There was a time when people on buses and Tubes didn't just fiddle with their phones. There was a time when what they stared at were the pages of a newspaper, or book. Some people still do, of course, but many, many don't. Many just fiddle and tap and flick and glance at one thing, and then another thing, and then at something else.
We don't yet know if all this fiddling and tapping is good for our brains. It's a fair bet that it isn't all that good for the soul. But now there's something we can tap and flick that might be. It's called The Poetry App, and it's had more than 40,000 downloads even before its launch.
What you see, when you first download it, is a study with books, an armchair, and a fire. What you see, in fact, is a room that draws you away from the world of iPads and smartphones, to one where you can pull a book out of a bookcase and settle down by a fire. You can hear the logs crackle as the flames dance. And then you can tap one of the pictures on the wall and enter another world.
If you tap the biggest, you'll find yourself in a universe where what you see is sky, and clouds, and stars. What you also see, as you flick up and down the screen, are faces of poets, and floating balloons. If you tap a face – of Kipling, or Keats, or Dickinson, or Plath – you'll get a short biography, and if you tap the balloon that overlaps it, you'll get some of the poet's poems. Many of the poems have a box next to them, and in it there's an actor's face. If you tap the arrows under it, you'll hear the actor – Dominic West, or Emilia Fox, or one of 30 others – reading the poem.
You can read, you can listen, and you can make an anthology of the poems you like. You can even, if you want to, write one. (If, for example, you want to write in the style of one of the poets, and tap the icon that says "inspire me", you can see their "favourite words".) But mostly what you can do is experience the power of what Josephine Hart, whose idea this all was, called "language caught alive".
She died a year ago. She was a best-selling novelist, but poetry was her passion. Poetry was so much her passion that she had the two poetry anthologies she edited and introduced sent to every secondary school in the country. For 25 years, she organised public readings of poetry, with actors. This app, her husband Maurice Saatchi told me at the launch, was her way of making sure that the poetry readings lived on. Poetry, she said, "is a trinity of sound and sense and sensibility". You can't, in other words, just see it. You have to hear it, too.
With this very clever, very nicely designed, app, you can. Even if you're a newcomer to poetry, you can. "I always felt slightly daunted by poetry," Dominic West told me at the launch, "but Josephine asked me to do her readings. I loved them because I learnt so much about poetry. This is such a great way of carrying it on."
At the launch, in the offices of M & C Saatchi Mobile, who designed and created the app, he read some poems by Philip Larkin. He didn't read "An Arundel Tomb", which ends with the "almost-instinct almost true" that "what will survive of us is love". But it was clear to everyone, as it will be to those who see the app, that what survives of us is sometimes more.