A bard in the hand at a price

Jack Kenny

ENGLISH POETRY PLUS. Poetry CD-Rom forMultimedia PCs, Pounds 250 Chadwyck-Healey Ltd, The Quorum, Barnwell Road, Cambridge CB5 8SW. Tel: 01223 215512

Poetry at your fingertips: poetry for reading, enjoying, searching, discovering, listening to, researching, anthologising. The figures are impressive: 5,000 poems and hundreds of poets on a CD costing Pounds 250 (a special low price for education). Much of the material has been taken from Chadwyck Healey's English Poetry Database which has been retailing at Pounds 30,000.

Sceptics will question how many books you could buy for Pounds 250. So you will have to tell them that this speaks: there isn't just Chaucer, but Chaucer read; not just Burns, but Burns recited in a craggy Scottish accent; Whitman in a laid-back drawl.

"What does the technology add?" the sceptics will ask. Principally the ability to search, and it is this that will give most pleasure and extend most horizons. You can search on author, phrase, gender, themes, nationality, period.

We know that writers can be and have been excluded from the canon for all kinds of reasons, such as gender, race and fashion. The chances are that the excluded will stand a greater chance in an anthology of this size. Sure you will quarrel with choices and be annoyed at some omissions but you will find poets that you would never otherwise have encountered.

So what are the drawbacks? The software is still stiff and awkward and even on a PC 486 is hesitant. The biographical information is brief and in some cases misses some essential detail. But that is about all there is. The positive outweighs the negative.

The real innovation is the reading. They have been read before but not in such a convenient format and rarely surrounded by so much information, although it is a pity there are so few. And the readings pose some interesting questions. Should GM Hopkins' "Pied Beauty" be read by a woman? Should Emily Dickinson be read in an English accent? Is the reading of Burns authentic?

A booklet gives some interesting ideas for using the resource. You can copy the poems electronically or print them. You can experiment with the presentation.

The disc is timely for the English national curriculum with its emphasis on pre-20th-century literature, but Pounds 250 is unrealistic for most schools. Poetry Plus should have a wide distribution but not at this price. No one is asking publishers to subsidise their work but wouldn't a lower price lead to higher sales?

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