Twitter: The Descendant of Haiku

Some time in the mid 17th Century, the famous Japanese poet, Matsuo Bashō, helped invent the haiku poem.

He did this by breaking the brief introductory verse – the hokku – away from the larger, collaborative poem called the renga.

This evolution of a very concise form of poetry was an ancient prelude, in a sense, to the transformation of Twitter into a preeminent contemporary literary medium.

Renga, a form of poetry that originated in Japan, is a collaborative art that is not unlike a conversation, or even a stream of text messages.

It was typically composed in a group setting, usually with about 15 people, with one person leading the session by pronouncing the opening verse, or hokku.

The hokku’s structure was strictly controlled. It could contain a specific number of “sounds units” that must be constructed on a pattern.

Responsibility for the waki, or second verse, was then passed to another participant. Additional verses would be composed by the other participants in order.

Participants were compelled to focus on the “newness” of their contribution. In a sense, it wasn’t so much what was written in a renga verse that was important, it was the inferred transition from the previous one.

Late in the 1600s Bashō and another renga master, Ueshima Onitsura, began to promote the hokku as an important standalone form of poetry. It was eventually renamed haiku, and is still a form of poetry that is recognized for its succinct expression.

Consider this Bashō classic:

初しぐれ 猿も小蓑を ほしげ也

Or, in English:

the first cold shower
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw

As you can see, it’s not so much what Bashō is saying, as what he is inferring. The haiku acts as a catalyst for one’s imagination.

If you’ve spend any time engaging with Twitter lately, you’re probably sensing some pretty strong similarities here.

(Poetry snobs: you may dutifully snort, snatch up your berets and duck out back for a Gauloises at this point.)

As with haiku, Twitter has significant constraints: it is limited to 140 characters of text.

Also like haiku, the fact that you can only say so much in a tweet is exactly what makes it so attractive and engaging.

In a sense, Twitter is the very essence of our modern snack culture.

And that’s exactly what makes it so relevant to our times, especially on an artistic level: tweets are true, immediate expressions of feelings, time, and place.

And they exist and occur within what is arguably one of today’s most culturally relevant environments.

The demand for newness, freshness, and transitional relevance that drove renga absolutely defines Twitter’s collaborative dimension.

And, as renga did, Twitter is fast evolving into a single-statement soapbox.

It’s always been that the first tweet, the hokku tweet, if you will, is the sweetest. The @s that follow pale in comparison.

While communication remains a relevant aspect of Twitter, hokku-post masters are taking over.

With this in mind, the term “tweet” can be considered synonymous with the term, “haiku.”

My personal Twitter Bashō is a guy named Tim Siedell. He operates under the tag, badbanana, and he is a consistent master of the single-post tweet.

One of my favourites from him is:

“The restaurant across the street has gone out of business. I will miss wondering how it stays open.”

And here’s another:

“When I took my kids to the art museum, they came home and made art. Not sure I want to take them to the World War I Museum.”

Siedell’s posts often present the entry point to a story that carries on in my mind. This is not unlike what I experience when I read good haiku.

Artistic media throughout history have sprung up where least expected. From crude paintings on cave walls to graffiti on train cars, we have often had to struggle to recognize them.

We’re at that point with Twitter.

More than for business or communications purposes, many Twitter users are – unknowingly – seizing on the ancient spirit of haiku to transform their medium into a relevant, challenging place for artful expression.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, October 9, 2009.

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