Publishing poetry: Annotated Cantos I + II of Don Juan

This is tech‑y, ‘sausage fac­to­ry’ stuff about the chal­lenge of pub­lish­ing poet­ry. You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy Don Juan and my notes on Byron’s jokes, jibes (and eva­sions). But, in case you’re curious…

DonJuanFirstEditionPageLay­ing out otta­va rima verse — e.g. Don Juan —  in a for­mat that is read­able, accom­pa­nied by notes on the same page should not be hard should it? John Murray’s print­er Thomas David­son made a nice job of lay­ing out the first edi­tion of the poem. He used a mod­ern-roman font (high ascen­ders and hair­line ser­ifs: a Didot or Baskerville face?); gen­er­ous lead­ing and white space; set­ting only four vers­es to a fac­ing-spread. Plen­ty of room for pen­cilled notes, if you like that sort of thing.

Page elements and text flow

But for a con­tem­po­rary pub­lish­er lim­it­ed to e‑book edi­tions, the medi­um pos­es spe­cif­ic chal­lenges. You can­not use plain text such as a word-proces­sor pro­duces to cre­ate the text because you don’t know how your read­ers will view the book. The dif­fer­ent screen sizes of the devices used — espe­cial­ly in the case of mobile devices such as phones and tablets —  and the dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble screen ori­en­ta­tions will prob­a­bly force a ‘reflow’ of any word-proces­sor-text to fit the cur­rent screen-size. You’ll lose the spe­cif­ic for­mat­ting of the 8‑line verses.

Then there are three dif­fer­ent ele­ments on the page of an anno­tat­ed, illus­trat­ed book of poet­ry. You real­ly need a ‘fixed-for­mat’ text for the vers­es to pre­serve the length and order and ’shape’ of the lines. But the text of the notes linked to the vers­es should prob­a­bly flow from line-to-line like para­graph text. Then you want to be able to locate images in a spe­cif­ic ‘frame’ on the page.

The design­er also needs to choose the loca­tion of the notes. If the for­mat you pre­fer for the page is “por­trait” ori­en­ta­tion (high­er than wide) then notes for the lines near the top of the text bloc will be far from the relat­ed line if you choose to put the notes at the foot of the page (foot­notes). This is fine for, say, a jour­nal arti­cle on a print­ed page where you might, in any case, choose to ignore the notes that are like­ly to con­tain less impor­tant data (e.g. cita­tions). But where the notes are sup­posed to part of the expe­ri­ence — as in an anno­tat­ed poem — the design should make them more con­ve­nient to find and scan as the eye moves down the page. Side notes, linked to the posi­tion of the note anchors in the verse are my cho­sen solu­tion. But this loca­tion adds to the chal­lenge of con­trol­ling the layout.

There are two com­mon ways to achieve a sta­ble mix of text and image styles (and text-note links) on a page. The first is to use styled-HTML with CSS media-queries to han­dle the main­te­nance of fixed for­mats when the screen size or screen ori­en­ta­tion changes. When I start­ed to work on this anno­ta­tion project maybe-five years ago, I exper­i­ment­ed with that approach. I could sort of make it work. But the vari­a­tion in the per­for­mance of the CSS between browsers (and the vari­a­tion between gen­er­a­tions of the same brows­er)  was so large that I gave up on HTML+CSS. At least for this project.

The sec­ond com­mon ‘fixed for­mat’ is PDF. This has many advan­tages for con­sis­tent, cross-plat­form page-lay­out. PDF is avail­able on all plat­forms from phones to desk­tops. It’s a page-pub­lish­ing for­mat at heart; so print­ing from PDF works just as well as dis­play­ing PDF.

Laying out the PDF page

Now the ques­tion becomes: how to cre­ate the PDF.

I tried a page-lay­out approach using Adobe InDe­sign. Such pro­grams may be great for mag­a­zines but I found they’re not much use for anno­tat­ed poet­ry. I was not pre­pared to lay­out every stan­za and every page by hand-fit­ting the stan­zas, notes text and images.

InDe­sign and oth­er pub­lish­ing soft­ware demand a lot of work to fit 400+ fixed-for­mat stan­zas, vari­able-length notes and a range of illus­tra­tions onto the page. In the case of a long poem like Don Juan, most pages will con­tain the same num­ber of 8‑line vers­es; the lead­ing and spac­ing of the text will deter­mine the num­ber. But even small edi­to­r­i­al changes in the vol­ume of anno­ta­tions on a page or the inclu­sion or removal of an image that leads to an ‘over­flow’ can mean you have to hand-fit cas­cad­ing adjust­ments to the spac­ing and flow of the vers­es on sub­se­quent pages. WYSIWYG pro­grams like InDe­sign will flow text from text-frame to text frame (e.g. from page to page) auto­mat­i­cal­ly, but only for flow­ing text. Fixed width verse does­n’t flow. So the page-lay­out pro­gram doesn’t know what to do with the over­flow when you need to bump a stan­za from one page to the next (and then the last verse on that page to the next… and so on) or when the notes need more space on the page and the blocks of verse have to be ‘inter­rupt­ed’ to allow the notes to ‘catch up’.

The solu­tion? Intel­li­gent page lay-out. For many years I’ve been a fan of the mathematician/computer sci­en­tist Don­ald Knuth both for his writ­ing on com­put­ing (par­tic­u­lar­ly Lit­er­ate Pro­gram­ming) and for his mag­nif­i­cent text lay­out lan­guage TeX. I know that many peo­ple who, like me, were edu­cat­ed in the human­i­ties, believe LaTeX (the macro lan­guage built on TeX) is chiefly used for com­pos­ing ele­gant math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tions, and bor­ing texts, in sci­ence- (or maybe eco­nom­ic-) jour­nals. But TeX/LaTeX is able to pro­duce down­right beau­ti­ful text lay­out of any kind. Indeed, InDe­sign and its ilk rely on TeX algo­rithms to han­dle real­ly hard and pre­cise char­ac­ter and para­graph align­ment, hyphen­ation and fill.


So I decid­ed to lay­out the Anno­tat­ed Don Juan in LaTeX. I won’t bore you more than nec­es­sary with details of the design choic­es I made. I began with a page-design — includ­ing the use of side-notes — that mim­ics the design Edward Tufte chose for his books on the graph­ics of infor­ma­tion. I adapt­ed it to a form that would suit a longer-for­mat (hun­dreds of pages) book of poet­ry. Then, I chose a mod­ern-roman font-face designed for dig­i­tal pub­li­ca­tion that would work well on screen or in print: an imple­men­ta­tion of the Bit­strem Char­ter family.

Still, the more I look at the page design, the more I think I could well have found a more beau­ti­ful struc­ture had I known more about design and had tried hard­er. But this is Ver­sion 1.0 (after sev­er­al years of occa­sion­al work). Maybe I’ll do bet­ter next time. If you have any design sug­ges­tions — espe­cial­ly from your expe­ri­ence as a read­er — please let me know in the com­ments. I’d wel­come them.

The chief chal­lenge with LaTeX is that once you decide to com­pose your doc­u­ment in LaTeX you have to give LaTeX full con­trol. In oth­er words, almost every­thing oth­er than Byron’s actu­al words (and mine in the notes) is algo­rith­mic. You need an algo­rithm to deter­mine the “print­able” areas of the page and to struc­ture the 8‑line otta­va rima vers­es; you need anoth­er algo­rithm to han­dle the occa­sion­al verse in Don Juan that is not otta­va rima (e.g. the “Isles of Greece” lyric); you need an algo­rithm to decide where to place the side-notes in the notes col­umn I’m using in pace of foot­notes; you need an algo­rithm to count the lines of verse on the page and to decide when — because of anno­ta­tions or images or just a cou­ple of very long lines of verse that have had to ‘wrap’ to a sec­ond line — the num­ber of vers­es that will fit on the page has to be cut. Then an algo­rithm has to decide what to do with the verse that won’t fit and, espe­cial­ly, what to do with any notes attached to that verse.

Every­thing is an algorithm.

There are LaTeX macros that help with all of these things (I’m using, chiefly, my own adap­ta­tion of a bril­liant suite of macros designed for pub­lish­ing the­ses and books, called “Mem­oir”), but you have to adapt and string them togeth­er. It can get sort of intricate:


Despite a thou­sand bodges and dodges, the doc­u­ment still com­piles. I hope that none of this sausage fac­to­ry stuff is vis­i­ble in the out­put and that you enjoy read­ing the Anno­tat­ed Don Juan.

Byron fan (not fanatic); poetry lover (not tragic); doctor of melancholia (not gloom).

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