17 February, 2014Issue 24.3EssaysLiteraturePoetry

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Poetweet: On the Prospects of Twitter for Poetry

Leo Mercer



Not here,
not here the darkness in this twittering world.

T S Eliot

The streets of Oxford,
connoted, well-trodden.

Unlike Twitter, waiting still
till its highways – bridges over
to an other world – are filled.


Poets of every generation have a challenge and an opportunity to take what is distinctive about the language of their time and to push it to its technical and expressive limits. In our time, it is the internet that opens the widest pathway for the development of language. Poets have already engaged with it in many and diverse ways, but it is on Twitter that poetry can be most effective and in turn have the greatest influence.

Here are ten claims, as if towards a manifesto, about the prospects of Twitter for poetry. Poetry on Twitter has, so far, not faced up to the task of being genuinely Twitter-poetry, but now we must develop a specific form, inherent in Twitter itself, the poetweet. A poetweet is, simply enough, a tweet-length poem posted on Twitter. It is distinct from tweets in being poetic. It is distinct from other poetic forms in submitting fully to the specific formal constraints of a tweet and being cognizant that it is being posted on Twitter—in being, in other words, twittered. These claims come in part as reflections from having written hundreds of poetweets, and my hope in making them is to encourage you, as poets and potential poets, to take up the poetweet too.

I. The Poetweet Is The Internet’s Gift To Poets

Twitter provides the first distinctively poetic opportunity offered by the internet. It makes use of the public nature of the web while providing a truly formal challenge: 140 characters, no more. It is a germane and intuitive challenge to poetry which, after all, has often aspired to the designed and calculated deployment of a small number of words to particular effect. Poetry of this sort prefers quality over quantity. Though Twitter is often seen as causing an excessive expenditure of words, to the poet it is a chance to give each word its emphasis and weight.

Formal rules can come from several authorities: from the shadow of poetic tradition, from the force of political restraint, from the willpower of self-imposition. But technology too has been an authority behind formal rules: before writing, words were passed down in oral tradition; when books are printed to pages of standard length and width, words were written to fill that space. “Technology is a part of imagination”, writes Michael Schmidt. “Parchment elicits one attitude from a writer, paper another”—and, now, Twitter must elicit another.

II. Poetweets Are Indigenous To Twitter

Many poetic forms have already been imported into Twitter or created for it. They pass under many different hashtags, such as #micropoem and #tweetpoetry; short Japanese forms—such as #haiku (or #twaiku), #tanka and #senryu—are all over the place; as well as some newer forms like #3lines and #sixwordsplusone. Others post one-off extracts of longer poems or installments of a poem spread over several tweets. What all these have in common is creating either artificial and alien sub-forms within the tweet, or subsuming the tweet in something larger than itself. They do not let the tweet stand for itself.

Yet the tweet is already here, its form already specified. The tweeter finds him or herself with an empty space and 140 characters to use: no more and no less. Like so much in our world which is at once freed and constrained by technology, poetry must conform to the laws of Twitter if it is to be renewed by it. Twitter does not merely constrict; it provides a space for liberation. It is not an oppression but a gift. The characters it offers cannot be exceeded, but should also not be rejected as excessive. Why import other even shorter forms into it when it offers itself up already as a form? It is not a haiku or anything like it; nor is it a space to be filled by other short forms. That is why Twitter must give rise to the poetweet, and not a foreign haiku or a generic micropoem. Poetweets integrate into their very being the two forms—poetry and tweets—that they seek to marry.

III. Poetweets Speak The Language Of Twitter

Language is changing: the words we use, the style we adopt, the way we write. There are times to poetweet with traditional language, but also times to push tweet-speak further. Twitter itself is full of new implications for language and thought, which entail fresh challenges for the poet. Can its language be made lyrical? Can it feel relaxed and reflective? Is tweet-speak the language best suited to articulate the truths of the Twitter world? These are open questions and they will only close when there is poetic evidence in either direction. It is the responsibility of poets to provide that evidence; they must enact their answers in poetweets, as opposed to merely describing them in a commentary.

Twitter has its own restrictions as to how its space can be used, but equally its own idiosyncrasies. Poetweeters must find uses for all of these: they should use hashtags to flag-up subjects, mark intertextuality, or connect poems to contemporary trends and events. They should incorporate photos, paintings, and links to music to bring together multiple art forms.

IV. Poetweets Counter The Twitter Clutter

The poetweet must be like the haiku in just one sense. The haiku is marked by self-sufficiency and self-contentment: it may be brief, but it captures what it needs. Its brevity seems natural, not forced. You can fit two haikus in a poetweet, but the form is still short enough to focus on a single image, thought, or moment.

On Twitter, words are oppressed, caged into a space too short for thinking. An average tweet is prosaic, wordy, rushed, and fleeting. A sense of virtual claustrophobia grows when one is confronted with the words forced against the character-limit and with the constant stream of chaotic, long-lined tweets. The poet offers a remedy by giving unashamed space to the words. Without good reason, the poet should not have to miss out words, letters, or punctuation to make the poems they want to tweet fit. Words—and our appreciation of them—can survive Twitter intact.

This is why real line breaks are so important for Twitter poetry, and not just the representation of line breaks with a forward slash. There is a huge, liberating difference between the poetweet at the head of this essay, and how it would feel if written as “The streets of Oxford, / connoted, well trodden. // Unlike Twitter, waiting still / till its highways – bridges over / to an other world – are filled.” This would sustain and amplify the clutter of Twitter. In page-poetry, the line break indicates form, creates suspense, subverts meaning, and so on. On Twitter, it is also a way of creating genuinely empty space without using up many characters. When the poetweet appears on a Twitter feed, against line after long line of tweets, it signals a breath against a relentless noise. Equally, when whole profiles are devoted to poetry—one long reel—they create an elevated virtual as well as psychological space within the Twitter world. Poetweets are as much about the silence they create in a cluttered world as about the words they articulate. They are the subversive counter to Twitter.

V. Poets Can Redefine Twitter

Twitter affects its users not just in the act of tweeting, but also in the language used to talk about it. The poetweeter refuses to let the founders, markerters, and popularizers of Twitter be the definers of its motives and metaphors. Twitter is first and foremost a form: the way it is used and the way it is perceived must be defined by its users. As such, poetweeting is a political as much as poetic act; it makes a stand for people creating their own experience, rather than allowing it to be created by market forces. Such people are the poets of Twitter. They must not receive Twitter passively, but be active creators of it. They must create new metaphors, coding a new and expressive language to describe it, and mediate its impact upon them.

It is not that poetweets should always be meta-poetic; they should not. Poetry must talk about the world more than about itself. Poetweets must be cognizant of the fact that they are written in and on a Twitter world, but equally, they must find a way to be distinctly Twittered phenomena regardless of their subject matter. The test of poetweeters is whether they can articulate the world they are a part of, in all its aspects, experiences, and emotions. What is it like to live now, to be part of the world we have constructed and are constructing? How has Twitter—both in itself, and as a metonym for all that is new—changed our experience of the world?

VI. Poetweets Can Be Short Or Long

The poetweet as a distinct form is primarily a one-part, stand-alone burst of language. Each is a single thought or moment individually analysed, mythologized, or captured. John Muse, talking about Twitter-theatre, has put it wonderfully: “This is essentially the dream behind Twitter—that any sliver of experience might reward attention”.

Yet there is a large-scale form that Twitter calls for—and the one that is implied by Twitter: the poetic series, that is, a sequence of independent but interconnected poems: glimpses of an autumn forest, moments of reflection on the experience of time, experimental slides, and so on. This is like life itself, an experience of many single moments, only subsequently threaded together through a creative faculty independent of the experience itself. The Twitter series is an adhoc, lifelike mix.

VII. Poetweets Revive The Epistolary Tradition

There is a long tradition of epistolary poems, whether public declarations or private letters. Twitter will facilitate a renewal of this: poets can direct their poems at people using @s and events using #‬‬s. This will bring poems and their subjects together directly and immediately. Used properly, the @ will allow poetry to be a language of conversation and commentary. Poets will be able to respond to major events and tweets in verse; they will develop their prophetic potential for social commentary. More than this, it will give room for a community of poets to develop: they will be able to communicate with each other in verse.

Most of all, it is entirely democratic. Everyone can write. If Twitter poetry becomes a significant phenomenon, one that everyone knows about because everyone sees it emerging in reels of tweets, everybody will find themselves able to write it when they want or need to.

VIII. Tweeters Are The New Audience for Poetry

The audience of poetry at any given time will depend on the sort of poetry practised and allowed to flourish at that time. Twitter poetry, if done well, will reintroduce poetry to public discourse. Good poetweets will be retweeted across Twitter. Newspapers will commission a daily poetweet alongside their daily cartoon. Public responses to events will be shaped by the poetweets they read.

The poetweet is accessible politically and economically, because it is free of charge and part of a universal technology. And it is also accessible culturally: its brevity allows it to be read in the middle of a hectic day, to be a burst of language in a moment of dullness, or a manageable read for short attention spans. Twitter is becoming a microcosm of our world. If poems can take their place amongst the tweets we tweet, then poetry can take its place in the lives we live.

IX. Towards Great Poetweeting

There is already a lot of Twitter poetry. Some tweeters are established poets, some new, some are old, some young. Some tweet poems daily, some in an occasional rush of feeling. Poetry is already being brought spontaneously to Twitter by thousands of people across the globe.

But the real aim now—the challenge that is at once an opportunity—is to create great Twitter poetry. Many and diverse poets need to realise the potential inherent in Twitter and use it to bring something great to the poetic tradition. I suspect that truly great Twitter poetry will come about when it combines boundary pushing with a deep introspection on human life; the poetweet must be part of the Twittered world and yet also transcend it.

X. The Poetweet Dream

Imagine a world in which words could be used to make space and time as well as to fill it. Imagine if great Twitter poets rose to the screen, drawing tens of thousands of followers (dare we be more ambitious?), all of whom encountered their reels of poetry every day. Imagine—and this is the dream—the businessman checking the latest market developments who is reminded by a poem of the beauty of human relations, or a supermarket attendant reminded of the beauty of the world; the lawyer given a mark of humour; the teacher a spark of inspiration.

The poetweet is one of the great challenges, but also opportunities, for contemporary poets. It will be a challenge to make brilliant use of the formal and expressive directions that Twitter opens; but, equally, it is an opportunity for contemporary poets to have an impact both on their poetic tradition and on the wider society that Twitter represents. All that remains is to begin. Tweet at me. Tweet at each other. Tweet at the world.

Leo Mercer is reading for a Master’s in Philosophical Theology at Wolfson College, Oxford. He is also a poet and poetweets at least once a day, @the_poetweet.