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Macro-Typography of Poetry: 4

Rhyme and Cadence

In traditional typesetting of English poetry, certain lines operating a subsidiary rhyming or rhythmic scheme were given an additional indent. The reasons for this gestalt convention remain valid in the online era. As Oliver Simon notes in Introduction to Typography, "the shape of a poem is not only pleasing to the eye, but is a help to the mind in grasping the rhythmic character of the poem. This is important in much contemporary poetry when no traditional metrical scheme is followed."

Book printers have been familiar for centuries with various such sophisticated indenting schemes, all designed to guide the reader's eye and illuminate the structure of a poem. In adapting these to today's world of mark-up, the designer should clearly establish in his mind why the indents are there and label them according to their purpose rather than any one visual presentation. It is not sufficient for example to give a line that renders with an indent the "visual" class-name of "indent". Try instead to label these lines functionally as "secondary rhymes" or "two-foot verse" or whatever. See a sonnet by Keats, where verses 1, 4, 5 and 8 rhyme on one sound, and verses 2, 3, 6 and 7 on another.

Indents are usually constructed along a series of standard intervals. In CSS this can be achieved by creating subclasses of lines with progressively wider left margins, for example: {left-margin: 2em;}, {left-margin: 4em;} and so on. A Shakespearean sonnet for example is conventionally presented with the last two verse-lines only indented. In this example, the indent for verse-lines number 13 and 14 is set at 2 ems. Note that when margins are newly declared, no part of their value is inherited from the main P element: they have to be calculated afresh from the edge of the DIV element.

In poems of more complex metre, the typesetting must be oriented to cadence rather than rhyme. See for example the interesting example chosen by Simon from the 17th century English poet Thomas Traherne, in which the metric scheme of two-, three-, four- and five-foot lines gives the poem its visual form, and the rhyming scheme is no longer obvious at first glance. Because the poem must appear balanced on the page, the first verse-line does not set the leftmost margin. Instead the widest lines have a zero-margin, and the narrower lines, including the first, must be indented.

Other languages lack such a rich tradition of visual formatting for poetry. In German and French, the great bulk of poetry is traditionally set flush left in the anthologies. Indenting schemes, such as Hölderlin's cascades, were intended more to amuse than to inform. It may be that the Internet will provide a bridge, persuading typographers working in these other tongues of the benefits of more informative layout.

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Examples: • SimpleWrappingRhymeSonnetCadenceCascadeStanzasCaesura