Edward Alport: Micropoetry and the Twitterverse

Edward Alport is a retired teacher and occasional writer who occasionally gets published. When he has nothing better to do he posts snarky micropoems on Twitter as @cross_mouse. He also moderates the monthly @ThePoetryFloor Twitter writing event.

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Micropoetry and Twitter have become inextricably linked in the cultural universe, and they are about the same age, with ‘micro-poem’ beating Twitter by 2004 to 2006. ‘Micro-poem’, as a term, was coined by W G Sebald in Unrecounted, which was published posthumously in 2004. As Sebald died in 2001 we can assume that the term is slightly older.

The word micropoem (without the hyphen) is not defined in the OED (at the time of writing) but is now used generally to apply to any very short poem. But ‘very short poems’ have been around for as long as poetry has been around and succeeds, or doesn’t, for very much the same reasons that a tweet succeeds: striking content and pared down language.

The original micropoems were the epitaphs written on ancient Greek graves. They were constrained by the size of the gravestone and, probably, because the masons charged by the character (much as they do now) so the premium was on keeping it short. Epitaphs and epigrams form the roots from which the micropoem has sprung, but the trunk of the tree is the syllabic poetry that originated in Japan and came to the West in the 1880s. The initial impact of haiku and the like was on content and style, rather than form. The imagists, such as Ezra Pound, appreciated their very concise and precise expression rather than their syllable count. It was not until the 1950s, and the publication of translations by R.H. Blyth, that the syllabic forms entered Western Culture. I first encountered haiku in the stories by J D Salinger, specifically Seymour: An Introduction, in which the fictitious Seymour Glass writes haiku. Salinger, in passing, calls Blyth a ‘high-handed old poet’ who superimposed his own voice on that of Bashō and Buson. This is a good thing, as anyone who has read an excellent poem ruined by a pedestrian translator will know. You need a poet to translate a poet, and Blyth demonstrated just how short a poem could be yet still be excellent. On the other hand, we experience haiku with Blyth’s voice, and not the voice of the original.

[Honourable mention should be made of William Blake, who established the ultra-short poem as a major part of his oevre. Many of his Songs of Innocence would fit into 280 character tweets (fewer of the Songs of Experience). All of the stanzas of the ‘Auguries of Innocence’ and ‘Proverbs of Hell’ could be imagined as self-contained tweets in a thread.]

What micropoetry took from Japanese forms were extreme compression and the removal of anything unnecessarily flowery or poetical. They also demonstrated that syntax was optional and that articles were superfluous (except where you need an extra syllable). Structurally, micropoets also found that the apparent sudden change in direction, the kireji in haiku, could be used to signify a development or commentary of the original idea, like a caesura in Western poetry. The change could also be totally random for comic effect or be used to deliver a punchline, in the tradition of the classical epigram. Above all, micropoems could be, in the Twitter tradition, personal and immediate.

A famous haiku illustrates these points. It was posted on Twitter by Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of Sun Microsystems in 2010 to announce his resignation:

Financial crisis
Stalled too many customers
CEO no more

A substantial minority of micropoems do follow a syllabic form, mostly haiku but with some variants. Some micropoems are conventionally (by Western standards) rhymed and scanned but the majority are free in form.

The expansion of the character allowance, in 2017, from 140 characters to 280 did not have much impact on haiku writers because haiku average about 70 characters and have their own constraints. It did have a major impact on micropoetry because it significantly diluted the ‘micro-‘ part. A poem of 280 character is still short, but it is not necessary to use, in a free formed verse, the techniques of compression that we associate with haiku.

A lot of the writing of poetry is about overcoming the constraints of form, or, in free verse, imposing a discipline on the absence of constraints, and then overcoming it. Twitter poets tended to use haiku and free forms because it made writing easier when there was a restrictive character limit. With the much looser character limit, micropoetry became looser as well and many micropoems now are indistinguishable from ordinary tweets, except that they are broken up into random lines.

The result of this is that the meaning of micropoetry has become increasingly blurred and now means ‘any poem that can be posted on Twitter’, but this moves some distance away from the original idea of micropoetry. Is a tweet micropoetry if it can include sonnets and triolets? I would say definitely so because, in order to squeeze them into the 280 character limit, they have to be stripped right back to the bare necessities. They are much closer to the original idea of micropoem than a bloated tanka.

So if there’s no challenge to writing micropoetry, why do people write it? What is it for?

The short answer to the first question is: Because they can. Anyone who is inclined to write poetry will do so. But, as anyone who has tried to get their poetry in front of a wider audience will testify, getting your poetry to the next stage is difficult. Poetry editors are notoriously picky but, when you post on Twitter, you don’t need to worry about editors or rejection slips. You post it up and Hey! it’s there for anyone to see. Okay, so the nature of Twitter means that the poem is ephemeral, but then all poetry is ephemeral, unless you are lucky enough to be included in an anthology.

The second question is more complicated than the first but it can be summed up as: To get attention by enriching the communication. The theory of media richness was proposed by Daft and Lengel in 1986. This suggests that the quality of information transfer depends on the richness of the medium. Daft and Lengel rank communication media in the order of the complexity of inter-personal information the medium can transfer. Face-to-face communication is the richest, with all the advantages of non-verbal communication and the difficulty of getting away from the communicator. Spam email as the poorest because it is anonymous and easily ignored.

On Daft and Lengel’s scale, Twitter comes pretty much at the bottom, and a naked tweet is even poorer than spam. A tweet is just words fired off into the ether, but the sender can use a number of techniques to direct it and develop the message it contains:

xxxxxxxgathering followers tailors the audience,
xxxxxxxemojis develop the non-verbal message
xxxxxxx hashtags link content with other messages to enable the tweet to find a targeted xxxxxxxxaudience.

Micropoetry is just another directing technique, one that expresses the tweet in the form of a poem in order to target an audience that is both receptive to poetry and interested in reading it. The idea is to increase the richness, and hence the effectiveness of the message by couching it in a poetic form. Micropoets uses all the other techniques as well.

For a tweet to be a micropoem it has to look like a poem or give the feel of being a poem. It has to be identified as a poem and this means using the techniques of prosody, and/or cutting the shape of the text so that it looks like a poem in free form. It doesn’t much matter what the tweet actually says

As long as
The shape
Tells the Reader
Look. This is
A poem.

Scansion and rhyme identify text as a poem, but in the context of micropoetry, they are hardly ever used except in humorous verse. Free form poems are generally not humorous. Much of the wit in conventional poetry comes from the poet’s skill in overcoming the constraints of form, so where there is no form, wit is not required and the writer can focus on content. That doesn’t mean to say there is no wit in free verse, just that it isn’t necessary. It can also be said that free verse tends to take itself quite seriously.

The form that is particularly suited for humorous tweets is the limerick, and it was just about possible to fit a limerick into 140 characters. The main point about limericks is that it is very difficult to write a serious one. As soon as the reader registers the metre and the shape, you register ‘Joke’. It means that whatever the writer puts into the limerick, be it never so scurrilous, scabrous or libellously offensive, is not supposed to be taken seriously (though the fact that it is in the form of a limerick is not a defence in law).

There is no doubt that micropoetry is alive and thriving on Twitter but it is not developing. The increase in character limit has had the effect of liberating it – it has just allowed it to become looser. Twitter had removed graphics and video from the character count and pictorial graphics have become a much more effective way of increasing the media richness and the reader’s experience than micropoetry can offer. Twitter poets frequently attach poems that are much longer than 280 character as graphics files, meaning that Twitter has evolved into an unedited poetry publishing forum. The short attention span mentality of Twitter means that these longer poems are unlikely to be read.

The essential characteristic of Twitter was the character constraint. Without the pressure of the tight character limit, micropoetry seems to have lost its edge and sometimes feels flabby. While in volume terms it may be thriving, it has become increasingly ghettoised, with its own communities, events and hashtag challenges. It’s fun, but just now it’s not going anywhere.

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