Billy Collins, one of the country’s most popular poets, had never seen his work in e-book form until he recently downloaded his latest collection on his Kindle.
He was unpleasantly surprised.
"I found that even in a very small font that if the original line is beyond a certain length, they will take the extra word and have it flush left on the screen, so that instead of a three-line stanza you actually have a four-line stanza. And that screws everything up," says Collins, a former US poet laureate whose "Ballistics" came out in February.
When he adjusted the size to large print, his work was changed beyond recognition, a single line turning into three, "which is quite distressing," he adds.
Poetry, the most precise and precious of literary forms, is also so far the least adaptable to the growing e-book market. A three-line stanza might be expanded to four if a line is too long or a four-line stanza compressed into three if the second and fourth lines have sharp indentations, as with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s "Hymn to the Night."
Royalty disputes, philosophical objections and suspicions of technology are keeping countless books from appearing in electronic form, from "The Catcher in the Rye" to "Gravity’s Rainbow." But for poetry, the gap is especially large because publishers and e-book makers have not figured out how the integrity of a poem can be guaranteed. And a displaced word, even a comma, can alter a poem’s meaning as surely as skipping a note changes a song.
"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," Collins says.
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 US poet laureate W.S. Merwin; or from such recent laureates as Charles Simic, Robert Pinsky and Louise Glueck.
"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."
Poetry is highly accessible on the internet, sometimes unauthorized, such as on the web site http://www.poemhunter.com, where you can find works by Plath, Hughes and other poets whose books have not been officially released in electronic form. Authorized verse can be found on Slate.com, which in a weekly podcast features a poem read aloud by the poet.
"On the whole, poetry is well suited for electronic media," says Pinsky, a frequent Slate contributor. 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.
Publishing houses differ over whether to wait for the technology to improve or to make the books available now. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which publishes Nobel laureate Derek Walcott and Pulitzer winner Paul Muldoon among others, is not planning any e-poetry releases. Another leading poetry publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, intends some releases, but with an advisory note about changing font sizes.
Amazon.com spokeswoman Sarah Gelman, asked whether future editions of the Kindle would correct the problem, said the online retailer was "constantly working to innovate on behalf of our customers, and this applies to the experience of reading poetry on Kindle."
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."