Untitled (“mother’s now…”)
coldly by this aging
a puzzled cloud
forgetful of both
time and place
her hand cold
as fresh chicken
Copyright 2009 by Hugh Hodge
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
As I begin my tenure as poetry critic here at Winning Writers, I find myself looking towards the future. That is why, of all the many beautiful and intriguing poems that arrived in my mailbox, I picked this SMS text poem by South African poet Hugh Hodge.
You may ask, "What is an SMS poem?" and, perhaps querulously, "Um...why?" I'll admit I did.
SMS, just to make sure we're all on the same page—or, er, screen—means "short message service"—what most people simply call "texting," that apparently all-absorbing and reportedly thumb-nerve numbing activity that has people all over the world hunched over their cells and squinting.
Although the technology was developed in the early 1990s, implementation was slow. But by the year 2000 there were 17 billion SMS texts (yes, that's a "b"). One year later that number was 250 billion, and the millennium was born.
By 2005 the number of SMS transmissions overtopped the trillion mark. And as you might imagine, with all that communicating going on, it wasn't long before poets joined the party.
Enter "cell phone poetry", or "SMS poetry", or the like, into a search engine and you will discover sites offering "funny" or "sexy" examples, many of which you are free to copy. Far and away, most listings are for seduction poems, small offerings to send last night's date. This is comforting. Apparently, the "function" of poetry, as the Marxist critics would say, has not changed much since the early work of John Donne.
But even if the message hasn't much changed, clearly the medium has, begetting orthographic innovations sometimes called "textese" or "slanguage"—abbreviations slashed almost beyond recognition or symbols substituting for letters, such as m8 representing the word "mate". Though oft decried, these devices are lent a degree of legitimacy, indeed gravitas, by world-renowned Cambridge linguist David Crystal in Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 (Oxford University Press, 2008), to which this essay is greatly indebted.
According to Crystal, the first competition for text poetry was offered only two or three years after the arrival of texting by The Guardian, which claims to be the world's leading liberal newspaper. Early adopters though these liberals may be, note that, despite the distinguished panel of judges, the contest and its results are relegated to the technology pages.
Still, the games had begun. A second and more lucrative prize from The Guardian soon followed, then a sister city project between Antwerp and Leeds, a Tasmanian prize, a Filipino one, fourteen from the British forum, txt2nite.com, even a new Dutch literary foundation dedicating to awarding De Gouden Duim (The Golden Thumb)!
All right then, let's play! But what makes an award-winning text poem? Well, obviously, like any text message, it must contain no more than 160 characters. Beyond that, the judges from that original Guardian competition offer some insights; among them, the suspense created when one can only read a single line at a time, and the necessity of an unequivocal opening. As in all poetry competitions, judges enjoy a fresh approach or subject. Nevertheless, I wonder if some of the salient characteristics specific to this new type of poem may have been missed in their commentary—notably, the impossibility of stanzification. Also, wouldn't such a poem, by its nature, be epistolary?
This month's poet, Hugh Hodge, who, as a computer programmer and editor of South Africa's oldest literary journal, New Contrast, is no stranger to either technology or poetry, found himself in such insufficiently charted territory that he felt the need to include his own rules (no textese, message must be sent) and explanation along with his poem.
What is immediately striking about his poem is its subject matter. It is not about dating, not humorous, nor self-referentially about texting itself—none of the cliché SMS topics.
Less fortunately though, the poem opens with some difficult syntax. Follow me here: if the "mother's now translucent glowing" is a compound noun as suggested by the possessive, then it is the "glowing" which is cold. If, more probably, the noun is intended to be "mother", then the meaning is either "mother (is) now translucent (comma) glowing" or "mother (is) now translucent(ly) glowing." Or perhaps the noun is "now" and "mother" is an adjective modifying it.
This may appear nit-picky, but confusing syntax at the beginning of a poem can be off-putting. The reader cannot enter properly. And when the reader is a competition judge with a large stack to get through, your poem may not get the patient response you desire.
My favorite lines are 4-6. I like especially the juxtaposition of winter sun/autumnal. Is it winter or autumn? If it is winter, then aren't we done with autumn? Wait, I'm confused about time here, which is, of course, the point. The reader participates in this confusion. Furthermore notice how each word has an "n" and the "u" and "l" sounds both unify the phrase and propel it forward to the next line, creating a full movement from sun to cloud. Additionally, there is the personification of "cloud" serving double-duty as a metaphor for mother.
Lines 7 and 8, in comparison, are uninspired. They are also explanatory. Mom's confused about time; we've got that. The participation we enjoyed as readers is undercut when prosaically summed by the author. I recommend the lines be struck.
What really makes the poem successful for me are the final two lines which move the poem to an unexpected place with their disquieting image. The chicken may be fresh, but it's dead. And actually, if it were recently dead, it wouldn't be cold. This image is not merely unappealing, but troubling, because it is something as dear as mother's hand.
However, it is not only that final image that leaves me troubled. There is the question of what my response might have been had the poet not informed me of his medium. How does contextualizing a piece affect that piece? Remember, Marcel Duchamp's urinal would have been merely that, had he not signed it. Translations, arcania, invented forms, or resurrected ones require context, but when does context become gimmick?
And when does the need for context disappear? Will we ever recognize an SMS poem as readily as we do a sonnet? Some industry experts predict the volume of SMS messages to be 2.4 trillion by 2010. According to Julie Bloss Kelsey, "twitterzines", like the recently inaugurated Thaumatrope, are avidly seeking—and paying for—160-character fiction and poetry.
On the other hand, other analysts predict texting will be a short-lived trend, with video messaging soon to replace it. So perhaps we'd best get our thumbs working.
Where could a poem like "mother's now..." be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
PANK Magazine's 1,001 Awesome Words Contest
Entries must be received by September 30
Edgy, contemporary literary journal offers at least $200 for creative writing (one prize across all genres), up to 1,001 words; top prize amount is partly contingent on fees received, ranging between $200 and $750
Firstwriter.com International Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by October 1
UK-based writers' resource site offers prizes up to 500 pounds for poems up to 30 lines (published or unpublished); enter online only
Abilene Writers Guild Contest
Postmark Deadline: November 30 (don't enter before October 1)
Texas literary society offers prizes up to $100 in a number of genres including rhymed and unrhymed poetry, short stories, articles, children's literature, and novel excerpts
In addition, here are two sites that specialize in SMS poetry:
This copywriters' and bloggers' advice site offers occasional prizes of iPods and gift cards
Online forum collects funny and poetic text messages
This poem and critique appeared in the September 2009 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques