At Last I See, It's Poetry
By Craig Winneker
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page B04
Here's my "Reply All" to e-mail spammers: I surrender.
No, I haven't finally broken down and paid good money in the hopes of obtaining "amaz.ing price:s on pop.ular soft,war.e" or even "a bu'lky p*0l-e". Nor have I forged a long-term financial relationship with a down-on-her-luck Nigerian princess.
Rather, I have given in to the mysterious wisdom of it all. I've become mesmerized by the unintentional elegance of the language of spam. It's as if some marketing matrix has been disseminating pure but encoded poetry, and suddenly, like Keanu Reeves's Neo, I can see it all so clearly. I realize now that I can't do anything about the hundreds of breathless -- and, in most cases, shameless -- come-ons cramming my e-mail inbox every morning. But suddenly, I no longer want to. Powerless against the barrage, I've decided to treat it as the art I now understand it to be. Bear with me as I attempt to deconstruct.
Many of the mailings seem to follow a pattern: a strange, randomly generated name in the "From" line ("Clarissa Cortes," "Damien Foote," "Debbie Butts") followed by something innocuous in the "Subject" line ("your account," "re: approved," "he is your brother in the video inequitable"). Then comes a message that starts with a few words of gibberish to throw off filters looking for spam keywords. And finally the sales pitch, hawking those all-too-familiar, totally unwanted products: diplomas, discount pharmaceuticals, physical enhancements of every conceivable (and occasionally, I must admit, inconceivable) type, home mortgages, etc. -- often all from the same vendor.
The sales pitches themselves are expendable, but everything else in these messages fascinates me. I'm hooked on the accouterments, the anti-spam countermeasures. They are not only wildly creative, they are downright erudite. More than one has sent me scurrying to the reference shelf (or at least AskJeeves.com). The text of one recent mailing begins: "They are eloquent who can speak low things acutely, and of great things with dignity, and of moderate things with temper. The little trouble in the world that is not due to love is due to friendship."
The first part is a quote from Cicero, but after extensive searching, I've decided that the second part -- despite the patina of philosophical authority -- is the matrix's own creation. Please don't e-mail me if you know differently.
Quotations of all kinds, always unattributed, make their way into these messages. When French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said that "Language is a form of human reason, which has its internal logic of which man knows nothing," little did he know that his words would be used to pitch "cheep vi@gr@."
And even though a certain spammer didn't tell me, I now know, thanks to Google, that Luther Burbank said this: "If we had paid no more attention to our plants than we have to our children, we would now be living in a jungle of weed." But I don't think the eminent horticulturist went on to say what my spammer did: "Which side of the bed did you get out of this morning, then? :))))" It's all supposedly in the effort to sell me something that promises to increase my "circumference." Instead, it's blowing my mind.
As for those randomly generated names, I'm captivated by them. Sometimes they're actually believable, and even have a certain ring to them. "Concepcion Quinones" sounds like an MSNBC anchorperson -- but a cool one, of course. Other times, though, the marketing matrix can outwit itself. How else to explain "Mohammad McLaughlin"?
I've also noticed that the names almost always have a middle initial. Take the wonderfully monikered Ameslan G. Oversaw, for example. I have him (her?) to thank for this elegant spam haiku: "Geronimo!/Nothing is so dangerous as an ignorant friend/Low rates on Software."
There is also Thriftiest H. Frosting, who offers "Quality and cheap meds here, Cwinneker," and even Inflicting H. Conversions, who sent me the following message/challenge: "Ciao, baby! :) The first day one is a guest, the second a burden, and the third a pest. What has become clear to you since we last met?" (It doesn't surprise me that 'H' is so commonly chosen to punctuate these names -- wasn't it also Jesus's middle initial?)
In another message, the word generator seemed to have spiraled out of control, producing a DeLillo-esque cascade of consonants: "cheeky flaxen cowboy guano fuchs gallery durance assumption apothegm commission clove gave chromium haney burlington pagoda halite denny rowdy itinerary saccade significant eastland corrigible emerald." It gets better every time I read it.
Oops, my Microsoft Outlook's little piano doink informs me that I have some incoming spam. This e-mail just might be the most eloquent of all. It says, simply:
"wrinkle disappearance. yo."
Cicero couldn't have said it better.
Craig Winneker is a writer living in Brussels, where spam is sometimes called pâte. He can be reached by e-mail, if his inbox isn't already full.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company