Poetry Collections: What should govern the text frame width and placement?

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Michelle Lee's picture
Joined: 5 Aug 2014 - 1:36pm
Poetry Collections: What should govern the text frame width and placement?

Hello. I’m not sure if this is something that has been asked before. If so, please point me toward the direction to look. I am still searching the forum, but I have not yet located a thread addressing this particular issue.

To provide some context, I am a student who works for a university’s literary journal. I have no formal education in design (outside of a few illustration classes), so I have pretty much been learning typesetting by trial and error. Therefore, I have what might be a bit of a silly question to all you type professionals out there. Yet, it is a layout problem with which I have been struggling.

For the journal, I design books that contain a collection of poetry, short stories and essays. My question here is regarding the width of text frames. For consistency, I typically use a text frame width of roughly 20p (on a 6-inch wide page) for all the body text. This includes poems, stories, and essays. For both stories and essays, this width seems to work.

The problem arises when I use this width with poetry, and I am unsure how to resolve the issue. The poems that I get are of varying line length. Some poems may only be a few words a cross, some fill up the whole width of the frame, and a few have with longer lines that carry over unto the next line. My problem is with figuring out how to do the layout for a variety of poetry in a manner that is consistent and logical.

When I use the same column width for the poems as I use for the prose, it generally works okay if the line length of the poems fill comfortably across the page. However, it does not work so well with poems that have longer lines. With longer lines, I tend to use a hanging indent for the remaining words that end up dropped to the next line. In the case of poems with short lines, everything fits. However, the issue I have with these is that the test looks like a very narrow column that runs down the left quarter of the page. As a result, this strip of text, with all the excess white space to the right, tends to feel as though it is sitting uncomfortably close to the spine, or to the edge of the page.

I have taken the time to look through some modern poetry anthologies and have noticed some common approaches that these books seem to use. I’ve noticed that poems with very short line widths seem to have their text frames centered within the overall margin that each books uses. The text of the poems generally use a flush left alignment, although some are centered. Poems with longer lines seem to use progressively longer text frame widths. Poems with really long lines seem to break outside the margins used for the non-poetry text within the books. However, when comparing the text frame widths against one another, I am having difficulty finding any consistency governing the width of the text frames. Poems of certain line length do not seem to use the same text width. What does seem consistent is that most the poetry text frames seem centered within the margins. The widths of those frames seem governed only by the length of the lines. The only adherence to any grid system that I can locate, seem to be used for footnotes, the bibliography, and any non-poetry text.

Maybe I’ve already answered my own question, but I will still post it in case I am missing something critical. Therefore, my question is this: In in order to maintain the integrity of the poem’s line length, it is an acceptable practice to use inconsistent text frame widths when setting poetry? I feel the need to be consistent with the body of the text—to have both prose and poetry follow the same text frame width or grid. However, might this be a case where it is okay to be inconsistent—to break the grid, as it were? Does anyone have any tips, or conventions that I should keep in mind, when setting poetry?

Thank you for any advice that you might be able to provide to this typography novice.


Bob Evans's picture
Joined: 18 May 2005 - 7:20am

With poetry be very careful to try to follow what the poet has presented you with - change line length only if no other solution works.

Riccardo Sartori's picture
Joined: 13 Jul 2009 - 4:20am

Some previous threads on the subject: http://typophile.com/search/google/poetry

Joshua Langman's picture
Joined: 14 Nov 2010 - 12:22am

To briefly answer: yes, this is acceptable, even traditional.

I think what you are describing is called "centering on longest line" — i.e., the text of the poem is flush left, but the poem as a whole is centered between the margins. This is pretty typical for poetry anthologies. In terms of the technicalities of executing this, I would not put each poem in a separate text frame. Use only one text frame on each page and accomplish the centering with the software's indention tools. Center the longest line of the poem. Draw a vertical guideline that touches the left end of the line. Set the entire poem flush left and then indent the whole thing to match that guideline. If you want to be fancy, outdent lines that begin with quotation marks so that the marks are in the margin and the first proper letter is aligned to the lefthand edge of the text.

James Michaels's picture
Joined: 6 Mar 2010 - 12:54am

I don't think you said what application you're using.

I'd use a text box of constant width as Joshua mentioned and use the application's tools to adjust indentation and column width. Don't use tabs or a bunch of spaces to force a line break, it'll cause problems if you change point size later, instead insert a soft or hard return as appropriate.

Bert Vanderveen's picture
Joined: 13 Jun 2004 - 8:19am

Use a horizontal grid, so there is a constant multiple for the left margin. When I did a poetry book last year I tried to limit the variations to four instances. That worked out pretty well.