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Unintentional Literature: Poememes as poetic practice

 P. introduction

       this is just to say

       I have written
       an essay
       comparing poetics
       and memetics

       a pitch
       you were probably
       saving
       for yourself

       Forgive me
       my anticipatory plagiarism
       so forward thinking
       and unoriginal

Annie Lowrey, too, began her 2017 essay – ‘A poem becomes meme. Forgive me.’ for New York magazine – with a variation on William Carlos William’s ‘This Is Just To Say’. In it, Lowrey traces retrospectively the trajectory of Williams’ note-like poem to meme, parodied and reproduced by Williams’ own wife, Flossie, in her reply, by Kenneth Koch in his ‘Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams’; and from meme to internet meme, first on the Straight Dope message board; then at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency with Laura Jayne Martin’s ‘This Is Just To Say That I’m Tired Of Sharing An Apartment With William Carlos Williams’, and finally in innumerable iterations on social media, the zenith of which is perhaps Twitter’s @JustToSayBot, which, since its inception in July 2013, continues to tweet new versions of the poem on the hour. The various mutations of ‘This Is Just To Say’ reflect how malleable received forms can be online, how ready they are for transposition and transformation, and how they have opened up new shorthand signifiers.

Much has been written and theorised about the remix culture in contemporary writing and the role the internet plays in aiding and abetting the proliferation of borrowing/sampling/repurposing in instances of such writing (see for instance the work of David Shields and Mez Breeze). However, most analysis focuses on works that are explicitly presented as literary.

Less frequently considered is how meme culture has facilitated a rise in the creation of ‘unintentional literature’, by which I mean works where the author’s primary intent is the creation of an internet meme, rather than the creation of a poem or other literary text; the literariness of the text does not factor in its conception. Richard Dawkins’ discussion of what distinguishes an internet meme from the ‘meme’, as he conceived it in The Selfish Gene (1976), points to the potential for poetic and literary readings of internet memes:

Memes spread through human culture as genes spread through the gene pool. Memes can be good ideas, good tunes, good poems, as well as dribbling mantras; anything that spreads by imitation as genes spread by bodily reproduction or by viral infection, is a meme.

An internet meme is a hijacking of the original idea – instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity. In the hijacked version mutations are designed, not random, with the full knowledge of the person doing the mutating. (My emphasis.)

My initial hunch, that some memes could represent a progression or diversification of poetic practice, was confirmed not only through the ways in which they responded to a literary reading, but also through the process of composing these memes and experiencing firsthand the similarities with poetic composition. Just as there is no one way to write a poem, there is no one way to compose a meme. And, as with poetry, there are a number of forms and types of memes, the conditions of which provide some guidance or instruction regarding form and content. In the same way that the haiku form is typically characterised by a poem composed of 17 syllables (morae), with a seasonal reference (kigo) and juxtaposition of images (kiru); a Doge meme typically comprises an image of a Shiba Inu, and the dog’s internal monologue captioned in multicoloured comic sans. Just as the modes of production for poetry vary (and can be linked with the poem’s form/content, as in a cento) so to do those for memes.

In composing memes for this essay I used an online meme generator, which enables users to upload any image and apply text in a variety of fonts and colours, I also used Preview, the Notes application on my phone, Word, and my computer’s screen shot function for similar purposes. I downloaded Spotify in order to create the Spotify playlist meme, and used Google Search in order to find the headline used as the final couplet for the Roses Are Red meme. In all instances the technology required was easy to operate and free to access.

The essay surveys the poetic and literary techniques underpinning a number of popular Internet memes (hereafter poememes), acting as a provisional glossary, and offers a more detailed analysis some of these poememes, placing them in historical context as contemporary examples of traditional poetic forms that have emerged from a digital culture powered by the remix/remake economy. Framing the poetic/literary content of these poememes in this way offers a strong argument against the death of poetry, or even of ‘literature,’ so often bemoaned in the digital era, both celebrating and critically reflecting on how literary forms are adapted in new cultures.

To clarify, while not every meme is a poememe, every poememe is a meme. This is evidenced by the general aesthetic, content, means of production and distribution of both. What distinguishes a poememe from a meme is admittedly less clear. Ultimately it is a distinction that can only be made by the reader. The examples that follow were identified as memes where either the source material or dominant process of variation was in some literary. For instance, the source material of the This Is Just To Say meme, being a Williams poem, is inherently literary, and for that reason any recognisable variation of it will too be poetic to some degree. By contrast, an Image Macro meme – the source material for which may be in no way literary – requires the literary act of ekphrasis to produce variations.

O. ekphrasis

One of the most common poetic devices used in memes is ekphrasis, oftentimes in tandem with palimpsest, so that the written elucidation of an image is appended to that image. According to online meme encyclopaedia, Know Your Meme, such texts are examples of the Image Macro meme, ‘a broad term used to describe captioned images that typically consist of a picture and a witty message or a catchphrase… It is one of the most prevalent forms of internet memes.’

An early but prominent example of this practice can be found in the numerous Success Kid variations, and more recently the Distracted Boyfriend saga has offered yet more evidence. Success Kid (AKA I Hate Sandcastles), depicts a young child smugly clutching a handful of sand, and is most frequently used to designate success or frustration, with each new iteration confirming and complicating these broad readings of the original image.

The form allows for the author to express or explore their own understanding of these emotional states and responses – some examples of textual additions include: ATE SPAGHETTI WHILE WEARING A WHITE SHIRT / DIDN’T GET SAUCE ON IT; SHOWS UP LATE TO CLASS / THE PROFESSOR ARRIVES LATER THAN I DO; and BOSS WALKS BY / WHEN I’M ACTUALLY WORKING. In each poememe the image of the child is positioned between the two phrases, emphasising the break in the text. This line break controls the pace at which an audience encounters ideas and imagery, providing a pivot that allows for ambiguity and surprise.

More complex is the more recent phenomenon of the Distracted Boyfriend  (AKA Man Looking At Other Woman). The source image used for the meme is a stock photograph shot by Antonion Guillem, and listed on the stock photo database Shutterstock with the description ‘Disloyal man with his girlfriend looking at another girl’.

The process of mutation for the poememe involves palimpsest, where writing is superimposed on the source image. New identities are assigned to each of the three characters: the smiling and out-of-focus Woman in Red who occupies the foreground of the image; the Boyfriend who turns back to gaze at the woman in red, lips pouting or pursed primed for a wolf-whistle, oblivious to the obvious disapproval of the third character; the Girlfriend who holds his hand, eyebrows and jaw lowered in disgust. The overwriting generally offers comment or personal reflection on distraction, disloyalty, or some broader myopia.

In the earliest known iteration of the meme, submitted to the page of Turkish Facebook group, Prog Düşmanlarına Verilen Müthiş Cevaplar, in January  2017, the Boyfriend is identified as Phil Collins, the Woman in Red as Pop, and the Girlfriend as Prog. Other notable iterations include the Boyfriend as Australian Festival Promoters, the girlfriend as Diverse and Interesting Lineups, and the Woman in Red as Dune Rats; and one where the Boyfriend is Media Company, the girlfriend is Text-Based Content, and the Woman in Red is Video.

The act of superimposing text is the clearest marker of how the poememe has progressed the concept of ekphrasis. In the latter, the work of art is described (through response, criticism, appraisal, etc), in the former the work of art (or a replica) is inscribed. The distance between the two has been significantly reduced; as have the restrictions placed on access to works.

Such proximity is near impossible offline (except in the instance of collaboration between artist/poet, for instance, Melody Paloma’s current durational work, Some Days, responding to drawings by Sierra McManus). Evidence of the pitfalls a similar process enacted offline could produce can be found in the Botched Ecce Homo Painting, or Potato Jesus, meme, in which elderly amateur art restorer Cecilia Jiménez botched her repairs of a century-old Spanish devotional fresco depicting Jesus.

Not using the meme to illustrate my point

E. acrostic

The clearest example of the acrostic is the Bad Acronym mutation, which can take the form of an image macro poememe, or more simply be shared as a status or post on any number of social media platforms.

Bad Acronyms are structured similarly to acrostics, in that a key word is spelt vertically, but depart from the traditional mnemonic device by negating the need for the letter at the beginning of each line to correspond with the text that follows.

One example in particular, the first of this type I recall coming across, proposes a radical reimagining of how an acrostic should function. I have recreated the original shared image – a photo of a poster advertising the Salad Bar, below:

Why is it a SMART choice for you to visit our Salad Bar?
SProduce are grown in Georgia
MFresh quality Produce
AChoices of salads
RChoices of toppings
TIt’s healthy for you!

Not only do none of the lines open with words utilising the indicated letter, but only two of them (A and T) actually contain the letter anywhere at all in the corresponding line. Such a tactic plays on the aesthetics of the acrostic, but increases and complicates the cognisable distance between the vertical subject and the horizontal explication. Applications of the device range from the absurd:

Heck Yeah I do D.R.U.G.S
D – Love
R – Listening
U – To
G – Kate
S – Bush

To the political:

Yeah, i’m high on CRACK
C – Respect
R – For
A – Women
C –
K –

To the self-reflexively metacritical:

I am A.C.R.O.N.Y.M.
A phrase that
C doesn’t match the
R letters of the
O acronym and
N contains
Y too few or too many
M words

A variation on the poememe presents functioning acrostics (that is, where the first letter of each line is correctly incorporated) that nevertheless play on a similar dissonance between the two axes of the poememe. For example, the following, taken from a screen shot of the Notes app shared on Twitter:

E – njoy her jokes
A – ssist her
T – reat her right

A – ctually love her
S – pend time with her
S – upport her

Or this tweet from @Cromulentwords September 13 2017:

Yeah I got superannuation

S
U
P
E
R
A
N
N
U
A
T
I can’t afford to live past 55
O
N

Beyond its interrogation of the traditional acronym’s limits and borders, these poememes display similar conventions to those of Flarf poetry. They play on or with found material and explore subject matter not previously considered appropriate poetic material. Like the Flarf poetry of Sharon Mesmer or Nada Gordon, bad acronyms corrode and celebrate language in equal measure, and occupy a liminal space between sarcasm and sincerity that the internet has fostered.

M. erasure

Rachel Stone wrote on the rise of erasure poetry in the era of Trump’s presidency for the New Republic in October, citing among others CNN Poems, a Twitter feed created in July 2017 that publishes poems made by partially blacking out CNN’s headlines – examples include a weapon apologizes for man (November 18 2017), how adorable I am to break (November 6 2017) and this time this blood is raising its prices (October 5 2017).

The feed shares similarities with #metoo erasures of poet and essayist Isobel O’Hare, who performed erasures on the apologies and public statements issue by those implicated in the #metoo movement. Louis CK’s reads my dick is a question I run from; Richard Dreyfuss’ I ignored reality for eons; Kevin Spacey’s There are stories out there about me that have been fueled by my own behavior; and Harvey Weinstein’s I came of age in a culture of demons I respect more than women.

In both instances the aesthetics of the final text (a visibly doctored image that makes no attempt to conceal its mutations, actively incorporating the source material, however obscured, into its semiotics) and the modes of its publication and distribution (sharing and re-sharing on social media) are suggestive of the hybrid poememe.

By way of comparison consider the similarities with the following tweet by @lizzyfromonline on August 29 2017, which erases and manipulates an existing ekphrastic meme, Yeah, I’ve Got Time, featuring a screen-captured image of the character Mr Incredible from The Incredibles driving in a car with the caption ‘Yeah, I’ve Got Time.’ The four variations, created by inserting new text at the top of the frame and redacting the screen-grabbed closed caption, read:

When you’re running late for uni but then you remember you dropped out 2 years ago
‘Yeah, I’ve got time.’

When you’re watching your friend Tim compete in a race
‘                     go  tim .’

When you look in a mirror
‘   ah,                     me.’

When you’re Mr. Incredible and someone ask if you’re Mr. Incredible
‘Yeah                          .’

when the deadline is approaching and you could use another poememe

when the deadline is approaching and you could use another poememe easier

E. cento

The clearest example of the cento, a literary work made up of quotations from other authors, at play in Internet memes is the Spotify Playlist Message. Know Your Meme places the meme’s origin around April 2017, when a tweet displaying a screenshot of Spotify playlist, the song titles of which, read in order, explained that her interest in a boy she had been dating waned, spawned a number of imitations. That initial poememe, To: Wyatt, reads: Do You Still Want To Kiss Me Because I Am Kinda Lovin Someone Else But We Can Still Be Friends.

Where a traditional cento would quote lines from various poems, the meme requires the assemblage of song titles, readily found thanks to Spotify’s searchable database; imagine the possibilities had we a similar online index of poetry.

The potential of such a project is hinted at in Daniel Levin Becker’s Indices. The word in French suggests both Indexes and Indications. The collection gathers a table of contents (Table des matières) and index of first lines [Index des premiers vers] not contained within the present volume, the provenance of which, it is implied, could lie with Levin Becker himself, their reason for being not just these two seemingly incomplete lists, but as illustrative examples for the case mounted; a variety of approaches to such indexes (or perhaps, an album’s tracklisting) that ‘disregard the utilitarian value of such a text and read it as a poem unto itself, along various axes’.

An interesting by-product of this mutated cento is that its composer no longer requires an intimate knowledge of or familiarity with the repurposed material. While less free than Levin Becker, the composer of a Spotify Playlist poememe needn’t be familiar with the song cited – they can search for a title approximate to their sentiment and appropriate to those that precede it; in an inversion of practice/process, the act of composing the poememe doesn’t necessarily indicate existing tastes and listening habits, but may in fact initiate them, introducing new works to the composer.

spotify meme

M. eclogue

There are a number of parodies of the short love poem Roses Are Red,

to be found online; like Williams’ poem, its brevity means it is primed for parody on Twitter, and similarly well-suited for inclusion on Valentine’s Day e-cards. The brief romantic poem is believed to be inspired by lines from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene:

She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.

One particular variation stood out during further research. In this mutation of the meme, the final two lines of the quatrain appear as a screenshot of a headline or quote. The result puts Spenser (and, yes, he may occasionally be misquoted slightly) in direct dialogue with the present, a poetic snapshot of nature nestled next to a screenshot from the future.

For example:

Roses are red / violets are blue / jerry Seinfeld considering bee movie 2

Or,

Roses are red / violets are blue / live penguin feeding @ 11 and 2

It was not the romance of Spenser’s poetry, it was the interplay between voices that was important, that was what the poememe adapted. Devices seem so often to be the interlocutrix through which we communicate our (seemingly less common and more commented on) connections with nature. Spenser was also the author of The Sheapheardes Calendar (1579), a suite of twelve pastoral poems, an eclogue that is an exemplar of the form. These rhyming-screenshot hybrids are not love poems, but contemporary eclogues, tweets sent amongst the sheep between the shepherds. Just as Spenser borrowed from Chaucer in his dialogues, the composers of these poememes use his words in theirs.

Roses are red
But not when they’re cream

Poems are just less popular memes

E. works cited

CNN Poetry Twitter
Dawkins, R. 2013, Just For Hits – Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins introduces the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors’ Showcase 2013, Cannes: Saatchi & Saatchi
Drayton, D. 2017, cento, Sydney: self-published
Levin Becker, D. 2012, ‘About Index of First Lines,’ The &NOW Awards 2, Lake Forest: &NOW Books
Lowrey, A. 16 July 2015, ‘A poem becomes meme. Forgive me.’ New York Magazine
Martin, L. J. 27 July, 2010 ‘This Is Just To Say That I’m Tired Of Sharing An Apartment With William Carlos Williams’, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
O’Hare, I. Twitter
Stone, R. 23 October 2017, ‘The Trump-Era Boom In Erasure Poetry,’ The New Republic