Remember that majestic set of encyclopedias you had as a child and the thrill of finding the answer to any question, from the trivial to the profound? Maybe you even boasted your intent to read the set, cover to cover, but only made it from Abacus to Julius Caesar. Though it may take a bite out of business for the door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, the online uber-resource Wikipedia offers that same thrill, with no annual book to buy, no chance of going out of date, and no lament of pulling down the wrong volume.
Started in January 2001, Wikipedia is the world's largest and fastest growing encyclopedia, recently hitting its one-millionth article mark. The wiki-universe is constantly expanding as almost 2,500 new articles are added each day, along with ten times that number of updates to existing articles. There are versions in almost one hundred languages, as well as a dictionary and thesaurus.
Wikipedia is a brilliant and generous companion for both writers and readers. For those plagued by writer's block or a lack of inspiration, hit the "random page" and let Wikipedia take you for a ride. Or, maybe you are writing a love poem and trying to find an unconventional metaphor to describe that uncontrollable attraction. Look up "magnetism" and follow Wikipedia to "lodestone" and "magnetic fields," off to "compasses" and the "Grand Unified Theory." Maybe you'll discard your original plan for verses on love in favor of an ode on Burkhard Heim's six dimensions.
Wikipedia also comes in handy when trying to unpack the frequently archaic and complicated references in poetry. Say you are reading "Heroic Smile" by Robert Hass. It begins: "When the swordsman fell in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai." You can't get past the first line without needing a little explanation. Who is Kurosawa? What is Seven Samurai? A quick foray into Wikipedia will tell you that "Kurosawa" refers to the great Japanese filmmaker known for epic films set in Japan's feudal period, many of them adaptations of Shakespeare's plays and other tomes of Western literature. And Seven Samurai? Our friends at Wikipedia explain it was one of his films, later remade into the Western The Magnificent Seven. A separate entry on the film includes photos and plot spoilers, and a description of the great battle scene that helps clarify how the "swordsmen fell."
Keep reading the Hass poem and the next two lines declare: " in the gray rain, / in Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty." Again, it is Wikipedia to the rescue, with entries on Cinemascope and the Tokugawa shogunate. A little further, the next three lines say: "he fell straight as a pine, he fell / as Ajax fell in Homer / in chanted dactyls and the tree was so huge" Back to Wikipedia, for an explanation of who Ajax was, how he died, which book by Homer, and what a dactyl is. Thank you, Wikipedia, thank you.