Pinterest and the poetry of punchline

From canva.com

From canva.com

Having studied English Literature at A Level and then a liberal arts degree at university, I'm not left with a whole lot of useful things I can do. With that in mind, I am turning my education in the humanities to an overlooked area of critical analysis: internet poetry. More specifically, lyrics from Pinterest, as this platform is a veritable hive of an emerging form of popular literature. There is of course tumblr and Instagram as well, but for now Pinterest will be as deep as the rabbit hole goes.

Of course, democratisation through the internet has affected all areas of life, cultural and societal, and allows the average Joe with a broadband connection to become a producer, as well as a consumer. We are experiencing the heyday of meme culture, where we can all reference, remix and appropriate ideas and images, adding new layers of meaning for whichever corner of the internet we inhabit.

The aim here is to examine a particular part of the democratic internet, namely the verse which can be found on Pinterest. I intend to treat these poems as a literary corpus and analysis the formal conventions and topic matter. I will argue that the homogeneity of the most popular poems actually forms its own genre of literature.

I would argue, too, that this type of poetry is more homogeneous in its theme and style than its practitioners and readers might allow. The works within this corpus often strictly adhere to certain writing ideals and practices, that is: explicitly stated metaphors intended to startle the reader; a focus on natural imagery; a preoccupation with past hurts, unfulfilled romantic longing, and self-love; the use of the second person pronoun.

What is the point of this, you may ask. Aside from making use of an education in the humanities, I’d also like to understand what makes these poems popular, because in general I dislike the style of poetry and because I envy the success of these poets.

In this essay, we will differentiate a 'poem' from simply a 'quote', insofar as a poem is attributed to a Pinterest user, whereas a quote may be from anyone. I will also exercise a certain amount of editorial licence in what I consider to be a 'poem' here, as I will not be including straightforward self-love instructions or similar. The definition of poetry is a slippery thing, so I won't try to pin it down here. I will instead acknowledge the limitations of my working definition, and move on. In the case of Pinterest, perhaps 'lyric' is a better term for the poetic snapshots we come across while scanning through my suggested pins.

Due in large part to their brevity, the impact of many of the lines is in their wordplay. The feed-style consumption of Pinterest necessarily requires that poems are brief and have an immediate effect, which is conveyed quickly through a striking metaphor, or what we might call a kind of "turn" in the poem. In the poem "things that fall" we are introduced to the metaphor through a list of items, such as rain, shadows, leaves, and finally "and I,/for you". Working through an extended analogy in this way to the more abstract significance of the image is a central lyrical technique of the poems.

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The metaphors are often set out in explicit parallel in order to have the most immediate effect. In the following lines, the poet states the metaphor, which illuminates the abstracted significance.

"You are the moon
And I am the sea -

It's remarkable,
The things you
Can do without
Touching me."

("High Tide" by s.r.w., published on Instagram and shared to Pinterest)

This two part structure is clear in many poems and quotes which you can scroll through on Pinterest. The effect is almost that of a joke, with a quick set-up and immediate punchline, intended to draw attention and gratify the poet's intellect at capturing an emotional truth so succinctly. Indeed, the most prominent Pinterest writers have mastered this technique. On a platform whose primary medium is image, words must appear fast and perform in minimal scroll time to compete for attention.

It is typical here that the focus is on natural imagery. Preferable content includes forests, stars, the moon, water, storms, and how these phenomena convey some kind of emotional truth about the poet or about a subject.

"You are a
Hurricane of
A girl;

Remember
To breathe
Every once

In a while,
Do not drown
Within your
Own storm"

Again, the relation between the subject and the image is established, and the further implication of this is revealed in a two part structure: first an affirmation of individual strength, extended by other associations of the metaphor. We might even liken this metaphor to the so-called 'conceits' of the metaphysical poets of the 16th and 17th centuries, whereby poets such as John Donne and Andrew Marvell chose a metaphor and then exhausted all the possible significances of the comparison, sometimes to the point of absurdity.

Unfulfilled longing or past romantic failures are a particularly prominent concern of these poems. In the following example, the poet (S.L. Gray) centres the piece around the word "forever" and the implications of this in a failed relationship:

"I won't ever
Forget you and
Maybe that is
The only forever
The two of us
Together were ever
Meant to have."

The poet takes the act of remembering and to create a kind of negative "forever", where the thing that lasts forever is actually just the memory of something that will never be.

An essential device is the use of an indistinct second person. The "you" of the poems often refers to an unspecified lover from the past, which avoids making the poem too particular. In this way, the experience and hurt of the individual can be generalised to the audience, and the direct address lends to the 'spoken' immediacy of the poem.

"You" may also fulfil the function of addressing the poet themselves, especially where the content and message of the poem is one of self-love. The poet can therefore address the idea of loving oneself while avoiding potential accusations of narcissism. An example of this externalisation would be the poem "You are not your age" by E.H., where "you" stands in for alternative self for the writer (you can find a copy here).

While you wouldn't ordinarily treat Pinterest poetry as a distinct genre, it's clear that the lyrics on this image-sharing platform have particular form and content and adhere to these norms quite strictly. Among their other features, the 'punchline' of these short lyrics demonstrates how the poems are shaped by the feed-scrolling format of social media.

There’s much more that could be written about the poetry of Pinterest, not mention other poetry-heavy platforms like Instagram and tumblr. However, after this short overview, it seems that the most obvious reason for their success is that they are brief but meaningful. No one has time for long-ass pieces of literature now that speedy internet connections have left us with a long-term attention deficit, so we want to get as much as possible from a poem before scrolling on. Maybe that's the key to successful poetry in the internet age.