Poetry Is Junk: The Peculiar World Of Spam Poetry

by Daniel Keane

Even the hearts of the wicked are touched by His infinite mercy.
Court Street, Belgravia.
Distracted by the pleasure and the noise.
(Konstance Koller)

Surprise. Neither Ezra Pound nor T.S Eliot wrote this poem. Its origins are, shockingly, the junk mail folder of your emails.

Open it up: somewhere in the digital cesspool of Viagra salesmen, mysterious PPI claims and holiday vouchers, you might actually stumble across literary genius.

This is the belief held by ‘spam poets’, or ‘spoets’, who mould arbitrary digital gibberish into poetry. It ranges from utterly surreal to unexpectedly moving; and has found a significant legion of fans on the net.

Spam poetry began in the early 2000s, prompted by a competition held by website Satire Wire.

Early spam writers were inspired by the use of the cut-up technique, in which random bits of junk email text are selected, chopped up and then put in a random order. Influential modernist poet William S Burroughs and even singer David Bowie had pioneered this cut-up technique many decades ago.

The development of the Naive Bayes spam filter in the early 2000s made it increasingly difficult for spam messages to break through to a user’s inbox. This filter identifies spam email through word association, and has high success rates. This led spammers to insert rare and unexpected words, or even pieces of literature, into their messages to bypass the filter.

Do not be surprised to find a fragment of Shelley, or a sprinkling of Shakespeare in your spam, interspersed of course with suspiciously cheap mortgage offers.

The internet has long inspired literary innovation. ‘Flarf’ literature would condense search results on Google into hilariously offbeat poems and plays, while novelists Jennifer Egan even used Powerpoint presentations in chapters of her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From The Goon Squad.

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But spam’s writers aim to harness the Internet’s abstract wildness in their poetry. Spam poems take the form of haikus, limericks and concrete poetry. Spam haikus are particularly entertaining:

“Confirm you won fund
You get it without paying
Urgent attention”

It may not have the searing precision of the Japanese masters, but it is nonetheless an intriguing and daring blend of literary forms.

Ben Myers is a journalist and poet whose collection Spam: Email Inspired Poetry in 2008 became one of the movement’s most celebrated works. He connects spam to the early days of the Internet: a vast, unfamiliar territory waiting to be explored.

“I was living in a squat in South London, and had a dial up internet connection and set up my first email account. I started getting all these spam messages coming through, and I was fascinated by the contents. Most of them seemed to be for Viagra, but they were actually copying and pasting lots of passages from classic novels.”

Myers, like other spam poets, would take the contents of these emails and edit them into short poems.  “It reminded me almost of the lyrics of Mark E. Smith. Very abstract, very disjointed. The more I read them, the more they became coherent.”

Spam poetry was unlikely to break into the mainstream, as Myers acknowledges: “There was no way I was going to send it out to big publishers. They wouldn’t be interested. It was from a much more underground, avant-garde tradition really.”

Indeed, while poetry’s traditionalists are unlikely to mention spam poets in the same breath as Byron or Sylvia Plath, the movement reflects a desire to adapt literature to the digital era. Though we may ignore our junk email, literature cannot ignore the internet, which offers what Myers calls a “self-contained glimpse into a strange, alternative reality.”

The evolution of poetry – from daffodils, Grecian urns and roads not taken, to junk email and Google searches – may disorientate some. But spam poetry offers us a way of, potentially, finding beauty in the most unlikely of places. So maybe hold back on deleting those emails: those dodgy insurance salesmen might just write their way into your heart.

Featured Image by : Fiona Leishman



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