I had an interesting conversation with a contributor to the next issue of North Dakota Quarterly. We accepted some poems with lines that might exceed the width of our standard page, and the author asked whether we could find a way to publish them without breaking them. There are, of course, conventions for interrupting lines in poetry that must be broken because of the page width rather than for poetic effect. Generally publishers use indentation to show that a line has been terminated prior to a line break in the poem.
This poses a problem, of course, because line breaks of any kind impact the shape of the poem which is one way that poets communicate meaning. Our standard page width (NDQ publishes as 6 x 9), margins, and font size (I think it’s published at 11 point font), however, produces certain limits. There’s a temptation to see page limits, then, as artificial and largely independent of the intent of the poet. In some (perhaps even many) cases, the page size is the product of the commercial goals of the publisher which leverage the economy of standardized sizes, designs, and layouts. On the other hand, most art encounters practical (and in many cases economic) limits that shape its expression. In fact, the practical limits of say, a modern piano or the printed page, are coincident with the way music and prose create meaning.
Digital publishing challenges some of the conventions of the page in the same way that digital music challenges the conventions of physical instruments. The width of a website produced through standard responsive or adaptive design varies with the width of browser and the screen of the device. In this context, line breaks and page width are dynamic.
In contrast, many digital publishers still rely on the venerable and archivable PDF. The PDF maintains the integrity of the page as the frame for a text. Anyone who has tried to read a PDF on a mobile device recognizes the limits to this kind of publication. But, the PDF also allows for a publication to maintain certain conventions associated with pagination including page numbers (for references), line structure, and other visual cues that assist with recall, organization, and traditional practices. For example, I tend to remember key ideas or arguments based in part on where they appear on the page even if I’ve read these pages on a digital device like an iPad or laptop.
The interplay between the digital page and line is pretty interesting. I’ve thought a bit about publishing a book of poetry and prose where every page is a different size and designed to accommodate a particular work. It would undermine a bit of the commercial character of the traditional printed page while also maintaining the integrity of the page as a stable space for the presentation of text.