Breaking up is hard to do

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Collins doesn't like the Kindle Effect on line breaks

Poet Billy Collins has come out decisively against the e-book. The AP story is here.

His reason:  It’s difficult to manage a poem’s line breaks on the electronic screen, which has a disturbing tendency to break lines at awkward places and slide the remaining text onto the next line flush left, as if it were a new line.  Why it’s taken Collins so long to notice this is unclear — he could have seen it in any of his online reviews.  (Or witness my unsuccessful attempts to reproduce a few lines from Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno”  on wordpress here.)

From Collins:

“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.”

Here’s some more mixed views on poetry and the e-book from Ed Hirsch:

“I have mixed feelings about poetry and e-books,” says award-winning poet Edward Hirsch, whose The Living Fire came out in March in hardcover, but not as an electronic text. “I don’t think it’s the best way to read poetry myself and I wouldn’t want to read it on the e-book, but it also seems important to have poetry available wherever possible.”

Pinsky (Photo: Steve Castillo)

and Robert Pinsky:

“On the whole, poetry is well suited for electronic media,” says Pinsky, a frequent Slate contributor. [Slate publishes poetry and has weekly poetry podcasts.] He is confident the technical problems can be fixed, but that adds that besides the problems with portable e-readers, “most word processors treat verse as though each line were a paragraph.

“So, for example, typing a Wallace Stevens poem with capital letters at the beginning of the lines can be mildly annoying,” Pinsky says.

Poets not yet in e-form:  Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sylvia Plath, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Langston Hughes, C.K. Williams, W.S. Merwin, Charles Simic, Louise Glück, Derek Walcott, Paul Muldoon, and Robert Pinsky.

Nice review of Collins’ new Ballistics in the New York Times here.  And a 6-minute podcast of Pinsky reading “Jubilate Agno” here — listening is one way to avoid the line break controversy altogether.


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2 Responses to “Breaking up is hard to do”

  1. chris Says:

    Posting poems on a blog can be a nightmare too – indented half-lines have a way of vanishing without dabbling in html to reproduce them, and pasting and copying is a no-no. I think we need paper copies. R.S.Thomas said his poetry had to be seen rather than heard – though he recorded them at the end of his life.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Paper? Will bytes work for you?

    The idea of poetry being seen rather than heard is not entirely fashionable nowadays. But I agree with you. The ear lies. A poem can sound wonderful with a great reader and yet be absolute rubbish when the eye takes it in.

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