In 1877 Thomas Edison famously recorded sound for the first time. The original recording didn’t survive the test of time. However, in 1926 he repeated the original words he said during the first recording. The first words ever recorded were ‘a little piece of practical poetry’. It marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between sound recordings and poetry. For the very first time poets could share their poetry performances without being present. The invention of the Internet significantly enlarged the potential audience for poetry performances. Poetry editor Jeff Shotts exclaimed last year: ‘The Internet is basically one big poetry audiobook.’
An interesting form of online poetry recordings are YouTube videos of poetry performances that become so popular they 'go viral'. These so-called 'viral poems' are often English texts performed by young slam poets, characterised by strong narrative aspects, a dramatic style and emotional topics such as gender inequality, racism, rape, bullying and mental health.
In the summer of 2013 the poem 'OCD' by the American poet Neil Hilborn went viral; a poem about the effects an obsessive-compulsive disorder can have on a love relationship. During the recording Hilborn not only thematises compulsive tics by describing obsessive routines and repeating words, he also performs the tics by expressing frustration and making seemingly uncontrollable gestures.
I would like to trace the journey this poem made. Starting as a live performance in the US, being filmed and uploaded on YouTube and from there on. How did this poem go viral? Who made it go viral? Why? In which media? In which languages?
Neil Hilborn performed this poem in continually edited versions at several poetry slams throughout the US. However, the poem didn't go viral until this performance of the poem was uploaded on YouTube by the American performance poetry organisation Button Poetry. In August 2013 someone shared this video on the website Reddit with the annotation 'Easily the most onion chopping thing I've ever experienced'. Reddit users immediately started 'upvoting' the post by attributing points and leaving comments. Because of this, the video gained attention on other websites, some which are known as clickbait sites, such as Huffington Post, Gawker, FoxNews, BuzzFeed, 9gag and on Flabber (The Netherlands), Konbini (France) and E-consulta (Mexico), prompting hundreds of thousands of people to share the video via social media and weblogs, resulting in the poetry performance being viewed more than 11 million times.
Viral poems are fascinating because they can teach us a lot about poetry in the 21st century. Through a combination of the oldest form of poetry (oral) and the newest form of poetry (digital) viral poems are reaching a huge global audience by breaking through media borders and language borders. They show us that poetry is more than lineated texts in books and they are proof of the fact that, despite the low sales numbers of poetry books, poetry does indeed play a role in early 21st century everyday lives. Viral poems show us that poetry is engaging, moving and activating people.
As Henry Jenkins has shown in his books Convergence Culture (2006) and Spreadable Media (2013), most cultural phenomena in the 21st century exist in more than one medium. A 'mix of top-down and bottom-up forces', together with our increasingly participatory culture, makes the public not simple consumers of preconstructed messages, but 'people who are shaping, sharing, reframing, and remixing media content in ways which might not have been previously imagined.' This is also what drives viral poetry, as I will show with 'OCD'.
'OCD' triggered a broad array of multimedia and multilingual reactions. The performance received around 8,5 thousand comments on YouTube from people in 130 countries. Most comments came from people in the US, and other English speaking countries, such as Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines. But the remaining 4 countries in the top 10 are non-English speaking countries: Germany, the Netherlands, Mexico and Sweden.
On YouTube subtitling was anonymously and collectively added to the video in English, Chinese, French and Spanish. On the website Amara, additional subtitling was written in Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Turkish. On several weblogs all over the world the poem by Neil Hilborn inspired people to make their own translations. For example in German, Italian, Polish, Hungarian, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish and Chinese.
And although the poem had been published before in the chapbooks High Lonesome (2012) and Clatter (2013), the many internet users seemed to feel free to translate the performance into whatever form of written text they saw fit. Some used short lines, hyperlinks, bold letters, italics, others chose for a proselike layout, capital letters and dashes. On the one hand, the existence of the 'official' written version of the poem might have not been known to online translators. All refer to the viral YouTube video. It is clear that the transcribers perceive the performance to be the original. On the other hand, reaching a consensus on one correct transcript with one correct lay-out, is not the objective of these online users. Above all, the act of translating seems to be a performative act to express appreciation, while at the same time empowering the translator.
Besides translations of the poem into written language, people all over the world made video's as reactions to Hilborn's performance. Some used 'motion graphic animation' to make their own version of the poem, others combined the original recording with 'kinetic typography' and some spent time making their own stop-motion interpretation of the poem. The most common video reaction is one in which a 'cover' performance of the poem is recorded. Some recite the poem in front of their computer, others film themselves performing 'OCD' in their living room. A number of videos show that performances of the poem were done on stage for a live audience, in the original language or in translation, for example in France, performed in English, in Germany, in a self-made German translation, in England, copying Hilborn's dramatic performance style, in Puerto Rico, during a theatre piece, and in Serbia, during a public speaking contest.
In all these multimedia and multilingual adaptations of the poem, the same elements keep occurring: first of all emotion. On YouTube 784 comments under the viral video contain the verb 'cry'. People all over the world are touched by Hilborn's poem. Secondly, identification: people introduce their translation or adaptation by saying they also suffer from OCD themselves, and through this poem have found a way to express their experiences. Thirdly, adoration: people love the poem, want to make it their own and want others to experience the same feeling. These three elements come together in probably the most personal, emotional and admiring reactions: the many tattoos that people have of quotes from the poem.
Also interpretation plays a role: trying to make sense of the poem as a text carrying meaning. The most in-depth analysis of the poem can probably be found on the website Genius.com. Collectively and democratically 56 online 'scholars' performed a close reading on the poem, by explaining ambiguities and metaphors, marking turning points, analysing repetition, referring to Hilborn's performance and using other multimedia to interpret the text.
All of the examples I've mentioned were online and not Dutch. So let me end with an offline Dutch example of a reaction to the viral poem 'OCD'. In 2014 Dutch poet Ingmar Heytze selected his forty most favourite poems and published them, together with short columns explaining his choice, in an anthology named De Veertig van Heytze (Heytze's Forty). A self-made translation of Hilborn's 'OCD' is one of these forty poems. That same year Heytze appeared on the Dutch television program Kunststof TV to talk about his anthology. Comparable to hundreds of comments on YouTube and beyond, Heytze confessed that he found Hilborn's poem so moving that he even cried while translating. After Heytze's personal and emotional reflection, Kunststof TV showed a fragment of the YouTube video, resulting in Hilborn's performance being broadcasted on national Dutch television.
As you can see, the poem travelled through several media and several languages: from live stage performance to YouTube, from YouTube to social media, via personal blogs to close reading websites, from the Internet to a printed book, from a printed book to television and back to the YouTube video. Neil Hilborn's poem 'OCD' shows us that poetry in the 21st century is a widespread multilingual transmedia genre. Could Thomas Edison ever have expected that in 1877?
Kila van der Starre is a half Dutch/half British literary scholar, poetry critic and PhD researcher at Utrecht University. Her research focuses on 'poetry off the page', such as poetry on stage, in public areas, on objects and on the internet. More information about her research can be found at www.kilavanderstarre.com.