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How e-books break poems

Poetry rarely makes the headlines, but an Associated Press story about the unsuitability of verse to the e-book form has been making the rounds. The story notes the dearth of major poets being published digitally.

Major poets not yet in e-form include Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Sylvia Plath, W.H. Auden and Robert Lowell, Langston Hughes and C.K. Williams. No e-editions of poetry are available from this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Rae Armantrout; from Pulitzer winner and incoming U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin; or from such recent laureates as Charles Simic, Robert Pinsky and Louise Glueck.

While the assertion that poetry is “so far the least adaptable [literary form] to the growing e-book market” may be overstated (surely, illustrated children’s books have proven even more difficult), it is certainly the case that the design and formatting issues that afflict e-books are more pronounced in verse, often distorting a poem beyond recognition. Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins puts it this way:

The critical difference between prose and poetry is that prose is kind of like water and will become the shape of any vessel you pour it into to. Poetry is like a piece of sculpture and can easily break.

The bad news is that the problem seems intractable, at least for now:

A leading developer of e-reading technology, eBook Technologies, is working on improving the formatting for poetry, although no major breakthroughs are expected before 2011. Company president Garth Conboy said that for now the most realistic options are either to keep a long line intact by scrolling horizontally across the screen ” “A really bad experience,” he says ” or to find a way to “better communicate” to readers that a line broken in two was meant to be a single line.

“Neither are perfect solutions,” he said. “I’m not sure what the perfect solution is.”