Poetry may be a written form but it is spoken art. What makes poetry spoken art is its meter. There is a reason why poets are anal about line breaks and stanzas. I am not at all educated in metric variations and prosodic intricacies. However, when I write poetry, I actually speak it in my mind to make sure that its rhythm feels right.
It was interesting to read Alexander Alter’s story in The New York Times yesterday about how e-book publishers have finally managed to crack the peculiar formatting of poetry. The traditional print versions of poetry allows publishers to lay out the content to the exact metric specifications, line breaks and stanzas which was not the case in the early days e-books. Now, according to the Times story, advances in e-book technology ensure that poetry reads like poetry and not ill-clad prose.
I write my poetry almost entirely in Hindi/Urdu (Disclosure: I have never been published) and often on scraps of paper and in poor handwriting. However, increasingly these days I use Google Tool Kit to type Hindi or Gujarati words in English and produce them in the script of choice—in my case Hindi or Gujarati. It is easy to lay out poetry written thus in the correct format. Rhythm or cadence are as much intrinsic to poetry as content and structure. Perhaps the easiest way to guarantee poetry’s metric precision on e-readers is to lay it out in PDF. That way what you are doing is reproducing an image on an e-reader. An image once set cannot be distorted.
The Times piece says there are publishers who are getting programmers to “hand-code” poetry e-books which guarantees that line breaks and stanzas are accurate.
Unlike prose, which is necessarily time-intensive, poetry, unless it is epic, is more often than not instantaneous. That is because it often results from an evanescent inspiration. It has to be captured in that moment otherwise it comes across manufactured or contrived. I have always considered poetry to be, apart from being an unnecessary talent, an affliction. It results from a massive chemical disturbance inside one’s brain. It has to be expressed as soon as it occurs even if it happens to be rough and raw. For accomplished poets, who have been doing it for a long time, it takes birth fully formed and polished.