In the history of world poetry, there have been all kinds of limits and forms we writers have forced ourselves to adapt to over the centuries, such as sonnets, iambic pentameter, odes, pastorals and free verse. Even contemporary novels are often forced to meet certain page requirements to be considered for mass publication unless you happen to be Salman Rushdie or Thomas Pynchon.
While earning my English degree at school, we took a survey class on American and British literature starting from the medieval era, on through the twentieth century—though I believe our class was so disorganized we only made it halfway through the nineteenth century. A certain professor lectured us solely on the title page and the preface or forward for a whole week. We examined how different editions of the same novels evolved with first prefaces then second prefaces then third and so on.
All this “to-do” without even getting to the first page drove me nuts. I’ve always hated conventions and restrictions and necessary evils yet I marvel at the thought that writing without abiding by a specific set of rules is a contemporary conception. Where do we go when we are liberated, when possibilities are limitless? We can make like New York School poet Frank O’Hara and impose our own rules (complete a poem during lunch hour) or abandon the notion entirely to genre-shattering effect (Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son).
It used to be that modern meant free verse, yet we’re surrounded by programs like Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook. These sites encourage piecemeal sound bites, snippets of our lives, slices of our day. So why not use these platforms to express our creativity? Tons of writers are already doing it.
Case in point: Twitter user arjunbasu (found on our list of microfiction Twitterers: @litdrift/microfiction) recently tweeted, “An hour after the argument, he was at her apartment, flowers in hand. I’m not trying to impress you, he said. But she didn’t mind if he did.” In so few words, arjunbasu communicated the state of an ailing relationship shot through with a narrow tunnel of hope. Though technically placed under the category of microfiction, couldn’t his statement be poetry as well?
Couldn’t we think of a Twitter poem as a sort of haiku? The number of syllables per line defines a haiku and Twitter limits “tweets” to 140 characters or less. Could I create something with so few words that I might consider calling a poem? And, if I left enough room, I could include a link to my poetry website at the end. I took this challenge (and a challenge it was—I tend to skew towards the flowery and verbose) and wrote a poem. As with fashion during a recession, it seems that minimalism has prevailed.
This is what I posted under my twitter name, NYNocialite:
Cicadas sticky in summer sap
Stuck to the driveway, wings amuck,
I said the Sh’ma, crawled into bed.
I found the process to be a matter of cutting out approximately 75% of what I considered an extremely short poem. How could so few characters, never mind words, convey the depth that a poem is meant to relate? To my little ditty, people responded. They asked for more. I was shocked. My poems are descriptive, medium-length commentaries on everything from personal trauma to my favorite color. I consider myself a fan of imagist poetry, my father having gifted me with The Poems of Marianne Moore as a child. I latched on to one of her earlier poems, “The Jellyfish.” The poem reads:
Visible, invisible,/ A fluctuating charm,/ An amber-colored amethyst/ Inhabits it; your arm/ Approaches, and/ It opens and/ It closes;/ You have meant/ To catch it,/ And it shrivels;/ You abandon/ Your intent—/ It opens, and it/ Closes and you/ Reach for it—/ The blue/ Surrounding it/ Grows cloudy, and/ It floats away/ From you.
Enchanted by Moore’s impeccable imagery, I remember how I felt the first time I read it. I still feel the magic, the artistry, and the pit of knowing tacked to my wall. Short and sweet, I strived to write like Moore. Of course I ended up with paltry half-copies of her work and it wasn’t until I entered poetry workshops that I learned to develop my own voice.
At first, I hated the Twitter poem, aptly titled Twitter Poem #1. Upon a second glance and a third, then a fourth, fifth and sixth, I realized that all the things I loved about imagist poetry seemed to inhabit my own poem. I can’t compare it to those of Marianne Moore and I don’t consider it to be my best work, or anything near it. But I captured a moment of my youth; a specific moment in time that if painted, I could frame and hang it on the wall along “The Jellyfish.”
Upon reading my Twitter Poem, a true image came to mind, I remember my sea foam-green summer dress with a silver kitten emblazoned across the front fluttering in a July breeze as I peered down at the drowning insect on my new driveway. Curious, I plucked one wing from the creature. Then the other. I watched it squirm around in sticky sap from a leaning tree. We had just moved from the city of Chicago to the suburbs and I cried and cried. I hated suburban sprawl. I missed my doorman, who carried candies in his pocket just for me. I missed the energy, the life, and here I was, taking the life of another trapped, trapped like I felt. Again I cried and said the only prayer I knew, the Sh’ma, which I had learned in Hebrew School. I would repeat that prayer every night before bed and twice before any plane flight, whether I was on it or not, to pray and keep my parents safe and prevent the plane from falling out of the sky like a paper crane chucked through the air to land in a crash.
In eleven words, I learned to speak volumes.
What are the purposes of constrictions anyway? Why have poets over the years imposed them on their work? Of course there are many answers, but I believe the primary reason for employing constrictions is that they help us release creativity. It’s easier to write poems that don’t rhyme or follow any specific pattern. But a great poem built within the confines of a cultural structure? It has the ability to sing. Now don’t get me wrong, so do the kinds of poems I like to write—those “lazy,” free verse ones. But still, I think I’ll write some other Twitter Poems. It’s interactive, and in a world where person-on-person communication becomes rarer by the day, I like to exchange ideas—even if it’s via a “tweet.” While I’ll always cherish my physical books, stroking their worn spines, I can’t wait to see what’s next.