Tweets and Sonnets

A tweet is like a sonnet, or should be.  Follow my reasoning here.

A tweet, in order to be compatible with the length of a standard text message, is actually 160 characters long, but it reserves 20 characters for user information, which leaves only 140 characters for the body of the tweet.  This is common enough information, I know, but it also makes for one of the more interesting parallels in the history of literary form, because it just so happens that a sonnet standardly consists of 14 lines of 10 syllables each, for a grand total of 140 syllables.  A tweet – 140 characters / A sonnet – 140 syllables: could this really be mere coincidence?

Unfortunately, yes, it can be mere coincidence, but it is still, I would suggest, a meaningful coincidence, since it serves as a reminder of what can be done through literary forms that are tightly defined by their brevity and by their formal structure.  The sonnet, though limited formally, has been one of the enduring modes of poetic expression, from the 13th century until the present day.  This should refute the assumption that something as brief as a tweet cannot be capable of performing a literary as well as a communicational function.

It should also cause us to examine the extent to which most twitter is actually concerned with the question of literary value.  If it is possible to write literarily through the form, and I think it is, and I have heard of examples of this kind of writing, it is certainly the case that most twitter has very little concern at all to be literary.  Like much of our modern media, it has been dominated by a concern for communication at the expense of a concern for expression, though it contains the possibility for such expression, as the sonnet demonstrates.

So, I think that a tweet should be like a sonnet.  I think that its limited form should give rise to a greater rather than a lesser attention to its literary and asethetic expression.  I think twitter should be a poetry, not just for poets, but for all of us.

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9 comments
  1. Looking forward to having you join twitter so I can read you there, and watch this become a reality.

  2. Katerina said:

    Luke, this is fabulous.

  3. David,

    Give me time. I am a late adopter.

    Katerina,

    Thanks.

  4. d said:

    Learning to write sonnets has been my main writing project of the summer. I’ve written six so far and plan to continue writing them for a long time to come. The sonnet form is largely dead, unfortunately. It is a beautiful poetic structure.

    I cannot imagine holding sonnets up next to the technological banality of twitter. The power of a sonnet is the demand of discipline and the inherent beauty of rhyming iambic pentameter. Twitter demands only brevity (that may be too kind a word – shortness would be better), which almost always in the form of abbreviation, not wit.

  5. d,

    I agree, the sonnet form remains one of my favourite forms, but what if people began to develop the form of the tweet in similar directions? What if tweets became valued according to their ability to fit complex ideas and disciplined structure and beautiful expression into 140 characters? I agree that most twitter is banal. I would love for it to be something more.

  6. Lauren said:

    I have encountered a number of people on Twitter who have managed to harness the power of the 140 character limit and turn it into something beautiful. One of my favourite Twitterers (surely there is a better word for Twitter users that I am unaware of) posts hint fiction on a fairly regular basis, and manages to do so quite well.

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