If () then ()

If computer language becomes poetry, can poetry be programmed? They call themselves code poets, code workers, net.artisans, digital artisans or software artists, and they all have one thing in common: they work with source codes, network protocols and program scripts. In this way they write and produce digital poetry. For computer languages are languages. They posses all the elementary components characteristic of language: their own syntax, a defined lexicon, semantic rules. So can this language, originally conceived as a medium of communication between humans and machines and converted ultimately into orders, also tell of the abysses of human life and how human souls fall between zero and one?


I have nothing
to make a poem

a whole language
a whole life
a whole mind
a whole memory

I have nothing
to make a poem

Ernst Jandl

If you surf through those corners of the Net devoted to the arts, you will find – and that is the only place you will find it; not in any of the classical literary venues, libraries, or other places where literature or recipes for literature are produced – countless examples of digital poetry, which have quite definite parallels with classical literary forms. Links with concrete poetry, in particular, are very striking.


That language, once removed from its context, becomes concrete, is a phenomenon well known from concrete poetry. This literary form is self referential: it is concerned with words, letters and punctuation marks. Thus concrete poetry is mostly reduced to a few words and characters, reflecting speech as a medium in itself. The roots of concrete poetry stretch back to Classical Antiquity. A special form of this genre is the figure poem. The arrangement of words, letters or signs forms a picture which has an immediate relation with the content. A forerunner of this was the so-called Carmen Cancellatum of late Christian Antiquity. Examples can be found in the grid poems of the monk Hrabanus Maurus in his "liber de laudibus sanctae crucis." Or later, from the baroque period, the figure poems of Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg. If we look at these figure poems today, they need to be interpreted step by step, using the principles of hermeneutics, just like modern concrete poems and digital texts. Obviously, given the crucifix shape, the content of Catharina von Greiffenberg's work consists in a celebration of the cross, the resurrection of the dead, the redemption of the soul.

Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg:
autograph manuscript, Pegnesen Archive C.404.2.12

sin () (the Fall of Man, or Sinus and Cosinus)

Can the works of today's digital poets be placed directly in this context? From texts reminiscent of free prose, to digital figure poems, right up to text-generating haikus – the range of these digital works is very large. And, even within these categories, their own individual stylistic peculiarities make it possible to identify differences in the "handwriting" of the programmers concerned. At hackers' parties in gymnasia, or among circles with literary pretensions on the Net, a series of competitions is regularly held to decide who can write the "most beautiful" or "most elegant" code. The criteria involve successful composition, stringent complexity, elegance, stylistic assurance and, last but not least, technical perfection.

One of these competitions is "The international obfuscated C Code contest." Let us look at one of the prize-winning codes, www.ioccc.org/banks.c, a little more closely. It was written in the ANSI C computer language. Form and content are a unity. Thus we can already call it literature. Or is it a technical game? Once compiled and executed, it is a three dimensional wireframe flight simulator. The aircraft is a subjective view, and the scenario being explored is read from another file.

if () else ()

Neither programming as an art nor digital poetry are new phenomena. Alan Sondheim, the performance artist, art critic and aesthetic theorist, has been occupied with linguistic artefacts on the Internet since the Seventies. Inspired by computer viruses, many of his poems and other works cannot be deciphered without a knowledge of computers. The program code is the poem. And, at the same time, the poem is the program code. This is a characteristic feature of many of Sondheim's co-called "codeworks." The texts can be read as poetical texts and are there to provide inspiration or contemplation. But, once interpreted by a machine, the poem serves to generate a further text. And thus, through interaction with the computer, it fulfils its programmed order.

Sharon Hopkins has trodden a quite particular path within digital poetry. She was a pioneer of Perl Poetry, to which she gave a vital stimulus during its initial phase, at the start of the Nineties. In the computer language called PERL (practical extraction and report language) traditional poems can be translated into computer language. The texts show evidence of immanent poetic structures, and here too some are so programmed that haikus or limericks can be generated from them. The first Perl poem of all was composed by Larry Wall in 1990 and was written as a haiku.

perl haiku untitled

Print STDOUT q
Just another Perl hacker
Unless $pring

Larry Wall, 18 March 1991

The haiku is the shortest poetic form in world literature. Its three lines are composed of five, seven and five syllables respectively. A haiku describes a brief moment; it records an event; it paints a picture in words. Haikus always refer, either directly or indirectly, to a season of the year. In Wall's Perl haiku, the word needed for the season (in Japanese "kigo") comes in the third line: "spring." This Perl poem fulfils all the criteria of the classical haiku form when it is read aloud. Then the letter "q" becomes "queue" and the $ sign becomes the two-syllable word "Dollar" (giving this line five syllables).

Phonetic reproduction of digital poems poses a particular challenge, one not be underestimated or ignored, since it is either necessary for an understanding of the work, or adds a completely new dimension to it. For example, the recitation of the "I love you" source code by the group epidemiCs at the Venice Biennial in 2000. (www.epidemiC.ws/love.mp3)

Poems sound more familiar, however, if their characteristic style sounds like "free speech." Many works by Sharon Hopkins have no need to fulfil any further program function apart from their poetic garb. Yet the author herself says that the greatest weakness of these poems is exactly this: the final limits of program language. To do justice to the rules and regulations of the program language, it is necessary to insert a large number of parentheses, revocations and special definitions. Despite the 250 words and more which are defined in PERL, the vocabulary remains limited when it comes to describing moods, feelings and interior landscapes. So what can you write about? Or, to ask the question a better way, how can you order a machine to have sex, love and death?

' Love was’

&& ‘love will be’ if
(I, ever-faithful),
do wait, patiently;

“negative”, “wordly”, values disappear,

@last, ‘love triumphs’;

join (hands, checkbooks),
pop champagne-corks,

“live happily-ever-after”.

“not so” ?
tell me: “I listen”,

push (rush, hurry) && die lonely if not-careful;

“I will wait.”


# Sharon Hopkins, June 26th, 1991
# rush (a perl poem)


Libraries of prize-winning programs, source codes for viruses and documents of software art already exist, both on the Internet and in private analogue collections. The languages in which these works have been written are called Assembler, PASCAL, C++, Visual Basic and PERL. Some works have literary pretensions, some are successful self-executing programs. Authors of viruses occupy a special area. Poised between program art and craft, by no means all viruses are destructive. Perhaps only a fraction of them. The virus programmers' scene includes so-called crackers, hackers, black hats, white hats and script kiddies, depending on the group of programmers to which they belong. Just as in real (analogue) life, there are ostensible goodies and baddies, plenty of opaque shades of grey, and niches for the creative mind.

Onel de Guzman ("Spyder"), author of the "I love you" virus certainly does not think of himself as a poet, rather as a creative author if viruses; nevertheless, the source code for that virus, which caused the greatest financial damage the world has ever seen, can be "read" in an almost touching and dramatic way.

rem barok – loveletter (vbe) <I hate to go to school>
rem by: spyder / ispyder@mail.com / GRAMMERSoft Group/ Manila, Philippines
On Error resume next
Dim fso, dirsystem,dirwin,dirtemp,eq,ctr,file,vbscopy,dow
Set fso = CreateObject (“Scripting.FileSystemObject”)
Set file = fso.OpenTextFile (Wscript.ScriptFullname,1)
Vbscopy = file.ReadAll

Introduction to the I love you source code
Author: Onel de Guzman (Spyder)

It only remains to answer one question: which is the decisive thing ––– what the machine does, or how you program and interpret the machine or its language system? Where does the source code end? And where does poetry start? In one way or another we must approach the inside of the computer. The hermeneutics of source code do exist. Only when we can read the original, the primal text, will be able to recognise, through the very soullessness of our computers – something which may cause us some astonishment – the true beauty of human language; will we able to see, however dimly, the emptiness of these intermediate spaces between zero and one.


The code is shimmering everywhere. In children's bedrooms, where sit adventurous hackers. In virtual literary salons, where the self-elected digital bohème gathers. In the libraries on our hard disks. In the networks of industrial companies. And, last but not least, in our heads. Nothing can be more certain. Not even literary history and criticism.


Lewis Caroll: Alice in Wonderland
Ernst Jandl: Aus dem wirklichen Leben
Denis Moschitto/Evrim Sen: Hackertales

Hans Georg Gadamer: Method and Truth

Go to
Sharon Hopkins, Camels and Needles, Poetry meets the Perl Programming Language
(link zu epdimiCs recitation of the "I love you" source code)


Biographical notes

Jutta Steidl, born 1967, studied German and linguistics at the University of Constanz, majoring in modern German literature and development of language. She lives and works as a freelance text writer in Frankfurt am Main.

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