I don’t think it would be wrong to say that most people, old and young, aren’t particularly enthralled by old poetry. Metric and stylistic traditions in poetry are things to fear. Too much work has to go into understanding the choices that inform the meaning of the poem. For a lot of people, high school made the process too insufferable to cultivate interest. Rules in general seem intolerable when they limit freedom of expression or impose structure on a subjective notion.
Poetry today, as an expressive medium, reflects this desire for freedom in its departure from strict rhyme schemes and metered syllables. As one would expect with the passing of time, it’s more liberal, just like anything else. You don’t have to write sonnets and villanelles to be a poet; all you have to do is write things that look and feel like poems.
That’s not to say that poets have completely abandoned the use of iambs, trochees, spondees, and various pentameters. Poets are just less hung up on producing poetry that strictly adheres to established forms. We are not John Donne, living as educated priests and poets in 17th century England— most of us are just a lot of people who can read and write today that couldn’t 400 years ago. As a result, there’s more of everything and more interpretations of everything. Forcing the cage of a sonnet or ballad onto your writing can feel more inhibitive than productive, even if we can all admit that there is something admirable in what poets like Donne, Shakespeare, or Hopkins were able to accomplish within the limits of established forms.
To squeeze subjects like love or God into 14 lines of iambic pentameter with a set rhyme scheme, as some of these poets did, is part of what lends their poetry its ability to endure. Compressing an experience, emotion or belief and reproducing it as a structure is difficult in any form of expression. These poets that we still read today were obviously the most successful at doing so. But most of the poets that I’ve encountered in the present– whether college poets or published poets– don’t work strictly within any one form, and don’t feel compelled to do so. Poetry is up for grabs in any and all ways, and you don’t have to know anything about dactyls or anapests to participate in it and produce it— though that doesn’t mean that we are necessarily free of limitations on our expression, which today maybe even more ubiquitous than they were in 17th century England.
I’m not trying to claim that Twitter is poetry, but like traditional poetry and unlike Facebook, on Twitter all you have to process from the individual is that which they produce in 140 characters or less. It’s obviously not as limiting as having to produce lines exclusively in rising double meter, but it is a restriction nonetheless. Both poems and tweets can be and are about anything, and even though poets themselves aren’t necessarily writing under rigid forms and rhythms as much as they once did, the average Twitter user faces their own sets of restrictions by writing within a character limit. While it is true that you can tweet a stream on a single thing, a good tweet expresses itself and impacts its reader by doing so succinctly, within the 140 characters or less that it is allowed. Like a sonnet, a tweet is impressive because of what it can do with the space it is given— because of how much can be packed into it.
Other lesser examples are those of bios on sites like Instagram, or captions on Snapchat. Your bio on any site demands you to describe yourself concisely to anyone accessing you. Snapchat, though more image-based than Twitter, allows your caption only the length of your actual photo. If you want to say something about your picture, you don’t have much space. But in that space people deliver successful jokes, emotions, and observations that, when done well, are satisfying and interesting to process. So much of what makes tweets, bios, and snap captions what they are is their demand that you project yourself to others in a small number of characters.
Like Donne and his impassioned address to God in “Holy Sonnet XIV,” or Shakespeare in love in “Sonnet 130,” people continue to contemplate and express what these poets wrote about. It’s not uncommon to come across tweets about relationships, beliefs, opinions, or struggles. Though people aren’t trying to tweet in iambic pentameter, they do have to say what they want to say within a numerical boundary. Just as part of “traditional” poetry’s triumph is in its successful compression into a structure, tweets are condensed manifestations of what you want to express about yourself, or something else, to the public, for everyone to see as a kind of extension of you.
There are ways in which, by Tweeting or Snapping, we’re participating in a variation of what poets once did by writing in villanelles, sestinas, ballads, and sonnets. We take it to the daily level, and do so with more leisure and less rigor, but nonetheless construct reflections of ourselves on social media using set strictures, as poets do in poems. Donne gives his tumultuous relationship with God to us in 14 lines— through Twitter, we deliver our thoughts, feelings, and experiences in 140 characters or less.
Sophia Marina is a sophomore in Columbia College. She is a member of the editorial board of The Columbia Review.