Trifling with Twitter
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Until this week, from all that I had heard of Twitter, it was mainly just something else for young people to do with their personal devices to waste their time, or it was a way for celebrities to communicate with their fans and occasionally embarrass themselves. I had certainly never given any thought to signing up for it. I had my longstanding web site already, and the limitation to 140 characters (including spaces) for each message, I reasoned, prevented anyone from saying anything of much importance. Moreover, the very words, “twitter” and “tweet,” fairly shouted frivolity. The whole notion was off-putting.
Then, an experience last week changed my thinking. Normally, I only send my articles to my mailing list, but this time I was so pleased with a new poem that I decided to send it around:
Let’s hear it for Williams and Sanchez.
Each fell from the anchorman’s booth.
One was brought down for lying,
The other for telling the truth.
It was well received. One of the recipients particularly pleased me when he said that he was putting it on his Twitter feed. My satisfaction was somewhat dampened, though, when I checked his tweet and found that he had omitted the title and the first four words of the poem. The title is important to show that it is a toast. The first four words of the sarcastic first line are essential for the poem’s meter. I then conveyed my mixed feelings by noting to the tweeter, being as diplomatic as I could, that he had “chipped the nose off my little artwork.”
He responded promptly, reminding me of Twitter’s character limitations. At that, I expressed my appreciation for his edifying me, and an idea was born. If I could make a strong statement with a poem that came so close to meeting the Twitter restrictions, it occurred to me, why couldn’t I make just a little additional effort to squeeze a finished product into the mold? Then it occurred to me further that in many instances I had already done that. Take, for instance, “Who’s Right on 9/11?”
I'll come to the conclusion that
My common sense requires
When it's 9/11 truthers
Versus 9/11 liars.
It makes the cut, even with the title, and so does “Mexico North,” including full punctuation:
Here is the plan linguistic:
A modern day Tower of Babel.
It goes with the plan economic:
Elite using downtrodden rabble.
In fact, looking back only over some of my more recent poetic productions, I discovered another sarcastic toast to one of our more prominent anchormen, and this one requires no chipping around the edges to pass Twitter muster:
Let’s hear it for Anderson Cooper,
Who’s 21st Century bold.
He’s totally out of the close,
But he hasn’t come in from the cold.
The more I thought of it, the more the idea of posting verse on Twitter and even crafting it especially for that medium appealed to me. It appealed to me, in part, for the same reason that traditional verse with its rhyme and meter appeals to me, and most modern poetry, I’m sorry to say, repulses me. There is beauty in the form and a bracing intellectual challenge in its creation. As Robert Frost said, “Writing blank verse is like playing tennis without a net.” Writing old-fashioned verse for Twitter, to continue the tennis simile, would be like playing tennis with a somewhat higher net.
But poetry can have structure without the usual rhyme and meter. There is traditional Japanese haiku, for instance, with its three phrases of five, seven, and five on (approximating English syllables) respectively. One could write haiku to his heart’s content on Twitter and never worry the least bit about running afoul of the character restrictions.
Eureka! Better than haiku for Twitter, it suddenly occurred to me, would be something that I noticed and wrote about back in 1999:
Has anyone taken particular note of the short, punchy three-line form of expression that the people at Papa John pizzas have turned into a slogan?
I think it has the potential to be used poetically much like the Japanese use haiku, but the meter is such that it sits much better with the English ear. Maybe with practice one can recognize a haiku expression as soon as he hears it, but I almost always have to count the syllables to be sure, and that sort of spoils the appreciation of the thing. And how appropriate to America that someone on Madison Avenue would come up with this new form of literary expression instead of one of the pointy-headed crowd!
Now let's give it a small, poetic trial run:
The dogwoods are blooming;
The tax forms are sent;
Spring is here.
The smell of the lilacs,
The sound of your voice.
Let’s hold hands.
Okay, so they're a little longer than the Papa John slogan, but they share the three lines and the descending number of syllables per line. This little art form needs a name, and because of its number of lines and its overall modesty we might play on words and call it a "Papa John trifle," or, if you will, a "DC Dave trifle," or just a "trifle" for short, and the context will show what you mean. Of course, if someone else can come up with a better name, I'm willing to listen.
Here's an almost "trifle," taught to me as a high school cheer by a native of the subject city:
We don't drink;
We don't smoke;
Last line's a little too short, I think. Let's try this one in a subject area with which I am most comfortable:
Best of intentions,
Worst of results,
Looks like too many syllables in the last line, but the beat is right so I'd say it works. Now how about:
Now we're cooking. Here's one inspired by a tee shirt I saw:
"So many interns,
So little time."
On a more serious and even more topical note we have:
The Serbs are intransigent;
Our troops can't go in.
And finally, we have this warning of what can happen when you have complete control of the air but no other military advantage. It's Bernard Fall's summing up of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the climactic siege of the French phase of the Indochina War, from his book, Hell in a Very Small Place.
Ten thousand prisoners,
Five thousand dead.
A lost war.
I would like to encourage others to try their hand at a "trifle" or two, or with whatever they might want to call it.
April 22, 1999
p.s. Readers might have noticed that some years after I wrote this, Toyota came up with something of a Papa John copy-cat slogan, "More choices, better choices, Toyota." (March 17, 2005)
The word play in the term I propose, in case you didn’t notice, is that the word “trifle,” although it has a different root and unrelated meaning, in this instance can suggest “three” as with the words “triple” or “triangle.” We should also note that, as a general rule, as the beats get shorter we progress from the more general to the more specific. I don’t think the rules should be as rigid as they are for haiku or, say, limericks, though. The work just needs to “sound right.”
Something else that I failed to note in my article is that the Papa John slogan and our derivatives from it appeal to the ear and to the emotions because they employ the “rule of three.” Omne trium perfectum, all sets of three are perfect or complete, as the Latin suggests. Haiku and our proposed “Twitter trifles,” (new and improved with alliteration) may be thought of as simply two short art forms that have similar rhetorical power because, among other things, each obeys the rule of three.
Fifteen years have now passed since that first “trifle” trial run and the reference to Attorney General Janet Reno “rescuing” children at Waco by ultimately burning them to death might not be understood by a large percentage of today’s audience, and the mention of Kenneth Starr might bring to mind only Bill Clinton’s shenanigans with Monica Lewinsky. Actually, we were referring more to his work in covering up the murder of Vincent Foster.
Although these cases have continuing relevance to today’s political scene, it’s not hard to think of Twitter trifles that are closer to current events. Let’s try (Why not?) three of them:
Sparkplug for war
Pulled down on itself
Change to believe in?
He’s not MLK.
“I have a drone.”
This sort of writing for Twitter goes in precisely the opposite direction from what Lance Ulanoff recommends in his PC Magazine article, “How to Tweet Like a Pro in 140 Characters—or Less.” While I am proposing that we use the Twitter restrictions as an impetus for enriching the English language with a new art form whose time has finally come, he would have us further impoverish it by employing the sort of language butchery found in a teenager’s text message. I trust that not too many people will heed his advice and will simply tighten up their communication with things like Twitter trifles. At the very least, I trust that they will enjoy mine.
David Martin @dcdave2u
February 24, 2015