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In a recent interview with The Guardian, Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s Poet Laureate, compared poetry to text messaging. According to Duffy, “The poem is a form of texting…it’s the original text…It’s a perfecting of 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." Duffy suggests that today’s young people have a great deal of potential as poets because they—well, we actually have been, through texting and tweeting and updating Facebook statuses, inadvertently practicing and perfecting our ability to express ourselves in a limited number of words. We have, according to Duffy, inadvertently developed poetic skills by crystallizing and condensing our ideas.
Maybe young people in Britain text differently than we do in America. But I would hardly compare my own experiences with text message conversations to poetry. The text messages my friends and I exchange do, indeed, convey ideas and emotions in a condensed format. But, in order to share our thoughts in 140 characters or less and to spend as little time typing as possible, we disregard rules of sentence structure, grammar, and spelling. My first instinct would be to say that my text messages contain absolutely nothing that could be called “poetry”. Sometimes, they’re hardly intelligible English. But reading Duffy’s interview made me think, made me wonder that if I were perhaps to examine some of my past text conversations, I might be able to identify anything poetic in my messages or messages from friends.
Text Message: “Im busy today. Going tmrw. When r u going? ”
Analysis: Perhaps the omission of the apostrophe in the contraction “Im” suggests that existence—conveyed by the word “am”—is not just related to identity, as the word “I’m” might suggest, but rather is so inextricably linked to identity that it is impossible to differentiate the two. This text also includes an interesting commentary on temporality. “Tmrw” takes up far less literal space on the page (er, cell phone screen) than “tomorrow,” and the absence of vowels decreases the likelihood of a reader’s potentially instinctive tendency to “hear” the word inside his or her head while reading. “Today” is not shortened and, consequently, contains one more letter than “tmrw.” Therefore, it might be argued that the present tense, in this passage (er, text message), signifies that the present situation conveyed in the text message takes precedence over what may conditionally happen in the future. The second sentence of the message contains an additional example of the use of spelling to alter the meaning of a word. By writing “u” instead of “you,” the author devalues the significance of the Other.
…Or maybe not.
Maybe the omission of vowels and apostrophes signifies nothing more than the desire to spend less time typing the message. And by maybe, I mean definitely.
Although I doubt that text messages bear any resemblance to poems, that does not mean that Duffy is incorrect in describing poetry as a form of texting. Poetry involves vividly conveying emotions and ideas by using a limited number of words. Accordingly, text messaging might theoretically be a medium well- suited to the production and dissemination of poetry—and I would argue that it could also be well-suited to fiction as well. Great literature can be written in 140 characters or less. There’s the classic Hemingway story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” A brilliant story and only 37 characters long. And Margaret Atwood: “Longed for him. Got him. Shit.” Thirty words.
Although the poem may be “the original text,” I don’t think that text messages stand much of a chance of being vehicles for poetic expression or for developing poetic skills. For better or for worse, the role and use of text messages in our society is too firmly ingrained in our collective consciousness. However, other, newer platforms—Twitter, for example—have much more potential as vehicles for poetic and literary experimentation. Many poets and authors already use Twitter in order to share short pieces of writing and verse. In order to expose children to this way of using Twitter for creative writing and to encourage them to do so as well, school curriculums must adapt and include social networks in the school curriculum. Text messaging, too, needs to be a part of education. Schools must place extra emphasis on teaching spelling, grammar, and sentence structure in order to counteract the spillover of text-speak into academic and creative writing. It may be impossible to eliminate text-speak, but it is imperative that educational energy should be directed toward teaching young people to limit their use of text-speak to text messages—and to know how to write properly otherwise. This will then allow young people to engage in creative exploration—and even create poetry.
Isabel E. Kaplan ’12 is an English concentrator in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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