The story in “100 chars” is told in three line stanzas, each containing 100 characters of text. The primary form of communication is what I’ll refer to as texting language and it makes use of acronyms, onomatopoetic spelling, and character pictures, or glyphs (a term taken from the word hieroglyphic.) The story is about a man who lives his life vicariously through the stories that he shares on social media, and whose own life experiences are overshadowed by the virtual ones that he writes about. He shares the tragic stories of men who fall from greatness.
In creating a character like the man in “100 chars,” Agbabi is highlighting the propensity to comment on life and others through social media platforms, like Twitter or Facebook, rather than participate in life itself. We are a culture that values the responses of others, often at the expense of the actual experience. Re-sharing and retweeting other’s work is considered a form of active participation. Isolation and preoccupation are sometimes exchanged for digital content creation, and experiences and relationships are somehow missing from the equation. The man in “100 chars” is more concerned with curating a social media status, rather than actively participating in the world around him. Ironically, though, both Chaucer and Agbabi are retelling the tales of others in their own work. In a way, this is retweeting literature at its finest.
Agbabi is retelling Chaucer’s The Monk’s Tale, a compilation of stories told about historical figures who have fallen from greatness and died tragic deaths, striving to show what a virtuous life looks like by relating stories about other people. In Agbabi’s rewriting of The Monk’s Tale, the social media existence of the man in “100 chars” is the tragedy. The man tries to work out the meaning of a good life, but neglects to live his own in the process. In this way, Agbabi’s poem serves as critique on The Monk’s Tale.
“100 chars” is told by an author with the user name ‘monkey@puzzle.’ We know from the biography that the speaker is a lover of words because they create crossword puzzles that are printed in newspapers. The author’s inspiration for the form of this poem is twofold: the first being the line from The Monk’s Tale introduction, “… first, tragedies won I tell,/ of which I have an hundred in my cell” and the second being a quote from poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Duffy has referred to poetry as “a form of texting… it’s the original text.” (Agbabi, “Author Biographies”) As the title implies, Agbabi uses a 100 character limit for each stanza of her poem. This limit is reminiscent of the character limit imposed on twitter users, or old-school T9 text messaging fragmentation. Agbabi accomplishes a few things by adopting this texting language. First, the language acts like a wall. It protects the users from the outside world, keeping them separate and secret. Second, the language also acts as a signifier of group identification. It signals to the outside world that the user/texter is part of the “in” crowd because they have access to and understand this secret language or code. Also, this texting language is a code that is regulated by social norm. It evolves as it is used and by those who use it. The ability to control a social situation may arise from a users ability to express themselves in this language, or their mastery over it (For more on this, see listed works by danah boyd.) Agbabi gives us a character who is both powerless, in his isolation and inactivity in the real world, but somehow simultaneously powerful, because he manages to master this coded language.
In an interview with The Guardian, Duffy speaks about the Facebook generation and their relationship to poetry. She feels that poetry is a perfect language for the youth of today who are so familiar with texting language, because it is a form that allows you to say more with less. Poetry and texting language are ways we can engage actively with language. As Duffy explains, “…it’s language as play” (Moorhead, “Poems Are a Form of Texting”). This idea of language as play is reflected in the stanzas of 100 chars. Agbabi makes a game out of reading this poem and searching for the meaning in the coded language.
Researching this tale and the coded texting language that it adopts was reminiscent of reading Chaucer in the original Middle English. Some words and aspects of the language were familiar, but others looked and sounded quite foreign. In order to understand Canterbury Tales, I had to learn the Middle English code. And to understand “100 chars,” I had to understand the texting language code. The relationship between Middle and Modern English is evocative of the relationship between Modern English and this texting language. And the skill set used to decipher one — close reading, contextualizing, and research — was helpful in deciphering the other.
Another layer of complexity that the texting language adds to this tale is the question it raises about the oral performance of this work. How is one supposed to read this work aloud? “100 chars” was meant to be read and its symbology viewed. If we believe the trope that these tales are being performed as part of a poetry slam on a Routemaster bus en route to Canterbury, how does the the performer speak this tale aloud? While I’ve found videos of Agbabi performing her work from Telling Tales on youTube, I haven’t found a video of her performing the “100 chars” section. I’m not sure whether it has been performed live or not, but I would be very curious in seeing how an artist tackles this work in live, spoken performance.
100 chars Characters. Both a reference to the number of characters in each stanza of the poem, and also the 100 tales the monk has to choose from in Chaucer’s tale. “Or ellis first tragedies wol i telle,/ of whiche i have an hundred in my celle.” The monk chose to reference 100 men, while monkey@puzzle chooses to play with 100 characters.
Monkey A reference to the Monk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, who is the narrative voice for a collection of tragic stories where powerful men suffer a reversal of fortune and fall from places of high honor. Monkey@puzzle is a user name, or a unique identifier used in online profiles instead of formal, legal names. They are usually chosen by the user to represent an aspect of their character they wish to emphasize. User names and profiles are important tools in online relationship building. For more about monkey@puzzle, see the headnote.
1 opN fires Open fires: attack, verbally
2 3rd eye The area in the middle of the forehead, primarily the location of the pineal gland. In Hinduism and Buddhism, this is also a reference to intuition, insight and second sight.
3 fulstop Full stop: punctuation mark (period) indicating termination of speech.
5 pebble -lyf Pebble-life. The reference to pebble meaning a small, rough rock. Implying the life this person leads is both constrained and not easy.
8 f8. Fate. An example of a kind of text or chat abbreviation or shorthand.
12 dntnta Do Not Enter
13 666 Originating from the Bible’s Book of revelations, the number 666 generally references Satan.
13 Lucifer The name given to mean Satan from the King James version of the bible.
15 tweet A post or message on twitter, limited to 140 characters that is sent to a person’s followers.
15 status ^update Status update: A post on a social networking site, such as Facebook or similar, that allows users to share with their followers or friends. It generally consists of what a user is thinking, feeling, doing, location or other details regarding their current situation. The content of Twitter is generally made up of status updates. In relation to Agbabi’s poem, these short tweets or status updates are more likely to describe what this character is not doing or experiencing, rather than what he is engaged in. The use of litotes (the affirmation of a characteristic by the use of the negative of the contrasting characteristic) emphasizes the fact that this character is living a passive existence, engaged with social media rather than with the physical world around him.
13-15 An allusion to Chaucer’s stanza about Lucifer, the brightest of all angels who fell to hell and became Satan.
16 widescreen 4 smallscreen Widescreen as a reference to a television or computer monitor and smallscreen a reference to a mobile phone screen. Perhaps Agbabi is alluding to the man’s shrinking field of vision as he reduces his real life experiences in exchange for social media engagement?
21 =o&o> A glyph, or an abstract graphic symbol. This one looks like a motorcycle.
23 nekN Nicking, nicked: stolen
23 wyt White.
22-24 Alluding to Adam, who grew up in the field that later became the site of Damascus, stole the apple from the tree and was driven out of paradise to labor and ruin.
26 skin The natural external covering of an animal or human body. Also relating to the outermost covering of an object.
27 fings Things. Known as Th-fronting: where the “f” sound replaces the “th” sound in pronunciation of a word.
25-27 Reference to the shirt Hercules’ second wife, Dianara, gave him. This shirt contained venom from the arrow that Hercules used to shoot and kill Nessus, the centaur. Nessus told Dianara that the shirt would revive the love of the person who wore it. Dianara gave the shirt to Hercules to strengthen and renew his love, but instead, it poisoned him.
28 w@ Wat, texting language spelling of the word what
30 knew/know/no/note Notice the alliterative quality in this stanza. An example of language at play, Agbabi is grouping together words that sound similar but have different meanings.
35 OTF Possibly an acronym for “on the floor”
34-36 From the book of Daniel in the Bible, Chaucer’s Nebuchadnezzar was a proud and arrogant king, who at the hand of God, suffers a period of madness in which he behaves like a beast.
38 triptych A picture or carving in three pieces, usually hinged so that the outer pictures fold in over the center. Often, an altarpiece.
37-39 Another reference to the book of Daniel, in which Daniel interprets cryptic writing on the wall for Balshazzar, warning him that because he has not honored God, he will have his kingdom taken away from him.
40 h&s Hands
41 >-armwrestler Another glyph representation, possibly the arms of the arm wrestler.
40-42 Early in her life, Zenobia fled from the social norms expected of women, namely marriage and childbirth. She instead referred to perform feats of strength and daring. When she did consent to marry, she controlled when and how often her husband could have intercourse with her, further demonstrating her masculine will and dominance. After her husband died, she continued to rule the Palmyrian city state, until she was overthrown by the Romans, forced to labor to make her living thereafter.
45 X-( An emoticon, or emotion icon. Sometimes referred to as smileys, these pictures are used to portray emotion, feeling, and mood.
43-45 Known as Peter the Cruel, Pedro King of Castille was murdered by his half-brother Enrique.
47 *vin Starving
46-48 Ugolino, Earl of Pisa was an Italian nobleman, accused of treachery, imprisoned with his sons and grandson and left to starve to death in a tower.
53 NcyD Inside
52-54 Holofernes and Antiochus: The story of Holofernes comes from the book of Judith. Holofernes is a celebrated general and at war with the Jews. He is beheaded as he sleeps by Judith, allowing the Jews to defeat the Assyrians. As told in 2 Maccabees in the Bible, Antiochus is punished by God for his arrogance by suffering the constant pain of being eaten by tapeworms from the inside out.
55 \~!~/ Another glyph, possibly a poisoned drink
56 numba-pL8 Number plate: license plate
55-57 Alexander and Julius Caesar: Alexander the Great, the King of Macedon who conquered the Persian Empire. His death is historically attributed to poisoning. Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor who was assassinated while his friends stood by and watched, or worse, actively participated.
59 rev A single revolution of an engine, or, the sound an engine makes while revving. Also, to stir up or kick start, move forward. Agbabi makes an interesting play with words here, as reverse and rev share a similar sounds but represent opposite directions.
62 predictiv A reference to predictive typing: A technology that allows a device to predict what word a user is trying to type based on the letters entered and the context of the phrase.
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