TWITTER, AND THE ART OF THE EPIGRAM

By Paul M. Lewis

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, an epigram is a short, pithy saying, often humorous or satirical, frequently written in a rhymed couplet, although not always. The ancient Roman poet, Martial, is sometimes said to be the Father of Epigrams, and many of his were insulting and bawdy. Here (in translation) are just a few examples, from a book entitled Martial’s Epigrams by Garry Willis. And remember, these were written two thousand years ago:

“How can the slippery son of a bitch
With all his vices, not be rich?”

Or again:

“Of course we know he’ll never wed.
What? Put his sister out of bed?”

Yet, not every epigram is rhymed. There are of plenty of one-liners out there, zingers we might call them today. And who is more famous for such witticisms than Oscar Wilde?

Here, for your reading pleasure, is a sampling of some of Oscar’s wilder sayings:

“I can resist anything except temptation.”

“Work is the curse of the drinking class.”

“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”

And of course, the unforgettable:

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

About which, the only comment I can make is:

Such sayings are emblematic of Wilde,
Frothy and piquant, and seldom mild.

But Wilde was not the only British purveyor of epigrammatic elegance. Coleridge practically gives us the very definition of epigrams when he wrote:

“What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.”

And John Dryden, the 17th century English playwright, literary critic, translator and, of course, poet is famous for having said:

“Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
Now she’s at rest – and so am I.”

In America, Ben Franklin is on record as having said, pithily, if not so humorously:

“Little strokes
Fell great oaks.”

But is there, I wondered, a use for epigrams in the more modern context? It occurred to me that not only are they the soul of brevity and wit, but they lend themselves to the diminished attention span of many in this age of Twitter. After all, pretty much any one of them might fit in the requisite 140 tweeted characters. Maybe there’s even a Twitter-gram in use, I don’t know, although so far I have been unsuccessful in finding any such animal. Why not start one then, I thought? Except for the fact that I don’t have a cell phone, have never tweeted, and wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to begin.

So here, in brief, is a linked series of epigrams about what I think of all of that:

I have as much an idea of how to tweet,
As a dead man would to sit and eat.

What is it with all this twitter?
I seems like so much dross and litter.;

Still, there’s something that really can be said
For making an attempt to unclutter your head

Shorter and cleaner is often better.
Not like some nineteenth century letter.

Too many words in your diet
Can twist your mind and run riot.

Why not put it all in twitter,
And in so doing, get rid of the litter?

Writers who love to go on and on
Are like Indians cooks and their naan.

They bake it in an oven or skillet,
But then proceed to butter and fill it.

It’s good, but makes you sluggish and fat.
And who needs that for his thermostat?

So I won’t keep spinning any more verse,
Lest it all just get worse and worse.

You’d think that I’d know better, in fact,
That the measured and thoughtful is what I lacked.

In the end, I’ve written way too much,
And better get up and go to lunch.

Though I’ll leave you with this one little thought,
Even if it’s really more than I ought:

A novel—good Lord!—is way too many words,
Read only by writers, and other such nerds

P.S.

If one forty a couplet I have exceeded,
My own advice I have not heeded

ALL THE LITTLE CELL PHONES GO TWEET, TWEET, TWEET

By Paul

By rights, I shouldn’t even be writing on this topic.  After all, I’ve never in my life sent a tweet, and I don’t even own a cell phone.  Still, I’ve wondered about the limitations of the twitter format, and how it’s possibly that this could be both a good thing and a bad thing.  As far as the latter is concerned (that bad part, that is), I suppose that’s fairly obvious.  The tendency, when so limited, is to revert to something inane, or at very least trivial.  I mean, how much can you really pack into 140 characters (including the spaces, I have come to find out)?  The other side of the coin, however, is the challenge of it all.  In one sense, it might be argued, how is twitter so very different from the limitations set on the creation of a sonnet, let’s say, or a haiku?  Except for the obvious one of far greater brevity, of course.

All of this led me the other day to think about what in fact people could come up with if they were challenged to write a thing of a little more substance or consequence than, say, “At Starbucks, ordering my double latte. New barista on duty. Very cute (no wedding ring). Wonder if she’s available?”  That comes to 119 characters, by the way, if you’re counting.

One idea that occurred to me was that of creating poetry, using these same limitations, with one or two others elements added in just to make it interesting.  I’ve always, for example, liked the rhyming couplet that traditionally ends a sonnet, and thought this might be a good way to start twitter-poetry, or twittery, if you will.  Let’s call this particular form, in fact, a tweetlet, instead of a couplet, and see what comes of it.  Here are the rules (as you can tell, we’re keeping them simple):

  1. No more than 140 characters (obviously)
  2. Must consist of two relatively equal lines.
  3. The last word of each of the lines must rhyme with the other.

Here are a few examples I’ve come up with

  • Sitting here thinking at my desk
    Of a graceful dancer’s arabesque
  • What happens to life when the world goes still?
    Where will we all go to drink our fill?
  • A tweet was a birdcall when I was a child, nothing more or less.
    Now, plastered in cyber space, what it means is anyone’s guess.

But, as you can see, this is maybe too easy.  So, let’s add one more limitation to our list in order to make it a bit more challenging.  Here, then, is a fourth requirement:

4.  Each line must contain at least 10, but no more than 12, syllables

Let’s try these on for size:

  • Is this the practice of humility,
    Or more an exercise in futility?
  • The tale of history is ever instructive:
    The good, the middling, and the destructive.
  • The world is a wonder wherever you go;
    I wouldn’t say so if it were not so.

Come to think of it, even these tweets seem awfully easy, and maybe we ought to up the ante a little.  Also, we’ve obviously only used a fraction of the 140 characters available to us in the examples above (none uses more than 90, in fact).  So, let’s try writing a short story in 140 or fewer characters, and see where that gets us.  Here are a few attempts; each one has more or less what you might think of as a kind of beginning, a “body,” and a conclusion:

  • She dumped her old boyfriend. He was no better than the rest, and worse than some. Now she tweets for a living, and is happier than ever.
  • Camping is fun. Snuggling in the tent, they were oblivious of time, and of the food they left out, with marauding raccoons on their way.
  • We met, we talked, we laughed, we ate. I thought him more handsome and funnier than I.  Later we exchanged a kiss, and parted forever.

Each of the above “stories” has respectively 139, 140, and 138 characters in it.  My tendency is to call them “tweeties,” aka tweeted-stories, although it does occur to me that I could be pushing things a bit too far when it comes to playing with the words tweet and twitter.

Ultimately, I suppose, I have to be honest and admit that the twitter format is a thing that puzzles me, and which I don’t really get.  In fact, the allure of sending out such brief messages (even “artistic ones”) to people, or to whole lists of people (thousands and thousands in some cases, apparently), escapes me entirely; nor do I understand what people on the receiving end of them find attractive or instructive, or even interesting.  Some might say that it’s entirely a generational thing, although there are those in my own age range (upper 60’s and going on 70), who also tweet.  From my point of view, however, the very word seems to suggest a thing of minor consequence or of little substance (perhaps by unfortunate comparison with the word “twit”?).

That said, however, it is also difficult not to aver that there is power in the form, a greater power in fact than I had initially ascribed to it.  Just the other day, for example, someone hacked into the Associated Press computers and tweeted the following message:  “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured”.  These 71 characters immediately brought about such panic (perhaps particularly in light of the recent Boston bombing) that the Stock Market dropped 150 points in only a few minutes.  The ruse was quickly discovered and rectified, but the fact remains that thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people received it and reacted immediately to a form of communication that I, in my ignorance perhaps, claim to find both trivial and inane.

So, who can say whether or not I am the one who ought to reconsider and reexamine my thinking?  Even so, however, and ever incorrigible perhaps, I will leave you in the end with the following tasteless doggerel:

  • Don’t waste your time and your money on tweets;
    Far better to go and play in the streets.