Twihaiku? Micropoetry? The rise of Twitter poetry

Intrigued by the 140-character limit – and its potential for instantly reaching new audiences – writers are publishing poems on Twitter. The results are surprisingly powerful, says Charlotte Cripps

Poetry in 140 characters? What would Sylvia Plath have made of tweet poems? Twitter poetry (also known as “twihaiku” or “micropoetry”) is still in its early stages, but could it bring poetry back to the forefront of the modern world? “I think Twitter poems will become a new form, the modern-day version of the haiku,” says Chloe Garner, artistic director of the Ledbury Poetry Festival. “Poets love writing to different forms, even just as a way of exercising the poetic muscles.”

Benjamin Zephaniah is one of a new wave of poets using their Twitter account to tweet poems: “Intelligence may not mean intelligent/ The news may not be new/ From where we are/ To be awake/ May not mean/ To be conscious.” He says: “I like to send out little treats of poetry every now and then to make people think a little bit. It’s a great way to connect daily with your audience. It is a better way of saying, ‘I’m in the shop.’”

When the mood takes him, George Szirtes, who won the TS Eliot Prize in 2004 for his collection Reel, will fire off couplets 140 characters a time. (“Should we close the door to keep the dusk out, asked child Helga. No, best let it in, grumbled her father. I like a bit of dusk in the hall.”) “I write in Twitter because I am interested to see what a form as short and as evanescent as Twitter can do: in effect, it does anecdote and shorter forms of poetry quite well, which is why I have written some 20,000 as an experiment,” says Szirtes.

Ian Duhig – twice-winner of the National Poetry Competition – wrote a tweet poem about the Bramhope Tunnel disaster: “They wove the black worm/ a shroud of white stone/ and thought it was nothing/ But the worm turned.” Would he ever publish his Twitter poems? “I’d have no problem using Twitter poems in a book and may well do in the next one,”  says Duhig, whose Twitter poem “Yew”, is more romantic: “Each root of church yew/ reaches a skull:/ mistletoe/ for kissing above.”

The director of the Poetry Society, Judith Palmer, says: “There’s a renewed interest in the form of British poetry at the moment and the constraints of the 140-character limit play to that, in the same way as the 14 lines of the sonnet or the 17 syllables of the haiku. Twitter poems tend to be playful and are often collaborative, but they’re also good for ‘Imagist’-style observation, or philosophical musing. They can reach a wide audience in moments but they’re also ephemeral, evaporating pretty as the Twitter-feeds roll relentlessly on.”

Elizabeth Alexander, a Yale University professor, author of Crave Radiance and The Black Interior, who delivered a poem for the inauguration of President Barack Obama, has also tweeted some beautiful poetry – “Inside the darkened bathroom/ we looked into the black mirror/ cracked the wintergreen candy/ watched sparks fly from our teeth.”

“Love” tweet poetry is also represented by the former poet-in-residence at the V&A, Sophie Robinson, a young contemporary poet and performer: “Love me without research, without qualifications – love me as an antidote to the paranoid librarian of my heart.”

The British poet Alison Brackenbury, says: “I have warmed to Twitter as a way of spreading good poetry. I post lines from my breakfast reading, as well as writing original poems that are now migrating to a printed anthology. Writing in 140 characters has taught me to slash sentences; it offers a public home for private passions, such as bicycles and bumblebees. Twitter can also market poetry in the most unexpected ways. Someone recently bought my new collection, Then, after reading my tweet poem about the snail in my bathroom.” 

Collaborative poetry projects are becoming popular, too. During Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, The National Gallery set a challenge to write a poem inspired by Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon and Diana and Callisto in 140 characters or less. The winner was Jacqueline Saphra (@jsaphra) with, “How his painted virgins lie, suckling plump and ripe for sin: a blush of flesh, a yielding eye to coax each passing stranger in.”

Mark Ravenhill is tweeting Voltaire’s Candide on the RSC Twitter feed before his own version of it opens in August. He says: “The direct, simple wit of Voltaire’s style is perfect for tweeting. It’s been a fascinating exercise. It has deepened my appreciation of his writing: it’s incredible to see how every single sentence of the book advances the story and how almost every sentence stands alone as a great quotation all by itself.”

#dawnchorus was a National Trust project last month – a mass tweet-in through the hours of dawn. The first official Canal Laureate, Jo Bell, wrote her poems from the Kennet and Avon Canal, including: “Daylight rubbing its eyes: the lockside poet, likewise :-)”

Likewise, the Poetry Society’s  Olympic project, Sting Like a Bee, last summer urged poets to tweet couplets in response to the unfolding action. And the poet and performer Inua Ellams ran a Twitter workshop in 2011 for the Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network – he sent prompts out on Twitter every few minutes so participants could write a poem line by line. Emerging poet Andrew McMillan won Manchester University’s #micropoem13 contest last month with, “Train, backwards through town / river/the long, unbroken thought of it/ red kite/ chest burning/ phoenix rising from the ash trees.” 

The former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins, who tweets lines of his poetry, which although not intended as a tweet “could do double duty” says,  “Restrictions, like the rules of the sonnet, can be liberating in the right hands… So there’s nothing wrong with poets finding a new box to play in, even though Twitter has co-opted a once perfectly useful word to describe birdsong.” 

Jean-Yves Fréchette, of the Institute of Comparative Twitterature, who in 2011 published Tweet Rebelle, a compilation of 1,001 of his poetry tweets that he makes under the pseudonym Pierre-Paul Pleau, explains how to create the perfect poem. “A ‘twoosh’ is, in a sense, a perfect tweet. A tweet made up of exactly 140 characters, which is the Twitter limit. Writing a ‘twoosh’ is using Twitter’s input matrix to create a new stylistic standard, to invent a new fixed form – as the sonnet, the ballad, the ode or the rondeau were in their time.”

poetry-festival.co.ukpoetrysociety.org.uk

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