Not sure what to read? These apps open up poetry’s riches
When Faber & Faber announced its publication of TS Eliot’s narrative poem The Waste Land in a sumptuous digital edition, in 2011, it was a landmark in literary publishing and evolving digital formats. It allowed the integration of the copious annotations that most contemporary readers need to unlock its codes with minimal disruption to their reading experience. Scholarly perspectives, audio recordings (including a reading by Eliot himself), manuscripts: it offered the entire package necessary to penetrate the writer’s best-known work and brought a new readership to a difficult modernist work.
Faber followed it up with the similarly elaborate Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which collated competing Folio editions, scholarly commentary, and audio recordings by famous actors.
Seamus Heaney: Five Fables (iOS, €11.99) is the most recent addition to the Faber line-up, all of which have been collaborations with Touchpress, an app publisher. It is an enhanced ebook of Heaney’s translations of the poetry of the medieval Scot Robert Henryson. The translations appear side by side with Henryson’s Old Scots originals; the possibility of seamless simultaneous reading allows you to appreciate the linguistic otherness of the original as well as the effective simplicity of Heaney’s versions.
Notes on the translation process provide a fascinating insight into how an author maintains the integrity of his own voice while illuminating the work of another.
The poems themselves, which include The Two Mice, The Lion and the Mouse and The Fox, the Wolf and the Farmer, have an Aesopian quality, and the animal allegories will appeal to children as well as to adults. The animations, by Flickerpix, a Northern Ireland studio, reinforce the appeal for a younger age group. The Two Mice, a version of the town-mouse-and-country-mouse fairy tale, for example, is especially delightful: the sudden appearance of a scary cat yields the type of shock that begs repeating.
The audio recordings are by Billy Connolly, who brings his customary energy and comic brio to his tellings. Connolly, Heaney tells us in an introduction to the recordings, was his first choice of narrator, after the actor and comedian impressed him in the film Mrs Brown. And Connolly does seem a perfect match for the poems. Clips from Heaney’s final television interview, which add poignancy to his discussion of the allegories of life and death that anchor the poems.
Heaney was also one of 12 poets who contributed to Metamorphosis (iOS, €6.99), a publication commissioned by the National Gallery in London after its 2012 exhibition of Titian’s work, which was inspired by the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid. Compared to Faber’s Touchpress collaboration, there are few bells and whistles on this ebook, which as a hardback would make a typical coffee-table centrepiece. But it reproduces extremely well on an iPad.
The poems are placed side by side with Titian’s paintings if you hold your device sideways, in landscape mode. In portrait mode you can tilt your iPad so the paintings to fill the screen; you don’t get the textured experience of viewing the original, but the immersion in the image is persuasive.
Extras are limited to audio recordings of the poets’ reading their work, and short video clips in which they discuss their relationship to the painting. But this allows you to really concentrate on the poetry and pictures.
Heaney’s responsive poem Actaeon re-enacts the brutal hunt of the half-stag hero, with “his nifty haunches, pointed ears and fleet four-legged run”. Carol Ann Duffy both undermines and reinforces a feminist reading of Roman myth and Titan’s oeuvre by insisting, ironically, that representation is really “all about paint”.
Lavinia Greenlaw speculates on the “electric unknown” of Titian’s full-bodied women in The Dark, while Tony Harrison’s Diana and Actaeon addresses the viewer of Titan’s ominous painting as they leave the gallery for “the baying bloodhounds in Trafalgar Square”. The other poets include Sinéad Morrissey, Simon Armitage and Wendy Cope, and their approaches, from the classical to the metapoetic to the wildly experimental – see Jo Shapcott’s asterisk-laden Callisto – are a refreshing reflection of the diversity of contemporary poetry.
For a jaw-dropping reflection of poetry’s various guises, contemporary and classic, it is worth downloading the free Poetry app (iOS and Android), from the American Poetry Foundation. The app looks basic, but its algorithms are sophisticated. When you open the app it invites you to spin its sections to choose a theme (love, passion, boredom, nostalgia) and match it with another (family, arts and science, humour). The app then suggests poems on those combined themes.
Frustration and Family yields 113 poems, including the much quoted So We’ll Go No More a Roving, by Byron, The Garden by Moonlight, by Amy Lowell; Wordsworth’s well-known We Are Seven, and verses from contemporary poets such as Ron Padgett and Susan Griffin. If you like one poem you can see all poems by its writer. Some are accompanied by a recording, often by the author. There are other search options: poet, audio, colour-coded mood. But the real fun is in the random spinning. Poetry is like a superanthology, the type of book you dip into when you have five minutes and can’t settle on what to read. It is a brilliant source of surprise and delight.