Poetry in the Age of Poetry

O, elegists of verse, would that poetry now were merely “relevant”!—/ It’s all.

Asking what’s to become of poetry in the age of Twitter is like asking what’s to become of music in the age of guitars. It thrives. It more than thrives; it grows metastatically, invasively, inoperably. Poetry on the Internet has shot far past relevancy through indispensability and finally to vaporization. Poetry is the air we damn breathe.

The curiously formal verse of Twitter—bound tighter than villanelles in kimonos—is in general neither good nor bad. That doesn’t hurt its status as poetry: it is language precisely and even artfully deployed. This poetry loses and gains jobs, esteem and reputations. Wars, rumors of war, the fates of men and women hang in its lyrical balance. It costs, in short; and it pays. This is what relevancy is, maybe harder to define than poetry. Tweets are news. They are history.

I hardly want to give examples: the stories are too many and too familiar. I’d end up shilling for a larky social service that entirely by accident came to double as a massive publisher, ballast and megaphone for the world’s aspiring poets—which is to say, it turns out, everyone.

Will the “world”—those four dozen people in Boston and Manhattan we still hear so much about—ever again wait on the publication of the next Carl Sandburg poem in The Saturday Evening Post? Will fans throng to hear Ted Berrigan read his latest from Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts? Unlikely, though the great Paul Muldoon says an Isle-of-Wight-style crowd jammed Fire Island recently to hear him and others read original and Frank O’Hara poems. But how in the world could the waning of the Iowa/Ploughshares non-regime mean that poetry itself—the musical and idiosyncratic use of language—is washed up? And yet the case is made that poetry is obsolete, again and again, because those fetishy analog platforms are in decline.

If Twitter is allowed to be poetry, it’s as though a special exception has been granted. Curiously this is not because the writers are coarse, ill-intentioned or untrained; it’s because tweets are short. Though I spend more time on a single tweet as I do on a long, prosey email—composing, compressing, tagging, revising as the context evolves—the fact that tweets are quickly read is somehow evidence they’re as trivial as birdies; and even eerily brain-damaging. (As night follows day the shortness of tweets conjures the standing sophistry around our “attention spans”—a thing that surely does not exist, except as always already julienned.)

Lyric poetry has always been short. That’s why it’s not, say, epic. To plenty of poets in plenty of languages, 140 symbols is expansive. Confucius’s adages were rarely longer than 20 Chinese characters. One hundred and forty from Confucius would seem prolix. Ace Confucianisms are brief even transliterated: “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” That first draft of the Golden Rule, composed in 460 B.C. or so, sings in any character set. It holds up.

Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, published in 1669, were also short. “Do you wish people to believe good of you? Don’t speak” is 58 characters, and about the same in French. “Too much and too little wine. Give him none, he cannot find truth; give him too much, the same.” That’s 97.

In American English, Ralph Waldo Emerson is our leading epigrammatist. “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience” consumes a scant 49 characters. “Have the courage not to adopt another’s courage” is 48.

What’s on Twitter are not diseased firings of glitchy minds. They’re epigrams, aphorisms, maxims, dictums, taglines, headlines, captions, slogans and adages. Some are art, some are commercial; these are forms with integrity. True: They’re not useful for distracting people from plague and war for hours and days, like tales in Boccaccio or by Scheherazade. Nor do they fill enough pages to give a chunk of biblio-merchandise heft to justify a $20 pricetag. Nor do they even fill, with white space, a perfect half-page of a saddle-stitched magazine, so ads can be sold on the rest of that page for a nice, round price.

But the blank refusal of tweets to answer to the exigencies of earlier eras: That would seem to make them more poetry, not less.

But why am I going on and on? Here it is, another way: