Materials Wednesday: are belong to us

Contrary to those who believe that the Internet is slowly but surely murdering the written word, I feel like blogs, Facebook, Twitter, forums, and all the rest are a significantly textual medium, even more so than most of the other competitors for our leisure time. So when I see strangers noodling around on their cellphones on the subway — perhaps in even larger numbers than the newspaper readers of earlier generations — my guess is that they’re doing what everyone does on the Internet: reading and writing (or, ok, sometimes they are watching cats that bark like dogs).

This kind of optimism probably comes from a predilection for the alphabet over other kinds of media — I’ll take a transcript over a podcast any day. This also means that when I encounter an image macro meme, I see the text first — we poets are the rightful heirs of the kingdom of short pieces of text. Our love of text is the reason that many poets will know that a disproportionate amount of contemporary music is about being lonely and/or baked and/or stoked while on concert tour — because when we encounter a song, we ‘read’ the lyrics more carefully than your average listener. In the case of image macros, it’s possible to be amused by the oddness of the following childhood photo, or you can see it as the implosion of a quote by poet and essayist George Santayana:

Memes like this, regardless of their tone (usually not quite so literary), are made of aphorism and epigraph. Past that, there are two major types: those that voice or describe a persona depicted in the picture (like Little Girl MacArthur, above) and those whose picture somehow indicates the formal structure of the text. We have all the linguistic and digital technology we need to make these ourselves — besides, poetry nerds were around long before computer nerds, and there’s nothing that they can do that we can’t (except write software, and excel at video games). First, though, it might help to take a couple of minutes to consider Introductory Memesmithery.

Even though much has changed about poetry since 1970, aphorism and epigram remain consistently, widely important. From Louise Gl??ck to Ashbery to Xi Chuan, whether the style is narrative or anti-narrative, whether the philosophy is truth-seeking or resistant to closure, poetry today continues to indulge with some frequency in the joy of sentences that are short, abstract, witty, and ideologically emphatic. The reason might be that you can stack aphorism — instead of crafting one to be the crashing last epiphany in a poem (a la Larkin), contemporary poets are more likely to list insights in contradictory series — just like real life, where the epiphany you must change your life is perhaps followed by the sudden realization that you should always thank your bus driver. They’re similar in form, opposite (in some ways) in content — layering them together gives a third source of complexity that arises from play between the two. The fact that the form of the sentences makes a strong truth claim only increases the drama when that claim is destabilized. Image macro memes — all memes, really — are the same. When you use one, you are playing off the meme’s origins and history, its prior uses as well as its untapped potential. These histories and expectations are as much fun to violate as they are to uphold. Poets uphold and violate down the page in a single poem, playing their epigrams off each other; meme-makers do it to each other.

To join in, though, you need a few tools. You can upload an image to quickmeme or memegenerator — I prefer quickmeme — and the site will let you insert a caption. If you want to make one from scratch (free services put a graphical watermark in one corner that might upset the obsessive), the classic image macro font is Impact, all caps, with a thin black border. Open a picture in MS Paint or anything else that lets you edit, superimpose the text, arrange for maximum effect, and voila.

From this point you can go anywhere you want — infinite adaptation is the whole point, especially with memes stemming from persona, which range from stating the obvious to the professionally subtle. Memes with a form are different — one example is “Yo dawg,” which often takes the form “Yo dawg I heard you like (variable) so I put a (variable) in your (variable/car) so you can (variable) while you (variable/drive).” That turns into this, this, ultimately and perhaps unsurpassably this, and eventually just this. In execution, they’ve got little in common with non-Flarf contemporary poetry: where rhetorical form is concerned, though, they’re not much simpler or much different than the one that structures A. R. Ammons’ book Garbage, namely: (quality of poetry) juxtaposed with (quality of garbage) juxtaposed with (quality of contemporaneous life).

All this considered, it is no wonder that poetry should have its very own meme, which comes from the movie Contact and consists of one phrase superimposed over a wide variety of pictures:

Other examples here, here and here. Unlike the Yo Dawg meme, though, Should Have Sent a Poet is in its infancy. It has high mutation potential — it could still turn into “should have sent a (variable)” — and nobody’s sick of it yet. That’s exploitable! So feel free to try your hand, then link or mail the results.


Next week: The Triggering Turf.