All Poets Bulletin: Help Us Make a Poetry Style Guide

Your editor is troubled that she has not been able to find an authoritative guide to styling poetry typographically. For some reason the usual sources are silent on this point. Plunging bravely into the breach, we attempt one here, inviting comment. The world will little note, nor long remember, etc., but for some of us such matters are tender.

Two main issues present themselves: how to handle run-on lines and how to break stanzas at the bottom of the page.

We consulted Edward Mendelson, fortuitously expert in both poetry and typography, who confirmed that Auden, for one, followed many poets in favoring setting run-on lines to the right.  Mendelson’s formulation:

“The ‘turnovers’ should be set on the right, indented so that the first words of the turnover is somewhat to the left of the end of the last word of the first part of the line.

This is a line that is going to be turned over
.                                                                like this.”

He identified a potential exception, when “the next line is very short, not long enough to overlap with the turnover from the preceding line. This creates a ‘river’ of white space that falsely suggests to the eye that a break is present when there shouldn’t be, like this:

This is is a line that is going to be turned over
.                                                                  like this
And this line looks like a new stanza.

To solve this, you need to move the turnover part back to the left to block the ‘river’ like this:

This is is a line that is going to be turned over
                                                           like this
And this line is clearly not a new stanza.”

When such fine-tuning is not available Mendelson indents turnovers at least twice a far as an indented line. (Another point: Would the consensus be that the standard indent should be the depth of a paragraph indent, unless the poet indicates otherwise?)

We have followed this model for Little Star, but we have identified a few problems and questions.

When a poem has many long lines that require turnovers, and they are set to the right, creating a sequence of double spaces on the left, it becomes difficult to see the shape of the stanza.  This led us to reflect on the fact that the reader first of all experiences a stanza visually—an expectation that is, or can be, confirmed by meter or rhyme or other formal devices. There seems an argument, in a poem with many run-on lines, for indenting them regularly toward the left in order to preserve the visual block of the stanza.

Another question: Should more than one turnover be set flush to the right, or to a constant right vertical, or should they be variable with the length of the first half of the line? Variable turnovers may make them look more like a natural continuation of the line, but the effect on the right can be very ragged.

In Little Star we went to great lengths to preserve a long line, creating customized margins and shrinking fonts for individual poems. We worried a bit that the effect of this might be jarring to the eye.

On the second point, Auden, Mendelson, and our own informal polling definitely show a preference keeping stanzas together at the bottom of the page, which we also did in Little Star, but it can create an ambiguity.  We had two groups of poems that were untitled parts of series’. In such cases it can be ambiguous whether the next page begins a new poem or is a continuation of the previous one when the bottoms of the pages are various. If readers see a regular horizon at the bottom of the page, they tend not to notice divided stanzas and to recognize the ends of poems and the presence of extra space between stanzas more easily.

Where stanzas are or must be broken, they should be broken between rhymed sections or leaving an even number of lines, unless rhymes are in odd-numbered groupings. Mendelson never breaks a stanza of four lines or less and always leaves at least two lines on either side. He recommends leaving extra space to indicate a break between stanzas at the bottom of the page, if necessary introducing a figure.

We most humbly beg deeper minds to weigh in on these urgent matters.

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8 Responses to All Poets Bulletin: Help Us Make a Poetry Style Guide

  1. james stotts says:

    it seems almost universal now in books and journals to start every new poem on a new page. and then to strongly respect the indivisibility of a stanza, too. this is probably bourgeois, since it wastes paper, respectfully. it is more than old-fashioned to expect that editing standards can be set knowing that a stanza has a regular number of lines and so there’s no confusion if it’s broken by the end of the page. a stanza does have a fixed length according to some i know, and anything else they call a ‘verse paragraph’ or some other silly thing.

  2. james stotts says:

    for run-on lines i like a mini-indent, actually. but i indent them myself, having an imaginary piece of paper, which contains my imaginary long-form handwriting. and if there is a very long line that runs on to a third line, that same indent is used, and since it is distinct from the standard indent, its purpose is evident.

  3. As a designer with decades of publishing experience, my m.o. is to always honor the material. Poetry, especially, has its own set of challenges ( I’d say rules, except that like French, poetry seems to have many rules that break the rules). For most poetry, I’ve normally indented turnovers on the left.

  4. Carol Saller says:

    The Chicago Manual of Style (13.25) recommends a 1-em indent for runover lines, with a distinct indent for new, intentionally indented lines.

    If a new stanza unavoidably falls at the top of a page, it should begin one stanza space down from the top. If it’s important that readers be able to distinguish every new stanza, a note of explanation might be in order.

  5. Funny, at Brick, for run-on lines we do it
    like this,
    This is how it ever has been, and I can’t really tell you why, other than
    it’s in the Style Guide. And it looks good to us.

    But we only need to do that when we quote poems (in essays and interviews we have two columns per page). When we feature poems, our lovely wide pages let us keep most long lines intact. But I think poets should just keep their lines nice and short.

  6. The hanging indent seems to work fine for my purposes. However, if a poem is all over the page intentionally, you may consider what was done with a recent translation of Mallarme’s “Un Coup de Des” and scale it down (fonts and all) to fit the pagination. Also, I like what was done with The Complete Poems of Stephen Crane out of Cornell: noting “[no stanza break]” at the bottom of a page. W.S. Merwin’s Second Four Books of Poems irked me with the ambiguity as to stanza and page breaks in that regard.

  7. Bill Knott says:

    had big problems with this when I wanted to do an “ebook” and finally had to hire somebody to format it, and ended up not doing it out of frustration . . . the print problem of long lines is nothing compared to the digital . . . maybe the answer is we should all be writing shorter lines . . . sometimes I think that any line of verse longer than the hendecasyllabic is already verging on being contaminated by prose—