The recent explosion of plum memes on social media — specifically, references to William Carlos Williams’s famous poem “This Is Just To Say,” which you probably studied in ninth grade and still remember — is not a random occurrence.
But if you’re feeling confused, worry not, fellow internet traveler. While it’s true that millennial humor has been shamed here and there for its apparent tendency toward Dadaist nonsense, layers of built-in meme-savviness, and bleak absurdism ...
... the rise of the “This Is Just To Say” meme has a couple of logical, easy-to-understand precursors that even those most wearied and burdened by referential internet jokes can appreciate.
Let’s take a look at them!
The “This Is Just To Say” plum meme has its roots in an Ernest Hemingway “baby shoes” meme
I know, I know, it’s Friday, and you weren’t expecting to be saddled with one highbrow literary reference, much less two. But pay attention, because this is Internet Culture at its coolest.
As a refresher, here is the text of “This Is Just To Say,” which Williams published in 1934:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
It’s a good poem! But it’s not the only element present in the jokes about plums that are currently dominating Twitter. Instead, we must start with Ernest Hemingway’s famous “six-word novel,” which spans all of a single sentence:
For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.
But surprise! Hemingway actually didn’t originate this story, and may not have ever written it at all, even though it lives on in meme form in his name. Sorry to crush your dreams, but as it turns out, we’re just getting started.
The cultural fascination with “baby shoes, never worn” has been part of America’s communal lexicon for about a century. The idea of the “six-word story” is a recurring, romanticized idea, and it’s kept the original concept of the Hemingway-attributed baby shoes tale alive. Essentially, “baby shoes” was a 20th-century meme, before the concept took that name. And the more recent evolution of flash fiction and social media, specifically on Twitter, has furthered the story concept’s clout online.
Twitter, after all, required very short and pithy statements until very recently, which helped keep this particular six-word short story as a running gag on the platform for ages. The meme’s expansion is uniquely tied to Twitter and the succinctness of its original 140-character limit.
It’s not really accurate to say that baby shoes has always been a Twitter meme in the usual sense. Rather, it’s been a persistently reoccurring phrase and joke across the platform. But it recently got several boosts into the forefront of our collective consciousness, starting with this tweet from June:
This tweet combines the “baby shoes” idea with the Williams poem — the first prominent instance of such that I’ve been able to locate. Though it would take a few months for them to be reunited once more, that glorious moment has now arrived.
The brevity of the six-word “story” made the “baby shoes” meme the perfect meme for Twitter in its former 140-character state (RIP). But then Twitter began experimenting with allowing longer tweets in September, and ultimately committed to a controversial expansion to a new 280-character limit.
What to do with “baby shoes” in a world no longer restricted to short tweets?
Thanks to the tweet above, the baby shoes meme was resurging by October:
This viral concept would be echoed repeatedly as Twitter users tested out their new expanded character limits:
Re-enter the plums, which take full advantage of Twitter’s new 280-character limit
Remember that very first tweet from early summer that combined the baby shoes meme with “This Is Just To Say”?
On October 10, a variant of that tweet made the rounds and went even more viral:
And lo, the combination baby-shoes-and-plums meme began to spread — but this time, the plums overtook the shoes. By mid- to late-November, there were plums everywhere:
Lest you fear that the “baby shoes” meme has been abandoned, rest assured that it persists, even if it’s not as obviously prevalent. It’s also still being remixed with the reigning champ.
And the most recent development in the shoe-plum saga is that the two memes have even been joined by a third contender, another 20th-century modernist poet who’s ready to play:
I, for one, welcome our new millennial literary overlords from an entire century ago. I’m writing my “13 ways of memeing a blackbird” contribution as we speak.