Why Are the Poetry Format Options on the Web So Sh*tty?

Attention must be paid to style and formatting

Hi, my name is Daniel, and I edit online literary journals.

I’ve edited literary journals on the web since the late 1990s. Journals and websites with stupid names like Ducky and Unpleasant Event Schedule and We Who Are About To Die.

Along with the poetry slams, online lit journals saved poetry from tweedy, elbow-patched irrelevance in the mid-1990s. I know this because I was there. I’ll go one step further: online lit journals are the beating heart of contemporary literature, and I’ll stand on Helen Vendler’s coffee table in my orthopedic shoes and say that.

It’s not the path to riches, but editing online literary journals is immensely gratifying. It gives you the chance to curate and put good creative writing out into the world. You get to talk to other writers and editors and nerd out about writing and editing.

The tools of the trade have changed over the years. I’ve used Dreamweaver, Blogspot, Tumblr and, for the past ten years, WordPress.

Whenever we online literary journal editors head off to the Online Literary Journal Pub after a long day of reading submissions and launching issues to throw back some figurative beers, the one question that comes up, the one that I’ve never gotten a sufficient answer to, is how to format poetry correctly.

I’ll go one step further: online lit journals are the beating heart of contemporary literature, and I’ll stand on Helen Vendler’s coffee table in my orthopedic shoes and say that.

We don’t ask it like that. Online lit journal editors, you see, often use salty language. We put it another way.

Why the fuck are poetry format options on the web so damn shitty?

Dave Bonta has written the online journal editor’s equivalent of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, modestly titled “How to format poetry on the web: an incomplete guide.” Here’s how Bonta sums up the problem:

“…HTML is not particularly poetry-friendly, and special measures are required to preserve a lot of the formatting which an earlier technology, the typewriter, made all too easy. Web developers have created some awesome, easy-to-use web publishing tools which are democratizing poetry publication and helping us reach new audiences in an unprecedented manner, but we poets and online magazine editors still struggle to figure out how to post anything more complicated than simple, left-justified stanzas with short lines. I’ve even seen some literary magazines that advise authors not to submit anything that can’t be easily formatted!”

Bonta wrote this in 2010.

Not much has changed.

Here’s one problem

First off,
poems
have
line breaks.

That’s one thing that makes them
poems.

To make those line breaks occur here
in
Medium, as with everywhere else,
I needed to hit Shift + Enter at
the end
of each
line.

Otherwise,

the line breaks

would look like

this.

So. That’s one problem.

Here’s another problem

Poems also, sometimes, have long lines, long, long lines with line breaks at the end. To tell the reader “this is a really long-ass line that would continue off the page and off the screen if it were possible,” we use what is called a hanging indent on the printed page. Here is how one would do it in a very popular word processing program called Microsoft Word:

Sort of the opposite of the indent you see in print at the beginning of paragraph, the hanging indent is familiar anyone who learned how to do a works cited page in MLA style.

In poetry, when the lines are longer than the post area of your content management system, there is no option to give the line a hanging indent. None.

Sure, you may be able to mimic the hanging indent experience, but for the most part all those options suck.

For years, I’ve searched around the web for elegant solutions to the hanging indent problem.

Failing that, I’ve searched for inelegant solutions.

Then I looked for ugly solutions.

Here’s one: I might guesstimate where a long line of poetry might carry over
and making a hard line break there, slapping on a couple
non-repeating blanks spaces at the beginning of each successive line,
and crossing my fingers.

Can you see those blank spaces after the first line? I tried to mimic a hanging indent, and the option I was given was one blank space — one blank space — at the beginning of each line to mimic an indent that hangs.

Shitty!

Just think: a poem written before World War II needs to be shared as an image or a PDF to be read on the web. Or to be published.

Smart people like to invoke Cascading Style Sheets at around this point of the conversation, and it’s nice that people make an effort.

But it never works. And if it does, editors will have to apply it on an ad hoc basis and use code.

No “Hanging Indent Poetry” toolbar button or keyboard shortcuts for you!

Here’s still another problem

Poets and poems also live all over the whole page. As in all-over-the-page whole page.

See this page of poetry from E.E. Cummings? It was published in 1939. 1939!

I would bet anyone a six-pack of green-bottle imported beer that you wouldn’t be able to re-create the way these lines look in any of your everyday content management systems.

It’s just impossible.

I do wonder how institutions with big money — the Poetry Foundation, with its huge endowment, is the obvious example — has solved this problem. Not to get too tinfoil hat here about it, but I bet they have. And if they have some sort of plugin or code or something else up their sleeves, they should share it with the world. Or at least WordPress.

But for now we have shitty options, and none of them work.

Just think: a poem written before World War II needs to be shared as an image or a PDF to be read on the web. Or to be published.

The great poet William Carlos Williams called it the “field of action,” and Charles Olson later called “composition by field.”

Here’s Williams writing in 1948:

How can we accept Einstein’s theory of relativity, affecting our very conception of the heavens about us of which poets write so much, without incorporating its essential fact — the relativity of measurements — into our own category of activity: the poem. Do we think we stand outside the universe? Or that the Church of England does? Relativity applies to everything, like love, if it applies to anything in the world.

If Williams saw some of the sad, sad workarounds online literary journal editors have to use just to make a poem look like a poem in this year of our lord 2021, he’d think that web programmers still think writing format remains in the 19th century.

He would then throw his red wheelbarrow into Paterson Great Falls, and I wouldn’t blame him.

It’s not like these esoteric format options carried over from print culture are impossible to re-create

We can do freaking drop caps in CSS, after all, which is great if we want our web pages to mimic, like, the typography of Arthurian storybooks.

Drop caps!

But what if we wanted to capture what Walt Whitman looks like on the page?

See those blank spaces that go beyond a normal ident in lines 5, 6, 7, and 8? You could try to make it look like that in a web page, I guess. But it would largely be a failure.

You could maybe get a couple non-repeating spaces to move the lines over, but the second you switched to a tablet or, heavens forbid, a phone, Whitman’s poem would look like nonsense.

We have responsive pages for prose, but not for poetry.

The current workaround solutions are just sad

Over the years, people who edit and publish poetry and experimental prose online have developed our workarounds. And they are just sad.

There is the ever-popular Shift+Enter for line breaks.

And then there is the non-breaking space code ( ) to emulate, hopefully, what some white space would look on the page.

We’ve used white jpegs —

like that one above — to force the page to create blank space, to do what is done quite easily in any word processing program or even a typewriter.

We’ve used white dots — white freaking dots! — which, you might guess, are dots like these…except they’re then changed to white. They work, kind of, except when you decide you want to change your background color. Or your font color. Or font. Then you’d have to change the color of your dots. And remember where you put them.

We’ve placed little statements at the top or bottom of the pieces we publish, urging readers to please please please view this site on a desktop in full screen.

Oh, the <pre> tag, you say?

Nice one, well-intentioned smartypants people. It might work. If I wanted a poem to look like a block quote from a novel, or if most of the WordPress themes didn’t also include a background color. Maybe it would work then.

What about decreasing the default size in WordPress’s Gutenberg block editor?

Again: maybe. But I wear glasses, very thick glasses, and I can’t see what’s going on because the type is so small.

Or how about WordPress’s Verse block, which purports to be “ideal for writing poetry on your site”?

At least in the themes I have used in WordPress, the font style, italics, indicates that perhaps Verse block is useful if one we block-quoting poetry, with little regard for the original text’s use of italics or bold, but unless one were a poet who was a member Italics Anonymous and used italics exclusively, Verse block is pretty much useless.

Oh wait wait wait: how about a PDF plugin for those high-rolling wordpress.org endusers?

Tried that. It makes poems look like legal briefs. And that’s only if the PDF plugin works.

And then we have ole faithful: a JPG screenshot of a Word file, inserted into the post?

Tried that, too. That option is just sad.

My point: it’s 2021, and I can’t for the life of me believe we haven’t figured out how to format writing that’s written in 2021 correctly.

The current state of affairs

Last April, reading submissions for Pine Hills Review, the online journal I have edited for the past few years with students at The College of Saint Rose, we had to turn down some great work from an experimental prose writer and poet.

Why? There was no way we could do their work justice, with their staggered left-margins, white spaces indicating urgency and pauses, and long lines that mimic a mind going 120 miles per hour. The wildness on the page was one of the reasons we loved their writing, but it was also the reason we had to send a rejection. How dare these writers use this formatting!

If Williams saw some of the sad, sad workarounds online literary journal editors have to use just to make a poem look like a poem in this year of our lord 2021, he’d think that web programmers still think writing format remains in the 19th century.

This wasn’t the first time, but it felt just so freaking sad to explain these students, Gen Z and Gen Y digital natives all, how the formatting options weren’t there yet, and maybe they never will be.

I couldn’t help but wonder: are other online editors doing the same thing and rejecting submissions of experimental writing that they otherwise would publish? Are there whole books’ worth of writing that’s not getting published because editors look at those submissions and think, “we love it, but it won’t format on the web” and then taken a pass?

I emailed fellow members of the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses. I had been thinking of adding language to our submission guidelines, something admittedly clunky, that says something to the effect of “if you submit and we accept pieces that use blank space, field of composition, or visual elements that HTML or our CMS cannot re-create, we may have publish the piece as a jpeg to ensure it is represented accurately.”

In the back of my mind, I was hoping one of my fellow editors, perhaps from some well-funded university or one with some wiz kid coder editor, would come out with some solution.

A couple editors responded with the CSS solution — again, adorable, but it only addressed the hanging indent issue. Another editor of a pretty big journal said my idea of a disclaimer was a pretty decent, pragmatic idea.

“I’m surprised by how many writers seem never to give this kind of format issue a thought,” another editor said. “It’s especially odd for poets who seem as though they ought to have a real sense of the physicality of the words on the page. We don’t state anything in our submission guidelines, but it’s not a bad idea.”

For years, I’ve talked to other online journal editors — usually small-time editors like myself — and the collective opinion seems to be a “whaddyagonnado” shrug.

I shudder at the thought that we can put someone on the moon, we can make a hologram of the late Ronnie James Dio on a stage, but today’s Walt Whitman, let alone the next Apollinaire or Mallarme, can’t get their poems to read accurately on the web.

Ever wonder why there are Instagram poets in the first place? I bet it’s due in no small part to the fact that the poems are presented as static images and you get a true WYSIWYG experience for once.

I can’t say I blame them.

Maybe it can be done

I like to lay this on WordPress because it’s the CMS I’ve used for over a decade. It’s the one that runs a good chunk of the web. Search online and you will see multiple WordPress forum posts where some blogger asks how to format poetry, and some community expert will parachute in and tell them all about the PRE tag or, I dunno, Tiny MCE if they’re feeling saucy. The forum post will then classified as “solved.” But there is no solve, there is no solution, and we all know that.

So. Why, oh why, in this year of our lord 2021, does it take so much effort to make poems look like poems on the web?

It’s been around for a long-ish time, after all, and you’d figure that, by now, people who come up with the codes and format standards would have figured out how to democratize the ways in which poetry is formatted.

Or maybe the CMS companies like WordPress or SquareSpace could figure it out.

Or maybe the Poetry Foundation, with its Ruth Lily money and glass building in Chicago, could figure it out.

And if you’re a real Code Viking, I am sure you may chime in with a comment and codersplain how it could be done, how poetry can look like actual poetry on the web, and all you have to do is download this plugin or learn this set of code, and you’d be set.

Maybe you’re right. Maybe it can be done.

For online lit journal editors, all the options still look pretty shitty.

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