Brow Beat

What the “Plums” Meme Has to Say About How Poetry Can Work on the Internet


Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 5second/iStock; Blackzheep/iStock.

Last week saw a surge of tweets that mash up William Carlos Williams’ 1934 poem “This Is Just to Say” with ’90s (and a few early ’00s) pop songs. Here is Williams’ poem: “I have eaten/ the plums/ that were in/ the icebox/ and which/ you were probably/ saving/ for breakfast/ Forgive me/ they were delicious/ so sweet/ and so cold.”

And here is what Twitter has done to it.

Unbelievably, this is not the first time Twitter has had its way with Williams’ poem. But why cold plums again? And why now? Character restrictions have something to do with it. At 149 characters, including spaces and line breaks, Williams’ poem in its entirety didn’t fit within the old character limit. 140 characters gave us another, even shorter modernist meme: Hemingway’s baby shoes. The new 280-character limit makes room for Williams’ poem with space left over for Lou Bega.

While Twitter poetry has been a thing for several years, short poems in English have a long history. Given Twitter’s robust literary communities, it’s surprising that we don’t see more short poems going viral. Perhaps cold plums is just another weird Twitter non sequitur, the chance meeting of workday boredom and a desire to put that English degree to use. Whatever the reason for its existence, I want to claim that the memeing of “This Is Just to Say” presents us with an opportunity to think about poetry on the internet, one that doesn’t simply think of character limits as an Oulipo-like constraint.

Modernist poetry often gets identified with long, intimidating works like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and Williams’ own Paterson, which took him at least 12 years to complete. But there is a parallel tradition of very short poems by modernists, some of them written by the same poets. Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1913) is the ur-example of short modernist verse. Here it is in its entirety:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Pound’s short poems were inspired by the austere, concise imagery he claimed to find in ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry. Though his equally concise imperative for modern literature—“Make it new”—stressed innovation, he seemed to think of newness as a novel approach to whatever was historically available, from Eastern poetic traditions to medieval Provençal troubadour verse to classical Greece and Rome.

While, as the scholar Zhaoming Qian has shown, Williams’ work was also influenced by readings of Chinese literature, he stressed his poetry’s American origins. Paterson is his homage to the town where he lived and worked as well as the source of one of his most famous adages: “No ideas but in things.” His day job as a family doctor afforded him the opportunity to absorb the texture of local life, and he recorded it in the short fiction collected in The Doctor Stories. “This Is Just to Say” emerges from an even more specific locale, Williams’ house, as it appears that it may have been a note to his wife Florence. It’s also possible that Florence wrote a reply and that Williams appropriated that response as a poem in its own right. “The only universal,” he wrote, “is the local, as savages, artists and — to a lesser extent — peasants know,” and what’s more universal and local than rooting around in the fridge and eating something your partner was saving for later?  

The poem’s brevity isn’t the only thing that makes it memeable. In some sense, Twitter is the perfect environment for Williams’ poem. Twitter is a kind of place, a “Twitterverse,” with different provinces and states, “academic Twitter,” “media Twitter,” “national security Twitter,” and so on. While anyone can visit these places, it takes a while to pick up the dialect and speak without an accent. When you’re a digital native, it can seem like everything is local. In affectionately vandalizing Williams’ poem, cold plums tweets translate it into the local dialect. They normalize it.

This is all in keeping with another modernist tradition. In his essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” Eliot wrote that the poet’s mind “is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences.” Ordinary men experience the world as “chaotic, irregular, and fragmentary,” with no way to unify the reading of philosophy and falling in love, “the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking,” into a single, coherent experience. “In the mind of the poet,” on the other hand, “these experiences are always forming new wholes.” Williams was often quite critical of Eliot, so we can imagine that he might take some satisfaction in seeing Eliot’s elitism shown up by ordinary people forming new wholes out of whatever raw material—pop, poetry, evil puppets—comes their way.

Probably not, though. It seems unlikely that he would have approved of his spare, unadorned lines being embellished with the likes of Smash Mouth. For all of its ordinariness, “This Is Just to Say” is a poem, locked into its form in a particular way for a particular purpose. The poem concentrates our attention on ordinary language until it no longer sounds ordinary. Its line breaks turn a routine act of husbandly insensitivity into a drama of desire and transgression. Like dog owners who transform typical canine mischief into a parody of ritual humiliation, the cold plums meme amplifies this banality until it’s bizarre. Pop music does much the same thing, amplifying and appealing to supposedly universal experiences, like falling in love and mamboing.

Poets and English teachers sometimes lament that poetry isn’t popular. What they seem to mean is that not a lot of people buy books of poetry or read poems at all outside of the classroom. But the cold plums meme suggests that “poetry in the age of Twitter” may not mean 280 character poems. In an essay on poetry and pop music, Michael Robbins writes that, “A pop song is a popular song, one that some ideal ‘everybody’ knows or could know. Its form lends itself to communal participation.” In that sense, the cold plums meme is poetry going pop. Not in the sense that you’ll hear it on the radio. You’ll hear it in the street, but only if you live on the internet, and only if you sing along.