Poetic form for a texting generation: the textu

Fady Joudah’s book textu consists almost entirely of poems that are exactly the length of a text message, 160 characters — or which are composed of stanzas that are each 160 characters. There are also a couple of prose-y poems (prose-y only by comparison with the others in the book) that run longer than 160 characters without being an exact multiple of 160 characters.

textu by Fady Joudah

My teen daughter cannot stand to have any excess in her text messages. I must settle for ‘k’ as a response to my precisely crafted (yet less than 160 character) reminders of her after-school chores and commitments, because she is too much of a minimalist to add the ‘o’. Thank goodness Joudah has not reached for my daughter’s level of minimalism.

The text message of today is the letter of earlier generations. We have collections today such as The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (covering the late 1700’s and early 1800’s). A highly regarded figure of the 2000-2020’s will probably have collections of text messages published—electronically of course. 

What I love about these poems, and also Joudah’s two poems in the January 2015 issue of Poetry, is that he is a relentlessly outward-focused poet. There is none of the self-absorption seen in much poetry and certainly no self-pity. Realistically, there isn’t room for such indulgence. However, the poet still remains in relationship with his subject, and the lens may still be reflected inward.

The tightness of the form constrains the poems, and with constraint comes opportunities. If the poems have no room for self-pity, they also have no room for dogmatic adherence to the norms and rules of formal writing. Punctuation, so often missing in text messages, is often purposefully missing. Repetition without punctuation to clarify meaning is fair game, including the ambiguity of potential multiple meanings. Narrative and explication need not apply. If there is anything that these poems are not, it is explicative.

Instead of moving narratively, these poems move the way a mind, presumably the poet’s, moves. Unafraid of his own erudition, he uses the jargon at hand (he is a physician) yet does not seed difficulty into the poems to prove his own worth. Jargon and specialized vocabulary appear in service to the poem, the precise word needed at the precise place.

Joudah’s outward focus ranges from the ancient figures of myth (Eurydice, Aridane, Zeus) to poets and artists (Willam Blake, Mahmoud Darwish, Monet) to modern figures of film. Indeed, Joudah manages to get Cool-hand Luke, Luke Skywalker, and Darth Vader references into one title simultaneously, in only seven words: “Luke Cool Hand I Am Your Father”. These multi-cultural references are overlaid on subjects such as war, homelessness, birth, sadness, injury, love, philosophy, dying and living. Packing of meaning with layers of possibility into a dense space is characteristic of these poems.

While I toyed with the idea of several examples from the book, I give you only one, “Syncope,” as illustrative of the textu form at work:


To be alone with others
who are each alone is not to be

alone alone Pinocchio wolf
snow white lies in range of

satellite dish ear-snout
minstrel show

Look at what Joudah has packed into 160 characters, starting with the title. Syncope, in phonetics, means the loss of a sound from the interior of a word. An example of syncope is the way my son pronounces ‘actually’ as ‘actch-ly’. In music, syncopation means the loss or skipping of a beat. But, since Joudah has used so many other medical terms in his work, one must always question whether there may be a medical definition in play. Here it turns out that there probably is. In medicine, syncope means a temporary loss of consciousness. So with the title alone we have the sense of loss, skipping, jumping over, non-consciousness.

The next three lines are complicated. Taking the first two as a unit, being alone — even with others if they are alone themselves — is equated to ‘not to be’ or not being, not existing. This puts one in mind of children playing in the same space but not with each other, together yet alone. Or families sitting around the house, in juxtaposition with each other but buried individually in their own electronic devices.

Yet without any punctuation, the stanza invites us to run the meaning together with the next line, especially the ‘alone alone’ which seems to need the previous lines to create meaning. I like the use of ‘alone alone’ in the modern sense that one repeats a word when you mean to emphasize it. Saying ‘alone alone’ is the colloquial, compact equivalent of ‘really, truly alone in the absolute’.

Again, however, without punctuation to guide us we are invited to consider ‘alone alone’ in the context of ‘Pinocchio wolf’. The cultural resonance of ‘wolf’ with ‘Big Bad Wolf’ is made possible by the juxtaposition with ‘Pinocchio’ and the line implies that Pinocchio is alone, the wolf is alone — each of them really, truly ‘alone alone’. We move on to snow white, which though not capitalized also recalls the idea of Snow White, another one who is alone. And taken as a whole, the second stanza gives the sense of everyone being alone, whether boy, wolf or princess, ‘in range of’ each other yet still ‘alone alone’. That they are also in ‘snow,’ ‘white,’ and alone also recalls the title, the idea of being out of consciousness and into the world of fairy tale, yet a winter, frightening tale.

What else are they ‘in range of’? As the third stanza runs on the heels of the second, they seem to be in range of three things: ‘satellite dish,’ ‘ear-snout,’ and ‘minstrel show.’ With the loss of consciousness, the unconscious seems like a receiver — as a satellite dish receives television signals, an ear receives and tracks sounds, a snout (echoing the wolf again) receives and tracks the aromas of the world. So those who are ‘alone alone’ may be alone yet are in range of receiving sight, sound and smell.

What are we to make, then, of ‘minstrel show’? If we look for this line to be a continuation of the previous thought, then ‘minstrel show’ may be the culmination of sight, sound, smell, which while ‘in range’ is yet not the same as the real world, only a representation which the conscious mind cannot quite absorb though the unconscious mind perceives as real. Or alternatively, it is the world the unconscious mind can perceive, that which happens outside itself, yet seems unreal. What is real and what is not? Whose perceptions are correct? The poem raises questions that are explicitly not answered, while implying that we answer them for ourselves every day, ‘in range’ of reality but perhaps still ‘alone alone’ with it.

The poems of textu are not “found” poems of text messaging, but are relentlessly crafted, showing the promise of the form and medium, in the same way haiku show the promise of a bounded form. Joudah is a modern poet using modern technology form — the kind my teen with her unlimited text message limit could appreciate. This is the medium of now being used to forge the path of poetry into the future. Indeed, the last lines of the book ask (though without the pesky question mark): ‘What will become / of the poem’.