Code Poems, how I came to write them.

2010/08/27 § 6 Comments

Among many failures in my life, my involvement with programming computers is a long standing issue. Basically I can do it, unlike some, might have been good at it, but even though I enjoy the results of other people’s work in cutting code, I do not desire to work in that field. The idea of that information technology still, however, inspires me.

One inspiration that comes from the format of programming is to play with the declaration and calling of functions (and how arguments or parameters are passed to them) in poetry.

Now, before I explain and example that, I’ll briefly refer to other possible examples, but are not what I mean when I talk about “code poems”.

I am not referring to using code to make poetry or generate word salads or hashtag clouds, like wordle, nor Web 1.0 style generators, particularly those pomo essay generators.

Nor mash-ups like: “My intial project proposal for IDAT 210 was to have poetry decided by the feeds from the Arch-OS system.”

And yes I seemed to have missed the whole Code is Poetry thing, circa 2005. It’s a nice metaphor but I’m not claiming code is poetry here either.

No, what I did was an example of literary pseudocode. Very, very pseudocode. (All code here in this post is pseudocode BTW.)

It was based on some familiarity with C and C++ programming.

A function is a subroutine of a program that does stuff, i.e. manipulate data, and reports back on its success. What a function does is defined by a declaration, i.e. where what it does is described. This declaration includes what information is to be passed to it, directly or by reference (by address rather than value) i.e. do ABC at XYZ.

Like so:-

 int functionDO (ABC, XYZ)
          { do ABC at XYZ }

Above is functionDO, it takes arguments ABC and XYZ, does ABC at XYZ and reports back with an INT (integer).

I took this basic form and applied it to some experimental poetry, using the idea of passing arguments or parameters to functions. (Fiction needs conflict so I’ll stick with arguments.)

In particular I liked the idea of an ideal reader parsing a series of functions, thus building or compiling a story that would run in their head, like a program in their fleshy computer. I imagined the reader as a bit like a pseudocode pseudocompiler, turning the list of functions into a computer program which would run on a particular machine, a particular architecture of computer. I.E. They would interpret it from their own perspective.

But where, of course, due to some serious recursion issues on occasion (in some code poems the dataset is the compiler because the fleshy computer is that which interprets the code and does the passing of arguments which then feeds the output of this process back into the process.) It can get complicated as I was trying to write both by imagining some fleshy compiler taking hold of these functions and (therefore) trying to limit their (reader’s) interpretation of them. I was trying to both allow and constrain the multiverse of possible interpretations.

That was the original idea, the problem I wish to solve. This makes it experimental poetry, like modern art, the creativity lies in creating both the problem and the solution.

In this idea, as problem/solution, I was going to use lots of functions initially, but actually, in writing code poems I called on the function DATE almost entirely. For I felt most less-than-ideal readers would take the function DATE to indicate a journaling or diary activity, even if they had no idea what a compiler is.

This DATE function, thus defined by the writer (me) guessing what readers might do, was then supplied with arguments. These arguments were words which the less-than-ideal reader would have some strong connotations with, or reactions to.

date:(good, intentions)

An example which may bring up in the reader’s mind a certain pop song by The Animals.

The logic of the problem (using functions) would create a new space in experimental poetry, a new dimension, and I would limit the ideal reader’s response by calling on emotional attachments, as raised by the arguments the functions passed. The arguments were emotionally loaded. These emotional connotations would limit the reader’s reactions to the text, and/or give them leave to overcome their problems of engagement with the new form itself.

My ideal reader/writer then works through those references in turn, the written words in the code poem following the function DATE: are the data log of that parsing and manipulation by one of these imagined ideal readers. The product that an actual reader (who is not the writer or creator of this function calls or code poems) reads is my imagining of that process as I write it down.

Hopefully other reader/writers may find it of interest, even if they are less than ideal.

Feel free to write your own.

UPDATE 2012-03-29: Confused? Check out apperception under epistemology, where apperception is “the introspective or reflective apprehension by the mind of its own inner states.”


There is an excerpt of an old 1997 piece of mine here. (Note: Sentences beginning ‘•’ are spoken aloud or communicated in some way (tweeting?). Sentences beginning ‘.’ are not spoken or communicated. This is a form conventional to the work this excerpt is from, and not to ‘code poems’ of mine per se. The entire work is availble as a PDF .before Country )

I’ll be posting a couple of newer code poems here on formeika soonish. Indeed this entry is just background for those.

__________ ||| ____________

When you read a particular format, poetry like haiku, or genre novel like Science Fiction or Detective, you understand the elements and what to expect because you known what literary function has been called, because previously it has been declared by convention or time-honoured tradition.

The Wrong Format: Talent versus Gifts

2010/08/20 § Leave a comment

From The Overman Culture by Edmund Cooper:

It was Miss Shelley, not Miss Nightingale who told the children about the Overman legend. Miss Shelley was just as pretty as Miss Nightingale, but she had yellow hair. Michael liked her because she had taught him to count to one hundred. He had asked her several times to teach him. At first she said that he was not ready to learn. Perhaps, in the end, she just got tired of saying no. Counting was quite easy when you got the hang of it. As far as Michael knew, none of the other children could count. Perhaps they had not pestered Miss Shelley long enough.
She told the children about the Overman legend toward the end of the afternoon session of play school, when they were tired out after games and needed to rest a little before being collected by their mothers.
“Once upon a time,” said Miss Shelley, “there was no one at all in the wide world but Overman. And he was very bored, so he said to himself: ‘I must make something interesting happen.’ So he thought very hard, and finally he decided that he would make a man. Because he thought a man would be interesting. So he worked very hard, and at last he made a man.
“And the man was very grateful for being made and for feeling alive. But presently, he, too, got bored. And he said to himself: ‘I must make something interesting happen.’ So he thought very hard, and finally he decided that he would make a machine. So he worked very hard, and at last he made a machine.
“It was a very good machine, a very complicated machine, and the man was very proud of it.
“He said to Overman: ‘You created me, and I, too, can create. Look, I have created a machine.’
“Overman was amused. He laughed. He said: The machine is very good, but you are more complicated. You can do things the machine cannot do. So mine is the better creation.’
“The man was a bit disappointed at this. And he went away, determined to do better. Then he had a very ingenious idea. He decided to build a machine that could build a machine. This was a very hard task, and it took him a very long time. But eventually he succeeded. It was a very wonderful machine, very complicated indeed. The man was extremely proud of it.
“He said to Overman: ‘You created me, but I think I have done something better. Look, I have created a machine that can build another machine.’

I bought my Copy of The Overman Culture with some class prize money, I bought a copy of Beloved Son by George Turner as well, though I had to throw in some of my own pennies. Must have been fifteen or so, 1980 or 1981. Both have influenced me, though Cooper’s work has been more of the sleeper of the two. At least in that more culture-vultural way.

On reading it as a fifteen year old I remember being struck by the the young Protagonist’s name, ‘Michael’ being mine too, his desire to ‘want to understand’ when he grew up rather than become a sailor or astronaut, that all ‘drybones’ and ‘fragiles’ were named after famous people, and most of important of all, finding out in the denouement that the story (set in constructed anachronistic ‘London’) was placed in Tasmania, where I was growing up.

Beloved Son by comparison took place in a post-apocalypse Melbourne across Bass Strait, and not so far in the future as The Overman Culture.

Both spurred me to try and become an Australian SF writer, and while there is time enough left, it does not seem to have happened. I don’t tend to write plain prose, where, like Cooper,

“suspiciously Heinlein-type male heroes… act out their particular destinies (not always gloriously) against unfamiliar backdrops.”

It all makes me think about what was said about Robert Graves, who earnt his living writing historical novels set in classical Rome (I, Claudius) and which were highly regarded but what he really wanted to be was a poet. Poetry which is not highly regarded.

Or what was similarly said about Philip K. Dick and his desires to write straight mainstream fiction, but has ended up a high priest of SF.

What we are best at and what we most want to do are rarely the same. In this case a talent is not a gift but an obstacle.

Back to the quoted block above, the original text goes on with Overman making a woman for his man and sets up the journey young Michael grows into. If I had written it from this point it would be as follows, and from which no more story grows.

The Overman laughed, “You are very clever, making a machine which can make another machine, but look, I have already made you, and look what you can do!”

Still-Life, Still Conscious, Still

2010/08/04 § Leave a comment

The nineteenth-century art critic Théophile Thoré objected to the French term for still life, nature morte, proclaiming, “Everything is alive and moves, everything breathes in and exhales, everything is in a constant state of metamorphosis… There is no dead nature!” The Czech photographer Josef Sudek tersely echoed this thought when he said that to the photographer’s eye, “a seemingly dead object comes to life through light or by its surroundings.” via Threepenny: Smith, Still-Life Photographs.

Still-life could be said to be a lazy format, as it’s subject matter is already close to the creative mechanism of it’s capture; a sort of freeze-drying the music of the soul. It has always intrigued me, as I shake my head, ‘So, why bother?’

But now I view it as a staring outwards from the self but without reflection, without a mirror, and without introspection. More as a wide-spectrum apperception. A notice or consciousness without the buzz of self(-reference); a non recursive moment of attention when words fail our intentions, a nod to the end of a story and the return to camp with a basket of fruit, or a brace of game.

The little essay quoted above, the spur for this post, explores another area why. No they are not dead, but very, very still, smelling a little funny perhaps.

trash log 1095

Another area it’s importance lies is in documentation. (The documentary moment, the turn to list and archive.) Trashlog has been going for many years now and it’s always has been one of my favourites, and is a project close to one I’ve had for nearly twenty years, and which, I hope is now finished. It will draw together these three areas that the frame of the still moment explores that the intention of self can use to document a case (Fall oder Einfall).

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