[An update: WordPress now includes a “Verse” block that makes it possible to format poetry visually. It took many years, but it finally happened.]

Our suggestion that WordPress needed a poetry plugin provoked a number of helpful comments. “Sigivald,” for example, wrote:

I suggest the reform of simply banning poetry.

It’s much simpler, and therefore the preferable course.

“Captain DaFt” suggested a clever way of turning up genuinely useful information in the WordPress forums; and “fred” put quite a bit of work into a demonstration of CSS techniques, all of which the WordPress comment system promptly nullified, because WordPress does that.

All these suggestions are useful.

Banning poetry, for example, might cause us to lose two or three masterpieces, but it would spare us tens of millions of soul-withering lines from shallow people with deep feelings.

The WordPress forums are full of people asking how to format poetry. They get helpful responses: you can use CSS, in effect writing a poem-constructing program somewhat longer than the average poem it will be used to construct. You can use nonbreaking spaces, being aware that they will periodically disappear. You can use the “pre” tag.

The “pre” tag activates your default ugly monospaced font. (This is true, by the way, in ebook readers as well.) One would not want to use that for publishing poetry:

I see beneath the crystal bow,
   And Gaul and German, Russ and Turk,
   Each with his native handiwork
                      And busy tongue.

It is possible to redefine that behavior in the WordPress theme by specifying a proportional font, making the “pre” tag probably the best choice for a poet who expects to write a lot of poetry and is willing to deal with the small alterations in CSS for his chosen theme. [Another update: This is what Dr. Boli has done here on the site, so that the demonstration above looks much better than it looked when the article was published.] Even then, though, indenting lines with a bunch of spaces is a sloppy and tedious task, made sloppier and tediouser, and in some more complex forms impossible, if the “pre” tag is redefined to specify a proportional font. [An update: A commenter below mentions custom stylings for the “pre” tag, but, having tried the experiment, Dr. Boli is delighted to report that WordPress, at least with the theme he tried, simply ignores those custom stylings. It is therefore necessary to revise the theme itself.]

What the poet wants is to be able to say, “I shall set the beginnings of all lines of this sort here.” One can do that with an early-twentieth-century mechanical typewriter by pushing the “tab set” button. It is very strange that one cannot do it at all with a sophisticated twenty-first-century content-management system.

At any rate, it is absurd to say that prose writers should just be able to go ahead and write, but poets need to teach themselves the intricacies of CSS. The average poet will not be as stubborn as Dr. Boli about making his own WordPress theme when he cannot find one that meets his needs. Nor should he be limited to one WordPress theme. There should be some way to make the mechanics of formatting simple and transparent, so that the poet can just write poetry. After all, it is always possible (however unlikely it may seem) that, having all the traditional forms of poetry easily available to them without any tedious labor or programming skills, a few poets may start to write good poetry.


  1. Maypo says:

    Ahh – you guys are all out of step with modern times. The true solution is to create a Kickstarter campaign to fund the design/implementation of a competitor to WordPress that will put it to shame in features and ease of use. My prediction: The campaign will be funded by hundreds, nay, thousands of wealthy poets and be a raging success.

  2. fred says:

    <pre style=”font-family: Georgia, Palatino, serif;”>

    The “pre” tag doesn’t have to activate its ugly default font.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      It does, however, with most WordPress themes, which will ignore your attempt to style it. You could argue that what we really need is to stop using WordPress, but it would be hard to find something as easy for an ordinary writer to use.

  3. Dixi Ignorans says:

    Never tried this for poetry, but Donald Knuth’s TeX or Leslie Lamport’s overlay LaTeX typesetting system for mathematics produces exquisite math output (even Dr Boli might approve!). One expects it would work for poetry also. Never tried this either, but there are TeX to html converters – pandoc is one – out there. For those who care enough to go through a heavy technical slog.

  4. Adobe was some little while ago asking the w3c html group to do something about this very problem;

    MathJax (and now KaTeX) were developed to -s-o-l-v-e- displace the even trickier (but more-or-less orthogonal) problem of typsetting text that hasn’t an intrinsic ordering, reducing it to a “solved problem”: Knuth’s TeX and additions via Lamport’s macro system… in TeX at least one can specify an hspace item.

    one might try a <span color=”white” >mmmmm</span> sequence, having exactly the em-width however many “m”s you put in there. But it’s a kludge, for sure. It also fails if the background color of the containing element isn’t “white”.

  5. Dr. Boli says:

    Dr. Boli is profoundly grateful for all the helpful advice. He himself speaks only enough HTML and CSS to buy dinner in the marketplace and ask, “Où est la plume de ma tante?”—a question that often provokes extraordinarily entertaining responses—so he is especially happy to hear from correspondents who speak those languages like natives.

    He still believes, however, that what is needed is a way for a poet to sit down and write without knowing anything but English, or perhaps any other arbitrary language that uses the Roman alphabet. The “pre” tag at least comes close to replicating the experience of sitting down with a pen and a blank sheet of paper; but with the power of twenty-first-century computers, it should be easy to automate accurate and beautiful typesetting and publishing of poetry—even, or perhaps especially, if the World-Wide Web is its ultimate destination.

  6. No doubt the good doctor has chosen the least bad of the alternatives, but didn’t the very name WordPress warn you that it would turn everything into the written equivalent of panini?

  7. I write multi-voice poetry. I have found one site that gives simple html coding for two and three column multi-voice. I just fit in my text. However, I have tried lots of different four part html and none works (tables and columns). My poem Peace has been edited using the visual editor-this took hours. But it will not show correctly if I shift monitors or change themes

    This site has two and three column code and works. Thanks to them! Ashby

    I just posted a bit about how to easily write multi-columns of text for WordPress. Ashby

  10. As an html total beginner I got a WordPress expert to help me write multi-voice in up to six columns (in my website). However, when I tried to write very small text to allow me to put text into these narrow columns then it did not work in WordPress. I tried the poems that worked in Microsoft Expressions Web 4 but none worked in WordPress. Another WordPress expert kindly gave me some code but nothing seemed to work on WordPress. I presume the WordPress text editor alters the CSS or html? Anyway, after two weeks of trying (CSS and html) I gave up and have added a new multi-voice site created on Blogger where the small text columns (using the additional WordPress coding) work fine:

  11. I never know the usage of pre tag, it’s fantastic. Thank you.

    Veronica, UK

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