In today’s online article at Books & Culture, Marcus Goodyear explains a new poetry game on Twitter where poets tweet lines of poetry on a particular topic in an effort to outwit each other. The purpose, Goodyear remarks, is to remind us that poetry is fun:
In the end, Tweet Speak Poetry is more than a game, it is a philosophy of poetry as a game. The rules and resources of the game are mostly decided by the rules and resources of poetry itself. Sometimes our attempts to study poetry in university settings can take the joy out it. We forget how to play with T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” and try instead to wrestle the meaning from it. If we play poetry at all, we treat the poem like an opponent, to be pummelled into submission. If we are to win, the poem must lose.
Applying game theory to poetry has helped us rediscover the fun of it—using our wits, exploring language through social media, imposing new boundaries on ourselves, and reminding ourselves that the outcome of the game is simple: more people who love poetry and write poetry.
Most of all, though, playing poetry games gives us permission to be silly again. We love T. S. Eliot, but we also love W. H. Auden. We love Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson and Julia Kasdorf and Scott Cairns and Luci Shaw, but we also love Shel Silverstein. We can’t be serious and disciplined about something if we forget how to play.
I don’t see any problem with this as a game. After all, some of Donne’s early poems and John Wilmot’s epigrams are mostly playful witticisms. However, as “a philosophy of poetry,” it is woefully inadequate.
I’ll have more to say on poetry and Twitter later this month at Public Discourse, but in the meantime: the idea that poetry is nothing but a game is to ignore, or at least minimize, the moral nature of poetry. This view of poetry often goes hand in hand with a purely materialistic view of reality that reduces the self, love, good and evil to the neuron firings of the brain. According to this view, if love, good and evil do not really exist, it is naive for the poet to write about them. What is left for the poet to do is to play word games that produce immediate pleasure via witticisms or jeux de mots. Frank O’Hara espoused this view in part when he said that it was most important for a poet to be “not boring.”
A better philosophy of poetry would explain that the pleasure poetry produces is not found in witticisms alone, but also in the truth that it expresses about who we are, or the nature of goodness or evil. Otherwise, the poem is merely technique, devoid of anything human. Yes, poetry can often function like a game (as Hans-Georg Gadamer has pointed out), but it is also much more than one.