Friday 29 April 2011

Starting a blog

There’s something weird about blogging – writing things down in a medium that’s so fragile. Based on banks of servers in places we know nothing of, subject to we know not what risks of incompetence, fire or interference.  It was so easy for the Egyptian and Libyan regimes to shut down the internet.  Then there’s the certainty of technological and social obsolescence; maybe that’s already started. Ancient papyri from the sands of the Egyptian Fayum, with scraps of Sappho or of the house-next-door’s accounts, have survived far better than any blog might, whether from Al-Tahrir Square or London.  And if the lights were to go out one day… at least paper diaries rely on nothing but themselves, and can be used as fuel in extremis. 

Fayum, 3rd/4th century AD: letter from
Prolemaeus referring to a cult banquet
(Michigan Papyri, Youtie & Winter)
Why do it?  I’m writing a blog partly because I want the discipline of knowing that others, if only a few, will read what I write.  A couple of people have asked me what the process of starting a blog was like.  Anyone who doesn’t want to know might rather stop reading here.  I will include a couple of poems for relief. 

I wanted a small, simple blog, not something I could customise up to the eyeballs or use to make money.  I have little patience with IT and less technical knowledge.  First, I googled starting a blog.  The online guides persuaded me to use a standard free blogging platform, rather than hosting the blog myself, which would require techie stamina.

It took some searching to establish that, of those who’ve tried both, more people seem to find Blogger easier than Wordpress to use, rather than vice versa.  Those are the two platforms most used in the UK.

Blogger blithely tells you it takes less than 5 minutes to set up.  Yes, if you don’t think about anything.  Otherwise it takes time to tour their various template options, and find out what all the jargon means; also what access controls, web listings etc. you want.  After that, I spent an evening sorting out fonts, colours etc.  I’d decided on a name; though for the url, or web address, I had to think how to make it easy for people to find the blog. 

Some of the ‘how to start a blog’ advice sensibly says, write a few posts before you start properly.  And always have one post in reserve.  I didn’t, but I had a list of subjects I wanted to write about.

Shakespeare sonnet 65

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
   O, none, unless this miracle have might,
   That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

The technical process of posting is mostly easy.  (Though I wouldn’t dream of trying anything scary, such as the tab called ‘Edit HTML’.)  Blogger has a ‘dashboard’, which is like the blog’s back door, or tradesman’s entrance, where you can go in and change settings or post a new piece.  You can write a post in your usual word-processing programme and copy-and-paste it into an interactive window on the dashboard.  Things like putting in links or photos are fairly intuitive, and you can search for help (though every time I do this, it off-puttingly says there is no help available in my language, being UK English). 

For a poetry blog, the awkward thing is getting quotes right: using the keyboard tab (in Word, anyway) to indent them doesn’t work when pasted into Blogger.  Selecting the text of the quote and then shifting it all to the right usually does work.  Poems with different indents for each line are tricky. 

It’s necessary to use the Preview function, which allows you to see the post as it’ll appear on the blog, before posting it.  A post that looks OK when you enter it in the window on the dashboard can come out on the blog all misaligned – especially photos, and poetry quotes.  I have spent ages trying to get a simple post right, by trial and error, until the alignment works. 

Horace Odes 3.30

Exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo inpotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.              
Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei
uitabit Libitinam; usque ego postera
crescam laude recens, dum Capitolium
scandet cum tacita uirgine pontifex.
Dicar, qua uiolens obstrepit Aufidus              
et qua pauper aquae Daunus agrestium
regnauit populorum, ex humili potens
princeps Aeolium carmen ad Italos
deduxisse modos. Sume superbiam
quaesitam meritis et mihi Delphica              
lauro cinge uolens, Melpomene, comam.

As usual with IT, simple things turn complex.  One week the dashboard wouldn’t save my draft post, or allow me to attach links.  I googled for help, as the blogger help didn’t. There were incomprehensible suggestions, and then one that just said, check you have saved your text in its original version on your computer.  Dead simple, and the right answer. 

Initially I assumed that to allow people to subscribe (ie. get notified of updates) it was enough to have the link at the bottom of the page which says ‘Subscribe to: Posts (Atom)’, which I think is an RSS feed.  However a friend in South Africa said this didn’t work, so I added email subscription, whereby the latest post arrives in an email.  She forwarded me the email of my last post on Stephen Watts.  It allowed no space after full stops; much more important, it didn’t replicate the layout of his poems.  Most of the ones quoted have their lines indented in a pattern, but they all came out wholly left-aligned.   

Horace Odes 3.30: a version by Franklin P Adams that made me smile

Look you, the monument I have erected
  High as the pyramids, royal, sublime,
During as brass -- it shall not be affected
  E'en by the elements coupled with Time.

Part of me, most of me never shall perish;
  I shall be free from Oblivion's curse;
Mine is a name that the future will cherish --
  I shall be known by my excellent verse.

I shall be famous all over this nation,
  Centuries after my self shall have died;
People will point to my versification --
  I, who was born on the Lower East Side!

Come, then, Melpomene, why not admit me?
  I want a wreath that is Delphic and green,
Seven, I think, is the size that will fit me --
  Slip me some laurel to wear on my bean.

Horace, on a later
Roman medallion
Copyright is an issue.  A blog lacks the space constraints of a magazine, so I like to quote properly, rather than meanly give readers the odd / one-and-a-half lines with slashes / in the middle of the text.  The Poetry Foundation in the US has just produced a helpful booklet on the subject, which appears to take a largely common-sense approach, adapted to the internet age.  In the UK, the Society of Authors says that for criticism and review, it’s OK to quote ‘extracts to a total of 40 lines from a poem, provided that this did not exceed a quarter of the poem’. How many people have read that and wondered: what if the poem, like most, is under 40 lines long?  What if it’s a sonnet?   

So far I’ve written each post to a self-imposed deadline.  The main challenge is deciding what to write about; once I know that, the tension of having to write it is far less.  This week I’m late and have chosen an easy subject, from the back of my mind which is under the influence of too much prosecco from today’s street party.  Without which (the party) I’d have gone off to the country for a long, long walk to get away from it all.

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