Friday, June 8, 2012

Computer code -- is poetry?

Dubliner Eavan Boland is a master poet (and one of my favorites); Ireland shares her with the creative writing program at Stanford University.  In Against Love Poetry (Norton, 2001), we find Boland's tribute to the also-amazing master of language, Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1988).

                     Code          by Eavan Boland

             An Ode to Grace Murray Hopper  1906-88
    maker of a computer compiler and verifier of COBOL 

   Poet to poet.  I imagine you
     at the edge of language, at the start of summer
       in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, writing code.
         You have no sense of time.  No sense of minutes even.
           They cannot reach inside your world,
             your gray work station
               with when yet now never and once.
                 You have missed the other seven.
                   This is the eight day of Creation.

   The peacock has been made, the rivers stocked.
   The rainbow has leaned down to clothe the trout.
   The earth has found its pole, the moon its tides.
   Atoms, energies have done their work,
   have made the world, have finished it, have rested.
   And we call this Creation.  And you missed it.

   The line of my horizon, solid blue
     appears at last fifty years away
       from your fastidious, exact patience:
         The first sign that night will be day
           is a stir of leaves in this Dublin suburb
             and air and invertebrates and birds,
               as the earth resorts again
                 to its explanations:
                   Its shadows.  Its reflections.  Its words.

   You are west of me and in the past.
   Dark falls.  Light is somewhere else.
   The fireflies come out above the lake.
   You are compiling binaries and zeroes.
   The given world is what you can translate.
   And you divide the lesser from the greater.

   Let there be language--
     even if we use it differently:
       I never made it timeless as you have.
         I never made it numerate as you did.
           And yet I use it here to imagine 
             how at your desk in the twilight
               legend, history and myth of course,
                 are gathering in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire,
                   as if to a memory.  As if to a source.

   Maker of the future, if the past
   is fading from our view with the light
   outside your window and the single file
   of elements and animals, and all the facts
   of origin and outcome, which will never find
   their way to you or shelter in your syntax--

   it makes no difference to us.
     We are still human.  There is still light
       in my suburb and you are in my mind--
         head bowed, old enough to be my mother--
           writing code before the daylight goes.
             I am writing at a screen as blue,
               as any hill, as any lake, composing this
                 to show you how the world begins again:
                   One word at a time.
                     One woman to another.

Grace Hopper began her computer career in mathematics -- majoring in it and physics at Vassar and later teaching math there for thirteen years, during which time she earned a masters and a doctorate (also in mathematics) at Yale.  During World  War II she joined the Navy and her work with computers began.  In the 70s and early 80s still there were few computer scientists and many of us who knew mathematics learned -- and taught -- about the new machines.  At Bloomsburg University I taught Fortran and Basic -- and I also had the opportunity to meet Grace Murray Hopper when in 1984 she came to campus to be a commencement speaker and to receive an honorary degree. My lasting memory from that meeting is of her fearlessness.  And if I am less timid than early-on, some of the credit is hers.

Now in 2012 I begin to explore the notion of code as poetry.  This topic is examined in a blog posting  by Matt Ward and in a piece on "the code poet" by David Humphrey.  Engineer and artist Ishac Bertran issued a call for code poems (deadline for submission has already passed but we can watch for the book that is forthcoming).

I invite and encourage readers to COMMENT with submission of examples and links concerning code poetry. 


  1. Hi JoAnne, what a great post. I love Boland's work, and am also interested in code poetry. I'm a poet, not a coder, but living in Cupertino -- you kind of can't get away from it. Do you know about the Code Poetry projects that happen at Stanford? You can check out some information about them on my blog: My dad was a mathematician cum computer programer -- I was inspired by him.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer, for dropping by. I look forward to checking out your Cupertino blog.

  2. Hi again -- I hope you heard the NPR story this morning. If not, here is the link.

    1. Yes, thanks! A nice story. And the upcoming New Yorker has a math poem at

  3. this is fascinating. and a lovely poem. thanks to Jennifer for her post which led me here!