08 October 2006

Word made flesh?

Fellow blogger Robert wonders about the similarities between poetry and programming languages:
Both require precision, and poetry usually also involves some degree of linguistic compactness. Also, just as software executes within the context of an operating system, poetry likewise "executes" within the psyche of the reader. A few lines in either form can have a profound impact, sending memory pointers in myriad directions.
This immediately jumped out at me because today I read a conversation between Steve and Adie in Powers' Plowing the Dark that went something like this:
I'm telling you, writing my first subroutine was...like causing huge chunks of unravished bride to rise up, just by singing to her. A good, polished program was everything I thought poetry was supposed to be.

Stevie. You must have had a very peculiar idea of what poetry was supposed to be.

No different than any person who ever wrote it. I was going to get inside of reality and extract its essence, write down on paper the magic metrical words that, read aloud, would do their open sesame.

She looked at the screen, ready to deny everything. But she nodded. The vital formula. Sympathetic spells. Life's nail clippings. The impression of a body in bed.

He raced on, not hearing her. There was this kid poet, and he wrote and wrote. He rubbed the magic lamp until the poetic self-abuse police threatened to come impound him. And still nothing happened. The incantation seemed to be defective. Then they put the kid in front of this terminal and initiated him into the secret syntax. A few simple rules, combined in a few elegant ways, and blamm-o. The thing works. It runs. The world does move. The rules churn. The descriptions step their way through their own internal logic. The lines of code set more switches, change more states. Commands produce results.

The word made flesh.

Spiegel flinched. Don't mock me.

I'm not mocking.

Because that's exactly what it is. It doesn't matter if you're only talking about a formula for compound interest plugged into a general ledger program. Change any variable and the executing universe alters. Move it to the left, increment it by a quarter precent, and the new result gets spit out whole. It gives one a tremendous feeling of--


Perfectibility. Coding possessed a kind of reality check that sestinas never had. A program either worked or it didn't, and if it didn't work, it was wrong. Period. Something magnificent to that.

I made a lot of wrong paintings in my life. Believe me. And I didn't need any machine to tell me they were wrong.

But you never knew, completely, when you made a right one.

Adie wrapped her self-indicting silence around her like a shawl.

It's...funny, Spiegel went on. Art made all this happen, you know. The whole digital age. Music did it. Hollerith got his idea for the punched data card from the player piano. From the Jacquard tapestry loom. [...] The rules, the operators? They're completely open-ended. Extensible. Whatever you can imagine, they can build. Think of it: the universal behavior machine, able to build any gadget that crossed the human mind. Not a tool. The ultimate medium.
Although I agree with Adie (and sestinas were never meant to offer "reality check"s), I admit that it's an interesting idea...albeit a potentially dangerous one.


Robert said...

Thanks for the link. I can definitely relate to the sense of power and solidity that comes with programming. But that excerpt seems to imply that programming involves one right way. Not so. The delicious language Perl holds as it's motto, "There's more than one way to do it." Assign three Perl programmers the same task, and you will invariably get three different approaches. So you approach correctness based on an understanding of the problem (is speed of execution most important? Or perhaps the ability to handle errors gracefully? What about the relationship to the user?) In this way, knowing the language is just the beginning. Writing software becomes expressive as much as it is linear -- and hence the metaphor holds more water than would seem to the uninitiated.

amcorrea said...

Point(s) taken! Yes, that's true. I guess I wasn't thinking so much of the problem of "one right way" but of the aspect of certainty--the hard fact of a result that "works" and it being self-evident. I don't think that a poem needs to have a definite provable effect or "function" for it to be a worthwhile poem. There is much more subjectivity and grey in literary endeavor, no?

That said, it's still an intriguing comparison--and I'm still interested in reading your ideas of poetic styles and their programming equivalents.

Anonymous said...

Ana Maria, Bud la está serenando, la canción es una
lista de libros que ha leido, llena de enlaces, ay que pereza tanto enlace...¿No va a jugar? ¡Vayase pa donde la moza de Chekhov pues!

Tempest Press said...

Insofar as some say the known universe appears to be directed by software; and that programming is language that actually makes stuff happen; then yes, programming might qualify as poetry. Perhaps more tenously but in a manner no less thought-provoking, it also might qualify as DNA for silicon-based life forms.


amcorrea said...

Kind of makes the whole Genesis account that much more interesting to think about--the world beginning with words.