General Anxieties about Twitter, Cont’d

I have been struggling to meet the class Twitter quota. More than once, I have gone to the input box, typed something, second guessed its relevancy to anything or anyone, anywhere, ever, and deleted my writing in disgust.

Andy mentioned maxims, but surely composing them is a bit pretentious (unless you’re Nietzsche).

Haiku were the only thing I could come up with that would meet the character count and not be completely useless. Then I did a Google search (“twitter haiku”), and discovered that about 1,410,000 people had beaten me to it. The fourth item that came up in my search was an NPR story from this past June:

There are haiku competitions and campaigns. Jimmy Kimmel offered tickets to his show to whoever tweeted the best haiku on the final episode of Lost. The British rail company asked passengers to tweet their haiku on the theme of the London summer, a topic that’s nicely suited to a poem of three short lines. And after Glenn Beck recently said that churches used the phrase “social justice” as a code for Nazism and communism, the organization Jewish Funds for Justice urged supporters to flood Beck’s Twitter account with haiku of protest.

Not exactly. That I was not the first person on the Internet to associate Japan’s most recognizable literary export with Twitter is clear. What is not clear is whether or not what people are posting to Twitter ought really to be called haiku. This is not a snobbish defense of a high-brow form against popular corruption. (Haiku was never a hight-brow form, and its accessibility was indeed part of the reason for its success.) However, NPR seems to think that the popularity of haiku on Twitter is due precisely to the philistine nature of the form:

For most people, the appeal of the haiku is precisely that it isn’t weighted by tradition, so that you can do whatever you like with it. . . . In the paint-by-numbers version of the form that most of us learned, there’s really only one absolute constraint: that very rule of 17 that poets tend to disregard.

In fact, haiku is a thousand year-old form, steeped in religious philosophy, from an island nation. To say that it “isn’t weighted by tradition” is a rather obtuse assumption. This, along with the tasteless assertion that “you can do whatever you like with it,” (traditionally, there are relatively specific criteria for style and content), both of which ignorances are exemplified by the sample “twaiku” quoted throughout the article, woefully overlook what make each short form unique.

Although they are unmistakable failures as haiku, “twaiku” provide an interesting opportunity to examine the possibilities and drawbacks of short-form discourse. A comparison with traditional haiku might help us understand the tweet generally (the “twaiku,” I think, is too inept, and too much of a gimmick, to warrant comparison), and what its rhetorical function might be.

Donald Keene opens his introduction to Bashô by acknowledging that “The brevity and apparent simplicity of the seventeen-syllabled haiku led to its wide popularity in Japan, where only a very inarticulate person remained incapable of an extemporary verse” (377). This appears to be a situation comparable to that of the tweet, the popularity of which, it seems safe to say, rests almost exclusively on its brevity and simplicity. Indeed, Haruo Shirane, whose introduction to haiku is titled “Popular Linked Verse,” mentions that the origins of haiku “were largely characterized by what they were not: elegant, refined, and aristocratic” (1152).

It might thus be tempting to regard the tweet as a contemporary iteration of the haiku, i.e., not as a degenerate form but as a deliberate movement away from the constraint and demand of longer forms, i.e., to define the tweet the same way Shirane defines the early haiku, in terms of what it is not: the tweet is not the essay, it is not the e-mail, it is not even the blog post. However, in order to compare it to haiku on such grounds, one would have to ask two questions: what is it about these other contemporary forms that the tweet is resisting? And if it is not merely an underdeveloped version of these other forms, what, exactly, is it?

Composers of early haiku (not yet the modern haiku, but a slightly different form called haikai) were not merely slobs who misunderstood and perverted a form of the high court. Famous haiku poets like Bashô and Issa (famous even during their own day) were educated intellectuals who departed from more courtly forms for distinct ideological and philosophical reasons. Today, it seems impossible to identify the tweet’s formative impetus. The tweet does not seem to depend on a unifying ideology or political foundation, or even an aesthetic one. Rather, if its popularity can be called a “movement,” it is one that is not deliberative or purposeful, but organic and cultural. The easiest observation to make is that it is precisely this lack of organization and discipline that guarantees the tweet can only be the vehicle of dross. Without a specific design, informality is merely an invitation to chaos and nihilism, whereas the haiku’s informality is a pointed rebuff of constraint. If writing, generally, is a heuristic to intellectual development, the the tweet can be characterized as a telescopic shift away from the developed thought, back toward the fragment, toward the isolated, ephemeral thought.

This is another drawback of the tweet, that it is hopelessly ephemeral and unmemorable. The haiku was also concerned with the ephemeral. But whereas the haiku aims to capture the fleeting moment, the effect of the tweet seems to be the opposite: to destroy it, consign it to an oblivion of similar moments and thoughts, each indistinguishable from its predecessor or successor. Although the haiku was, like the tweet, the product of a momentary insight, it was a contemplative moment, not a spasmodic one. Joan Giroux points out that “The great appeal of haiku poems seems to result mainly from two qualities: their dependence on the reader’s power of awareness . . . and their capacity to grow in meaning as they are read and reread” (15). Conversely, the appeal of the tweet could be said to be its utter solipsism, or its dependence on the reader’s complete lack of awareness, its insistence that content is irrelevant, and, most of all, its uncanny ability to diminish in meaning from the instant of its broadcast. The haiku can be read and reread, and grows with each rereading; the tweet demands that we forget it the second we’ve read it. To “reread” a tweet is unimaginable–this is why there is a little time stamp on the bottom of each one: to ensure no one ever has to do so.

Of course, Twitter does not pretend to be poetry. Its main appeal is not its form but its function: its relation to and integration with users’ “social networks.” But this was, in fact, precisely the origin of the haiku–an origin evident in the word’s very etymology. As nauseating as neologisms like “Twitterverse” and “twaiku,” are, the Japanese language has an even worse capacity for compounds, and the term haiku is in fact a coinage not of the form’s original practitioners, but of the modernist Masaoka Shiki, who reduced it from haikai renga no hokku in the nineteenth century. Haikai (or hokku) as they were formerly known, were (like Twitter) a simplification of a more elaborate poetic structure, called tanka. Tanka were verses arranged in five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. (In case the extra two lines do not seem significantly more formal than modern haiku, it is worth knowing that this form dated back to the eighth century, so their excision took roughly seven hundred years.) Eventually, the popularity of waka declined. It was succeeded by renka, or “linked verse.” Renka were

a sort of poetic dialogue, a succession of waka in which the first three lines of 5-7-5 syllables [were] composed by one person, the next two lines of 7-7 by another person, the following three lines of 5-7-5 by a third person, and so on. (Giroux 16)

These verses were composed at face-to-face meetings, not by remote correspondence, the way that tweets are disseminated. But even so, because they were held exclusively for the purpose of composing collaborative poems, we might say that renka meetings constituted a kind of social network similar to that role held by Twitter today: loosely, a group of people circulating short messages. But, there are obvious differences. For one, the renka poets met each other face-to-face–writing is what brought them together. Twitter users, conversely, disseminate their lines in isolation–lines which are usually pathologically private–and if/when the writers do meet face to face it is in a context utterly divorced from their written communications. Secondly, renka were truly collaborative, i.e., they were a conversation, one that not only invited response, but demanded it in order for the form to perpetuate. Twitter, on the other hand, invites no response at all, but instead thrives on an endless succession of unrelated observations. Even a purportedly collaborative “list” (for example, #rhethistoria) is really just a loosely organized string of non sequiturs related to one another only by a very broad subject. The inference to be made from these distinctions is that, basically, formalism was a socially unifying force, whereas the lack of formalism in the cultural ethos of the tweet, as evoked by NPR’s misunderstanding of haiku, that “you can do whatever you like with it,” is socially counterintuitive. (Less like Kenneth Burke’s conversation parlor, more like a room full of people each talking to him/herself.)

Of course, certain renka poets eventually got sick of the courtly restrictions of their meetings, dropped the two linking lines, and started practicing haiku on their own. They even introduced humor as a common trope of the new form. The most famous haiku poet of all time, Bashô, was one of these. Still, humor is different from irreverence, and haiku were never the unchecked logorrhea that most tweets are. Keene writes, “In the hands of its masters, the haiku, far from representing an impromptu reaction [. . .], was usually a highly conscious form of verse demanding compliance with exacting aesthetic principles” (377). A second inference to be drawn from the similar but different origins of haiku and Twitter, and what the former became and what the latter is, is that literary form (and, by extension, the patience and commitment required to achieve it), far from being a disposable and restrictive social construct, is in many ways a bond that allows people to contribute, either as individuals or in partnerships, to a collective intellectual record. Renka were routinely published in anthologies, and haiku still are. I am not aware of any Twitter anthologies, and the pointlessness and impossibility of compiling one, is, I think, obvious.

It is, then, a mistake to align Twitter with the haiku, as NPR and many others seem to have capriciously (and artlessly) done, merely due to the common brevity of both forms. Although, in fact, they have more in common than mere brevity, they have even more that separates them. In the haiku we can see a possibility of what the short-form can be: a concentration, a point of focus, a product of meditation. Its minimalism is an expression of the loneliness that happens even among intimate society. Twitter is the opposite of this. It is a directionless and frenetic oblivion, without any principled coherence. It is at best useless and trivial, at worst pernicious and destructive. In either case, I would prefer to simply ignore it, which I was quite happy to do prior to 733. Since I can no longer do so, per the requirements of this class, the composition of haiku, per traditional aesthetic principles, seems like a suitable antidote.

References:

  • Blyth, R.H. Haiku. Hokuseido Press: Japan, 1949.
  • Giroux, Joan. The Haiku Form. Charles E. Tuttle: Rutland, Vermont, 1974.
  • Keene, Donald. Anthology of Japanese Literature. Grove Press, Inc: New York, 1955.
  • Nunberg, Geoffrey. “Haiku Takes to Twitter, 140 Characters at a Time.” NPR website: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127774103
  • Shirane, Haruo. Traditional Japanese Literature. Columbia UP: New York, 2007
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