Poetry Extinguished by Kindle?

I have no doubt that my Kindle and I will spend many happy hours together over the years - but until the greatest minds of my generation start scribbling verses in 91 x 122 mm, I'll stick with paper, ink and glue for poetry.

"... that's what we do, we make lines. Charles Olson, the poet, said no line must sleep, every line in a poem should be wakeful to the lines around it. And when you put a poem on a Kindle, the lines are broken in order to fit on the screen. And so instead of being the poet's decision, it becomes the device's decision." - Billy Collins

Why doesn't the Kindle Store have a Poetry section?

This Christmas, if you haven't done already, go and stand in a big bookshop. Obviously, Foyles in London is perfect for this, but anything with more than two floors is fine. Within 15 minutes you will hear somebody say, in that sagely middle-class way that us bookshop customers have about us, 'it's odd to think that all this will be gone soon and it's all gonna be Kindle.'

The thought process behind this fallacy is forgivable. Train stations and billboards are plastered with advertisements for Amazon's latest money-spinner. Kindle enthusiasts are legion and vociferous in their disdain for those lesser Luddites still clinging to a paper past. I have had more than a few friends and colleagues tell me that they will not purchase my collection until it's an ePub.

And, on the surface, Amazon is doing exactly what Apple did for the music industry with the iPod, aren't they? Providing a platform for entire libraries of content in an easily transportable device with enough greyspace to breach copyright boundaries is what this generation is all about.

When it comes to reading novels, magazines and blogposts, I agree - the Kindle is a perfect next step for those who want to flit between the complete works of Stephen King but do not enjoy lugging it around in 1000-page blocks for the sake of 45 minutes travel-time before and after work.

Moreover, the anti-glare screen of a Kindle is perfect for doing this - allowing for a whole Ritalin-riddled generation to have their novels in large-text-tiny-screen chunks and feel the moral gratification of finishing a page every eight seconds.

But this does not lend itself to the enjoyment of poetry.

For those of you who are not regular writers of poetry - I shall give you a quick insight into how many of us work. For most poets, the A4 page is their primary medium. It is their ambition to leave this blank 210 x 297 mm rectangle with an imprint of an idea or two and then hammer it into what lazy reviewers will then refer to as 'wrought'.

When this is done, it is the job of the publishers to typeset these, often oddly-shaped, things into rectangles of 152 x 223 mm without causing too much havoc (this is why collections of sonnets are a diplomatic, if often boring, godsend). Then come the arguments.

It begins when the poet looks at the proofs of a typeset manuscript and notices that an unintentional line-break has been put in and e-mails the publisher. The publisher makes every effort to accommodate, only to find that the poet has since emailed a further forty revisions concerning everything from the font-size of the titles to the width of the right-hand margins.

Both the publisher and poet exasperate each other during this process - both of whom are trying to do their job as best as possible whilst keeping the other side happy. This is by no means the most enjoyable part of poetry publishing, but it stems entirely from the fact that poets and their publishers care. They care emphatically about the details, and every individual page, line and word in a collection is weighed for its shape and structure to an extent that most fiction writers and readers could not sustain.

And so when I first read a collection of poetry on my new Kindle, I saw exactly where the problems were. The Kindle, as it currently exists, bypasses the back-and-forth process I have just described - it 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.

I have no doubt that my Kindle and I will spend many happy hours together over the years - but until the greatest minds of my generation start scribbling verses in 91 x 122 mm, I'll stick with paper, ink and glue for poetry.


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