Yesterday, my team took some time out of their day to discuss poetry. Not something a development team often does, but I wanted to perform a brief experiment.
We often say “code is poetry,” but I wonder just as often how many coders read and appreciate regular poetry. Yes, the WordPress community has release haiku, but those are incredibly short works that are often thrown away shortly after going out on Twitter. I wanted to see what other forms of poetry my team enjoyed.
Part of this was inspired by a quote from the late Robert Frost in a letter to a friend:
You get more credit for thinking if you restate formulae or cite cases that fall in easily under formulae, but all the fun is outside saying things that suggest formulae that won’t formulate – that almost but don’t quite formulate. I should like to be so subtle at this game as to seem to a casual person altogether obvious. The casual person would assume that I mean nothing or else I came near enough meaning something he was familiar with to mean it for all practical purposes.
I’ve always enjoyed Frost’s poetry because it just doesn’t quite make the jump to absolute clarity. There’s one (or more) detail left unsaid.
It’s almost as is Frost writes his poems in a form of code left to be interpreted by the reader.
Code for What?
I took a poetry class my freshman year in college and was amazed by the experience. In high school, requirements for writing were very cut-and-dried. Writing a poem that left too much to interpretation was discouraged as these forms of writing were hard to quantitatively grade.
In college, it was all about the interpretation.
I spent the first half of the term playing it safe. I wrote incredibly simple pieces that earned high grades for the imagery and symbolism my professor imagined I’d used. 1
One of my fellow students, though, blew us away with her work. One poem, titled simple Where I am From, gave a very descriptive, emotional account of an assault. 2 It was so well written that, when read aloud, everyone felt as if they were experiencing things first-hand themselves. That day was the first time I’d seen a room full of college students cry just from hearing something read out loud.
I was inspired to write more personal poetry, and invested the second half of the term to fleshing out a very emotional piece that ultimately earned me the lowest grade that term. To this day, I’ll never understand how my professor read so much into the piece – he marked me down for making a “sloppy allusion to the Odyssey” because I mentioned a siren. I meant a literal siren, not a seductive singer on a remote island. 3
Poetry is code for emotions. It’s a writer’s attempt to put ephemeral, intangible thoughts and feelings into print.
Code is poetry sung to a machine. It’s a developer’s attempt to put the intangible desires of the users into a script that can be followed consistently.
Unfortunately, both are often open to too much interpretation. To be sure you understand the original intention of the writer of either code or poetry necessitates you be a frequent reader of both.
- In all honesty, I wrote one poem that was nothing more than an overly-detailed description of a leaf that was stuck to the window. He thought it was a political musing about nuclear war. ↩
- Our professor followed up with her immediately, thinking it was a personal account. The student used “where I am from” as a default title for all her work as a substitute for the less original “Untitled.” The poem itself was her attempt to get inside the mind of a woman she’d read about in a WW2 history class. I, for one, thought she did a remarkable job. ↩
- This isn’t a poem I often share with others, but I did post it to this site earlier in the year if you’re interested. It’s the second of two poems I posted in March. ↩