Feeling whimsical one
day when I heard of a new product magnetic
letters for the car bumper, 84 characters in the kit
I invented a new poetry form called
"Bumpers." Immediately my lawyer-friend
Lawrence Leone and I started sending the
unpretentious little poems back and forth by e-mail.
The simple rule for this kind of wordplay is that
each poem-link must consist of exactly 84 characters,
To work up 84's, one depends on the computer's
Word-Counter (usually found under Tools), which is
why -- along with the e-mail connection -- I claim
Bumpers to be the first strictly "cyber"
poetic form. BTW, if your Character Counter (a subset
of the Word Counter) includes spaces, for convenience
you may let those be part of the 84's as well.
Friends can "bump" back-and-forth
("bumpercars") or hey, you can write
Bumpers strictly for an audience of one, sending them
only to yourself, answering your ping with your own
More enabling than solitaire, this practice serves to
dispel mental clouds and allows a writer (amateurs
particularly invited!) to relax into sky mind. Or try
your next business memo in bumper form and see how
the process lifts your spirit even with the driest
Maria dollink, the Schwartz invoice
has gotten all f'cocked, o would
you dreadfully mind re-doing?
gotcha, Martin: "dollink" is an
And now I have a copy!
/center> Ping-Ponging Bumpers
Exchanging bumpers, the trick for each link is to
bang off at something that extends the sequence
thematically, but at a bit of an angle from what the
previous 84 offered. "Tell all the truth / But
tell it slant" Emily Dickinson wrote (could be
she's the real inventor of "Bumpers"!)
Collaborators while ping-ponging may agree in advance
on a broad subject like "the Info
Age," or "Fathers," "James
Joyce," "Children" among many others
that Lawrence and I have composed. But it may be more
fun, with more surprises ("how did we get onto
sex again?!") to just let exchanges find their
own gradual way without a set topic.
Once a sequence starts to get unwieldy in length, we
declare a halt with a Bumper that has a nice
closure-feeling about it, and start a new series.
These 84's seem to hover in aesthetic effect between
Chinese 4-line wisdom poems and the Japanese tanka (a
haiku plus a follow-up couplet producing a five line
poem with traditional syllable-count 5,7,5,7,7).
Closest to tanka in flavor, Bumpers have a tang all
their own, and an ability to say just about anything
due to their casualness and flexibility.
In the heat of a speedy response, you'll often take
off on a line with no way to anticipate how a final
product might result. As with any literary
"form," content needs to adjust to
restriction: rhyme or refrain or 14 lines to a
sonnet, whatever supplies a limiting requirement.
Length limitation itself often nudges a Bumper-writer
toward a new strategy or the joy of an unexpected
To encourage casual use, I wanted a short form not
burdened by tradition like the Persian Rubaiyat or
Chinese quatrain, the Haiku or Tanka, the English
epigram. Bumpers offer a rare combination of openness
and rigor. It's one thing to "commit" a
poem most unused to the art will quail,
thinking oh I must have a profound insight or a
special image to offer but throwing down
anyoldthing to start, which is what Bumper-use
encourages, and then going on to the delicious
cunning, concision, extendings and revisings caused
by the arbitrary formal constraint, ah that's where
the special attraction comes into play.
I confess: the number "84" as a rigor-maker
was chosen out of the air. I wish I could say that a
consciousness of the number 84 being used by the
Buddha was part of the motivation, but that only
occurred to me later (Buddha is said to have given a
total of 84 Thousand teachings).
One could, of course, write 77's instead of 84's.
That would work. Or go the other way, set up the
crucial formal requirement as 99. But experience
tells me that anything much less than the high 70's
or much more than 100 will miss the mystery of the
Bumper's utility. Shorter forms lead to a challenge
much more like that of the Haiku (those only look easy
to write!) and longer limits place the carefree
writer back in the quandary of "committing
poetry" from scratch (with all its need for
special talents and impulses).
Lawrence likes to call them "mind cookies."
to the bumpers.