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Raising the Bar for Digital Poetry

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T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," one of the truly revolutionary poems in the English language, is now breaking new ground for poetry on the iPad. Faber and Touch Press have teamed up to create a new "The Waste Land" app, an ambitious effort to, as they put it, "vividly [showcase] the iPad's capabilities as a platform for literature." The app is just the beginning of an effort "to re-imagine poetry for the digital age," bringing it off the page and into life in various media, and offering -- at the reader's request -- interactive annotation and targeted guidance from dozens of experts with the tap of a finger.

Most readers would agree that they could use some technological help to fully understand "The Waste Land." The poem is brimming over with literary and religious allusions, many of which are quite obscure. Eliot once explained,

"We can say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization as it exists at present, must be difficult... The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into its meaning."

To grasp just how difficult "The Waste Land" is, one needs look no further than the poem's epigraphs: they're presented in the original Latin, Greek and Italian and are not translated. Even the poem's famous first line, "April is the cruelest month," requires familiarity with the general prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to be fully appreciated.

So how does the app enhance the reader's experience? Let's say you're reading the poem's Death By Water section. With a simple rotation of the iPad, you'll bring up a list of interactive notes beside the text. That way, you'll know immediately who Phlebas the Phoenician was and learn that the phrase "a current under sea picked his bones in whispers" builds on imagery from Shakespeare's The Tempest. You can also call up video perspectives from 35 interviews of literary heavyweights like Seamus Heaney that help explain or expand upon the section.

With the flick of a finger, you can flip between a standard text, the original handwritten manuscript, and Ezra Pound's famous annotated manuscript. You can read along with your choice of four different readers: Alec Guinness (and what doesn't sound more poignant when read by Obi Wan Kenobi?), Viggo Mortensen, former poet laureate Ted Hughes, and Eliot himself. You can even watch an impressive performance of the poem as dramatic monologue by actress Fiona Shaw (this is particularly helpful with the sections written as dialogue).

Of course, you can also just read the poem in its pure form. Paul Keegan, Faber's poetry editor, told the Guardian that he didn't want the app's bells and whistles to interfere with the poem -- that it was important for the poem "to survive in all its strangeness." All in all, the technological features, and the ease with which they can be used or hidden, make for a deep and rewarding reading of "The Waste Land." It's a promising marriage of poetry and technology, and just one more reason to break down and buy an iPad.