A poem for the texting generation
Carol Ann Duffy’s short poem ‘Text’ might be the first great poem written about texting and text messages. It appeared in her 2005 collection Rapture. You can read ‘Text’ here; this post offers some notes towards an analysis of the poem.
‘Text’ seems straightforward, and it largely is. But in a poem (another form of ‘text’, of course) that is about how the speaker or poet fails to get her meaning across to the addressee (who is the recipient of not just her text messages but of the poem itself), it is fitting that several moments in the poem are ambiguous, the meaning less clear. Consider the simile ‘like an injured bird’ in the second line, which first and foremost refers to the delicate cradling of the mobile phone in one’s hand as if one were handling an injured small bird, such as a sparrow. But given the colloquial meaning of ‘bird’ to refer to ‘woman’, the phrase also carries the potential to be read as a reference to the speaker’s own state of hurt or emotional bruising: she is the ‘injured bird’ tending her mobile.
Each of the seven two-line units of ‘Text’ ends on a rhyme – or near-rhyme – of bird, words, third, absurd, chord, blurred, heard. This lends the poem a sense of repetition and, with it, stasis, like someone constantly checking their phone for new messages. The one rhyme here which seriously misses its mark – ‘chord’ – comes in the phrase ‘broken chord’, suggesting a jarring or discordant note which the off-rhyme of the word itself conveys.
That final couplet is of course literally true: texting is a medium to be read rather than heard. But we are meant to hear and respond to ‘heard’ in a broader sense here, too: the speaker’s words will never be understood, her feelings will never be made clear to the recipient. But the poem itself encourages us to reflect on this gulf between reading and listening. How, for instance, should that ‘xx’ be uttered if the poem is read aloud? As ‘kisses’, or as ‘kiss-kiss’, or as ‘xx’? It’s difficult to say – much as in the title of Simon Armitage’s poem in response to the 2005 London bombings, ‘KX’, which in public readings Armitage pronounces as ‘King’s Cross’ (compare also Philip Larkin’s ‘MCMXIV’).
‘Text’ is a short poem that is a great way in to Carol Ann Duffy’s best poems. It doesn’t require much in the way of gloss or analysis, but the poem’s message (as it were) that technology can make it easier but also, somehow, less easy to convey what we mean is put across in telegraphically punchy and occasionally ambiguous phrases.
Image: Carol Ann Duffy at Humber Mouth 2009 (picture: walnut whippet), via Wikimedia Commons.