Accidental poetry

5 minute read
Celebrating the language that yanks us from the yadda-yadda-yadda of everyday speech. (Illustration for BSR by Mike Jackson of
Celebrating the language that yanks us from the yadda-yadda-yadda of everyday speech. (Illustration for BSR by Mike Jackson of

You’ve heard of the infinite monkey theorem? It’s the notion that a monkey hitting typewriter keys at random for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text — perhaps the complete works of William Shakespeare.

But suppose you don’t have infinite time. Suppose you don’t have a monkey, not even a metaphorical monkey who could, in this mathematical construct, type forever and ever, far longer than the time between the Big Bang and last Tuesday, without walking out of the experiment in search of a banana, a paycheck, or a mate.

Suppose all you have are your two un-svelte, opposable thumbs, and the half-a-Chiclet-sized keys on your smartphone, and you’re not even typing randomly, but with your usual half-distracted intention, as you simultaneously try not to face-plant on the sidewalk or chug right by your stop on the train to Chestnut Hill.

Could you produce something memorable, a surprising turn of phrase, a scrap of language that growls with originality and guts? Could you make a poem?

Sure. Happens all the time.

“Run to all glory”

Not long ago, I tapped out a quick text to my partner, wondering if she’d like me to pick up a few ingredients for burritos. Decried beans? queried my phone, perfectly capturing our daughter’s attitude toward a can of mushed pintos. Another day, I boasted to Sweetheart, via email, that I had “run to all glory.” That sounds epic but was perhaps a result of sweaty fingers and endorphin-stoked typing. Really, I’d just run from Ventnor to Longport.

I text my daughter to ask if I should pick her up at “Pastor Joy’s Park” (Pastorius Park); I tempt her by noting that we’re having “chocolate pot de crime” (um, that would be pot de crème) for dessert. Followed by a screening of The 39 Steps, no doubt.

Okay, it’s not Hamlet, but these torqued phrases, these digital delights, are a kind of poetry — that is, language that startles with its sound and rhythm, its unpredictability and humor, yanking us from the yadda-yadda-yadda of everyday speech.

Gorgeous malaprops

I love when this happens — not just on my phone, but on street signs (the “Pedestrain Crosswalk” near a hard-to-navigate construction site at Walnut Lane Circle), in closed-captioning (“Blah is the significance of that,” reported the text-feed of one news broadcast the day Abdelhamid Abaaoud, suspected mastermind behind the Paris attacks, died in a police raid; moments later, the caption noted that one café patron had to “flee on a fleet of tears”) and in the gorgeous malaprops that fall from our lips when enthusiasm trumps accuracy (the first-grader who, having learned about the Jewish Festival of Lights, exuberantly wished my aunt a “Happy Harmonica!”)

Once, driving carefully over the speed bumps at Haverford College, I was charmed to see how students had carefully redacted letters from each of the cautionary signs, replacing them with another bold black consonant or two. “BUNK,” read the first sign. “LUMP.” “DUMP.” “BURP.” We ka-thumped over each concrete mound in slow-mo iambic pentameter, chuckling as we went: Burma-Shave signs, meet contemporary list-poem.

Incidental exposure

A national study by the Poetry Foundation in 2006 sought to learn who reads poetry and, for those who don’t, what gets in the way. Some results were unsurprising: Folks who don’t read poetry said their avoidance was due to lack of time, loss of interest, lack of access, and the perception that poetry is difficult and irrelevant.

But when they did stumble across a poem, they paid attention. Of the more than 1,000 people surveyed, all but nine had been “incidentally exposed” to poetry — no, not by a flasher with scraps of Yeats lining his trenchcoat, but at a wedding or memorial service, or on the subway, in newspapers, or on billboards. “Most people read and like the poetry that they find in unexpected places,” the study concluded, though “it doesn’t inspire them to seek out more poetry.”

Well, that’s a shame. Because other, more recent studies have shown that poetry — or, at least, the evocative language that populates most poems — tickles our brains in important ways. Researchers at Emory University reported in 2012 that when lab subjects read a metaphor involving texture — “the singer had a velvet voice,” say, or “he had leathery hands” — the sensory cortex, tasked with perceiving texture through touch, woke up. But similar ideas stated without figurative language — “the singer had a pleasing voice” or “he had strong hands” — failed to rouse those same brain circuits.

Avoid clichés like the plague!

Clichés, dreaded by English teachers and copy editors, apparently bore the brain as well. Some scientists have found that typical figures of speech, such as “a rough day,” are so familiar that they fail to jangle the sensory cortex; it’s the uncommon phrase (hear that, aspiring writers) that rears up from the stream of aural jabber.

It’s easy conversational fodder to rue how new technologies have sacked the old forms of communication. But the rant itself is a cliché: Five centuries ago, some people lamented that affordable, reproducible books would erode a culture of memorization; critics thought talking pictures would ruin purely visual cinematic storytelling. Comic books were thought to be the downfall of children’s literacy. Now, we think Twitter will edit our brains, destroying our ability to think in more than 140 characters at a stretch.

Our time is less than infinite, and our monkey minds are full to bursting with the blather — so much of it repetitive, hucksterish, or simply dull — of everyday life. I say, take your poetry wherever you find it: in the haikulike intonations of the Twitterverse, in the toddler who recites “fourteen, fifteen, nexteen,” or in the party-delivery truck (I have seen this, I swear, on Germantown Avenue) emblazoned “Balloons. Favors. Ice cream. Clowns. Popcorn. Funerals.”

Run to all glory (but don’t twist your ankle on that tricky pedestrain crosswalk). Then celebrate, perhaps in Pastor Joy’s Park, with decried beans and a furtive spoonful of pot de crime. Happy Harmonica to you, and you, and you. May you never have to flee on a fleet of tears.

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