POETRY ON CD-ROM

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The Independent Culture
ENGLISH POETRY is a set of three CD-Roms containing the full text of every poem known by English authors born before 1900. They look just like ordinary CDs, but contain text rather than music and are read on computer screens. The set is said to be quite good value at about pounds 30,000.

Now the publishers, Chadwyck-Healey, have released English Poetry Plus, a cut-down version for schools at pounds 500, with 5,000 poems by 300 poets. This is something a private household could just about afford, so it is a pity that it should turn out to be rather a missed opportunity.

The match between poetry and computers is not a bad one. It lies somewhere between music, which can be digitised with almost complete success; and paintings, which really can't. Of course, reading from a screen is less convenient and less aesthetically satisfying than reading from a book, but it is simple to print out elegant personal anthologies which can be carried around and studied properly.

Even if computers make bad books, they make first-class works of reference. In English Poetry, it is trivially easy trace the use of a word, or a metaphor, or even, within limits, a metre, across the centuries. You can botanise in whole fields of poetry, picking what is rare and delightful and leaving the encompassing weeds. Those acres of text are almost as good as a library, and their contents can be examined and arranged in much easier ways. What would have been the labour of a doctoral thesis is now the work of three mouse clicks.

English Poetry is sternly textual. There are no pictures, noises, or other distractions; just the full text of every known poem by every known poet of the period. English Poetry Plus reverses these policies. It is an anthology of poems, not of poets. Someone else has done the botanising, and the space on the disk has been filled with pictures, glossaries and sound clips. The authors' portraits are enjoyable, the biographical sketches predictably shallow and knowing.

The glossaries, however, are very uneven. Hopkins' "Glory be to God for dappled things" has five glosses, presumably because it may come up in exams, whereas this, by Andrew Lang, is not glossed at all. "Ye canna win into the hole, / However gleg ye be, / And aye, where'er ma ba' may roll, / Some limmer stimies me!"

On the other hand, the disk does contain some wonderful gems, obscured only by neglect, which a good anthologist should bring to light. Besides, there cannot be anything too badly wrong with any anthology of poems that contains 22 which mention trout, and includes some fine advice from James Thomson, who wrote the words of "Rule Britannia" and who disapproved of torturing worms.

Andrew Brown

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