Dan Golding just wrote a piece for crikey asserting that code isn’t poetry (http://blogs.crikey.com.au/game-on/2012/10/02/why-code-is-not-poetry/).
I don’t agree.
Not all code is poetry. But some can be. Code could be seen as a form of meter, a very restrictive syntax that you work with and against to make your point. There are lot of different meters that poets choose to work in, and there’s no reason they can’t choose code syntax as one.
In English poetry we’re used to very casual meters, a certain number of syllables per line, usually. But other poetic traditions have much more complex meters. Latin poetry specifies not only the number of syllables but the kind of syllable (heavy or light), and the pattern that they fall in, and differentiates between line breaks and breaks within a line (caesuras), and how they can be used. Just because a meter has very complex rules doesn’t mean it’s not a meter.
To me poetry is about finding the same feeling in the rhythm and timbre of words and/or typography that you find in the thing you’re describing, or perhaps outlining that feeling by using a constrasting sense. It’s about seeing a synaesthetic parallel between the feelings that we get from using and hearing language and other experiences, then trying to use that kind of language to express that thing.
If programmers see a certain amount of parallel between the structure that they’re using and the thing it’s describing, then those particular examples of code are poetry.
When I made a little animation that caused a dot to spiral about, and saw the same patterns in the looping IF clauses in the code, it had the same sense of satisfaction as onomatapoeia. When I have more than one option for how to structure my code to produce a particular effect, and I pick the one I feel is the most lyrical one, the one that reads most elegantly, the one where following the movement and metamorphosis of the variables through their processes is most satisfying to the mind, what should I call it?
Dan asserts that
“code is perhaps the only language in existence that does exactly what it says it will”,
but he’s wrong. There’s lots of language that does what it says, eg. “I now pronounce you man and wife”. These are called Speech Acts. I don’t know that anyone would try to argue that Speech Acts aren’t poetry, considering so many historical speech acts - pronouncements, orders - are revered as examples of high oratory. I don’t think whether something does what it says it will rules it out of being poetry.
“But we have to take into account the functional and material differences between poetry and code. Code does exactly what it says it will. Poetry opens itself for others to say what it will. Code acts, while poetry waits for others to act upon it.”
I agree with a lot of what Golding says about the two media. Code usually acts while poetry is more passive. I’d like to hear detail about his argument that code and poetry are defined by the gap between printed paper and program. But it just feels like he ignores that key thing about poetry, that it says things both in word-meaning but also in meter, rhythm, onomatapoeia etc.
Code can be written so that it is both a literal set of instructions but also structured, divided, expressed, layered with resonances only a human would pick up, just as traditional poetry follows its meter and still invokes its own particular sense, and that’s the very art of poetry.