Who WANS2B a Poet?

4 minute read

Is “u” a valid English word? if so, can “U mke me blush” pass as a line of poetry? Britain’s Guardian newspaper thinks it qualifies. Victor Keegan, the newspaper’s Online editor, last week announced the winner of its first text message poetry competition. Hetty Huges, a 22-year-old university student, won the $1,500 prize for her text poem:

“txtin iz messin/mi headn’me englis/try2rite essays/they all come out txtis. gran not plsed w/letters/shes getn/swears i wrote better b4 comin2uni. &she’s african.”

Nearly 7,500 telepoems were submitted, written in funky shorthand and sent via mobile phone keypad, during the two-week competition. A panel that included distinguished poets U.A. Fanthorpe and Peter Sansom selected the seven best. All entrants were messaged the final selection so they could vote for the winning ode — again by text messaging their ratings to the judges on their mobiles. The competition’s main rule: no poem could exceed 160 characters, the maximum that can fit on many cell-phone screens. “Telepoetry is the newest literary form,” says Keegan. “We are at the start of a literary and communications revolution. ”

Commonly known as Short Message Service (SMS), text messaging has taken European youth culture by storm. With each message priced at about 14 cents a pop, the practice has surpassed e-mail in popularity among the young and turned text-messaging handbooks, like WAN2TLK, into paperback best sellers.

Last year 6 billion text messages were sent in the U.K. Worldwide, the figure topped 100 billion. Most messagers are in the 15-to-24 age bracket, and they each send more than 50 messages a month on average. That, say market experts, adds up to a lucrative stream of revenue for mobile service providers. Text messaging is priced separately from the flat fee charged by mobile telephone providers. It’s not a bad sideline for media outlets like the Guardian, either. Though the newspaper has not disclosed any readership increases from its telepoetry contest, Keegan says participation was “massive,” with more than double the 3,000 entries the newspaper expected.

Poetry and profit, however, have rarely been a good marriage. Nor do critics see much potential for great literature in SMS. In fact, cute abbreviations like wassup, ruup4it and clever “emoticon” symbols such as :-) and :-( make real poetry lovers wince. “Puh-leeze!” says Hamish Ironside of Anvil Press, an independent poetry publisher in London. “This isn’t literature. It’s a game, a fad.” And besides, he adds, “I don’t have a mobile phone.”

Millions of his countrymen and -women do. And fad or art form, the text message is entering the realm of popular fiction. Helen Fielding, author of the best-selling Bridget Jones’s Diary, has launched an “Ask Bridget” service with Finnish wireless entertainment publisher RIOT-E. For 34 cent, subscribers can dial up a daily text message from Fielding — writing in characteristic Bridget Jones mode — on the quest for thinner thighs and inner poise. “Mobile phones are a perfect way to add another dimension to book characters,” says Jan Wellman, RIOT-E’s chief executive.

Dubbed as the first fad of the 21st century, text messaging is not entirely new. Teenagers have long sought secret ways of communicating with each other. And for people as a whole, says Jay Jasanoff, chair of the linguistics department at Harvard University, “English language and English literature will neither stand nor fall by the use of wassup, ruup4it or even a happy face.”

Indeed the Guardian’s poetry competition may have prove just that. Aside from a few barely intelligible verses fitted with squiggly symbols, most entries read like bad haiku transliterated from the Japanese. Which is why the critics don’t R8 it as GR8.

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