I was a very late convert to Twitter (read: only a couple months ago). It took a long time to argue myself out of an acute sense that this particular phenomenon was the end of language as we knew it, the last descent into pure senselessness. Once I talked myself down, I had to overcome my basic indifference to a medium in which many people appeared to be conversing but an interested listener could only hear one side of the conversation at any one time. I read a lot of tweets, but most were inside joke black holes, dutiful self-promotion, or recycled links. But the latest trending #ReplaceMovieTitlesWithVagina hashtag is enough to demonstrate that Twitter is like anything else: 90% of it sucks. And that percentage might creep even higher in this case because of the extreme ease of access and the few demands on the user’s craft, drive, or method. Even disregarding barriers of visual acuity or technique, someone who wants to paint a picture has to at least drive to an art supplies store.
But there is one crucial restriction. 140 characters. Enough for two meager sentences or a full one pimped out with subordinate clauses. It seems an arbitrary limitation but in practice it’s just enough to make a would be Tweeter reconsider any articles or extraneous details and map out their punchlines with greater economy. Like a poem, tweets exist in an ultimate relationship with familiarity and estrangement. In order to fulfill its obligations, a poem’s language has to be trusted at a basic level of understanding (these are words I know, or bear some similarity to words I know) while sanding away its encrustations of acknowledged meaning and convention. The originary technique of poetry was compression to accord with metrical form, just as Twitter’s technique is compression to meet a character limit. Poets and comedians generally have the most entertaining Twitter accounts because their occupations have been teaching them the fundamentals of Twitter all their lives. And those fundamentals are compression (in thought and language) and surprise.
My favorite purely comic Twitter account is Rob Delaney’s, a comedian who’s built his reputation on a reliable drip of filthy and hilarious tweets that never stop and never falter (seriously this guy tweets all day). You can just spin the wheel and take your pick, but here are three of my recent favorites:
Just put an entire frozen chicken up my ass............ April Fools! It was just the drumstick.—
rob delaney (@robdelaney) April 01, 2012
Ryan Gosling might not make love to you in a horse-drawn carriage, but I will 100% motorboat your butt in my mom's station wagon if u want.—
rob delaney (@robdelaney) April 04, 2012
My wife just called me a "vapid, amoral cunt-person." Is that "Words with Friends"?—
rob delaney (@robdelaney) April 03, 2012
Delaney depends heavily on the punchline format, but he’s a stand-up comic and, more importantly, it never tires. His tweets are a hysterical melange of domestic squabbles, grotesquely specific come-ons, and visceral self-loathing marinated in pop culture both truly disposable (Kardashian et. al.) and enduringly disposable (the Spice Girls will never die). He has an edifying, as yet one-sided conversation going on with @BarackObama that’s worth following.
On the other end of the spectrum, Mark Leidner is an emerging poet whose 1,400 Twitter followers (myself included) hang on his bizarre extrapolations of pop culture addled American doublethink. Leidner’s tweets blur the line between poetry and stand-up, often depending on a comedic structure of expectation but with a poetic commitment to the volatile, perpetually ironized categories of time, death, consciousness, and the soul. A few are classic punchline poetry, tight ravels of topical absurdity and despair:
the girl with the dragon tattoo… and an overbite who works at chipotle—
mark leidner (@markleidner) August 23, 2011
thanks to the Republican debates, True Blood is no longer the most poorly written and acted show on TV about vampires that I keep watching—
mark leidner (@markleidner) August 16, 2011
But some of them strike with the sudden, world eroding felicity of all the best poems, which would make me worry that Leidner is wasting good lines on Twitter if he didn’t have plenty more good enough to put the rest of us out of business. Observe:
a girl whose words are so calm and clear that her face wears her voice like a dress—
mark leidner (@markleidner) January 21, 2012
Still others are almost there, but succeed only in their medium the same way song lyrics do:
time is a hymen the dead have broken—
mark leidner (@markleidner) September 08, 2011
Leidner’s tweets are like poems and his poems have begun to sound like tweets. Leidner’s poem “Romantic Comedies” reads like a single-minded Twitter feed, spinning out a series of increasingly bizzarre and even disturbing movie pitches, taking the bland and formulaic boy meets girl platform and inseminating it with all the totally fucked power of his imagination. He’s published a volume of poetry, Beauty Was The Case They Gave Me, and a collection of aphorisms called The Angel In The Dream Of Our Hangover. Aphorisms that answer to the name haven’t been relevant since Nietzche, but Leidner and Twitter are changing the game, making the pithy and concise cool again. I have no doubt that Twitter and its descendants will keep influencing poetry on a craft level as it becomes an increasingly necessary vector of promotion and networking.
Detractors rail against inane tweets about breakfast but that has never been what Twitter was about, the same way poetry is not Plath-inspired shit poems about “fascist” parents and comedy is not Dane Cook. It starts with a riff on established language, the subversion of cliches, modulations of “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining, piss on my leg and…” and ends with a meaningful commitment to linguistic strangeness, absurdity, hilarity. Twitter could be an incredible teaching tool and I look forward to its incorporation in creative writing classes. My minor gripe with Twitter is that it’s an uninteresting link aggregator. Many other websites serve that function with greater elegance. My major gripe with Twitter is the correlation of accounts with real people, the putative authors of those tweets. I already think of the accounts I follow, even those of friends, as characters. Frequently I’ll be poised to tweet something horrible, often about my butthole or those of others, and remember that I’m writing under my real name, that my tweets publish to Facebook, that my entire family is on Facebook. My dream Twitter is one of nebulous, fabricated entities coalescing to tell jokes and anecdotes, to deliver suspect aphorisms, to deform and eat and sweat language. It’s both the ancient past and future of a verbal culture, a true oral tradition.