There are 184 notes in my iPhone Notes app, dating back to April 2016. Exactly 40 of them contain boring work stuff: things I need to remember, contact details for so-and-so, emails drafted to my boss. Fifteen are opening lines to novels I will likely never write. Eight are shopping lists (gherkins, Nurofen, bin bags). Five are drafts of tweets or Instagram posts. Four are things I ordered inside restaurants which serve "small plates". Three are about money I owe or money that is owed to me.
Four of them defy categorisation: "I am easily one of the ugliest people in the world" written at 10:36 on 5th March 2020; the words "celebrity teeth" inexplicable but undeniable on 11th November 2019 at 23:48.
And then a whopping 82 Notes are poems, or at least the start of poems, or at the very, very least, what could be considered "poetic thoughts".
Bella Hadid does it, so it can’t be that weird. Right? On 10th December 2020, the model posted a meme created by poet Trista Mateer. In it, someone is standing in the corner of a party, thinking the words, "They don’t know that I just wrote a poem in my Notes app". More than 583,000 people liked the post. A week earlier, a viral trend on Twitter saw people posting a selfie alongside a random note from their phone. People shared stray thoughts, lists of places they wanted to travel, drafted breakup texts, recipes and yeah, poems – so many poems. Poems about love, poems about power, poems about Laika, the Soviet space dog who was the first animal to orbit the Earth.
What compels us to jot down poetry and poetic thoughts in our Notes app, of all places? What do our Notes app poems say about the human impulse to write poetry – and could technology be enabling this impulse on an unprecedented scale? What makes a Notes app poem a poem, instead of a diary entry or a mini therapy session or a rushed jumble of thoughts?
The act of writing creatively helps us organise our thoughts and feelings, improves our mood, helps us reflect on our lives and cope after trauma.
James C. Kaufman
"People don’t open up your Notes app and look through your notes. It’s sacred," says Madisen Kuhn, a 24-year-old author and poet from Charlottesville, Virginia. Kuhn has had two poetry collections published by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, after her poems gained popularity on Tumblr when she was in her teens. She writes nearly all of her poems in her iPhone Notes app.
"In books and TV shows that I used to consume when I was younger, writers would always walk around with a little notepad. I feel like we’ve modernised that," Kuhn says. Not only is the Notes app a quick, easy space for her to jot down ideas or emotions, she also edits her poems within the app. "It’s kind of become just a ritual that I do."
"In this life / you and I / are like / helicopter seeds / spiralling down / from the same tree / caught in / the same wind / but destined / for different / pieces of earth," reads the opening to one poem she wrote in the app on 14th November 2018 at 23:38.
Kuhn is a published poet so perhaps her Notes app habit is completely unsurprising. Alaina, an insurance worker from Massachusetts in her late 20s, has written poems this way for the last seven years. She estimates that her Notes app is 75% practical things – grocery lists, recipes, drafted texts, information related to pet care – and the rest is poetry. "It is the main – if not only – outlet for my writing," she says.
Alaina calls her Notes app her "line orphanage" – a term taught to her by a professor in a poetry class she took in college for three weeks (she had to drop out because her schedule was too busy). "It’s someplace, whether it’s physical or digital, where you keep scraps of things," she explains.
"I’ve got no finesse and I think more is better / You know, I get nervous filling the salt shaker," read two Notes app lines that Alaina hopes to expand upon at a later date.
Phone note poetry can take any form – some of mine regrettably rhyme, and many of the ones visible online are expansive, easily filling a phone screen. Yet in many instances, Notes app poems are stylistically similar to "Instapoetry", which was popularised by poet and performer Rupi Kaur in the mid 2010s. Instapoetry tends to be short and easily digestible while the reader scrolls through social media, and critics have lambasted it as somehow lesser.
"I think I get where it’s coming from. I can see how it would be frustrating when people who have worked really hard or been educated a certain way feel like that’s just being completely disregarded," Kuhn says of Instapoetry’s critics. "My opinion is I still love all of modern poetry. And I think it has renewed poetry in pop culture." In 2018, sales of poetry books hit an all-time high in the UK, with 1.3 million volumes sold for £12.3m. The majority of buyers were teenage girls and young women.
People don't open up your Notes app and look through your notes. It's sacred.
It is understandable that this poetry revival has inspired more of us to pick up our pens; it’s even more understandable that when a pen isn’t nearby, we turn to our Notes app and scribble our thoughts there. An impulse to write poetry is age-old. James C. Kaufman is a psychology professor at Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut who specialises in human creativity. "The act of writing creatively helps us organise our thoughts and feelings, improves our mood, helps us reflect on our lives and cope after trauma," Kaufman says. He himself has written phone note poems, as well as using the app to jot down lyrics, thoughts and ideas.
"Poetry offers a number of specific benefits. It tends to be more emotional, which can help with expressing our feelings," he explains. "There is a craft element to it; wanting to perfect and refine a craft can be a very strong motivator. There is an aesthetic element of beauty to poetry, and this can help us appreciate the world, feel connected to others."
Arguably, phone note poetry also offers us something else – the technology actually changes how we experience our work. Time stamps mean we know the exact date and time when we felt a certain way, while cloud technology means all our creative thoughts are collected in one place for years on end. Alaina says that looking back over her old phone note poems helps her process her emotions. "It makes me feel good to realise that nine times out of 10, I don’t feel that way anymore," she says. "I think the fact that it continues on, it doesn’t just exist in a moment or in an hour differentiates it [from diary entries or therapy sessions]."
Katie Malate is a 19-year-old creative writing student from Chicago who has been writing phone note poems for six years. "I was definitely a lot more flowery when I started," she says. She explains that things she sees when out and about inspire her to open the Notes app. "The other day I was on the train; I live in a very flat part of the country with no hills or mountains or anything. And I looked out of the window and saw these clouds in the distance. They looked like mountains. I thought that was a crazy, cool image, and so I wanted to write that down."
Why not share this thought on social media? While a number of social apps have now become places we share any old passing thought, for many people, the Notes app remains the one truly private space on our phone (Malate compares it to a journal). Over the last few years, celebrities have used the Notes app to write apologies for their misdemeanours before posting screenshots of the note on social media. In doing so, they capitalise on the Notes app’s reputation as a vulnerable, personal space and turn something private into something public without losing that authenticity. Malate used the December selfie-and-note-sharing Twitter trend to share one of her poems about Laika, a dog that died in 1957 after being sent into outer space by Sputnik 2. "I don’t post my writing online that much but when I do, I am aware that it is just a work in progress," Malate says. A Notes app screenshot arguably helps to reinforce that idea.
"I cried about her again on the train platform / How she fell for a false warmth," read the poem’s opening lines.
On Apple’s support page for Notes, the company lists a multitude of uses for the app. "Home renovation project" is one example note. Others are titled "Beach inspiration", "Contractor notes", "Landscaping", "Family fun" and "Lacy’s birthday". There are no poems – the app wasn’t designed for those. Yet there they are, regardless.