The rise of Jordan Peterson as a conservative intellectual figure had everything to do with his rhetoric. The Canadian psychologist and professor first entered the public spotlight in 2016 by denouncing students at the University of Toronto who preferred to use gender-neutral pronouns. His 2018 bestseller, 12 Rules for Life, argues for traditional values as inseparable from social order. Online, he strikes an endlessly confrontational pose — responding, for example, to a 2022 Twitter suspension for deadnaming the actor Elliot Page with the immortal pronouncement, “Up yours, woke moralists! We’ll see who cancels who.”

Like the compulsive poster he is, Peterson has since returned to the site, and in recent weeks, he has only cranked up that grandiloquent style. Whether he’s denying the climate crisis or firing another salvo against the College of Psychologists of Ontario for mandating that he must take a class on professionalism in public statements (or risk losing his clinical license), the ardent commentator has made every effort to sound like a bold messenger of immutable, righteous truth. In his defiance, he has also adopted a new rhetorical flourish, crafting tweets with unexpected line breaks that transform them from mini-screeds into angry little poems:

The change has not gone unnoticed, with many joking that the typical Peterson tweet has come to resemble the clipped poetry of Rupi Kaur. But what accounts for this aesthetic choice? Does it correspond to a shift in Peterson’s philosophy, or the way he thinks? Is his audience more receptive to such messaging? The professor did not reply to a request for comment, so his reasoning remains private.

However, in many respects, the poetry speaks for itself. On that score, Rolling Stone solicited professional analysis from two talented and perceptive poets, offering a curated selection of Peterson’s latest musings in the hopes of understanding these better. What follows are their considered opinions of his strengths and weaknesses as a fledgling writer in the fickle medium.

“Wow,” says Elisa Gabbert, a poet, essayist, and poetry columnist for the New York Times, whose latest collection is Normal Distance. “It seems [Peterson] has discovered one of the most basic facts of poetry, so basic it’s rarely acknowledged: Putting line breaks in your prose does make your comments look more profound.” She adds, “I’m not saying these tweets are good poetry,” but urges a revealing comparison:

“The fringe of the fringe devours the centre and the fringe”


“The fringe of the fringe

Devours the centre

And the fringe”

“You stop to think about the second one more, don’t you?” Gabbert says. “The visual breaks have a pretty powerful sonic effect. I mean you can hear them, and not just at the end, it bleeds through the whole line. It’s automatic intonement.”

Mark Leidner, a writer of films, stories, and poetry whose most recent collection is Returning the Sword to the Stone, agrees that by chopping up his sentences, Peterson infuses otherwise rote and dull viewpoints with a flash of design or creativity. “It seems that line breaks can make any bad argument seem more interesting than it is, the way some basic stage lighting can make a bad play more interesting than the same bad play with no stage lighting at all,” Leidner says.

In the case of the Snow White poem, Peterson achieves a surprising effect, whether or not he realizes it. “The break putting ‘Will’ on its own line demonstrates the unique power of lineation to raise rather than answer questions,” Leidner observes. “Had the opening lines been ‘Snow White will / DIE…’ the emphasis would have rested solely on ‘DIE,’ and readers probably wouldn’t have thought twice about ‘will.’ By isolating “Will,” we not only get the sense that the speaker believes these events are inevitable, we get the added sense that the speaker is trying to consciously will their inevitability.”

Peterson speaks, then, as both prophet and architect of reality, climbing to another level of bombast.

Gabbert is not particularly impressed with these meandering, griping poems aimed at the College of Psychologists of Ontario and an airline, respectively, even if Peterson now and then stumbles into a promising phrase. “‘Air Canada thinks it’s ok’ is actually a pretty good title for a poem, especially a title that also serves as the first line,” she says, acknowledging that she “perked up and leaned forward” at these words. “But overall it’s pretty jejune stuff,” she laments. “The ‘short pier’ one reminds me of some lyrics I wrote for a friend my freshman year. His band never used them.”

Arguably the only thing stranger than Peterson lecturing MSNBC anchor Mehdi Hasan about his own skin color was that he elected to do so in verse. And Leidner sees an surprising reversal in concluding with “As far as I’m concerned,” a somewhat limp phrase given the heated argument about race science. “The sardonic politeness of the final line masks an unvarnished subjectivity that undercuts the thundering certainty the speaker has spent the poem building up,” Leidner says. “This contrast would be much more muted in prose.” 

As for Peterson’s definition of a woman, Leidner notes that “‘A woman is the creature’ is one of [Peterson’s] few examples of enjambment,” or the cutting off of a line before its natural endpoint. And, while subtle, “it effectively generates tension about where this poem might go,” he says. “Compare the effect it has to the same words, in the same order, in prose: ‘A woman is the creature without whom a man cannot reproduce.’ The once intriguing opening has been stripped of tension. Without it, readers are merely invited to accept or reject the whole argument, not ponder any particular part, nor wonder at why and how the argument was constructed as it was.”

All in all, then, it would appear that Peterson has hit upon a reliable trick for snaring and sustaining engagement. Writing poetry makes his tweets stand out visually on the timeline, where they also take up more vertical space than ordinary prose would. On top of that, the redistributed weight of individual words invites deeper consideration — despite the predictable shallowness of what Peterson is usually saying.

Where it comes to the rhythm and import of the poetry itself, though, Peterson has a long way to go, struggling as he does to break from the tedious repetition of tenets shared by most reactionary culture warriors: gender transition is evil, Disney movies are Marxist, I’m being censored, etc. Without complicating or expanding beyond such obsessions, it’s unlikely he will ever reach artistic maturity, whatever disjointed form his tweets may take. Yet there’s at least one consolation in being a bad poet: he’ll always have plenty of company.