Do I Dare to Tweet a Peach?: Poetry on Twitter
By Nick Lantz
In April 2009, I signed up for Twitter. Until then, I’d avoided the microblogging site because its project didn’t particularly appeal to me. I already had Facebook to tell me what my friends in Portland and Tucson were eating for dinner, and Twitter’s pared-down interface didn’t seem to offer much I wasn’t already getting. But my interest in Twitter was piqued when I found out that posts (or “tweets,” as they’re called) on the site are limited to 140 characters.
At the time, I’d been reading Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazals, and also what he had to say about ghazals. Ghazals are, to simplify somewhat, poems of variable length composed of couplets connected by a repeated refrain. What attracted me to ghazals was that their couplets leap, without transition, from subject to subject, mood to mood. This is part of the genre’s form. Ali wrote that a ghazal couplet ought to be “thematically and emotionally complete in itself” and that it “may be quoted by itself (anytime, anywhere) without in any way violating a context—there is no context, as such.” A ghazal couplet, then, is not quite a complete poem, but it is complete—it can stand alone. And, it turns out, a ghazal couplet can be comfortably written in 140 characters. This opening couplet, from a ghazal in Ali’s book Rooms Are Never Finished, is only 100 characters long (counting spaces):
In Jerusalem, a dead phone’s dialed by exiles.
You learn your strange fate. You were exiled by exiles.
So, a unit of poetry—maybe not a true, complete poem, but something that is “thematically and emotionally complete in itself”—can be written in 140 characters. I had tried various poem-a-day disciplines: write a poem about your dreams every morning when you wake up. Write a sonnet every day (I don’t think I made it three days). Read the newspaper every day and write a poem based on an article you find. And so on. Why had I failed so miserably at all of these projects? To be sure, there is a fine line between discipline and drudgery, and I have crossed it many times. But a 140-character limit provides a formal constraint that is still highly flexible. Even a couplet of iambic pentameter generally comes in under 140 characters. And a few lines is not overly demanding, even for the lazy poet. I figured this was something I could get behind. Actually, I thought that a lot of poets might like to get behind the idea. I had in mind a whole group of poets twittering away their tiny daily poems, inspiring and engaging one another as they developed a new poetic community. Cue swelling, inspirational music.
So I set out to post a 140-character micropoem on Twitter every day. To be sure, I’ve fallen off the wagon a few times, missed a day here and there, and in terms of becoming a community of poets exchanging work, the project fell far short of even my most modest expectations (as I write this, a year after I started the project, I have only one fellow poet posting poems). Nonetheless, I’ve stuck with it, and found it worthwhile, if mainly for personal reasons.
Over the last few years, I’ve been reexamining and trying to change the way I actually compose poems, and the Twitter project has been enormously useful in this regard. When I sit down to write a more substantial poem, I scan over the Twitter poems I’ve posted in previous few days/weeks, pulling a line here, an image there. The Twitter poems have become one of my best resources, and because I’m always writing them, I know that when I sit down to write a longer poem that I’ve always got some material waiting for me. It makes the blank page/screen a lot less intimidating.
A Word or Two about Twitter
Twitter has been used to write whole novels in 140-character chunks, and various attempts have been made at writing 140-character, standalone short stories. Booktwo.org’s Swotter project posted the entirety of Joyce’s Ulysses in a months-long series of tweets. Some Twitter communities have centered around the haiku. Most of these attempts to incorporate Twitter and creative writing have yielded less than interesting results. Ulysses, it turns out, isn’t particularly improved by being parceled out into hundred-character segments. The most conceptually intriguing partnership of poetry and Twitter that I’ve seen so far is a project conceived by the poet Karen Head. From a plinth in Trafalgar Square, she directed “Monumental,” a collaborative exquisite corpse poem via Twitter. Certainly, venues like Twitter pose interesting possibilities for writers, even if it will take some trial and error to find out what relationships are most fruitful.
A common criticism of Twitter hinges on its brevity: nothing of substance can be communicated in 140 characters, or so the argument goes. This is an understandable complaint when you’re looking to Twitter for, say, substantive news coverage. But poetry, or a certain kind of poetry at least, thrives on concision. The entirety of Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” clocks in well under 140 characters (title included). And here is a wonderful short poem by Emily Dickinson, also under 140 characters:
When Etna basks and purrs
Naples is more afraid
Than when she shows her Garnet Tooth—
Security is loud—
I can’t help but wish that Dickinson had been on Twitter. I’d follow her tweets any day.
Poetry Is Not a Pot
I don’t want to overstate the subversiveness of this project, but I’m eager to see poetry injected into places where you might not expect it, to see it infiltrating (if even in a modest way) a world that’s often indifferent or even hostile to it. A lot of people don’t know what to “do” with poetry when they encounter it. Cynthia Ozick wrote that “a poem, even when it concerns the everyday, is disjunctive with the everyday, collides with it, or veers away from it.” Or, as she put it more succinctly, “Poetry is not a pot.” Poetry doesn’t have a practical utility, and it makes a poor commercial commodity, even compared to other forms of literature. And while mere words, the stuff of which poetry is made, couldn’t be more mundane, poetry is anything but. To inject poetry into our lives is to break up the flow of unremarkable utterances that we are inundated with daily. I very much doubt that the engineers behind Twitter had poetry in mind, but that’s all the more reason to bring poetry to Twitter. Poetry is often the most delightful where it is unexpected, the most necessary where it is unwelcome. Even if Twitter poems aren’t your cup of tea, I encourage you to find other venues where poetry is missing and introduce some poems there. The world will be a more interesting place for it.
If you’d like to join my Twitter Poetry Project, you can find more information on my Web site: www.nick-lantz.com
Nick Lantz is the author of two books of poetry, We Don't Know We Don't Know (reviewed in this issue of VW) and The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors' House. He was a Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and he is the 2010-2011 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College. More poetry by Lantz appears in the print issue of Verse Wisconsin103.