in Uncategorized

Phil Brown on Poetry & the Kindle

The Huffington Post has recently published an article by the poet Phil Brown, lamenting the impact of the Kindle on poetry. He writes:

The Kindle[…]does not care about the poet’s feelings about line-breaks or page-structure or the publisher’s in-house typographical style. The Kindle cares about giving you the words you asked for in the order that the writer wrote them – if Coleridge could read Kubla Khan as an ePub he’d write a couple of footnotes to his famous adage.

Whilst the nature of novels certainly stand up incredibly well to this treatment, the arbitrariness of page and line-breaks on the Kindle make viewing Prufrock on an eReader akin to viewing an Edward Hopper painting snapped in two and placed in neighbouring rooms to save space.

He is completely right that there is a problem with the Kindle’s reflowable text & poetry. I wrote about this issue in my review of Sarah Dawson’s Anatomically Incorrect Sketches of Marine Animals. But it is frustrating that this response to the problem is so pessimistic & unimaginative.

Some points for Mr Brown:

  • “EPub” does not mean “Kindle ebook”, even though the article seems to use them interchangeably. They are not the same thing. It would be a shame to tar epub with mobi’s brush. (Also, pdfs exist.) & a Kindle is not the only type of ereader, despite its current market dominance. (It is true that much of digital publishing at present involves impatiently waiting for Amazon to change or for a better, popular ereader to come along. Also, iPads exist.) This is like a musician ten years ago decrying digital audio based on what midi files sound like.
  • It is possible, with minimal effort, to format poetry for mobi ebooks (that is, ebooks for the Kindle; i.e., not epubs). My favourite solution is to use hanging indents to distinguish between poet-broken lines & Kindle-broken lines.  This has been the practice of print books for hundreds of years. That said, it is likely that Amazon, due to the pressure from more lucrative areas of publishing than poetry (e.g., children’s picture books), will come out with better fixed format support.
  • Poets do not specifically write to A4. Not all poets are ‘page’ poets, & even for them, most compose in their heads, on napkins, on envelopes, on receipts, in small notebooks, in big notebooks, on lined paper stolen from work… These poets then have handwriting of different sizes, &, even when drafting on a word processor, will make all sorts of decisions in typography & page layout which are idiosyncratic & irrelevant, & which the publisher will completely ignore in production. From this it should be clear that: (i) it is a strange bit of retrospective thinking to enshrine the container at the very start of the creative process; (ii) it is equally strange to take the perfectly sensible idea that poetry is generally (but vaguely) composed for fixed format layouts & then attach something about “210 x 297 mm”, as if it were the millimeters that count.
  • All layout/design decisions a poet makes are relative & work outwards from the text (e.g., ‘I would like these letters to appear in this order’, ‘I would like this line to end here’, ‘I would like this text to be italic’, ‘I would like this line to be indented to here’, ‘I would like this text in a column to line up with this text’), rather than being absolute & working inwards from the paper. (Unless you are Tony Williams, for one.) The question is how many of these decisions can a given container incorporate. Compromise is a part of the process in any medium.
  • Paper is an arbitrary container just as much as an ereader’s screen is. Paper is not an inherent part of the definition of poetry, or of its enjoyment. A4 comes from ISO, not the Muses.
  • Reading some poets on paper is (& increasingly will be) akin to only having a photograph of the orchestra playing the symphony. What I mean to say is, digital might have some restrictions, but, increasingly, it is print that is going to look limited.

The Kindle is frustrating even for those who just want to publish prose fiction, & is certainly not sympathetic to poets. No one who is involved in digital publishing thinks that the Kindle is fantastic, but it would be a shame to throw out all of digital’s babies with Amazon’s bathwater. It is even more of a shame to respond to the approach of poetry ebooks by retreating into conservative, reactionary thinking, rather than seeing it as an exciting challenge to embrace & improve. There are lot of writers & publishers who are already tackling the issue in innovative ways, & who are thinking about the changing face of the book & its influence on literature, & so, whilst Phil Brown is entitled to write to any medium which he prefers, it is a shame to not be taking the opportunity of what is likely to be a widely-read article to praise rather than damn.

Despite his references to “this generation” as “Ritalin-riddled” & with an antipathy to intellectual property, Phil Brown was only born in 1987 — this is his generation — , &, furthermore, is poetry editor at Silkworms Ink, an innovative, digital-based publisher, which makes this article somewhat unexpected. (I suspect he is writing this article to flatter the prejudices of the audience of the Huffington Post.) He has also published a collection with the wonderful Nine Arches Press which is, by all accounts, very good, & I am looking forwards to getting a chance to read & hopefully review it. I don’t suppose I shall be reading it on my Kindle.