, and media have been collapsed into the big bucket we call content, and web tools are increasingly more sophisticated at rendering this content in interactive and sophisticated ways. But poetry is a singular type of content: it’s composed of both language and form. It evokes sensations (musical, meaningful) beyond its words through meter, verse, rhyme, and a range of other tools that make visual presentation critical. Each poem is a highly individual piece of content.

Excerpt of Source Code from "The Blue Word" by Laura Christina Dunn (http://atlengthmag.com/poetry/the-blue-word/)

Style sheets aren’t yet up to the task of the presenting poetry. This becomes readily apparent to anyone trying to use a content management system to publish poetry online. I work with the team at At Length, a literary journal devoted to publishing long-form poetry and prose, along with in-depth writing about art, music, and photography. Our site is built on WordPress, the most effective and efficient vehicle for multiple editors to publish such a wide range of media. But poetry eludes WordPress, demanding that our poetry editor work html magic for every piece.

I recently connected with Irwin Chen, an interaction designer who designs and hand-codes the online poetry journal Absent magazine. Irwin noted, “I tried WordPress originally, but . . . when you’re concerned with poetry, you want the HTML to be as clean and precise as possible.” So what about the next generation of web tools? Irwin has coded Absent in HTML5 and CSS3, and he reported:

HTML5 doesn’t really do all that much for poetry specifically, but CSS3 does allow for some nice typographic controls, though multi-columns aren’t truly supported across the board yet. I don’t think it’s a watershed moment yet for poetry, and I don’t think HTML5/CSS3 bring anything new to the table that wasn’t there before. It just makes certain things clearer and less crazy. The fact is most of the HTML5 tags are article/prose related (article, sidebar, nav, etc).

The tools are getting more powerful for content, but not necessarily for poetry. As Irwin commented, “You might be able to conquer essays and scientific papers and even some corporate websites with semantic markup and a good knowledge of CSS, but poetry is strangely a different beast. It (and poets) are very particular about layout. All the way back to George Herbert, who was writing/designing poems in the shape of wings back in the 1600s!”

Poetry as Code

Two hundred years ago, Gustave Flaubert wrote that “Poetry is as precise as geometry.” Today, I would argue that poetry is as precise as code. The art of crafting poetry and the art of creating web pages are not dissimilar, yet poets and programmers don’t seem to know that the other exists. Irwin observed:

The ironic thing is that code IS poetry, and poetry is code. Programmers are just as anal about the significance of indentation as poets are, just as obsessive about syntax, and driven to tears by a misplaced comma or quotation mark. Programmers even put a more rigid constraint on the rendering of code than poets do, i.e., they only use monospaced fonts (though John Hollander does this too). Imagine what code would look like if they used italics, letter-spaced small caps, and old style figures!

As Marianne Moore observed in the opening to her Complete Poems, “Omissions are not accidents.”

Poetry as Digital Opportunity

It makes sense that poets would be loath to give up the printed page entirely. With At Length, we recognize the difficulty of reading long form works in a web browser, so we offer printable pdf versions of poems and essays to complement the digital version. But designers love the printed page, too. Irwin acknowledged his own love: “When I went to college at Yale, I fell in love with the letterpress . . . and later, graphic design. I always say, there’s a direct line between setting type by hand and coding HTML and CSS. Both have this immediacy.”

A love for the printed page should not blind poets to the opportunity of digital spaces. The fact that the tools aren’t optimized for poetry yet underscores the fact that poetry is not making a tremendous effort to bridge the technological gap, or to call upon programmers and developers to create more opportunities for poetry. Poetry can’t just wait for the technology to show up; poetry must be involved in helping the technology get there.

Every web page can be typeset. Every web site can be a chapbook. Irwin observed, “On the screen, I’m still trying to create the same feeling you get when you see a well-set, handsome page of poetry on a page. It’s rough, for obvious reasons, but I think there’s still exploration to be done.” Just as poetry is a singular type of content, poetry offers a unique opportunity for collaboration between writer, designer, and programmer. Absent makes use of this opportunity, and there are other efforts, too. Born Magazine is an experimental venue marrying literary arts and multimedia, and their projects are collaboratively created by writers and artists. Individual designers like Brooklyn-based Jason Santa Maria have worked on systems for fast art direction based on the needs of the content (see how he handles poetry, here). If you know of others, please share in the comments.

Poetry as Contemplative Distance

“It is the job of poetry to clean up our word-clogged reality by creating silences around things.” – Stephen Mallarme

Poetry matters. I’m not going to wring my hands and say that we need poetry now more than ever. But one of the downsides of the digital age is clutter: information overload and content overconsumption. Poetry disrupts consumption – it slows you down, forces you to stay with the line, and challenges you in a very different way than interactive media. It matters. It should be more of a part of our digital landscape.

I’m realistic about this. I know that poetry won’t experience a giant surge in readership just because it’s available online or on e-books. But readership can expand, and so can the experience of poetry. And we need to take the deep, contemplative breath that poetry can offer. I subscribe to the Poem-A-Day email from The Academy of American Poets. I don’t read the poem that arrives in my inbox each day – sometimes I don’t care for the poet, and sometimes I just don’t feel like I have time to care. But when I open up that contemplative distance, it’s always rewarding, and sometimes I get so excited by the poem I read that I forward it and share with friends. And isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about, anyway?

What do you think about poetry and technology? Share your thoughts with us, and tune in tomorrow for a post on the economics (or lack thereof) of publishing poetry online, written by Jonathan Farmer of At Length.


Special thanks to Irwin Chen for contributing so much to this post!
About Irwin… Irwin Chen got his BA in English Literature from Yale University in 1994 and spent one year in the Netherlands on a Fulbright studying design at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht. He returned to New York where he began work as a digital designer, first for Jessica Helfand and later at Funny Garbage and 2×4. He is currently the founder of Redub LLC, an information design and interaction design consultancy based in Brooklyn.  He will be speaking about the future of reading at the upcoming Zeitgeist Panel on The Future of the Human/Machine Interface.

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  • By Coding Poetry for Digital Publication « PWxyz on October 7, 2010 at 11:12 am

    […] online magazine At Length came to the rescue by pointing me to a post they did on the blog Zeitgeist NYC about how they and others manage to code poetry so it looks just right online (and in […]