Technofile

N"Poems are magically sly and resilient," writes Jo Shapcott, making her debut statement as Poet in Residence on the Poetry Society's Web site. "They will wind their way into any medium humans can invent and flourish there."

I used to know some verses in Polish about inanimate objects which moved in mysterious ways; the only couplet I can still remember was about doors which opened by themselves - when old ladies pushed them hard. The point was overstated, but the lesson is pertinent. Nothing just finds its way onto the Web. It appears there once it has been transcribed, tagged, debugged and subjected to the esoteric demands of HTML, FTP and other acronymic dictators.

Once it's there, it generally does not move of its own accord. Some strands of information, such as conspiracy rumours, do spread like brush fire. Most, however, have to be nurtured and promoted, just as in any other medium. In the Poetry Society's Poetry on the Net project, this responsibility falls to the Society's webmistress, Nicola Smyth. Her mission is to plant links to poems in all manner of sites, providing encounters with poetry in unexpected locations. It's the same principle as the famous Poems on the Underground venture (which itself has now acquired a Web site).

The project is part of a general overhaul and redesign of the Poetry Society's site. At the heart of it are 10 animated black-and-white icons, intended to lure the surfer, but not to signify anything in particular. A poem is assigned to each. At the moment, the batch is filled out with material on which copyright has expired, but in due course Emily Dickinson and William Blake will be replaced by specially commissioned poems. Three of these are already in place: Jo Shapcott's own "Elephant", Sean O'Brien's "The Genre" and "Skating" by Matthew Sweeney.

Shapcott's goal is to bring poets of high quality to the Web. Her brief is straightforward: don't write about the Net, and keep it short. The poems are supposed to engage the imagination of readers diverting from themes that may be only tenuously connected. "Skating" has been punted to sports sites, though it has much to do with solitude and nothing at all to do with sport. American skating associations have so far passed on the opportunity.

"The Genre" has fared better, finding perches on a number of sites devoted to crime fiction, the genre to which it refers. Readers jumping off from "Agatha Christie - The Icelandic Home Page" will be transferred to the world of provincial towns where larders are "paved with limbs". Having chewed the entrails of the "homicidal sticks" with gusto, O'Brien turns his allegations upon the figure of the poet himself, casting him as a snooker player "making a phrase / With the same off-handed stylishness / Seen when he's chalking his cue".

Maybe "The Genre" should be offered to police sites. Poems do turn up in unexpected company. But the Poetry Society's efforts to make the Internet like the Underground illustrate the fact that as far as poems are concerned, the Web is much like anywhere else. It is very easy to publish a poem, very difficult to persuade readers or institutions to accord it importance. Readers have to be induced to enter a mode of thought quite different from the quotidian. On the Net, this means realising that the images are to be found not in a separate graphics file, but between the lines.

All details on the Technofile home page: Technofile@pop3.poptel.org.uk

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