(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
Twitter isn't just a medium for exchanging URL's and shopping tips or telling your friends what you had for lunch. As our linguist Geoff Nunberg observes, it's also given rise to an outpouring of haiku.
GEOFF NUNBERG: Sun Microsystems' Jonathan Schwartz was a thoroughly modern CEO the first to have a blog. So when he resigned recently after the company was acquired by Oracle, he didn't simply tweet the news. He put it in the form of a haiku: Financial crisis / Stalled too many customers/ CEO no more.
Schwartz had both thumbs on the pulse of the medium. Haiku are like amaryllis: They thrive in close quarters. And with its 140-character limit, Twitter is blooming with haiku or twaiku, as some call them. There are Twitter feeds for NASCAR haiku, cat haiku, zombie haiku and
There are haiku competitions and campaigns. Jimmy Kimmel offered tickets to his show to whoever tweeted in the best haiku about the final episode of "Lost." The British Rail Company asked passengers to tweet their haiku on the theme of the London summer, a topic that's nicely suited to a poem of three short lines.
And after Glenn Beck said recently that churches were using the phrase social justice as a code for Nazism and communism, the organization Jewish Funds for Justice urged supporters to flood Beck's Twitter account with haikus of protest. Sarah Silverman offered this response: Churches and their code / It's like when they say bless you / And yet no one sneezed.
Of course, people were writing haiku in English long before Twitter came on the scene. In 1914, Ezra Pound made the haiku the model for his famous 14-word poem "In a Station of the Metro." The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough.
Ever since then, serious poets have been trying to adapt the features of the haiku to English its economy, its chiseled syntax, and its juxtapositions of images. But not many have paid attention to the idea that a haiku should have exactly 17 syllables. In fact, Japanese haiku can have fewer than that, depending on the length of the vowels.
But the haiku on Twitter don't often reveal a debt to Pound or Kerouac or Robert Hass, much less to Basho. For most people, the appeal of the haiku is precisely that it isn't weighted by tradition, so that you can take it wherever you like.
Most are humorous and satirical, but they can also be lyrical, wistful, or serene. In the paint-by-numbers version of the form that most of us learned, there's really only one absolute constraint: that very rule of 17 that poets tend to disregard. That's what makes haiku so easy to write. You don't have to worry about rhyme or alliteration or meter. You can put the stresses and breaks anywhere, as long as the syllable count comes in on target. First you tick off five, then seven, and then five more hey, there goes one now.
It's only when you look at the outpouring of haiku on Twitter that you realize how pervasive they've become. They've completely filled the cultural space that was once occupied by light verse. Not that you can't find people posting that on Twitter, too. If you make strategic use of abbreviations, you can get a limerick down to exactly 140 characters, what people call a perfect twoosh.
But compared to the flood of haiku, the light verse is just a trickle. It's a specialized taste these days it survives in the crannies of culture, alongside of charades and jigsaw puzzles. It's become a kind of fusty shtick it conjures up the voices of Carl Kasell and Charles Osgood.
There are still skillful practitioners like Calvin Trillin in "The Nation," but to judge from the verse that shows up on websites and Twitter, most people don't have the hang of writing it, not even the poets and professors. But that was inevitable once we lost our feel for the traditional rhythms that light verse has always drawn on. There was a young lady from Spain. Ta-tum-ta-ta-tum-ta-ta-tum. The anapestic cadences of the limerick are the same ones children used to learn from reciting Browning, Scott and Tennyson: Oh well for the fisherman's boy / That he shouts with his sister at play.
But children aren't steeped in those poems anymore. The only anapestic poems that everyone still knows are "The Night Before Christmas" and "Horton Hatches the Egg." Well, those and "The Star-Spangled Banner."
I feel very wistful about this. I grew up listening to my dad read the poems of Peter DeVries, E.B. White, and Phyllis McGinley that appeared in The New Yorker every week, before the editors decided that light verse was beneath the magazine's dignity.
But that eclipse was first set in motion long ago when poetry and verse went their separate ways with the advent of modernism. Actually, at just about the time Pound was discovering the haiku. And if the reams of haiku on Twitter aren't exactly verse, they're still poetry people making their thoughts conform to a fixed formal pattern. And every now and then, you run into a haiku where someone's come up with an ingenious or surprising way to work that union of meaning and form.
Just like light verse, that is, the haiku gives you a chance to be clever. That's a dismissive word to use for a serious poem, but it's the highest tribute you can pay to a playful one.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.
You can find links to every Twitter feed Geoff mentioned on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also add your own haiku to the comment section of our website.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.