Poetry and the Digital Age, Part 2

This post is the second in a series on poetry and online language. You can read the first post here

In my last post, I argued that the word limit of the tweet and the text message is not tantamount to poetry. In this next post I want to meditate on an element of the digital enviroment even more worrying than the truncation of the tweet: the verbal sloth of the hashtag and the meme. Unless you’ve been avoiding the internet entirely, you know hashtags all too well: more succinct than tweets, hashtags are words and phrases that sum up everything from advertising slogans to political positions. We even have a civil rights movement, #BlackLivesMatter, whose name and online hashtag are one and the same. The meme[i] is a more amorphous phenomenon, as it consists of a quoted phrase usually coupled with a picture which is then employed as a ready-made reaction to any scrap of news or online discourse. One of my favorites expresses enthusiasm for some new or innovative product.

The Common Language of Hashtags and Memes

Both hashtags and memes are adaptable, and spawn rival versions of one another. #BlackLivesMatter is often countered with #alllivesmatter, or #bluelivesmatter. On a lighter note, “Shut up and take my money” can be adapted, for instance, in a Star Wars context, or flipped to “shut up and take my human“. Such meme-flipping often proves humorous, and those who can cleverly riff on hashtags and memes with ease have their reward in full on social media.

What hashtags and memes do, essentially, is provide stock verbiage for our arguments and sentiments. Take, for instance, the current verbal meme “Stop saying…”. It is used in many contexts, often as the title for a longer op-ed or listicle, i.e.: “Stop saying #alllivesmatter”; “Stop saying ‘I feel like'”; “Stop saying the Nice attacks have nothing to do with Islam”, etc. It’s not hard to see why such a phrase becomes a trend; it is easier and more catchy to write “Stop saying X” in regards to a disputed political position than it is to say “the belief that X is true is suspect for the following reasons…”.

But there are many posssible reasons that one might be persuaded to stop saying something, one of the most important of which is that language is downstream from belief. We speak from our convictions, and the old philosophers would have reminded us that the best way to avoid saying that which is wrongheaded or cruel is to examine our convictions about what kind of place the world is and what kind of beings our human interlocutors are. The “stop saying” meme paves over all of these considerations with its easy, blunt (and, if you’ll allow me, somewhat totalitarian) simplicity.

Poetry and the Inventive Vocabulary

The old poetic forms—haiku, sonnet, ghazal—dictated the metrical shape of our language, but never the exact words themselves. The sonnet encourages and rewards inventiveness; the hashtag seldom does. It is one thing to seek common vocabulary with our interlocutors. It is another to willingly engage in expression of our beliefs using verbal forms prescribed by someone that we have neither met not talked with. A great instance of this was in the first Democratic debate last fall, when an audience member asked Bernie Sanders “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” Bernie, who at other times has proven quite articulate on racial issues, answered only “Black lives matter!” to great applause. He had the chance to articulate a nuanced view, one that could have transcended the false dichotomy of the two hashtags presented, but instead he fell into the easy trap of using a hashtag to sum up a fraught political position that requires verbal deftness.

This, then, is a major danger of the digital age: the danger of using predetermined, brief slogans as public discourse: to sling #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter back and forth ad nauseum. Interestingly, this particular hashtag war has given birth to an unwieldy synthetic meme-child of sorts: a brief explanation, usually uncredited, as to why those who think all lives matter should support the #blacklivesmatter movement, placed over a backdrop of protesters. The essential explanatory poverty of the hashtag form gives birth to a more longform meme, which I expect to be countered by memes using the same language arguing for an opposing position.

In the end, the problem of the hashtag is the old problem of cliché. Alicia Garza, who created the #blacklivesmatter hashtag, was being inventive and pithy in response to a real problem in the world, just as the first writer to use the phrase “in the end” at the beginning of a sentence was being inventive. But to continue public discourse without ever moving beyond such phrasings not only neglects the inherent human faculty of verbal inventiveness, but also begins to empty the original phrase of its nuance and power. One of the beauties of both dialectic and poetry is that neither practice is satisfied with initial phrasings – both seek in their use of words to hone, to specify, to make more elegant with each new round of articulation. Unlike the meme and hashtag, the traditional poetic forms, as I argued in my last post, are training grounds for such linguistic development.

I closed my last post on a negative note, but I’d like to do the reverse here. I have great hope for language in the digital age. There is no less space for linguistic invention than before. With each year, the internet enables more and more writers and poets to connect with one another, to share literary traditions, poetic forms, and new masterpieces of creative writing. But the tool that opens history and culture to us also fosters an overall atmosphere of distraction, sloth, and knee-jerk sloganeering. It will take the virtues of courage and prudence to resist this atmosphere, to cultivate a careful craft of articulation that results in linguistic artifacts—essays, poems, stories, satires—so vivid and arresting that tired memes and hashtags fade before them.

[i]     One could argue that hastags are a subset of memes. Alicia Garza, creator of #BlackLivesMatter, refers to the name of her movement as a meme, and worries about the harmful effects of the widespread unauthorized appropriation of of #Xlivesmatter.

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