Wednesday, October 11, 2006


John Tranter responded to my comments regarding Aaron Kunin’s text that deploys both verse and prose within the same text without having to resort to haibun-like before-&-after effects by reminding me of this link on Jacket’s website. It’s a discussion of line lengths online, just a part of Jacket’s editorial style guide. One of the reasons that Jacket is the best online poetry publication – tho hardly the most important reason – is that it does think to have, and publish, its style guide.

All magazines, online & otherwise, do have style guides, although relatively few seem actually to know this. It’s something that any professional publication will have in some formal manner, just as every major corporation does, covering everything from use of the name in print to the colors of the logo (there is only one “IBM blue” & woe is he or she who gets it wrong). At The Socialist Review, we knew what it was, and discussed it at length, tho it was never written down anywhere. Later, when I worked for ComputerLand, there were enough people involved in writing & editing in the marketing organization that one could have heated, passionate debates over, to pick an actual example, the relationship of an em-dash to a comma. Often such organizations adopt a published style guide, such as The Associated Press Style Guide, The Chicago Manual of Style or Words into Type. The Chicago Manual has had something of a twitchy history of deciding whether or not to include a comma before the “and” in a series of terms, such as blue, green, mauve, and tope. One edition will have that comma, while the next will drop it. Then the one after that seems to bring it back. This happened at least three times while I was at ComputerLand (which, during the same period, morphed into Vanstar) and it brought out rousing debates each time. And I have known organizations that swore that they were committed to a long out-of-print edition over some convention that may have been no larger than that.

Most zines, hard copy or soft, tend to represent the effort of one individual, sometimes aided by some friends, more often not. In those cases, the style guide tends to reside in the editor’s head & he or she may or may not be able to give you some pointers as to what they are. But a good reading of a couple of issues will let you know, for instance, which ones are prepared to let a critic use an ampersand or spell though as tho & which are not.

The advantage of having a guide in print is that you can outsource some of the finer details of copy editing, whether to another member of the magazine staff, a third-party editor, or perhaps the submitting author, which is more or less how I read Tranter’s guide – it’s a how-to for the submission of articles and poems, so that he doesn’t have to spend forever making minute html adjustments to try and get your text into his format. For example, if I were submit this text to Jacket, I would have to address the fact that my blog’s use of dashes differs from his. I prefer the brevity of an en dash ( – ) with one space on either side to an em dash (—) butted right up against the words it disrupts. This is simply a matter of what pleases my eye. I use ampersands for much the same reason: I like the physicality of the symbol & the ways in which it reminds me of the constructedness of writing, which, after all, words as such preceded: our ancestors spoke for centuries, presumably millennia, before somebody started taking notes. I like the semi-colon as well, tho I tend to use it sparingly. If I have a list that requires semi-colons, I’m much more apt to run it as a list thus:




That breaks up the text for the eye & improves readability. I should note, however, that I have never found a satisfying convention for bullets, such as one might use with a list like the above, that works well with enough browsers to warrant deploying. My few attempts at this have all been regrettable.

Tranter, who once wrote a poem entitled “The Chicago Manual of Style,” isn’t inherently opposed to the idea of a Ginsberg-esque or Whitmanesque long line, but he is generally befoozled as to how best to represent these curling long lines in HTML & is willing to admit to it. Confronted with the same problem, I generally treat long lines as individual paragraphs with hanging indents and make a point of seeing to it that there is no margin, or what a typesetter once would have called leading, at the bottom – whereas the typical paragraph here tends to have 12 points of leading. Thus Ginsberg’s famous lines:

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz

are rendered via the following html code at the top of the first “paragraph”:

<p class=MsoNormal style='margin-top:0in;margin-right:.5in;margin-bottom:0in;margin-left:

Whereas the bottom paragraph or line is coded:

<p class=MsoNormal style='margin-top:0in;margin-right:.5in;margin-bottom:12.0pt;margin-left:

I’ve boldfaced the key section of code that differs between the two. The so-called margin-bottom is how we get the space between quoted text and the regular body of this discussion. But note that you have to specify margins in all four directions.

That works in some cases, tho obviously not Kunin’s. I’ve seen some publications attempt to represent complex spacing in poetic lines – not just length, say, but also the kind of uses of blank space that I always associate in my mind with the work of the late Paul Blackburn, sometimes s t r e t c h i n g words out with blank spaces between every letter, for example – by rendering the text in a JPG file, treating it as an image. I have resorted to this myself here. Use it in the middle of a longer poem, tho, and you can be sure that some reader somewhere will set their screen to the “wrong” resolution & get text that differs wildly in point size from its immediate surroundings.

Possibly some future version of HTML, or whatever comes after HTML, will resolve these issues. I’m skeptical, simply because the people who are responsible for such things don’t read poetry & don’t worry about such things. An alternative that some online zines opt for is Adobe Acrobat’s PDF format. PDF certainly has its uses – it’s an acceptable format for ebooks, for example – but it slows down some browsers to a crawl. I use it at my job, and I use it to format texts I want to read later on my Palm Pilot, and once in awhile to help an editor understand exactly where my own lines should break in the poem, but a zine that alternates an HTML framework with PDF poems & articles has always struck me as something new for the abominations of Leviticus. Also, just try looking at a text like David Daniels’ Gates of Paradise in a PDF format on a small screen, like that of any PDA. It does not, as they say, compute.

I always worry that any new technology is going to have an impact on the verse that is produced & read there, and at some level I’m sure some of this goes on. Yet the omnipresence of the “green screen” of the pre-Windows days of computing did not yield a generation of poets who worked in 22-line forms, tho that was all you could see on the screen at one time. And it’s worth keeping in mind that the web is itself just 15 years old – Tim Berners-Lee first uploaded it to a server on August 6, 1991 – and that HTML is unlikely to be the standard we will be using a century from now. I don’t even want to think of the upheaval that a new format will bring if a new web standard is not backwards compatible.

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