Cryptic Poetry: why bother?

Words exist to communicate. Each one is a dense dollop of meaning flung from my mind to yours. That is the purpose of words. Why then do people write words without meaning? I’m talking here about a certain species of bad poetry – cryptic poetry. Words that are so indecipherable they communicate nothing. They fail as words. Why write them?

Dew of mist

All the butterflies are dead

This year

Inject the soul with


Was that a poem? I created it by stringing random words together with a little syntactic glue. It has no purpose. It has no meaning. It is an empty shell of hollow words. This poem has meaning in the same way clouds have faces.  Yet the internet is awash in this sort of cryptic meaningless poetry.

Why? A lack of skill? Some people out there do seem to think that merely putting words

on different


makes it

a poem.

It doesn’t.

Slap on top a belief that poetry must be about obscure personal emotions and out pops cryptically bad poetry. It’s like listening to someone talk in their sleep. We can’t join their dreams.

My heart aches

The cinnamon bun

You know.

Another possibility is a neurological problem. Serious. It’s called word salad. It’s a symptom of dementia, schizophrenia, and brain injury.

Wall speaks

Windy hot mess, cloud blues;

A shelf lay fuschia,

In worlds with pencils.

I hope this is rather rare cause of bad poetry, but one can’t escape the resemblance.

However, incompetence and injury aside, to truly understand the popularity of cryptically bad poetry, I’m sorry to say this, we’re going to have to ask Deepak Chopra. Yes. Deepak Chopra. To be more precise, a random word generator with the uncanny ability to mimic a tweet by Deepak Chopra.

Can you guess which of these is the real Deepak, and which is the random Deepak machine? (The answers are at the end.)

“Reality is the consciousness that projects the illusion.”

“Formless Being is ultimate reality Liberation of Consciousness from Identification with Form through Non-reactivity.”

“Your consciousness is reborn in universal possibilities.”

“Self-power is the womb of total acceptance of abstract beauty.”

The Deepak machine was used in a 2015 study by psychologists from the University of Waterloo. It won science’s second highest honor after the Noble prizes (and all those other prizes) – the Ignoble Prize. The topic? It was titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.”

Bullshit. Pseudo-profound bullshit. That, I believe, is what we are dealing with here.

They define pseudo-profound bullshit as “seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.” And they found that people will frequently rate a meaningless randomly generated buzzword sentence as profound. People buy bullshit.

Seeing how easy it is to write cryptically bad poetry by stringing together random words, I would say that it counts as pseudo-profound bullshit. It gives the impression of deep meaning without having any actual deep meaning.

So why is there so much bullshit poetry?

From the poet’s point of view bullshit emanates out of a desire to impress, to seem profound, to get clicks on the like button. As people will happily slurp up bullshit, you’ll seldom be challenged on the fact that all your poetry is empty nonsense. That, or you’re a random word generator.

Oh, spring forth

flying quantum space time of

my soul!

From the readers point of view? We expect poetry to be profound, we are accustomed to it being difficult, and we intend to read it intuitively – souls wide open.  We put ourselves in the optimal bullshit-absorption state. The expectation creates gullibility. The lack of confidence makes us confuse “I don’t get it” with “This is profound.” And the intuitiveness disarms our analytical firewalls. The bullshit slides right on down.

Ah, zeitgeist

dust motes

dancing on the minds

of this is bullshit!


Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole

Pennycook et al. (2015). On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 6. Here.

The Deepak tweet generator,

(ANSWER: For the Deepak quotes, the first two are from Deepak’s twitter, the second two are randomly generated. How well did you do?)

© Under Obvious, 2017.

Is Post-truth True?

Whenever you say, “I live in a post-truth world.” you prove yourself wrong. You can say “we”, you can say “they”, but you can’t say “I”.


“Post-truth” is used to describe a world in which facts don’t matter. Emotion trumps truth. Yet, to say “post-truth” means that you care enough about the truth to point out the truth of post-truth, and that you have enough truth to decide that post-truth is true, all of which is very un-post-truth of you. Therefore, every time you describe our age as post-truth, you in some small way disprove yourself. Unless of course you are only using the word “post-truth” as an emotional wrecking ball, in which case you just proved post-truth is true.

It gets worse.

The sudden popularity of the word “post-truth” may simultaneously create and destroy the world it describes. Let’s start with the creation – “post-truth” leading to less truth.

1) Dividing the world into two eras, a “post-truth” and a pre-Trump “truth”, obscures the truth. Politics has been theatre for some time. Remember the Iraq war? Society and the media drifted off into a fantasy land of WMD and Al-Qaeda connections. In 2005 Stephen Colbert coined “Truthiness” to point out the same thing. The word “post-truth” was coined in 1992 by a writer describing what he called “Watergate Syndrome”: a preference for wilful ignorance.

Trump’s so-wrong-it’s-not-lying style is also not new. It’s called bullshit. That’s “bullshit” in the technical sense of the term. In 1986, Harry Frankfurt wrote “On Bullshit” pointing out the kind of talk where the concern is not with truth or untruth, but with impact. Trump is a bullshitter par excellence. And Bullshit is an art form as old as humanity.

2) If you believe the other side cares about truth, then you will try engage with them. But if you think the other side has gone “post-truth”? The solutions become rather different.




Yet both sides seem to believe in truth. We have at least two big problems that will get worse if “post-truth” becomes a conversation stopping label:

  • Historically, social networks have underpinned all manner of bizarre rumors. What’s new is that we are in a world of global hyper-rumors, spreading through splintered networks which never listen to each other.
  • On the right are many people who can be described as having a “Right-wing Authoritarian” personality which is defined by hostility, conformity, and over-submission to authority. Finding the truth consists of listening to the leader, copying your neighbor, and kicking the crap out of the enemy. The rise of post-truth represents not the decline of a concern about truth, but the mobilization of a block of people who are very easily misled. And when they’re led by a bullshit artist…. Some one has to keep them in touch with reality.

3) Point out all the bullshit and people will see bullshit everywhere. Trust in all sources of media will fall. Where will these people go? Some will retreat to the people they trust: their social circle, the world of hyper-rumor.

Now for the destruction. “Post-truth” reveals an extraordinary concern with truth. Fact checkers are popular. The big online players may start putting “truth” into the algorithms. The need for critical thinking skills, real journalism, and verified facts is being spotlighted like never before.  A fish doesn’t care about water until it’s on land. We didn’t care about truth until Trump.

In summary “post-truth” reveals the power of language. Naming is an act of creation. Not only of a word, but of a reality. What world the word “post-truth” will help create remains to be seen. If we are lucky, “post-truth” will destroy post-truth.


Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

Watch Colbert on Post-truth vs Truthiness, plus some examples of a post-truth world in action. Here.

The Nation revisits 1992’s lesson on post-truth. Here.

Watch Harry Frankfurt discussing bullshit. Here.

Bob Altemeyer’s book on authoritarian personalities. Available for free here.


© Under Obvious, 2016.