Form: Constraint or Liberation? Should Tweets Be Shorter or Longer? What About Haiku?

Haiku, along with other conventional poetry, is a lesson in form.

By tradition, haiku are poems composed of seventeen syllables, divided into lines of 5-7-5.

Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, wrote this in his Introduction to Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years:

Along with the outbreak of haiku in America in the 1950s came the Great Seventeen-Syllable Debate, which continues to simmer in the haiku community to this day. Many poets, myself included, stick to the basic form of seventeen syllables, typically arranged in three lines in a 5-7-5 order. This light harness is put on like any formal constraint in poetry so the poet can feel the comfort of its embrace while being pushed by those same limits into unexpected discoveries. Asked where he got his inspiration, Yeats answered, “in looking for the next rhyme word.” To follow such rules, whether received as is the case with the sonnet or concocted on the spot, is to feel the form pushing back against one’s self-expressive impulses. For the poet, this palpable resistance can be a vital part of the compositional experience. I count syllables not out of any allegiance to tradition but because I want the indifference and inflexibility of a seventeen-syllable limit to balance my self-expressive yearnings. With the form in place, the act of composition becomes a negotiation between one’s subjective urges and the rules of order, which in this case could not be simpler or firmer. My hope is that such fixity will keep the pulsations of the ego in check by encouraging a degree of humility in the face of the form.

These thoughts are a subset of the bigger and more consequential issue of how form may be either constraining or liberating, and whether it may be beneficial for our wandering ways. A form, in expression or practice, should not be overvalued. But form should not be ignored or rejected, as it can be a “light harness” which “keep the pulsations of the ego in check by encouraging a degree of humility.”

This brings us to Twitter, which in 2017 expanded to 280 characters per tweet. As in text messages, which were the inspiration for Twitter’s original 140 character limit, and as in telegrams (the ur-Twitter) that cost more per word, forced brevity drives creativity.

Have there been creative and thoughtful people who make beneficial use of Twitter’s expansion? Of course. Might those same people be even more creative constrained by the original limit? Of course. Are there plenty of people for whom 280 or 140 characters are too many? Of course.

If you do tweet, consider self-imposing a limit below the mandated one. Maybe go back to the original 140 characters. Maybe choose an even smaller number: 64 (the number of I Ching hexagrams), 22 (the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet), or any other number that calls to you. Again quoting Billy Collins:

I count syllables not out of any allegiance to tradition but because I want the indifference and inflexibility of a seventeen-syllable limit to balance my self-expressive yearnings.

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