August 26, 2011KR Blog

Shortform

When I heard about Twitter, my initial reaction was Why do I need this? To which the answer was, I don’t. I had a blog, I had e-mail, I hated SMS. But one thing kept me thinking about Twitter: the 140 character limit.

The number 140–I have no idea how the developers settled on this limit for the number of characters in a tweet–turns my mind immediately to the sonnet, because this is the number of syllables in the schematic English sonnet: 14 lines of iambic pentameter, 140 syllables.

Though 140 characters is significantly fewer than what a sonnet would require, knowing what could be done in the sonnet–what is that phrase of Berryman’s “crumple a syntax to a sudden need”?–I was genuinely excited to see what could happen if some poets got twittering, what innovations in brevity might arise beyond the BABY abbreviations that make SMS messages occasionally painful to read.

My sense of possibility quickly faded. I followed a number of writers, but never saw a transcendently beautiful/smart tweet, and I’m sure I never wrote one either–my first twenty or thirty tweets were just phrases lifted from the world around me I must have imagined Twitter would isolate into some sort of profundity though it’s clear now it didn’t–because we all used Twitter the way Twitter imagined we would, as a brief messaging service.

And as disappointing to the literary imagination as messaging might have been, now the brevity is passing away, too. For years, people have talked about and asked for and created different ways to send longer messages–almost all of these ways avoiding any language solution. And earlier this year, the 140 character limit officially stopped being a limit of any real significance, as Twitter acquired TweetDeck, which had just introduced Deck.ly, a service that would link the traditional tweet to a longer message, and now, though some people (Poetry’s Don Share is a prime and admirable example) are still brief, a lot of tweets now end with an“

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As with almost everything, less interest in Twitter means more time for poetry, and there are a number of recent books that offer some imagination of what is possible in a short, constrained, and serial form–books that are getting a great deal of force from economy and, at the same time, a balancing and haunting linger as short poems connect to one another across the book.

Major Jackson’s Holding Company is a good example, showing the poet working within a 10-line form, pushing occasionally at the line as he works to create space–both temporal and conceptual space–within them, as in “Creationism,” where the contrast between multisyllabic and simple words complicates each line, so the poem can cover a good deal of ground:

I gave the bathtub purity and honor, and the sky
noctilucent clouds, and the kingfisher his implacable
devotees. I gave salt & pepper the table, and the fist
its wish for bloom, and the net, knotholes of emptiness.
I gave the loaf its slope of integrity, the countertop
belief in the horizon, and mud its defeated boots.
I gave morning triumphant songs which consume my pen,
and death its grief which is like a midsummer thunderclap.
But I did not give her my tomblike woe though it trembled
from my white bones and shook the walls of our home.

In this particular form, the strictness of the form makes the three “I gave” sentences create a sense of interval within the poem, but that repetition begs for a violation so the poem can have a sense of finality. “Creationism” is, in its four-part motion, a Shakespearean sonnet whose second and third quatrain have been collapsed. The proportion is different, but the movement here recalls the English sonnet, as does the brevity.

There’s a great deal of force in this, as there is in a sonnet sequence–be it Berrigan’s Sonnets or sequences that innovate in other ways, such as Dave Smith’s Fate’s Kite, with its 13-liners or John Hollander’s Powers of Thirteen, which stands behind a number of recent books, or a book like Komunyakaa’s Talking Dirty to the Gods, with its 16-line form.

Even if the form isn’t so strict, the presentation of a number of poems without immediately clear different in their purpose or posture–as in Maurice Manning’s Bucolics or Lia Purpura’s King Baby, each of whose poems are tied together by frequent invocation (Manning’s “Boss,” Purpura’s “King Baby”)–creates a limit in the average: though there’s no strict line limit, it would seem strange, after reading even a half-dozen poems that don’t stretch over or much over the page boundary, to encounter a significantly longer or significantly shorter poem. So, though these aren’t sonnets, and though these poets didn’t in these projects give themselves a numerical limit, these are wonderful books that grapple with the conditions of, and opportunities for, brevity and thereby of density.

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One might have asked, What good is Twitter for a poet?

Besides the obvious, of course–getting some small words out to help our small books find a few readers–I might say that like any technology, something like Twitter, if it speaks in an age of blogs to an interest in getting to the point, just as the blog speaks in an age of 2-minute news stories to an interest in greater depth and exploration, reminds of a mode and, momentarily, sharpens our attention to a way of speaking and of writing, and anything that does that is, at least for a moment, worth that moment.