[Editor’s Notice: Frances McCue is a poet, author, co-founder of nonprofit neighborhood writing middle Hugo Home, and a educating professor on the College of Washington. She reads this piece in a particular installment of the GeekWire Podcast, embedded beneath.]
A poet wanders the town and asks, “Who are all these tech people? What do they actually do?”
I wanted to take a break from work and get outdoors. Additionally, I’d been studying a whole lot of Baudelaire so I imagined being a flaneur after I headed out to stroll within the metropolis. I stay in Seattle, (it might be Dublin or Boston or Washington DC) and lots of people reside in tents and doorways and parks whereas some well-dressed minor athletes run by or go on bikes. Buildings are boarded up and the shiny large know-how palaces, usually buzzing with hundreds of employees, are epidemic-level quiet.
Being an city explorer with out an itinerary, I quickly discovered, was more durable than it appeared. Wandering is difficult; it’s a thoughts sport, keen your self to get misplaced. I tended to maneuver in straight traces and fall into outdated routes, so I needed to pressure myself to make random turns. The extra I walked, the extra ironic this grew to become as a result of I used to be fascinated with the linearity of pc coding as I handed large buildings the place tech employees, till just lately, had clicked away on their computer systems. What did they really do? I puzzled. As I strolled, I aspired to the whimsical turns and pauses that Baudelaire took as he roamed Paris, a metropolis that ramped up being a flaneur to a complete new stage, particularly throughout the mid 1800’s when that metropolis, too, was a mixture of finery and filth.
That afternoon, I handed the glass spheres in entrance of the Amazon headquarters. The domes are Buckminster Fuller-ish orbs — pentagonal hexecontahedrons truly — that function terrariums for misty fake jungles. I imagined the programmers taking just a little day off from their desktops and sitting inside these unique plant enclosures, dreaming of nature. Sadly, the lights had been off and the place was empty. The coders had been all at residence. Possibly they had been mendacity on their couches and stringing traces into their laptops, as I did after I wrote poems.
Was writing code, I puzzled, actually like writing poems? Round me, the town was crammed with the results of know-how: glassy new buildings and glossy new bike paths. Artists and poets lived right here too, largely within the soon-to-be-teardowns off to the facet of this Tupperware-scape. I thought of that, regardless of their distinction in earnings, poets and coders adopted comparable processes of their work, enjoying with photos and symbols to make one thing occur.
These coders and I — we each traded in language. Whether or not the language was Java or C or our personal spoken languages, poets and coders manipulated symbols into syntax, promising logical paths that shimmer with completely different results. A coder made the Phrase program that catches my spelling errors and simulates paragraphs. Her objectives had been particular although the “reader,” for her, is a pc that doesn’t ingest nuance, solely directions. For this, I’m grateful.
City planners and folks in Silicon Valley will inform you that a whole lot of coders are artists, and as Richard Florida (Rise of the Inventive Class) pretends, they stay fortunately with different artists in tech communities. To me, the notion that IT persons are making symphonic stage traces of code is a advertising ruse by which artists, performers, musicians, designers and poets are laid out as bait to draw highly-salaried software program engineers. Florida’s rickety concept that coders and artists are tilling the identical floor predicts the monoculture harvest of mass gentrification.
I can see the manifestation of this as I go a complete new line of buildings which have shot up within the final two years: monoliths with pretend balconies and massive storage entrances. They’ve smothered the outdated warehouses, automobile dealerships and carpet shops. Florida’s classification of “cultural creatives” inside a “creative class,” felt fairly phony on this a part of the town, one I didn’t often didn’t go to. A poet and a coder at Amazon stay three full time wages other than one another and a number of other neighborhoods aside. Simply because they each string symbols collectively doesn’t imply that the engineer making algorithms about on-line buying is an artist.
Poets wish to make stunning issues out of language. Coders, to be honest, wish to obtain class of their work and class in coding, specialists say, is about brevity and readability. For insiders, it’s additionally about taking suave turns that different folks won’t, resulting in the identical consequence. Putting in an sudden swerve in a line of code and nonetheless arriving on the desired level showcases a coder’s voice. Readability via innovation is a triumph.
I used to be passing a lightweight rail station when this concept of readability had me pondering of Imagist poetry, a motion within the early a part of the 20th century, that additionally condensed language to an essence. Imagists labored till phrases felt clear and disappeared into the image conjured within the reader’s thoughts. Ezra Pound’s poem “In a Station of the Metro” is the epitome, the imagist object lesson, and I discover it’s the one closest to pc code and a haiku concurrently:
In A Station of the Metro
The apparition of those faces within the crowd:
Petals on a moist, black bough.
I remembered this poem as I seemed into the darkish stairwells that led to the trains. The “apparition” of strangers floated earlier than me: their faces as “petals on a wet, black bough.” That bough has a method of staying in your psyche. It protrudes. It caught out in my consciousness as I walked by the station.
Pondering like a poet engineer and a coding spiritualist was thrilling. Once I returned from the Amazon spheres, all pumped up on concepts of code and symbols, I took to my sofa and I propped up “Magic,” an essay by WB Yeats from his unusual e book, Concepts of Good and Evil. “Magic” explores symbols and transcendent imaginings whereas skating via some fairly Jungian concepts concerning the collective unconscious, although when Yeats wrote it in 1901, Jung was early in his profession, nonetheless engaged on his dissertation: On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Referred to as Occult Phenomena. Nonetheless, though they had been each drawn to the occult, artistic processes and the interventions of magic, and although an underground river of collective consciousness and archetypes related them, precise correspondence didn’t.
Yeats’ fascination with symbols and their impact on consciousness was most likely influenced by his classes with occultist theosopher Madame Blavatsky whom he had visited within the late 1880s as a younger man in London. He tried to run experiments, to no avail, by which naturally occurring phenomena had been altered by his thoughts. Nonetheless, his curiosity within the occult continued into the automated writing he started together with his spouse Georgie twenty years later, and A Imaginative and prescient, an accumulation of those issues revealed in 1937, when the poet was an outdated man.
What caught my consideration and spun my fascinated with symbols even additional was a second in “Magic” when Yeats claims that “the borders of our minds are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.” He pushes the thought of a “single mind” into “one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.” The way in which to delve into this widespread reminiscence, in keeping with Yeats, was via symbols. A typical consciousness excavated via symbols—after all. I’d learn Joseph Campbell’s work on myths and symbols; it wasn’t a brand new thought to me. These had been what all artists traded in.
“The symbols are of all kinds,” Yeats continues, “for everything in heaven or earth has its association, momentous or trivial, in the great memory, and one never knows what forgotten events may have plunged it, like the toadstool and the ragweed, into the great passions.” If the toadstool and the ragweed can turn out to be a part of the “great memory,” why not pc code? Throughout completely different symbols and languages, it additionally had a connective circuitry. Certainly, Yeats appears open to symbols coming from many sources: “Almost everyone who has ever busied himself with such matters has come, in trance or dream, upon some new and strange symbol or event, which he has afterwards found in some work he had never read or heard of.”
However I couldn’t fairly resolve the notion that the “great memory” at all times led again to the reminiscence of nature. For a software program engineer and coder, the “great memory” appeared to me to be extra of a standard algorithm that re-calculates our wishes to resolve issues. It’s mechanical. Symbols, for poets, may certainly entry archetypes and pictures from our most atavistic human recollections, again into a standard sense of nature. However the impact just isn’t a pastoral one. For poets, it’s feral — not the Anthropocene that we live in.
The other of feral, the antithesis of Yeats’ occult and reliance on the good reminiscence as an unfathomable thriller, was within the work of futurists and philosophers. Ray Kurtzweil and John Searle discover the thought of machine studying increasing to “singularity,” a degree when AI is much smarter than any human processing. That’s once we’ll see the “intelligence explosion” that some say may doom us. Yeats would think about it as a consciousness that the universe already possessed.
Poems depend on a reader’s consciousness to fill within the leaps of affiliation and, via that course of, they attain right into a unconscious undercurrent. Little pivots of their imagery and music transfer a reader away from the expected route (at the very least in good poems). Whereas coders could embed processes in language for explicit makes use of, poets aspire to make use of language to uncover intention and shock, each secrets and techniques and revelation. Code, however, sticks to this system, arriving at a predicted finish it doesn’t matter what improvements have led there.
In poems I like, my psyche feels cosy inside a coded expertise after which let loose. I couldn’t precisely clarify to you why a specific poetic flip works. It’s one thing you are feeling and listen to although a voice that performs inside you. Right here, for instance, is a poem I like for its tidy, cheap traces in a column, for its quirky turns and for the voice that carries lyricism and shock, to no anticipated finish:
distance the place
we really feel, having
distance the place
phrases appeal to.
Set one out
like a bait goat
and wait and
However be careful:
roving packs can
pull your phrase
discover your stake
yanked and a few
“Bait Goat” reads like code. It strikes linearly; the poem’s brief traces leap simply, one to the subsequent, like well-formed, easy instructions. The photographs and sounds flicker with pressure: the speaker is exploring a “distance where/ words attract.” That’s the flip. How, you would possibly ask, is the “distance where/ words attract” measured by “a bait goat?” Within the poem’s brief traces (ironic for a poem about measuring distance), roving packs of bait goats implode the expanse that makes us draw in the direction of the poem after which, on the finish, your “stake” is “yanked” and also you, the reader and the poet each, have “some/rough bunch to thank.” Disruption, in different phrases, comes deliberately after which takes over.
Who can say why the disruption is “a bait goat?” However it’s, and it really works. We’re down there trying right into a river of widespread expertise that we’re delivered to by quirkiness, by a magical, guiding hand. After which we arrive to face the really sudden: goats. Goats are smelly they usually spit. They chunk and play roughly in teams. They eat rubbish. By the poem’s willful insistence to concentrate on setting out one goat as bait, it sends us reeling with these smells and sounds and pictures.
Kay Ryan’s poem is a contraption that springs on sonics: appeal to/again; wait/bait; stake/yank/thank. These rhymes roil beneath the visible content material to attract connections. How the language sounds inside your head as you learn it’s what pops unfastened the quirky sensibility and unusual logic inside. The traces can’t be too lengthy admired visually, nor interpreted with out the sound monitor that rolls together with them. The music connects and fulfills the little artwork lure that the poem is. You possibly can’t assist listening to that.
Poetry’s language, the foreign money of the tongue, is human-tethered to the darkish caves of our beings. Poems are crafted out of that darkness and introduced, then, into view. One who writes pc code would possibly ask: “But is a poem useful? What does it actually do? We can’t measure that. We have no data.” Certainly, to our coder, a poem is likely to be a machine by which usefulness is the nexus of interactions each quantitative (syntax and sonics) and qualitative (the sentiments and insights these encourage). Code’s utility, however, could haven’t any qualitative facet aside from aesthetic class. Brevity and contemporary command paths are earmarks of magnificence and could also be code’s solely trace at narrative. The shape is hermetically sealed. The Amazon dome, I speculated, was like a pen for the coders.
Wandering was innate to a poem as a result of it imitated how consciousness labored. A poem is reader-activated, dormant till she rolls her thoughts over the traces. Poetry depends by itself music, whereas coding isn’t a heard-aloud language. Coding’s a ploy that instigates sure processes and its non-sonic wrappings are purely visible and algorithmic. All of it unspools externally, outdoors the human physique. In that method, it feels cool and logical– machine-activated, because it slides via processors.
Doesn’t logic run out of tarmac? I put down Yeats’ essay. I think about a hunk of equipment inside his “great memory of nature.” Don’t helpful issues ultimately turn out to be wreckage, caught in over-growth?
Right here we had been, poets and coders dwelling collectively on this increasing and shut down city house, and we had been each wandering indoors, into our syntax, searching for turns and seeing the sudden. Possibly poetry was the logical and liberated manifestation of coding. I may think about Yeats saying that, however he at all times aspired to magic. To me, code pressured a bloom again into its bud. A poem held, at all times, its personal promise of blasting open.
Lastly, I used to be roaming like a flaneur, besides that I used to be reclining on the sofa. Weren’t all of us –coders and artists and poets — flaneurs creating symbols inside types? We wander after which we discover ourselves standing on the river of collective reminiscence the place we ask: “Does it end up where I want it to?” “Does it look interesting and beautiful along the way?”
Audio enhancing by Curt Milton. Images by Kurt Schlosser.