Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune

If Emily Dickinson had a Twitter, would she write sexts?

This sort of question, while not one that the wildly profane, neo-transcendentalist poet Patricia Lockwood answered directly in her collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, matters when one begins the process of reviewing this collection.

To half answer the question, one could argue that most of Emily Dickinson’s poems have all the trappings of a good “Twitter poem;” good tweets are sharp and focused, daggering the smallest moments of what we might ordinarily forget and allowing them to expand and encapsulate humanity and all its oddities.

Dickinson’s poems, generally concise and replete with dashes, function similarly to poems; since she did not tweet (and lived most of her life in relative seclusion), we are not holding up her poems through this refracted lens. With Patricia Lockwood however, few reviews of her work fail to mention her Twitter presence. If they don’t do it directly, they use the language one would use to compliment a good tweet to address her poetry.

In the New Yorker review of Lockwood’s collection, Lockwood’s fame is addressed before the author of the review even gets to talking about the quality of the poems themselves. His discussion of her fame is almost condescending in its relation to her Twitter presence.

“Lockwood is famous,” he writes. “More than thirty thousand people follow her on Twitter—but the source of her fame is almost entirely owing to her tweets and not to her poetry…She’s made for the medium. It rewards her particular talents for compression, provocation, mockery, snark. Her ongoing series of “Sexts,” an extended parody of sexual text messages, is disarming as well as unsettling, because it moves quickly between the dumb voice that Lockwood captures so well and something entirely different—something hectoring, obscene, and sinister.”

The Boston Globe spends the review’s entire introduction describing her brand of whimsical smut humor as “delightfully bite-size, comic surrealism” even though the stanzas often take longer, more formidable shape and the only poems possessing 140 character-lite sections are often the longer poems in the collections. To write about Patricia Lockwood’s poems, it seems, one must talk about her Twitter. Yet her Twitter (and the rest of her public persona) are fundamentally different from her tweets. It’s impossible to divorce the private and the public, especially when, unlike Dickinson, Patricia Lockwood does not eschew the public sphere and all its avenues for communication, but this sort of separation can provide the sort of critical distance needed to approach her poems.

The easy way to go about how to read a poet who is also a persona is to take her collection at face value, with all computers off for the hour it will take you to zip through her book of poems with titles like “An Animorph Enters the Doggie Dog World” and “Nessie Wants to Watch Herself Doing It.”   

But to read her poems in this way this is to read her poems in a vacuum, ignoring the cultural references she includes in every poem. Her collection occupies the space between the leering public and the devotional private. 

The culture Lockwood writes about and characterizes frequently is a culture of pornographic surveillance, of constant critique and ogling. “When you want to say a poet is mysterious, say, ‘Very few tit-pics of/ him exist,’ or ‘Reading his letters and journals, we are able to piece/together a pic of his tits—they loved butter and radishes and were/ devoted to his sister,” she writes in her poem about mother Walt Whitman and father Emily Dickinson, “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics.”

The public she writes about is one to love to loathe. This public readership is one that itself loves to peek and glare in through the windows at the pure things that should be kept private. This public readership, she suggests in “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics,” is one that has taken poets and made them celebrities; like every good paparazzo, the public has sized up American Poetry and sexualizes it down to its scandalous private spheres. Or, as Patricia Lockwood states, its tit-pics. In a sense, this public evaluation of the private sphere is what social media accomplishes; Twitter and Facebook ask us to reveal our private thoughts, before allowing them to be revealed to a public that has been taught to ogle. To ogle poets and evaluate them based on the size of their (metaphorical) breasts, their public personae, is to evaluate a person based on his/her social brand. This poem may be a poem about social media, but the poem itself is not a Twitter poem.

Very little about these poems makes them “Twitter poems.” These poems are biting and concise like her Twitter. They are witty and weird and demonstrate a strong sense of personhood and sensuality and power. A reader could read any one of her poems and understand how a writer who can write “The Rape Joke” can also write “Remember when we let Gwyneth Paltrow do English accents & EVERY TIME she sounded like a diction coach trying to seduce a small Pomeranian” and get 236 favorites on her Twitter.

Yet Twitter, unlike poetry, is constrained. Poems create their own constraints, but a tweet will literally not post if it exceeds 140 characters. Had her collection been one of Haiku, it would have been closer. Had she written her poems on index cards like Emily Dickinson, it would have come closer still. Lockwood’s command of wordplay on Twitter is masterful because she commandeers a form to fit an external constraint, something her poems do not.

The only unit of her poetry that is broken into 140 character sections are her stanzas, which, when they are employed, stich together loosely connected idea trails. Tweets can be written in a sequence, but often are not.

Lockwood’s stanzas are organized, like dream poems, as large blocks of heavily enjambed lines, allowing the reader to lull him or herself into a gentle scan, while image after image unfolds. “The postman gasped,” she writes in her poem “Why Haven’t You Written,” “‘because that is a super-stabbed body!’ / The super-stabbed body rose up, with many/ butterknives sticking out of it, and said, ‘I AM/ the mail.’ It had so many lovers.” This sort of trailing, sinuous logic is rarely present in Twitter, unless you factor in subtweets (which, for clarity’s sake, can be left out). The poems of Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals refuse to be whittled down to a witticism. In contrast, tweets have power only so long as they exist on a feed, where they can be diluted with each new sequential tweet.

In his New Yorker review, author Adam Plunket backpedals right at the brink of the most scathing aspect of his critique. “I also don’t mean that Twitter is stupid but,” he says, “rather, that it rewards careful phrasing, careful impersonating, brisk readings of cultural attitudes—in short, rhetoric. Her crowd claps loudly at jokes, especially provocative ones, and the lowest common denominator feels provoked to respond, begetting further jokes at their expense.”

Using Plunkett’s definition of a Twitter poem, or a piece of writing that is aware of Twitter’s capacity for instant gratification, it’s clear to see that Lockwood’s poems are not Twitter poems. They are not half-formed, and most importantly, they do not pander. They are, however, cognizant of their place in the world. They use the same humor and profanity. They do not level themselves off in an esoteric or elevated language, but instead exist squarely within our reach. Twitter poetry is uniquely aware of its nature as an outside commentary on specific moments, while still functioning as a first-person account of a particular situation. There is no poem that handles this divide between the observer and the act of observing better or more honestly than her poem “The Rape Joke.” In the final stanza, the speaker writes: “The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you’re asking / for it to become the only thing people remember about you.”

The poem is self-aware in that it understands its place in culture within its own context; for Patricia Lockwood, “The Rape Joke” was something that indeed threatened to become “the only thing people remember” about its author. When “The Rape Joke” was published separately in The Awl during the summer of 2013, it quickly went viral. The poem itself attained fame to a different degree than her other, previously published works like Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, and its fame threatened to overtake the power of the poem itself. Yet “The Rape Joke” became popular for its own understanding of itself; it speaks in the rhetoric of familiar rape narratives and employs them brashly, daring the reader of the poem to laugh. If Lockwood’s crowd indeed carelessly “claps loudly at jokes, especially provocative ones,” as Plunkett’s review suggests, Lockwood’s poems invite the laughers to ask themselves why they are laughing.

“The rape joke is that the next day he gave you Pet Sounds. No really. Pet

Sounds. He said he was sorry and then he gave you Pet Sounds. Come on,

that’s a little bit funny.

Admit it.”

Although Plunkett’s review acknowledges the reflexive nature of “The Rape Joke,” he still holds the idea that “even the exception, her most famous poem ‘Rape Joke,’ could still be read as a series of exceptional tweets.”

To say that because her poems are crass and bombastic and thus cognizant of their audience means that they are Twitter poems (or poems that pander to readers looking to poetry for clickbait) is reductive. These poems are aware of their audience in order to draw attention to the concept of it; like the leering onlookers in “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics,” the audience that swarms after the smutty details and exposed breasts of her poems are the ones who are incriminated, and called out for their watching. Her poems do not stick out their breasts for the benefit of the audience, but instead do it to make you question why you’re looking. They aren’t exposing themselves for a cheap burst of gratification, but instead are subverting our desire to observe. 

This dissonance between observer and the observing is the most Twitter-esque aspect of her collection. Patricia Lockwood embodies the reporting of the present and its emotions while maintaining enough of a distance to convey its idiosyncrasies. They use the language and humor of the best tweets, and keep their immediacy. Yet, to call these poems out for being all flash and no substance misses the point.

Before this issue goes to print, the last tweet on Patricia Lockwood’s Twitterfeed reads: “Can’t wait to trade in all these favs for a prize at the local rollerama.” Both self-aware and self-promoting and self-effacing, like her poetry, this tweet invites audience participation and acknowledgement while making a statement about what it means to favorite this tweet. While her poems should not be diminished for reminding the reader of her Twitter, perhaps her Twitter can serve as a reading guide.