In this fascinating post, Jannat Ahmed, an MA student in English Literature at Cardiff University, asks us to think about a new kind of poetry…
In our digital age, are tweets a new form of poetry? This is a question I have asked myself after seeing how people engage with specific types of posts on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook. While tweets themselves have their own restrictions (their 140 characters, interestingly, can remind us of the restrictive 14 lines in a sonnet, for example), it is not the straightforward 140 character restriction of a tweet that I correspond with an idea of poetry, but another kind of post prevalent on social platforms that offers poetic engagement: Having gathered force for several years as MSN Messenger statuses, the phenomena of inspirational quotes and narrative posts has found its way onto all kinds of social media channels.
From stories about real people on the “Humans of New York” page on Facebook to @PoemsPorn on Twitter, today the poetry and stories consumed by the world are comprised of short quotations and screenshots that evidently speak to, and resonate with, people. Comparing the personal impact and function of modern day quotation/narrative posts with the social importance and function of poetry from poets like Pope, Montagu and Shelley, I ask whether it is possible to start thinking seriously about these new genres of writing (or rewriting?) produced through the new medium of the digital.
Using the literary reference point of the long eighteenth century, a time where poetry was explicitly social and intertextual (Byron’s Don Juan both uses and denigrates the poetry of Robert Southey, while in the previous century Lady Mary Wortley Montagu engages with and writes a poetic response to Jonathan Swift’s ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’), it is difficult not to see a parallel with twenty-first century meme or fanfiction culture. Indeed, perhaps the nature of blog sites like Tumblr is no different from the commonplace books of the long eighteenth century that collate a whole range of writing on specific topics like religion, or more widely as a general scrapbook of poetry and letters. The public nature of reblogging, retweeting and sharing posts speaks back to this commonplace book culture but also represents a cultural shift now that will inevitably shape our perception of literature even if this is to deny that tweets can ever be poetry. These publicly curated text-only images, quotations and stories represent a new form of immediate, collective popular culture, if not contemporary writing. In the same way that manuscripts passed hands pre-nineteenth century, copied out and talked about in literary circles, social media has expanded this relationship to the digital domain.
Of course, a culture of snapshot, snippet, and sound-bite sharing relies on the ease with which we can share these narratives, particularly alongside more dynamic formats like gifs and short form video. And it is precisely the dynamic nature of creating, sharing and responding to text-inclusive posts on social media that I feel reveals a poetic function in these digital formats. Why? Because in the same way that poetry has been used and consumed in the past, these image/text posts adopt the same cultural force. They voice politics, moral and social issues and are, more broadly, expressive. In this digital arena, are memes and quotations, when they produce memorable cultural narratives and emotive reference points, really that unlike poetry? Are they so distant from what we perceive as literature? In at least one way, these posts operate on the same level as poetry because they speak to an audience; they engage in social critique; they explore emotions; they expand observation. We, the consumers, give them meaning by sharing and liking them.
Moreover, the internet and its users are as intertextual as it is possible to be. Quotations from books, music and film are adapted and reproduced as parody, satire and homage for the internet (as memes, example) in the same way that writers in the eighteenth century adapted lines of poetry to fit their own purpose and respond to other writers in their literary circles. From ‘To be or not to be’ to crossover fanfiction, the definition of contemporary writing and poetry is broader than ever, for if we adopt a Wordsworthian vision of poetry as the ‘spontaneous overflow of feeling’ or the Byronic ‘lava of the imagination’, these Twitter posts are seen to serve the same imaginative, emotive function. Instead of Byron’s poetry of political satire, we may instead arrive at a Lady Mary Wortley Montagu-inspired social commentary of popular culture; yet in this case, the poetry is social media posts.
Undoubtedly, the idea that tweets might inadvertently be “literature” is as unrealistic as children’s paintings being “art.” It is unlikely to be the case for the majority of its participants, but reopens the debate of what poetry really is, whether poetry is self-evident, as well as the significance of authorship. My interpretation is that some social media can reproduce the functional aspect of poetry that Shelley discusses in his A Defence of Poetry: an ability to produce ‘compassionate empathy’. This empathic function is particularly prominent in the aforementioned “Humans of New York” Facebook page and its derivatives. To be exposed to these narratives correlates with empathic understanding.
Of course, as much as these quotations and narratives may function as poetry or short-form literature, contemporary poetry maintains its own distinct genre and audience, but perhaps we should open our eyes to the possibilities of the future of poetry and writing. Our emerging social, digital landscape must give way to another culture of literature.