texting, tweeting, and the Poet Laureate

by Marie Marshall

People who are familiar with my old (and defunct) literary blog will remember that occasionally I used to ‘go off on one’ on a literary subject. I’m doing that again today, simply because something got up my nose.

I am most critical of myself first of all, then of other writers, especially those who speak fluent rubbish but have an audience because of their position. The Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, for whom I have a certain amount of respect as a poet, ought to guard her tongue or she will be seen as ridiculous. Recently she has, laudably, launched a competition in which secondary school students are encouraged to produce poetry anthologies. So far so good, a bloody brilliant idea! However she should know better than to try to ice the cake by attempting to sound ‘cool’. Here’s Carol Ann ‘getting down with the kids’:

The poem is a form of texting … it’s the original text. It’s a perfecting of a feeling in language – it’s a way of saying more with less, just as texting is. We’ve got to realise that the Facebook generation is the future – and, oddly enough, poetry is the perfect form for them. It’s a kind of time capsule – it allows feelings and ideas to travel big distances in a very condensed form… The poem is the literary form of the 21st century. It’s able to connect young people in a deep way to language … it’s language as play… I think it’s most obvious in music. If you look at rapping, for example, a band like Arctic Monkeys uses lyrics in a poetic way. And using words in an inventive way is at the heart of youth culture in every way.

This is straight out of Patronise 101, it is how people of older generations always talk down to youngsters. I remember it from my school days and it embarrasses me to hear someone of my own generation still doing it. “The Facebook generation” for heaven’s sake, as if there is no one over the age of fifteen on social media. That old chestnut of “Rock lyrics are poetry” has been debated since the early days of Bob Dylan, and it has been done to death. Carol Ann does no service to herself by rehashing it. Then she stumbles into another obvious pitfall – ignorance of her subject – by relating rap to the Arctic Monkeys, who are definitely not rap. All of this is before we even get to the notion of text equaling poetry. Here’s how a friend of mine expressed his opinion to me of Carol Ann’s statement:

Look, poetry can be written on a post-it-note, jotted on the back of a beer mat, blogged, emailed, extemporised in a chat room, and – yes – texted. But so can a shopping list, a dirty joke, or a phone number. To be poetry it has to be… well… poetry.

Preaching to the choir, pal… preaching to the choir! I have used the language of texting and chat rooms in my own fiction, I have had a poem published the title of which is set out like an html command – that was probably a world first but so what? I don’t say this to prove how clever I am, it’s just that the language is there, and there to be observed and used. If you google the word ‘haiku’ and ‘tweet’ or ‘twitter’ you will get pages of hits detailing 17-syllable, 140-character haiku. This doesn’t mean that texting or tweeting is poetry but simply that it can be used for poetry. We can say with Karlheinz Stockhausen (yes, I can be pretentious with the best of ‘em) “New means change the method, new methods change the experience, new experience changes man”, but texts and tweets are not so much new means as new media. The means – language – remains basically the same except for a few specialised abbreviations and the natural, morphing flow of argot.

I want to remind my readers of two things. They are seemingly contradictory but nevertheless they illustrate two solid pillars of the house of poetry. Firstly ‘success’ in the world of poetry still means getting your poetry into print – not blogging it, not texting it, not tweeting it, no matter how many ‘followers’ you get. If my word is not enough then consider what is going to happen with the winning anthology from the competition that Carol Ann Duffy is promoting. Secondly, on the other hand, there is the artistic satisfaction of creating poetry, and that does not depend on getting into print. Probably the most wonderful poet I know, Lane A Smith, is virtually unknown outside a couple of collective web sites. To the best of my knowledge she has only ever had two poems published in magazines (Bard issue 80, Awen issue 69, and they were submitted by someone else on her behalf), yet when I read her poetry it is as though the beat generation lives on but on the warm, worn boards of a front stoop overlooking a Georgia beach, and in childhood memories of hot summers, dust, and women who were much taller and wiser than the little girl whose older head reverberates to the memories. However if you google ‘Lane A Smith poet’ you will be lucky to get a single hit. Nevertheless I consider her to be a ‘success’ in a way few of us can ever be.

I’ll close with a poem of my own from my 2008 collection 58 degrees North. It is dedicated to Lane:


Day after midnight
we packed them in
trading word for world
line for lines
vice for verse
      streaking daylight in rods
like frozen trails of hard liquor
after body-shots
trading cheap dresses
with each other
like in-jokes
(we laughed)

people talked of perfection
and greatness
but they didn’t get it

the whole point
the cheap dresses

those gaudy
shreds of poetry