Illustration by Mahendra Singh
As you read this, a robot-human consortium is hard at work composing a verse epic on the Internet. “The World’s Longest Poem” is hosted on Benrik, a Web site run by British authors Ben Carey and Henrik Delehag, and is being written via a truly democratic process: anyone with access to the Internet can add a line of up to 60 characters. Lines range from the self-consciously literary to the merely self-conscious (“I think this poem has long lost its original purpose”) to spam ads, which get repeated so often that they form a sort of refrain (“cheap viagra online / cialis online / The blind Shakespearean and Yeatsian worshipper cries! / generic viagra online”). It’s currently 19,000 lines long, and growing at a rate of roughly 3,800 lines each year.
“The World’s Longest Poem” isn’t the longest poem in the world. It’s not even the longest poem on the Internet; that title belongs to a much better-organized effort called Choka On It. But it may be the poem with the lowest-ever barriers to entry, and that makes it a sort of literary rendering of our collective unconscious, the id of the Internet captured in snippets of 60 characters or less.
In 2006 a French notary public named Patrick Huet used a tractor to unroll his work “Pieces of Hope to the Echo of the World,” the 7,547 verses of which were written on a piece of fabric nearly a kilometer long. It’s an acrostic: The first letter of each line spells out the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Huet told ABC News that he felt “a deep pressure” to say something about “the terrible scourges that have afflicted humanity for so many generations that we lose count.”
There’s something almost obsessive-compulsive about this response. Huet’s saying that he can’t count humanity’s problems, but he can calculate exactly how many lines—no, meters—it takes to acknowledge them (994.1). The number becomes almost talismanic, a way to exert some kind of quasi-scientific control on the world’s “terrible scourges.” Naturally, Huet had the measure recorded by a court official. (Leave it to a notary to get his writing notarized.)
Huet’s poem fits into a long history of attempts to catalog the world through encyclopedic literature. Think about Ezra Pound trying to “include history” in his enormous, fragmentary Cantos, or Charles Olson’s Maximus poems. Assembling a large collection of poems is one thing, but other authors have composed single works that rival the length of the Benrik poem, sheer acts of literary endurance. Louis Zukofsky spent 46 years writing his book-length poem "A," which clocks in at 832 pages. James Merrill published the 560 pages of The Changing Light at Sandover in three sections but considered his work a single poem; he didn’t think of himself as the sole author, though, having solicited help from the supernatural world through a Ouija board. And Ron Silliman views everything he writes as part of one evolving poem called “Ketjak,” which, when finally compiled, will dwarf the lifeworks of both Zukofsky and Merrill.
Raymond Queneau got around the tedium of writing for length with a mathematical shortcut. Queneau, an editor, novelist, and cofounder of the experimental French group known as the Oulipo, loved math; he studied it at the Sorbonne and joined the Société Mathématique de France in 1948. In 1961 he composed “100,000,000,000,000 Poems,” which consists of a set of 10 sonnets, all with the same rhyme scheme, printed on cards bound together and cut into strips. The sonnet you see depends on how you flip the strips. With none flipped, the first four lines read like this (in Stanley Chapman’s translation):
Don Pedro from his shirt has washed the fleas
The bull’s horns ought to dry it like a bone
Old corned-beef’s rusty armour spreads disease
That suede ferments is not at all well known
But if you flip the first line, it becomes “The wild horse champs the Parthenon’s top frieze.” If you flip it again, you get “At snuff no Cornish sailorman would sneeze.” Flip it a fourth time for “At five precisely out went La Marquise” and so on through 10 different variants. Given the number of options for each line and the number of lines in the sonnet, you could ultimately make one hundred thousand billion poems, but it would take you 200,000,000 years to read them all.
Which is the problem with trying to shatter the record for longest work of verse. Nobody reads the Benrik poem—not even its curators. Via e-mail, Ben Carey told me that he and Delehag realized shortly after starting their project that they wouldn’t be able to read every line.
They came up with the idea in their 2003 self-help parody, This Book Will Change Your Life, which offers a self-improvement exercise for every day of the year. As Carey explained, "Helping to write the longest poem in the world was one of the tasks. It naturally seemed best suited to the web." They put the poem on their site in 2003, instructing their webmaster to use the line "Mercy, cried the popinjay to the Pope"—picked specifically because it was hard to follow.
As it happens, the webmaster used a different phrase: "What is to become of the Popinjoy," a mistake Delehag didn't even notice until I pointed it out to him. ("It appears the randomness was there from the beginning. Would it have yielded an entirely different poem?" he replied in an e-mail.) I think it's fair to say that I've read more of "The World's Longest Poem" than anyone. In the interest of research, I scrolled through 500 pages on my Internet browser. I could fit 19 lines on a page, so I moved in units of nineteen, noting the last line on every page. When I gave up several hours later, I'd gotten about halfway through and counted 9,500 lines. I'd seen several themes develop: The antagonistic relationship between the popinjay and the Pope, recurring bits about badgers and penguins, various teenagers declaring their love, various teenagers abusing their classmates, a lot about soap (especially on a rope), and a running gag of declaring the poem over. I'd identified lyrics from R.E.M., the Pogues, George Michael, Public Enemy, Belle and Sebastian, and the entire Monty Python song "Every Sperm is Sacred." And I'd discovered that, like all open Internet forums, the content eventually turned dark, freakish, and threatening. I went to bed shortly after reading line 9,500 and had disturbing popinjay dreams.
If you let people publish whatever they want in an anonymous, consequence-free environment, inevitably you’re going to wind up with users who treat your site like a bathroom wall. As user-generated content has grown more and more common over the past couple years, the misbehavior of anonymous bullies has become a central quality-of-life issue for anyone who spends time on the Internet. Just ask Chloe Solomon, whose name appears all over the Benrik poem in line after line about her less-than-voluptuous figure. It’s impossible to tell who is trashing poor Chloe. She might have one persistent nemesis; more likely, though, new posters have noticed earlier anti-Chloe posts and decided to join in.
“We do get the occasional angst-y e-mail from teenagers who’ve insulted their buddies in a fit of hormones,” Carey told me. Initially, he and Delehag tried to keep the site clean, and occasionally an especially dedicated contributor will offer to police the site for them. But, as Carey says, “The fact that it started off impeccably and then degenerated into an incoherent deluge of adolescent defamation and hysterical spam is highly revealing. In any case, spam has its own poetry. It is automatic writing—André Breton would have approved.”
This view of spam has been taken up seriously by writers such as Gary Sullivan, Jordan Davis, and K. Silem Mohammad with flarf, a type of poetry developed specifically to showcase Internet detritus. Flarf both mimics and quotes wholesale from the nonsensical combinations of words that spambots use to evade e-mail filters, as well as the sentence fragments picked up by Google searches. Mohammed’s “Goldmine,” which begins with a Google search, contains lines such as “the trouble was there was maybe / two minutes total screen time of lions / cutting in scenes of puppies that grow up to be big dumb crabs / and become total whores for women’s soccer.” It’s easy to imagine a geek on a message board complaining about a YouTube clip that’s short on lions—the rest, not so much. Flarf revels in its own low tone, what Sullivan describes as “a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. ‘Not okay.’”
Recently there’s been a spate of populist collaborative poems intended more for the writers than for any eventual readers—poems that ask you to add a new line rather than parse the ones that already exist. At Chokaonit.com, users post couplets to a choka, which is sort of like a gargantuan haiku, beginning with a set of three lines with 5-7-5 syllables and then turning into a long tail of 7-5 pairs. The Choka On It guidelines encourage writing for writing’s sake: “Please do not feel that you have to read the entire poem to contribute. Your contribution to the choka is more important than what other people have already said. And no, we’re not being sarcastic. Raw word mass is the ruling king at Choka On It.” Mass is in, but not Benrikian anarchy: to add to the site, users must set up an account, a requirement that screens out literarily inclined robots. Even without spam, the poem—which began in February of 2006—is 10,616 couplets long at this writing, and constantly growing.
And in Australia last month, Sydney residents helped compile “The Public’s Poem,” a publicity stunt aimed at creating pride in Australia’s cultural offerings. On Australia Day, January 26, residents in four locations around the city were asked to each contribute one line on the topic of being Australian.
“The Public’s Poem” isn’t meant to make Australians proud of their nation’s literary prowess so much as their ability to collaborate. You have to hope the exercise was more about teamwork than breaking any records, since the finished work only stands around 15 feet high. But coming at a time when Australia is attempting to make amends for centuries of segregation and discrimination against its indigenous people, at least it’s a nice gesture.
Serious collaborative poetry is also having something of a moment right now. In 2007, Soft Skull Press published the first-ever anthology of collaborative poetry, Saints of Hysteria, which brings together poems by multiple authors from the past 50 years. And in January of this year, the Arabic-language online magazine Asda published the first product of its “poetry factory,” which uses wiki technology—Web pages that anyone can edit—to write modern Arabic poetry. Asda’s goal is to “liberate poetry from the disease of ownership and its pathological offsprings, such as fame obsession and copy rights, which have become characteristic of creative production.” The poem, called “Shoes,” was written by at least five unnamed authors.
A modern version of the form has been around since at least 1930, when surrealists André Breton, Paul Eluard, and Rene Char took the game of Exquisite Corpse a step further and cowrote “Ralentir Travaux,” or “Slow Under Construction.” A little over a decade later, Charles Henri Ford invented the chain poem, in which each author adds one line and then forwards the poem on by mail—sort of an analog version of today’s online collaborations.
The Benrik poem has no such literary goals. In fact, it might be the least lofty work of poetry ever written. Even discounting the lines by high school bullies and the Monty Python lyrics, at least half of it is composed entirely by spam robots selling anti-impotence drugs. Toward the end, 10 or 15 lines of spam sandwich every oddly compelling couplet such as “This grid of days can be a joyful prison / With bars of spaghetti for food and escaping.” The spam robots never sleep and never lose interest in posting about Cialis; theirs really is the poetry of endurance. And since Carey and Delehag don’t ever plan to take the site down, the spambots could theoretically keep adding to the poem forever.
Most of the world’s longest poems are epics, written collaboratively over long periods of time by many, many people. This is, of course, a description that could apply to the Benrik poem, albeit in a debased, spam-ridden kind of way. If the spambots keep going, they’ll outlast the Indian poets who spent 800 years writing the over 90,000 lines of the Mahabharata. And if they do that, by the year 2029 the Benrik poem really might be the longest ever written. Carey and Delehag agree that they’ve spawned a sort of Internet-age Mahabharata of spam. “It is an epic of decay,” Carey wrote me, “with the occasional ever-lonelier flash of humanity.”