Imagine a scene where the poet has woken from sleep and remains awake. The body is tired but the mind alert. There is something thin-skinned about the mind at three o-clock in the morning. It is reactive and receptive. The poet reaches for his phone, presses a button and immediately a stream of voices appears in front of him, that stream rushing past like a river in spate, bearing all kinds of small objects on it and under the surface. Everything vanishes. It is as if that river were time itself bearing all its sons away.
Let’s call that river Twitter. You throw something in and it is immediately swept away. The ephemerality and brevity of the voice is a given. I’d like to suggest that the same ephemerality haunts our every day conversations. It is mortality by any other name and it is the engine that drives poetry itself. Here the symbol of mortality is compressed into a disposable cry or gesture, a flimsy gravity. As in one of the great silent films, King Vidor’s ‘The Crowd’ of 1928, the masses sweep along the street, each small tragedy nothing in the traffic of the world.
On the great rushing stream of Twitter are carried a variety of commmunications: political, personal, scholarly, commercial, erotic, moral, philosophical, experimental, trivial - flowing in no particular order, according to no particular classification apart from the ubiquitous hashtag. The order of reading the twitter stream is simply the order in which any tweet might be written or arrive. That lack of order is another given. The condition of the individual text is to be detached not only from its tribe but from its originator. One might write two texts in a minute but they will not appear next to each other in the stream unless someone is tuned specifically to the author. The texts are not a well-organised convoy or flotilla but flotsam and jetsam, scraps consumed as scraps by those feeding on it. The idea of voice or character as continuity is constantly being modified by what comes in between.
That world contains multitudes of voices, some familiar as a voice in the pub, some clearly assumed, some heard as through a megaphone. At this stage I confess that it is often I whom am lying there. I have a history of formal poetry in terms of sonnets, terza rima, villanelle, sestina, canzone and many other forms some of which I have invented and used just once or a few times. The idea of any formal constraint is interesting to me. If the question of form - that 140 character limit - is the first consideration, then voice is second. Voice gives birth to form as form conducts voice: the two are indivorcible but the voice is clearer. One might trust to the form to yield up the voice.
The poems I wrote on Twitter began to develop in length - quatrains in rhyme, distichs in classical metres, haiku about haiku, haiku that preserved a syllabic structure - some of invited continuation and I soon began to work on sequences, often ten-stanza poems or texts, individual tweets now linked, now in watertight individual sections that could be read as complete in itself. Themes emerged: disasters, animals, journeys, disorientation, language, manners, ageing and death. Those who followed me knew where to look to discover the next apparently distinct verse or episode. They could reconnect the fractures. As for me, once the sections were drafted and avaliable for fishing out of the stream, I joined them up off Twitter, re-drafted, and posted the new joined-up draft on Facebook, hanging the poems out to dry, as it were.
Robert Graves said he composed best when in a mild trance well supplied with coffee and cigarettes. Let us say our poet is in a similar mild trance that allows him or her to advance an idea as if in a dream, with the assurance of dream where things happen according to rules of their own. Whatever had been contemplated or impinged on the consciousness at some other point in time has now been distilled into its own trace material and is capable of working by association, of undergoing metamorphoses. Chance and impulse are its friends and associates, the visrtual voices of the river become a form of company of whom little can be presumed except their flickering presence.
So we return to presence. All the while I write at night I am aware that people read what I write as I write it, that it is a form of nakedness. But I began with the notion of the listening presence, with Dylan Thomas’s lovers, with Li Po’s drunken companions, with Jean Valentine’s other solitary.There are also the travellers on trains and one’s elective masters whose ears are keen and minds most critical. Out in the night that is not night everywhere, the words flow by much like my life flows. Other eyes register them and may respond. But theirs too are on the stream.