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Cell-phone tanka

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Tuesday, Oct 4, 2005

Tanka is not a off-brand of toy truck sold at 99-cent stores but rather a traditional form of Japanese poetry that dates back to the eighth century, when poets somehow managed to write the brief verses without the aid of a cell phone, whose tiny screens, today’s Wall Street Journal informs us, “are just right for 31 syllables in 5 lines dashed off on the run.” Call me a Wordsworthian, but I have always generally believed that the composition of poetry took place ideally in moments of repose when the “spontaneous flow of emotion could be recollected in tranquility” as opposed to idle moments on the subway or in a grocery-store line. Perhaps such moments have been extinguished from modern life, along with the idea that any sort of artistic production can take place without some form of technology authorizing and legitimating it, shaping it with the restrictions it affords. Viewed in that light—that contemporary art requires technological limits to dictate its form and make it seem socially relevant—it makes perfect sense that Japanese teens would compose poetry exclusively on their cell phones. The limitations and eccentricities of the new medium afforded by technology lets poets feel liberated by the new constraints, which they eagerly adopt to seize on society’s most routinely celebrated phenomenon, new communication gadgets. “The tanka I write on my cell phone feels closer to me,” explains one poet trained in the traditional cloisterlike poetry schools called kesshas. Here we see the real crux of the story, the intimacy between an individual and her phone enabling her to draw more out from herself, to learn herself better, to understand more about herself. Earlier in the piece, another teenager interviewed noted that “it’s summer break now, so students are probably close to their phones.” Maybe this was an odd translation, but it struck me as an extrememly telling turn of phrase—“close to their phones.” I wasn’t really sure what it meant until I began to think of the intimacy with which one is expected to relate to the gadget, as if it were an extension of oneself, the crucial portal that allows one to dock with others and communicate. It is becoming a requisite conduit to reach the intimate spaces of one’s mind. Conversations on one’s private, personal phone become inherently more intimate, specific as they are to you and not the location where the phone may once have been connected. Composing poetry on the phone is just an evolution from this fundamental recognition of the mental space carved out by one’s own personal phone being extremely private, personal, intimate. Cell-phone technology is essentially taking the space in which intimate exchange can happen and making it virtual, unreal, dependent on satellites. And as the phone becomes the fetish of intimacy, it suffices to conjure the feeling of intimacy, so that other people, once a humdrum, troublesome requirement for close relationships, can be at last be done away with altogether.

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