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August 22, 2010

Poetry in the Age of Technology


Bob Tedeschi, in a August 18, 2010 New York Times article about poetry in pixel form, wrote, "Smartphones are arguably the best thing to hit poetry since the printing press...."

Excerpts from his story follow.


There are probably people who have read “War and Peace” on their smartphones, but just the thought of spending that much time squinting at a little screen makes my eyes hurt.

A little haiku, on the other hand? A snippet of e.e. cummings? Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” even? That’s another matter.

Smartphones are arguably the best thing to hit poetry since the printing press, as even the most casual lovers of verse can read a poem whenever the spirit moves them, not just when they are in the vicinity of a book or computer.

Case in point: a friend hosted a dinner party, and after dessert we sat on the couch thumbing through some of his poetry books. We had trouble finding “Litany,” by Billy Collins, until I pulled out my iPhone and delivered a Web version in 30 seconds.

Apps are even better.

I have the entire works of Shakespeare on my iPhone, including his poems and sonnets. And it’s free, thanks to an app that is called, simply, Shakespeare. (On Amazon, I could score a print version of Shakespeare’s complete works for around $30, with shipping.)

For $10 you can get the Shakespeare Pro version of the app, which includes a better search function and some other nifty features. Shake the device, for instance, and the app offers you selected quotes from his works. (The iPad version, for the same price, is a must-have for any Shakespeare lover.)

Another essential app is Poetry, from the Poetry Foundation (free, for Apple devices). The app is a slot machine of verse: hit the Spin button, and themes like joy, passion, frustration and nostalgia race across the screen before the app settles on two.


B-Rhymes is a free iPhone app that helps you find words that almost rhyme.

Poets and rappers have long avoided rhyme schemes involving the word “orange,” for instance. B-Rhymes has the answer: “foreskin.”

Okay, maybe “forage” is better.

You can build tighter lines with Perfect Rhyme ($1) or RhymeBook ($2), both of which work when you do not have an Internet connection.

Android users also have great choices, in part because Feelsocial, an app developer, has flooded the Android Market with inexpensive or free poetry apps. Death Poems, Philosophical Poems and Graduation Poems, among others, cost $1, and sit alongside many more free apps that are tied to birthdays, love, proverbs, numbers, broken families and the like.

The free Shakespeare Sonnets app lets you browse the bard’s 154 poems, mark your favorites and e-mail them to friends. With the $1 version of the app, you can search the sonnets or browse them by first line or chronologically, and post them to your Facebook page.

Other author-specific apps await, including Frostisms, a free app that lets users share their favorite Robert Frost quotes via Twitter and Facebook. The Shmoop series of literature tutorials will help you parse specific poems for $2 apiece. These are especially good for students, but casual literature buffs will find them useful as well.

August 22, 2010 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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Recently I read a long article (can't find it) about e-publishing in which the author lamented that poetry doesn't always play well on e-reading devices: The original line breaks aren't always preserved; or the lines wrap before the line ends, making two line breaks where there should be one. That kind of thing.

We may think of poetry as aural, like music, but when it's on a page it's more graphical than a novel or story, isn't it? e e cummings comes to mind. Imagine removing the phrasing from music (and so much poetry is paired up with music, after all).

"Unintended consequences," says I.

Posted by: Paul Tempke | Aug 23, 2010 11:50:30 AM

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