April 19, 2013

Poetry in your pocket


The Poetry Foundation’s POETRY app is an argument against the argument that poetry and apps shouldn’t mix.

I use few apps. The latest iPhone’s glamorous five rows mean little to me, since I hardly fill two on mine.

Yet an app’s to blame for the fact that I spent last Wednesday with “a dun and smooth interiority, as a glass of rum might” echoing in my head, the chorus to a song I didn’t know the rest of.

More precisely, the blame lies with the POETRY app from the Poetry Foundation, which is now one of the anchors of my home screen. It’s also where I happened to encounter “The Sleep of the Tuba Player” by Ana Božičević, the source of the lines mentioned above, on the subway on the way to work. I suspect it’s for a reason like this that it’s currently in the running for a Webby Award (follow the link to vote, if you like).

The Webby Awards, also known as the “Oscars of the Internet” (according to Mashable.com), are  coveted honor in the web world. Winners get to make an acceptance speech, as long as it’s no longer than five words. This year there were over 11,000 entries; the POETRY app, good though it is, will face strong competition in its category from the likes of MoMA and Duolingo.

Still, I hope it will win. A poetry app ought to be ridiculous; apps and poetry are two things that should not mix, like fast and slow food. Shouldn’t poems be read by candlelight in a castle tower? Shouldn’t they be read in a text setting that the author and publisher chose carefully, with adequate white space, instead of in an impersonal and resizable font that stretches to fill your phone’s screen?

That’s what I thought. But my nicely typeset edition of Modern Poetry, which I have sometimes read by candlelight, grows more and more comfortable in its desk drawer, drawing a blanket of cobwebs about itself, while my POETRY app gets daily exercise. I browse in a roulette-style interface (picking a mood and a subject, say: Humor + Aging, or Gratitude + Arts & Sciences), or by poet, or by more particular searches.

But I’m biased. I like the Poetry Foundation.  I like their name. I’ve uncovered some gems like “A Little Shiver” through my subscription to American Life in Poetry, which they sponsor. And I browse their website, which is truly outstanding, from time to time. But best of all is the app, because there’s the thrill of discovery, and because it’s there when I am on the subway.

POETRY isn’t biased towards any particular era. John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” is present, along with Billy Collins’s “Memorizing ‘The Sun Rising’ by John Donne.” The poems aren’t always well-known, and the well-known poems aren’t always there: William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” is absent, as is Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” There isn’t a single poem by Philip Larkin’s on the app. Most of the poets, in fact, will be unfamiliar. But I like this because it emphasizes discovery of the poems and poets I did not read in school.

Here’s one:

On the Birth of a Son

Families when a child is born
Hope it will turn out intelligent.
I, though intelligence
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope that the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he’ll be happy all his days
And grow into a cabinet minister.

It was written by Su Tung-Po in the eleventh century.

Jay McNair was an intern at Melville House.