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Character Limit

March 21, 2016 | by

olivettiad

From an Olivetti ad by Studio 44 Advertising, 1956.

There’s an expression called “using too many points.” It refers to those moments when a novelist (or any storyteller, really) strains credulity by using too many coincidences or easy plot twists or intersecting plotlines. It’s when the reader, or viewer, loses faith—the jump-the-shark moment, in essence.

In some ways, it seems like God is using too many points, making Twitter’s tenth anniversary coincide with World Poetry Day. In some ways, indeed, we have not seen such a luridly obvious contrast since SantaCon coincided with New York’s massive Millions March demonstration. 

And yet, you can see it as a harmonious coincidence, too. Not least because Twitter users are a great advocate for World Poetry Day: the hashtag has doubtless led a few people to click on links they might otherwise not have, or induced them to learn 140 characters of verse. The enthusiasm is heartening, and often moving. 

UNESCO named March 21 World Poetry Day in 1999. According to their official explanation,

One of the main objectives of the Day is to support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities. It’s also meant to encourage a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals, to promote the teaching of poetry, to restore a dialogue between poetry and the other arts such as theatre, dance, music and painting, and to support small publishers and create an attractive image of poetry in the media, so that the art of poetry will no longer be considered an outdated form of art, but one which enables society as a whole to regain and assert its identity.

Which, really, is pretty much the polar opposite of Twitter. In celebration, there are 140-character-plus events—readings and poem shares—all over the world, and some cafés in Dublin are apparently accepting poems as payment, which is lovely if somewhat easier, in an age of smartphones, than it once might have been. But then, it still gets customers reading poems, which is of course the point. On the other hand, this prompted many people to contribute poems in the article’s comments section, where someone wrote,

I call this poem ‘Infinity’

Please empty the register
Of cash and put
It all in
a Brown Paper Bag

So I just write in on a slip of paper and hand it to the person behind the counter?

Poetry has always made people self-conscious. It forces them to joke and diminish and be silly. And anonymity allows for much more boldness, after all—if fewer characters. Meanwhile, here is Mark Bibbins on “The Anxiety of Coincidence.”

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.

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