The Trump Insult Haiku

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Josh Marshall, "Metrical Analysis of Trump Insult Haiku", TPM 2/28/2016:

Trump doesn't just tweet. He's developed a sort of twitter-based, 140 character, insult haiku literary form. […]

The metrical pattern is deceptively simple: Single clause declarative sentence, single clause declarative sentence, primary adjective/term of derision.

Josh cites pure examples like these:

As Geoff Pullum points out in the comments, the two initial clauses need not be grammatically declarative — in the first example, the second clause is imperative. And sometimes the final "term of derision" is an evaluative noun phrase rather than an adjective:

There's a variant where the final "term of derision" is replaced by a call to action:

Or where the final evaluation is split into a short statement with an evaluative appositive adjective:

And there are cases where one of the two opening clauses is embedded into the other one:

The term "metrical" is not entirely appropriate here, since the TIH form is a pattern of rhetorical gestures (though of course constrained by the 140-character limit) rather than a pattern of syllable or stress counts.

But Josh is clearly onto something. He ends this way:

I am looking for an English professor or perhaps a linguist who can perform a more expert analysis on this.

I suggest a team effort to kick off the field of Trump Insult Haiku Studies.

Update — more here, and especially here.



  1. raempftl said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 8:01 am

    Reminds me of the opta tweets ( Maybe Trump is actually a soccer hipster.

    [(myl) Clearly prior art — now I wonder whether it's parallel evolution or cultural diffusion…]

  2. William said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 8:18 am

    >> the field of Trump Insult Haiku Studies

    Or, Studies of Haiku Insults by Trump, abbreviated to …

  3. DaveM said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 8:50 am

    Saw this last night. Thought it was a natural for a Language Log post. Prescient!

  4. leoboiko said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 8:57 am

    I want to be offended by even further dilution of the term "haiku", but this is too good.

  5. mike said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 9:06 am

    >I suggest a team effort to kick off the field of Trump Insult Haiku Studies.

    Or heck, a Trump Insult "Haiku" (pace @leoboiko) generator.

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 11:49 am

    @DaveM: I see what you did there.

  7. Tom Ace said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 1:31 pm

    The first example doesn't fit the form (second sentence is imperative, not declarative).

    And in the 8th example the first sentence is declarative. Clause type should be removed from the structural characterization. It's Clause + Clause + Predicative AdjP or NP. —Geoff Pulllum

  8. Yastreblyansky said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 4:32 pm

    I learned that the Flesch-Kincaid scale has risen again, in the hands of Dana Millbank at the Washington Post.

    Dr. Carson, when he claimed the other night that "our nation is heading off the abyss of destruction", was rated at 10th-grade level; Trump, of course, hit 2nd grade at the Nevada caucus (where Sanders and Cruz were in 9th grade, Clinton in 7th), but ranged in the recent debate from 3rd to 5th grade (when he talked about illegal immigration).

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 5:18 pm

    Repeating a depreciative description of someone, as in "little Morty Zuckerman" and "lightweight Marco Rubio", suggests that short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump learned something from Spy magazine.

  10. Ray said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 11:23 pm

    I think it's safe to assume that trump and other celebs don't personally write their own tweets, and that their writers are pretty much hired on as the latest pupils of the same old Schools of Haiku Insult Tweets.

  11. JS said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 1:25 am

    All commenters should be expressing their views in the manner of DaveM. It's Language Log tradition, and all. Disappointing.

  12. Y said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 5:32 am

    I want to be offended by even further dilution of the term "haiku"…
    Cruz is a liar.
    Rubio does not have what it
    takes. So pathetic!

  13. leoboiko said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 11:33 am

    That's still a diluted definition. No season-word, no dialogue with the poetic tradition. Not haiku!

    Pathetic campaign: Jeb's hopes are now over.
    Summer grasses!

    Though I'm a linguist too, and words change. I have to accept the new meaning of "haiku". Shikaga ga nai!

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

    Trump's campaign burgeons
    Like the cherry trees. Super
    Tuesday's at hand. Gross.

    If I knew anything about the poetic tradition, I could probably come up with some dialogue with it.

  15. Neil Dolinger said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 1:30 pm

    While traditional haiku form included a season reference, some modern haiku writers, even in Japan according to the Wikipedia article, have drifted away from that. "Hate Haiku" appears to be a thing — close to 2400 ghits. And while many of the first few pages of links were of the "I hate haiku" nature, most of them really were pages featuring haikus filled with hateful ideas. Alas, where some of our muses take us….

  16. DaveM said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

    Perhaps we can find in this unusual meteorological season an analogue for this unusual political season…

    Trump’s winter blossoms
    like those of the cherry tree
    bear no autumn fruit

  17. leoboiko said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 2:27 pm

    @Friedman: Yeah, that's the little-known secret of classical haiku: the season-words and nature scenes were tinged with the nuances of a highly codified literary tradition. They weren't just imagistic photographs; each subject carried with it a well-defined "established meaning" (hon'i), set in place after ten centuries' worth of poetry. Haiku poets prized originality, but they didn't just break with this tradition; rather, they've breathed new life into it, by juxtaposing mundane (zoku) motifs with the traditional elegant (ga) tropes, and by finding novel ways of expression without abandoning the ages-old aesthetics. By this synthesis, the classical themes were brought back to the present world, so to speak; while the mundane, too, was elevated by their presence.

    In my parody above, "summer grasses" isn't just a portrayal of a nature scene, but an allusion (honka-dori) to the following famous haiku by Bashō:

    summer grasses:
    nothing besides remains of warrior's dreams.

    Of course, the disadvantage of this kind of literature is that it goes right over our modern heads; even though Bashō introduced the above verse with "The nation broken […] the grasses are deep", we're unlikely to notice that this wasn't prose, but a quotation from Du Fu's Spring View (unless we're provided with footnotes, but that's a bit like explaining a joke). The surface-level "photographic" quality of haiku, on the other hand, transplants well to other cultures, so I find it reasonable that this is the part of haiku that foreigners focused on.

    My beef is with calling any set of 5-7-5 lines a "haiku", without including even a season-word or imagistic imagery, let alone traditional poetics. I don't even think that the metrical form translates well to English 5-7-5 syllables (in other words, I find 5-7-5 to be the least important part of the haiku form, as far as translation is concerned). First of all, in Japanese this is a mora count, not a syllable count (when imitating Greek dactylic hexameter, do English poets render each long beat as two syllables?). What's more, there's a primary "line" (gyō) unit, creating a caesura that's stronger than the tripartite "verses"; the typical rhythm is one of "5; 7-5" or "5-7; 5". Also they're all written in a single line, so that the reader has to find out the rhythm; sometimes this is used for syntactic play and deliberate ambiguity.

    Readers who want a longer treatment in English are pointed to Kawamoto's The Poetics of Japanese Verse and Shirane's Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō.

    @Neil: Season-less haiku is still haiku by my book, as long as it takes into account hon'i and "awakening to the high, returning to the low" (indeed, one could argue that the purpose of the season-words is this connection to poetry). But by the point of "hate haiku", the word has drifted too far to my tastes (unless its use is meant to be deliberately inappropriate, like saying "hate prayers"). It's not like the 5-7-5 count is exclusive to haiku; alternating 5-7 verses is the basis of all Japanese poetry, right from the start of the written record. Those "hate haiku" seems to me to be closer to a kind of senryū (satirical 5-7-5 verses), except they're humorless and boring.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 9:35 pm

    leoboiko: Thanks for the discussion!

    (in other words, I find 5-7-5 to be the least important part of the haiku form, as far as translation is concerned)

    But an essential part of the fun for English-speaking parodists. Real poets in English don't worry about the syllable count of what they call haiku.

    Some here might be interested in Amiri Baraka's "low coups"—and some might not.

  19. Y said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 10:01 pm

    Another parodist's standard is the sound-imitative monosyllable starting the first line. Where did that start?

  20. Joyce Melton said,

    March 2, 2016 @ 3:22 pm

    Reminds me of a party game we used to enjoy back in the 80s. We called it Haiku Jitsu: insults delivered as haiku.

    Points were given for wordplay, allusion, alliteration and vividness of imagery.

    At the moment, I only remember one example:

    Was the hobgoblin that last
    Wore those plaid trousers.

  21. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 4:56 am

    Trump insult haikus as book reviews

  22. Logo said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 9:18 am

    It looks more like latin clausulae, and sometimes ambitus, than haïkus. Or metric prose, if you don't know what clausulae are.

    Metric prose doesn't need to be fully metrical, I think that the comparison with any kind of versification, including alliterative meters, is a bit off-topic… And metric prose was used for rhetorical purposes, typically involving catchy and effective rhythms and varietas, just like Trump.

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