Well versed in web power

HE HAS written a biography and a novel about him, and there's not much about Keats that Poet Laureate Andrew Motion doesn't know. But there is one intriguing thing: what did Keats sound like when he read his own work?

It probably wasn't as we might imagine. Keats's friends noted that he "chaunted" his poetry; Shelley's that he had a very squeaky voice, possibly even higher than Robert Browning, who in 1889 became the first British poet to record his work when a friend asked him to speak into a phonograph at a dinner party. (It wasn't a great success: he forgot his own lines.)

But we have come a long way since then, and just how far will be made clear by Motion when he visits the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews on Sunday.

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The poetry website he will be launching then, five years and 1 million in the making, is unlike anything else in the world. If you want to hear - and you can, just, through the crackles - Tennyson reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade in an audibly Lincolnshire burr, or Yeats declaiming that he will arise and go now to Innisfree, it's all just a click of a mouse away. So too is a superb selection of contemporary poets reading their work, which is displayed on the page alongside biographical details.

The site - poetryarchive.org - was formally launched in London last November, but at its Scottish launch Motion will reveal that, for the next stage of the project, it will concentrate on recording more Scottish poets.

At the moment, the site only has recordings of John Burnside, Kathleen Jamie and Edwin Morgan among living Scottish poets, and George Mackay Brown and Hugh MacDiarmid among dead ones.

There are, obviously, huge omissions, but the Poetry Archive is determined to fill them. Rather than spasmodically recording individual poets from all over the UK, it will concentrate first of all on recording 25 contemporary Scottish poets. It is also appealing for help in tracking down historic recordings of poets such as Edwin Muir, Sorley MacLean and Norman MacCaig.

The Poetry Archive is the brainchild of Motion and recording producer Richard Carrington. They met in 1999 when Carrington was recording Motion reading from his work at a London studio. "I was saying something about how much better poets were than actors at reading from their own work, and [Motion] pointed out the number of great 20th century poets who were never recorded - AE Housman, Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence."

The two men then set about raising money and recording some of the more elderly poets who had not hitherto been recorded.

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At 5,000 per poet, it's an expensive business, but this included payment, professional recording, photographs, accurate bibliographies and introductions - as well as the hour-long CDs, sales of which further subsidise the website. But to Motion, it's fundamental: a poem's meaning, he argues, is conveyed as much in the sound it makes as in the words from which it is made up.

His case is simply put: poetry was an oral form long before it became a written one, and poets have always been the best performers of their own work. And one way of ensuring that love of poetry survives is by stripping it right back to those original spoken words.

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"A page-based poet such as Eliot can sometimes appear to be baffling, and you think 'what the hell does this mean?'," says Motion, "but when you hear him reading, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and you can feel something extra. There's a sense in which the emotional content of a poem does deliver itself through sound."

But doesn't that imply that the only poets of worth have to be good performers? "I've never met a poet who doesn't read their work interestingly," he says, adding that even the mutterers, and those who read their work too fast, have more of a hold on their poems than actors trying too hard for effect. "They're their words, after all."

Nor is it, he argues, the case that reading poetry aloud leaves the quiet and the introverted at a disadvantage. "There are many models of what a poet might be, but they all converge on a point at which quietness meets solitude and reporting in that in a way which is itself slowed down," as in George Mackay Brown's The Poet.

Under the last dead lamp,

When all the dancers and masks had gone inside

His cold stare

Returned to its true task, interrogation of silence

That poem is one of four from Mackay Brown on the website, and listening to it is itself a powerful argument for the poetry archive. Brown made the occasional recording for the BBC, but never read his poems in public, yet here he is, sitting at his friend Archie Bevan's fireside, after lunch and a couple of pints of home-brewed beer, reading as naturally, as beautifully, as free of pretension or portentousness as it is possible to read. If you've never heard Mackay Brown read (as I never had), it's a rare treat.

There are many more. Richard Carrington has done most of the recordings himself, and clearly adores his job. "It's a wonderful privilege and pleasure to be able to ring up, say, Seamus Heaney and say: 'Can you spend an afternoon reading your work to me?'

"Very often recordings of readings are of public events," adds Carrington. "And when I listen to them I feel left out - like when you're a child and the grown-ups are having a party downstairs and you're allowed to listen over the banisters. Here the poet is very much talking to you: there's a much more powerful intimacy, especially with some of the older ones whom we recorded in their homes.

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He singles out another Scottish example. "I remember calling up to see Eddie Morgan at his flat in Anniesland. It was after he'd won the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, and he ran down the corridor to show this chunky piece of gold to me. I was with this charming elderly man, reading poems such as his Loch Ness Monster Song and The Gull, which he had just written because he'd been diagnosed with cancer, and I looked up from the tape recorder and there outside the window were gulls flying by, one just gliding past with its beady eye on Eddie..."

So which, I ask Motion, is your own favourite? He does not hesitate. "Charles Causley. It's a fantastically powerful recording that was done a matter of days before his death. It doesn't show on the recording, but Richard, who made the recording, said that between each poem Charles broke down and wept, and had to gather himself. He knew that he was dying. He was saying goodbye to each of his poems. If you only listen to one of the poems on the website, listen to Eden Rock. It's a great poem and he reads it so beautifully and introduces it so touchingly."

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Causley's father died in 1925, of wounds received in the First World War. His son was only seven at the time, and that death affected him profoundly all his life. So here, you have to remember, is that young boy now grown old in a new century, and he imagines his long-dead parents waiting for him - his father, 25, in his Irish tweed suit, his mother, 23, with a ribbon in her straw hat and a stiff white cloth spread over the grass:

She pours tea from a Thermos, the milk straight

From an old HP Sauce bottle, a screw

Of paper for a cork; slowly sets out

The same three plates, the tin cups painted blue

The sky whitens as if lit by three suns.

My mother shades her eyes and looks my way

Over the drifted stream. My father spins

A stone along the water. Leisurely,

They beckon to me from the other bank.

I hear them call, 'See where the stream-path is!

Crossing is not so hard as you might think.'

I had not thought it would be like this

• Andrew Motion, Scotland's Laureate Edwin Morgan (via video link), and Edinburgh Makar Valerie Gillies will launch Poetry Archive in Scotland at Parliament Hall, St Andrews, on Sunday 19 March, tickets 8.50.

StAnza festival

IN THE eight years since St Andrews launched the annual StAnza poetry festival, some of the art form's biggest names have performed in the little Fife city. Andrew Motion, Carol Ann Duffy, Wendy Cope, Tony Harrison, Roger McGough and Edwin Morgan have all topped the bills.

Audiences have been treated to extraordinary poetic experiences: performance poet Patience Agbabi declaiming about tampons, in a splendid orange trouser suit; Louis de Bernires reading his own verse aloud for the first time; and Canadian Anne Michaels giving a reading so moving it left the audience holding its breath.

Poetry lovers have thronged the medieval streets, squeezed into crypts, filled halls and theatres to capacity. Boats bearing cargoes of poetry have sailed into the harbour. Bob Dylan song lyrics have been subjected to detailed analysis and public discussion.

The festival was launched in 1998 by three poets, Brian Johnstone, Anna Crowe and Gavin Bowd. There was controversy in 2001 when Bowd invited Romanian politician and poet Adrian Paunescu, allegedly an apologist for the former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and a Holocaust denier. Bowd later severed his links with the festival.

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StAnza springs from associations which have long made St Andrews University a centre of excellence in poetry: Douglas Dunn, Robert Crawford, Kathleen Jamie, John Burnside and Don Paterson all teach there. When Nobel prizewinner Derek Walcott, due to headline at the festival in 2003, cancelled at the last minute, StAnza swiftly produced a stunning double bill of Simon Armitage and Don Paterson.

Recognising that poetry readings alone do not a festival make, StAnza programmers think creatively: there are debates and discussions; a children's programme; exhibitions; workshops; and Dead Poets Sessions, where writers read from their own favourites.

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This year, listen out for Valerie Gillies, Michael Longley, Fleur Adcock and Jo Shapcott, the Forward Prize-winner David Harsent, AL Kennedy in conversation with Don Paterson, Gordon Tyrrall performing musical settings of John Clare, and much more. For more information visit stanzapoetry.org