The recent controversy about Alice Walker – her bizarrely anti-Semitic poem It Is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud, and revelations that she reveres loony conspiracy theorist David Icke – focused on the content of her writing, not its style. Many literary people were just as puzzled by the form of this poem as by its message. We were on the whole surprised that such a terrible poem could be written by someone as famous as this (she did after all win the Pulitzer and her most famous novel is a standard of high-school curriculums), and that the outrage would be directed solely at its obvious message and falsehoods rather than at its high-school-essay language.
It wasn’t really a poem at all. It was an essay divided up into short lines and centred on the page. Some of these lines: “You will find some information, / Slanted, unfortunately, / By Googling. For a more in depth study / I recommend starting with YouTube.” This set of assertions makes up an argument about the danger of Jewish religious texts. Sidestepping what has already been said (these assertions are false), let’s think about why this was called a poem. She didn’t, by the way, label it as such: All the commentators did.
It’s true that it is not a novel. Or a short story. Or a play. What does it most resemble?
Imagine each of these lines sequentially numbered. Now what does it look like? It looks like a Twitter thread.
Compare a Canadian controversy, from a few weeks earlier, over something the media labelled a poem. The playwright Sky Gilbert caused consternation when he published a bit of a rant on his blog called “I’m Afraid of Woke People.” This was a response to a book by Vivek Shraya called I’m Afraid of Men, and it led to a fatal schism between Gilbert and the Toronto theatre company he co-founded many years ago. Again, the debate was about rival polemics, not about their format, but I couldn’t help noticing that Gilbert’s argument was written in the same form – short lines making successive declamatory points. He did not label it a poem, but many commentators did, probably because of this formatting. Here’s a sample stanza: “When I dress in drag, I fear I will be ‘dressed down’ by a 'Woke Person,’ screamed at for enjoying appropriated music, for making fun of trans people, and for my camp sense of humour.”
Since the early 20th century there has been no clear definition of what poetry is. Most postmodern theorists would dismiss any attempt at a definition as useless and dull. So one cannot say that this is not poetry – just perhaps that it is not very poetic poetry. Poetry tends to use highly concentrated language. This is very prosaic language.
Certainly poets have always used verse for political broadsides. There was quite an art to this in England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad was an attack on his philosophical rivals. But these polemical poems were set in regular metre and rhyme. The point of writing such arguments in verse was to accomplish an extraordinarily difficult technical feat, a kind of literary acrobatics. Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, a commentary on contemporary politics, also contained writing that was a pastiche of his enemy’s styles (thus at once satire and parody).
There’s no such stylistic ambition on display here.
Gilbert’s poem also draws much more from the technical constraints of Twitter than from any other formal tradition. (Again, imagine its stanzas being numbered and you can easily see it unscrolling on your screen.) This is a tweetstream by another name.
I’ve written here before about the natural convergence of contemporary poetry and Twitter. The new Rupi Kaur, 28-year-old Najwa Zebian, writes bite-sized inspirational poems for Instagram. (Zebian has lines such as “may your heart / always be kind / even though / the world out there / could shatter you / for being kind.” Her new collection Sparks of Phoenix is about to be published and will doubtless be a bestseller.) Social media, so useful for the broadcasting of pithy ideological stands, is equally useful for the publicizing of one’s immediate emotional suffering, as the public response to plangent laments is immediate and comforting. Furthermore, those two domains – the denunciation of enemies and the proclamation of personal “trauma” – are increasingly the same thing.
It’s true that the labels don’t really matter. An optimist will say that we may be entering a new golden age of accessible and activist poetic writing, one that actually, unlike artsy-fartsy poetry, serves a political function. A new genre may be emerging: the blunt and emotional jeremiad. It won’t be beautiful, but at least it will break free of W. H. Auden’s glum assertion that “Poetry makes nothing happen.”
Meanwhile experimental poets have been using Twitter for some years now as a publishing platform for more cryptic and conventionally poetic lines. Just this morning I saw a Facebook post by the Canadian poet Gregory Betts, who is currently teaching in Dublin. He wrote, “On a day when some poems I thought were poems were politely rejected by a magazine, I received a request from a different, established zine to publish a tweet of mine as a poem.” It’s as if the poet himself can’t tell when he is writing poetry or tweeting. He added, mischievously, “Also, this is a poem.”