John Rieffel
Lyric Poetry
December 2, 1996

A Poetry Student's Guide to the World Wide Web

It's a relief to see poets and poetry taking stake in the World Wide Web, once the domain of scientists, engineers, and their unpoetic kin. Full of words, pictures and sounds, the Web is a unique medium of expression. Unlike mere text, which restricts a reader to a linear method of reading, the Web's interwoven collection of hypertext links allow a reader to follow threads of thought and associated ideas.

One of the most significant features of the Web is its lack of censorship or editorial input. Almost anyone with a computer and modem can, without restraint, create a web page. Web page quality varies from the exceptionally poor to the brilliant. The poetry sites of the Web are no exception to this rule. A "good" site can be considered one that takes advantage of the multimedia of the Web - supplementing the text of a poem with pictures (and occasionally sound). Form and layout are also essential to any good web page. Although simple lists of poets and poetry can be useful they are often neither educational nor interesting. One example of content bereft of form is While poets from numerous decades are presented, no effort is made to present either biographies of the poets or the bibliographic source of the poems.

And yet, despite the lack of some god-like Editor of the World Wide Web, there is a growing network of very well put-together poetry-related sites. These can be broken down into two vague categories: those that focus on specific poets, and those that focus instead on genres of poetry.

In terms of sites that focus upon a single author, few sites can compete with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare provided, ironically, by M.I.T. This site takes full advantage of the hypertext nature of the Web - providing links to definitions of various vague or easily misinterpreted words (while the plays are full of hypertext, I could not find any examples among the sonnets). The page also addresses the often misunderstood issue of disparity between various Shakespeare texts.

A similar site is The Internet Poetry Archive. Focusing on Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney, and Phil Levine, this site provides extensive biographies, bibliographies, and wonderful extras such as Heaney's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The crowning glory of this site, however, is the audio recordings provided with each poem. By incorporating sound into their web pages, The Internet Poetry Archive exploits the multimedia aspects of the Web to the utmost, enabling readers to hear as well as read a poet's voice.

Although short on biographic data, few literary pages can compare with Columbia University's Project Bartleby. Similar to the ill-fated Project Gutenberg, Project Bartleby is an extensive effort to create electronic records of public domain texts. Although not exclusively poetry, the site includes the Poetical Works of John Keats, as well as works by Eliot, Frost, and Yeats. Particularly nice is the editor's efforts to format the poems themselves, providing line numbers. The entire site also allows you to search for particular words, phrases, or poets. Like the Internet Poetry Archive, Project Bartleby also includes recordings of some poems.

Although entirely lacking in text, the Harper Audio web sites provides excellent recordings of poets such as T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson.

As for genre-based sites, an excellent example is Literary Kicks, a site devoted to the Beat Generation. Well researched and thoroughly cross-linked, the page not only gives a good introduction to the Beats, but goes so far as to provide more specific and intruiguing information such as the origin of the word "Beat".

The World Wide Web is still a rather unfriendly and often daunting environment. And yet, with the growing number of pages around the world dedicated to poetry and literature at large, the Web is finally gaining culture.