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Poetry on your free iPhone

In the first of his column on alt lit, Harry Burke reports on the journal playing with your phone

Harry Burke is a London poet and writer. Under his blog E-Books, he'll be reporting on the new directions of literature online 

“It is increasingly unbearable to think of oneself as a producer active in some kind of subculture” begins Danny Hayward’s alluring, if somewhat dense, poetic essay in the new issue of The Claudius App, an online “Journal of Fast Poetry” presented in a browser-based iPhone. Though the extract continues via writing that’s certainly not shy about its own over-education, it makes for a perfect jumping off point when thinking about poetry both produced and distributed online.

Gradually permeating your newsfeed over the last 18 months, the alt-lit scene has emerged as the defining expression of the cute, kooky and boldly horizontalist potential of the internet. Writers can bypass the existing, elitist infrastructures surrounding publishing and distribution. The writing is liberated in this way, liberated enough to say specifically what it ‘feels’ – although, of course, not dispensing with the self-doubt surrounding any speech act. An evocative symmetry, when coupled with the anxieties of the post-internet age, trivial or otherwise: a literature perfectly resonant with the existential crises of the OS X operating system. First World Problems can be beautiful too, heartbreakingly so. 

Yet as much potential as any horizontalist system has to challenge vertical structures, we recognise it’s impossible to fully break away from them. Mainstream publishing models are hugely challenged by online spaces, but they are in no sense replaced. This is the central importance of journals in internet poetry, as exampled by initiatives such as Pop Serial and New Wave Vomit. Despite increased accessibility, forms of hierarchy nonetheless remain, re-articulated as ties through social networks. This is essentially the challenge right now, in deciding not which model of publishing will dominate, but the weird hybrids that will proliferate in between. 

How are these sort of challenges reflected in the language and poetry itself? The Claudius App recently released their fourth issue, available at If a lot of internet writing is the palatable, often tweet-length, and dispensing of metaphor kind, the work collected here is much more stubborn, but enticingly so. It’s also long, stretching the webpage downwards and disemboweling the iPhone interface, almost evaporating from it. 

Which is what is exciting is the work within it. It finds a provocative mix of deference and indifference, challenging its format but at the same time recognising its importance in culture – if only for its predominance. Justin Katko’s “Rhyme Against the Internet”, for example, embodies this. Neither obviously a rhyme, nor necessarily against the internet, it presents a complexity within the code too often dormant beneath our webpages. Code is a language, as simple as any other, and language as equally a code, and in this the poem is defiant. “My zoological representative is no longer this beautiful Goat”, sings Katko, which might be read as a beautifully obscure interpretation of Douglas Rushkoff’s “program or be programmed”, or more simply the threat of increasingly pervasive computing systems mediating even the most primary of human gestures.

Not really an app as normally understood (it’s not available for download in the Apple app store), there’s something subtly amazing in the formatting of this fourth issue. Reflecting the decentralisation of internet devices into our phones and tablets, its design hijacks that of the Poetry Foundation’s free app, which allows you the ability to “discover poetry anywhere” – finally it’s possible to read “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” actually on Westminster Bridge. Where the Claudius App is most exciting is when it follows this logic through to its very genesis: the core and format of language itself.

In fact there’s something incredibly pleasing about looking at the Claudius App on your phone, and not just because a phone is a more convenient tool for reading poetry than you’d immediately give it credit for. As when you zoom in the handset achieves a rare and quiet thing - performing a subtle transfer from digital to physical materiality. Yet in the middle of this is the poetry, and it’s here that the matter becomes visceral. And if the writing is difficult, this is perhaps because it expects difficulty in return, a certain irascibility, even. Like iPhones getting angry at their own trivial and mass-configured vitality, and encouraging you to, too.