Is Texting Poetic?

Is the proliferation of texting among young people actually bringing them closer to poetry? Britain's poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy thinks that, in some ways, it is. Last week, she told the British newspaper The Guardian that there are parallels between poetry and texting.

The poem is a form of texting ... it's the original text. It's a perfecting of a feeling in language -- it's a way of saying more with less, just as texting is. We've got to realise that the Facebook generation is the future -- and, oddly enough, poetry is the perfect form for them. It's a kind of time capsule -- it allows feelings and ideas to travel big distances in a very condensed form.

I admire Duffy's aim here and her optimism. The comments are part of her ongoing effort to connect with young people -- something that she's proven to be very good at (UK undergraduates prefer reading her to any other poet except Shakespeare). She's made clear her desire to encourage teens, and their teachers, to embrace poetry -- stressing time and time again that poetry doesn't need to be difficult or complicated.

But I think it's important to point out that texting also teaches habits that are antithetical to poetry. For one, I don't agree with Duffy's statement that texting teaches concision -- that it teaches teens to say "more with less." My experience with texts is that they tend to say very little with less. And teenagers, in particular, say very little with less an awful lot. A 2010 Nielsen study found that teens were sending and receiving more than 3,300 texts per month, on average. For a teenage girl the number is closer to 4,000, which breaks out to about 133 texts per day. These numbers don't give one the sense that teens are learning to restrain themselves.

Nor does the texting culture encourage teens to approach language with the care and analysis necessary for poetry. Instead, it encourages them to write ideas down very quickly, using as few characters as possible. Texts are rife with "re-spelled" words ("before" becomes "b4") and hastily presented ideas. And I can't imagine that many teenage texters are carefully seeking the right words to best convey an emotion -- as a poet does -- instead they learn to stick to the superficial -- sneezing out their every thought and action, about 133 times a day.

Duffy's idea that both poetry and texting are "language at play" seems more promising to me -- texting certainly encourages one to feel unfettered by the established rules of language and communication. But doesn't encouraging that much freedom and that little rigor lead to lazy, careless communication?

I called up my sister, a high school teacher, for some first-hand advice. She assured me that texting does teach students certain skills. It isn't unusual for a student to sit in class and text "blind," with one hand -- and a phone -- in her pocket. That 's seems mighty impressive to a thirty-something like myself, but it's better preparation for a career in espionage than for writing poetry.

But texting isn't the only reason Duffy sees this next generation embracing poetry. She also offered that the nature of rap and popular music has made teens better at poetry than past generations, saying, "I think it's most obvious in music. If you look at rapping, for example, a band like Arctic Monkeys uses lyrics in a poetic way. And using words in an inventive way is at the heart of youth culture in every way." She added, "if you look at forms like rap, they are skillfully using language, rhyme, and rhythm. Rap is a form of poetry. So the word is very important to young people." That strikes me as right, and it provides, I think, a more realistic reason for optimism about the popularity of the art moving forward.

And Duffy is certainly optimistic about poetry's future. When asked if poetry would survive this text and Twitter age, she said, "I think increasingly in this century poetry is probably the literary form that will last the most." She added that she thought poetry would become more relevant in this century than in the last, adding, "I know children love poetry. When I go into schools to give readings or do workshops, teenagers come up to me afterwards and ask me to read their poems."

On that point, too, I think she's right. It seems to me that poetry lends itself to a culture with a short attention span. One can read a great poem in a lot less time than it takes to read a novel -- it just takes a period of concentrated attention. And that means putting the iPhone down. And keeping your hands up on the desk where I can see them.