The Poetry of Social Networks

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"Being limited to strict formats did wonders for the sonnet and haiku. One wonders where this highly impractical word limit will lead as the future unfolds."
-Paul JJ Payack, President of The Global Language Monitor.

The Global Language Monitor recently published the Top Words of 2009. Here they are:

1. Twitter
2. Obama
3. H1N1
4. Stimulus
5. Vampire
6. 2.0
7. Deficit
8. Hadron
9. Healthcare
10. Transparency
11. Outrage
12. Bonus
13. Unemployed
14. Foreclosure
15. Cartel

"What's in a name?" asked William Shakespeare. The answer is: A LOT. Going through each word in this list evokes an avalanche of thoughts, memories, ideas, opinions. Words can be amazing things and I think that we belittle language and culture every time that we complain about the death of language through social networking.

The sonnet, derived from the Occitan word sonnet and the Italian word sonetto, meaning "little poems", consists of 14 lines, each containing ten syllables written in iambic pentameter. The pattern of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable is repeated five times.

One of my favorite classical sonnets is Shakespeare's Sonnet 130:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Not quite short enough for the 420 character limit of a Facebook update but certainly a stunning example of how much can be said, insinuated and emoted in fourteen lines. It would make for the ultimate blog – short, seductive, humorous, entertaining and quickly consumed.

Twitter-worthy is the haiku format. Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry created out of 17 moras – where a long syllable consists of two moras and a short syllable consists of one.

In Japanese, haikus are traditionally written in a single vertical line but in English they usually appear in three lines. Although there exists some controversy, the English Haiku is typically characterized by three lines of up to 17 syllables, the use of a season word, and a cut (sometimes indicated by a punctuation mark) to implicitly compare two images.

An old silent pond...
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
Basho Matsuo (1644-1694)

Reginald Horace Blyth, an English author who contributed greatly to the assimilation of haikus into the English language, wrote: "a haiku is the expression of a temporary enlightenment, in which we see into the life of things."

Here's an example by Jack Kerouac (1922 –1969), an American author, poet and painter, who, amongst many things, also helped to popularize the haiku.

All day long
wearing a hat
that wasn't on my head.


Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closed anyway.

A haiku is a haiku because all the images it conveys occur simultaneously in a person's present perceptions of the world. The emphasis is on the importance of the now, which will result in illumination.

The brief, simultaneous, immediate nature of haikus offers a spectacular alternative to the morbid perspective on the extermination of language through social networking and new media.

If we allow ourselves to look more optimistically into what the brief communication format of social networking could bring, then Twitter's 140 character question "What's happening?" might take on a much more poetic and meaningful cultural role.

"Haiku shows us what we knew all the time, but did not know we knew; it shows us that we are poets in so far as we live at all."
-Reginald Horace Blyth.

Twitter that.

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