Columns > Published on December 12th, 2011

Hashtag Haiku: #funwithshortforms

It’s December. It’s cold. You’re already sick of eggnog (or sick from eggnog), so let’s just have a little fun with a couple of literary forms—one older than old, and the other still just a toddler: Haiku and Twitter Hashtags.


Even if you’re not a Tweeter, you’ve probably noticed these little cross-hatched symbols pop up in text a lot more than they used to. This symbol has a variety of names and uses, the most common (here in the USA) are:

  • The number sign. It's used to represent a number of something, e.g. "#2." Spoken, it's “number two.”)
  • The pound sign. Though NOT used in measurements of actual pounds (lbs.), on a phone, it’s the pound sign, e.g. "#321." Spoken, it's “pound, three-two-one.”
  • The sharp sign. In music, a slightly slanted version of it is meant to mean the musical note is “sharp”, e.g. "A#." Spoken, it's “A-sharp."

The most recent addition to the symbol’s repertoire is the “hashtag.” Twitter has commandeered this little checkerboard as a way for people to add searchable keywords, a.k.a. "tags" to their posts so that someone posting about #JustinBieber could have their tweet grouped with other like-minded tweets about the same topic.

Unsurprisingly, the hashtag and its usage have already evolved. In a post published at the New Yorker in June of 2010, writer Susan Orlean details a very different use for these versatile marks. Instead of keyword markers, words and phrases that follow the hashtag read more like commentary, or something “muttered into a handkerchief,” as Orlean puts it. The hastags set off a commentary, sometimes subversive, that adds a new level of meaning to the a relatively straightforward Twitter statement. For instance:

Paula Deen releases butter-flavored lip gloss. #DoesitcomewithLipitor?

Paula Deen releases butter-flavored lip gloss. #howaboutbaconflavored #Idbuythat

Of course, the idea is to slam the words together to maximize space in the 140-character limit and pretend that “#howaboutbaconflavored” is a searchable term, which, of course, it's not. If you want to read Ms. Orlean's examples, Here are links to the first blog post and a link to a follow-up that she posted shortly after.

Hashtag commentary is not a new idea; it's just a new way of setting off secondary ideas from the primary subject of a given text--in this case, the tweet. In the literary world, similar type commentaries are called “asides” and refer to a moment when the speaker turns away (literally or figuratively) from the scene and makes a comment to the reader or audience about what’s happening. Shakespeare and many other writers have used asides in their work to add an extra layer of complexity to a scene or passage. In a play, the aside offers a character the opportunity to say something either to the audience or to another character on stage that the other characters on stage do not "hear." Asides may reveal a character’s true emotion or other secrets about the story to the audience. Here's an example from Mr. Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet":

Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

[Aside to GREGORY] Is the law of our side, if I say


No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I
bite my thumb, sir. 

Note how Sampson's aside to Gregory determines his next statement. When confronted by Abraham, Sampson quickly assess his legal situation in a short aside to Gregory, which, we know by the notation "[Aside to GREGORY]" that Abraham does not "hear" the question. When Gregory clarifies the situation, Sampson modifies his tactic and denies that his threat was directed at Abraham. In this case, the audience also hears the aside and will understand that Sampson changed his mind. Had he not used the aside, the audience, as well as Abraham, might well assume that he never meant to be threatening when, in fact, he did.

The hashtag aside is a new, economical method of accomplishing a similar thing in a tweeted statement. If I just tweeted about Paula Deen's butter-flavored lip balm, it might be construed as an endorsement, or a simple announcement. Add the hashtag aside to the tweet, and my readers know that I am being facetious, ironic, or snarky.


Now for the second part of this post—Haiku. Haiku is a style of poetry that’s been around, um, forever. It is Japanese in origin, but these days you can find haiku on almost any subject in almost any language. The basic guidelines for a haiku stipulate that the topic be “nature” and the structure must be the following:

5-syllable line
7-syllable line
5-syllable line
Here is an example of a traditional haiku. This was written in English
Whitecaps on the bay:
A broken signboard banging
In the April wind.
-Richard Wright (collected in Haiku: This Other World, Arcade Publishing, 1998)

Of course, because writers aren’t great rule followers, there are many haiku that are not about nature nor that follow the strict 5/7/5 structure. Just Google "haiku" and you'll find so many variations, you might not believe there is a format at all. In addition to haiku, there are numerous other short-form poetry styles. Senru, hokku, and renku are a few. I appreciate the short form because, like the 140-character tweet, economy of language is the key to it's success. Words must be carefully selected for maximum meaning and minimal length. What short forms show us is that a lot of meaning can be packed into a few choice words. I also like that the piece as a whole can almost be digested at once. A typical reader can grasp a tweet or haiku in a short glance and remember the piece in it's entirety with little effort.

Hashtag Haiku

Ok, here’s my hair-brained idea. Let’s combine the two forms: the 140-character Twitter post and hashtag commentary with the 5/7/5 structure of the haiku. In case you were wondering, I have tested this exercise before and it was pretty successful. Not to brag or anything, but I pretty much invented Hashtag Haiku (I think). Of course, I have no proof except for the members of my Seattle class with whom I practiced this new poetic form. Anyhow, I’ll get us started with some examples that I've created for you.

Yellow cat stalks fly,
Ears forward, ready to pounce,
BZZZZT! Cat flees. #Pussy…
Groundskeeper uses leaf-
blower on a windy day.

Now it’s your turn. You can write on any topic. This is just for fun. A little mind stretcher to keep you sane in this crazy and dark season. Share here in the comments section, or send me an email:

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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