Web poets' society

Aspiring Byrons are turning to the Net, says John O'Mahony
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There was a time when all the average poet needed to set up in business was a dusty garret, a few sheets of paper, a pen and a sprinkling of creative genius.

Now no garret is complete without a connection an Internet service provider. And poetry is flooding on to the Net - particularly the World Wide Web - almost as fast as Dutch hard-core virtual pornography.

Most of the poetry comes from impoverished individuals trying to bypass the generally fruitless process of approaching paper publishers. Universities, too, have thrown open their poetry libraries to the 10 million or so Web users. Special pages offer commentary on the latest online poetry developments. And now Britain's oldest poetry organisation, the Poetry Society, set up in 1909, has set up a homepage. Shakespeare, Keats, Byron, Shelley, TS Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney and numerous others have joined the unknowns on the Web. Cyberpoetry has come of age.

The phenomenon is wide-ranging. The University of Toronto is engaged in the Ovid Project, a scheme to make all the Roman author's work freely available. The Electronic Beowulf is doing the same for Old English medieval epics. Elsewhere there are multitudes of adolescent scribblers, with names such as Blas Deth and Snuff, and the New Age poets Ariel and Ozone.

Occasionally there are also little comic gems, such as Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky", as rewritten by the Apple Newton's handwriting recognition software. According to the Newton, the poem is called "Tablespoon" and its refrain runs: "Beware the tablespoon, my son/The teeth that bite, the Claus that catch/Beware the Subjects bird, and shred/The serious Bandwidth."

In terms of quality, if not quantity, the British poetry sites are streets ahead of their North American counterparts, led by the glorious, anarchic but extremely well-informed Bristol Poetry homepages. It offers a selection of original local poets, news on what is going on in the Bath and Bristol scene, as well as a labyrinth of links to virtual bookstores, online classic libraries, the "Live Poets' Society" and other weird and wonderful corners of the Net.

"The critical thing about the Web is the readership," says Roger Day, founder of the Bristol Poetry page. "Few people I know would ever buy a poetry magazine or even a poetry book. But plenty of ordinary people, non-poets, are happy to browse through a poetry Web page and have a look."

The Bristol pages include interesting work by the South Devon poet William Oxley and Bath-based John Kandinsky, although the latter claims never to have seen any of his work as it appears on the Net. "I don't actually have a connection," he says, explaining that his friend Roger does all the necessary technical stuff. "I can't afford it. You see, I'm 53. It is not my technology. We old fogies tend to be a little frightened of it all."

However, he has had e-mails forwarded to him: "I received some from a poet who lives in White Horse, Yukon Territory, Canada. Incredible is the only word I can think of for it. Absolutely incredible."

The Poetry Society is taking a more systematic approach. It commissioned work from regional arts boards around Britain to furnish its server. Most have yet to be completed - deadlines and poetry are still strangers - but a poem by Fleur Adcock has named their first electronic steps.

"Reading and writing poetry can be a solitary activity," says Maggie O'Farrell, the society's information officer. "What a lot of people don't realise is that there are thousands reading and writing contemporary poetry out there. The Web site can put people in touch with others all around the world. If it does nothing else, that will be enough."

One of the greatest problems with Net poetry is quality control. "The Internet is a little like a gigantic toilet wall," says Ms O'Farrell. "So you have everybody sitting there, scrawling what they like on it." Many of the poetry pages - particularly the American ones - hardly shine. Take, for example, the aforementioned New Age "Shamaness", Ariel, whose work displays a level of talent that is all too prevalent: "Warty Hags on broomsticks fly," she writes in "Magick", "Naked dancers kiss the devil's anus." Indeed.

With time, the good work will gravitate around certain points while the dross disappears into the nether Net regions. But even the bad, mad stuff proves that predictions about how the rise of technology would trample traditional forms of art have been rudely disproved. The Web has made poetry much more accessible.

Finding poetry on the Web:

A wide-ranging list of fiction and poetry sources can be found at: http://www. ccn.cs.dal.ca/Culture/WritersFed/Fiction.html

'Jabberwocky', interpreted by the Apple Newton, at: http://www.cs. wisc.edu/weaver/cs771/talk/jabber/jabbernewton.html

The Bristol Poetry page is at: http://www.ssynth.co.uk/rday/poet_mag.html

Poetry Society page at: http://www. bbcnc.org.uk/online/poetry.