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
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
Catharina Regina von
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
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’
will be’ if
do wait, patiently;
“wordly”, values disappear,
join (hands, checkbooks),
tell me: “I listen”,
push (rush, hurry)
&& die lonely if not-careful;
“I will wait.”
# Sharon Hopkins, June
# 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 / email@example.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
Lewis Caroll: Alice in Wonderland
Ernst Jandl: Aus dem wirklichen Leben
Denis Moschitto/Evrim Sen: Hackertales
Hans Georg Gadamer: Method and Truth
Sharon Hopkins, Camels and Needles, Poetry meets the Perl Programming
(link zu epdimiCs recitation of the "I love you" source
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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© 2004 digitalcraft.org