168 Does Twitter Poetry Count as American Literature?

Autumn Stearns

What is American literature? If you would have asked me that question on the first day of class (oh wait—you did) I would have told you that American literature was “a peek into literature, culture, and life around the colonial time in the pre/early United States all the way up to the present.”  Yeah, I cringed too.

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American literature can include those things, but it is so, so much more than that as we have learned throughout the course of this class. American literature also reveals themes and norms of American society, culture, political institutes, and governmental institutes through works of literature that change the American people/society as a whole. American literature cannot be easily defined because it encompasses so much, it is as though nothing is being left out. But, alas, something has been left out: the online realm of literature.

Twitter and poetry are two words in which I had no idea existed together until a few days ago. Also known as “a twihaiku or micropoetry,” Twitter poems are compiled of  up to 140 characters that have to be crafty and calculated to meet the mark (Cripps 2013). But, what does Twitter poetry have to do with American literature? EVERYTHING!

Brian Bilston, an alias, is also known as the Poet Laurate of Twitter. He has been interviewed by top magazines such as Smithsonian and BBC. He wrote an article for BBC News about how writing a poem on Twitter accidently made him into an actual poet. His first of many poems on twitter is titled “You Took the Last Bus Home”, and goes as follows: “you took/the last bus home/don’t know how/you got it through the door/you’re always doing amazing stuff/like that time/you caught a train” (Bilston 2016).

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Bilston said that the “poem” wasn’t really a poem at all, but simply a “play on words.” Aren’t all poems a play on words? It’s okay to recognize your talent, dude. In October of 2017, Bilston came out with a book, also titled “You Took the Last Bus Home,” filled with all of his Twitter poems up to that point. Check it out here (shameless promo—I enjoyed reading through his Twitter page).

Twitter poetry is an adaptation of American literature. Take Emily Dickinson, for example. Emily Dickinson’s poems were short, some even shorter than 140 characters, and her works were considered American Literature. Why? Because she lived a life of seclusion and many of her poems were about questioning life, death, and immortality. She was interesting and she was different. Is Brian Bilson not interesting or different, perhaps even mysterious? Does Brian Bilston mold words into poetry just like Emily Dickinson did? Are the two any different at all? Well, yes, now that you mention it, but they do have some similarities as well. Bilston is sheltered just like Dickinson. Brian Bilston is a pseudonym and no one really knows who he is or where he’s from. Emily Dickinson is actually Emily Dickinson, but she alienated herself from the outside world. Even though everyone knew Dickinson, she was sheltered away from everyone and her works weren’t discovered until after she was dead. Bilston is sheltered in a different aspect. No one in the online universe knows who he (assuming he is a he because he chose a man’s name) is. He could be Ryan Reynolds or Anna Kendrick for all we know (why I chose specifically those two celebrities, I have no idea. Deal with it).

Bilston’s poems are not the usual poems we read within the American literature canon.  He plays with words, their meanings, stanza sizes, rhymes, and formats such using venn diagrams, writing in shapes, and using Google auto-complete. Bilston has changed the game of poetry by using these formats on an database where anyone can see them any time of the day 24/7, 365 days of the year. Twitter alone, never mind the whole other realm of online databases, changes the game of American literature because ANYONE who has access to the internet can sign up on Twitter and play an active role online. Anyone can write anything they want for anyone else to see. Anyone can comment on Bilston’s poems and give him feedback, good or bad. Anyone can like and/or retweet his poems, which helps him gain a following or even can help him get on the featured page of Twitter, which is called “Moments.” Twitter, and other online databases, make it easier to become known to millions of strangers, to gain a following, to follow dreams that may have not been dreams at all. Bilston’s poems can reach millions within seconds, something old American literature never dreamed of. With all of these elements, though, there are some compromises to be made. Comment sections can be detrimental to creators, and especially to the creative process. Negativity, hateful words, and insults are all too common on Twitter threads. Spammers, fake accounts, viruses, and trolls can all deplete anyone’s following, they can gain anyone’s personal information, and deceive one’s followers into gaining money, or simply just trashing one’s name/brand. The online world can be scary.

What is the purpose of Bilston using a pseudonym like he is some type of Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) big-wig? Even Madison Washington was pen-named “Madison Monroe” in “A Dash for Liberty” by Pauline E. Hopkins in the back of the critical edition of The Heroic Slave. Pseudonyms are not as common today as they were in the nineteenth century, so what’s the purpose of using one? On the surface it seems as if Bilston doesn’t want to be directly recognized for his works or disclose his identity to the world. Yet Bilston could already be an accomplished author, using a pseudonym to cross genres, or perhaps he is under contract and cannot use his name elsewhere (aka on Twitter) to make new/different content. Maybe he was an author before and the book didn’t do as well as he’d hoped, so he started fresh with a new name. We can only speculate.

Technology has vastly altered American literature to include an online realm where anyone can see anything at any time. Take, for example, the class’s online anthology. It is so much easier to just bring a laptop to class rather than five or more books, and not to mention that many online texts are FREE (a word that students don’t hear as often as they need to—we’re broke, man). Online texts can also be accessed by many people all at the same time. Try having upwards of ten students circle around and read off of one resource/book for a class period (we’d rather not). Plus, with new and upcoming technologies such as hypothes.is (which I HATED at first and until I learned how to insert gifs—try inserting gifs in your print book! Ha!) students and teachers alike don’t lose anything from the old ways (using just print texts) of teaching or learning.

Bilston, Brian. “’How I Accidentally Became a Poet through Twitter’.” BBC News, BBC, 10 Sept. 2016, www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37319526.

Cripps, Charlotte. “Twihaiku? Micropoetry? The Rise of Twitter Poetry.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 17 July 2013, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/twihaiku-micropoetry-the-rise-of-twitter-poetry-8711637.html.

Lidz, Franz. “Why Twitter’s ‘Poet Laureate’ Has No Plans to Unmask His Real Identity.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 July 2016, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/twitter-poet-laureate-no-plans-unmask-real-identity-180959486/.

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Does Twitter Poetry Count as American Literature? by Autumn Stearns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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