Poetry as Code

2017-06-21

A few months ago, in preparation for composing a cycle of poems on Nietzsche's ethical philosophy (now half done and provisionally entitled Songs of Zarathustra), I made the time to re-read my favorite book on the writing of metrical poetry: All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing by Timothy Steele. This also inspired me to revisit and revise some of the poems and translations I published years ago in my book Ancient Fire. Sadly, I discovered that those early poems were rather buggy; the translations of Horace were especially malformed and a few of them required major refactoring so that they would compile from a metrical perspective.

My application of programming terminology to poetry-writing is not unwarranted. Done right, poetry has a kind of code to it. Different languages have entirely different underlying poetic principles: in ancient Greek and Latin, poetry was syllabic (i.e., based on the number of syllables in a line, such as 11, 11, 11, and 5 in the four lines of a Sapphic stanza) whereas old German and Anglo-Saxon poetry was purely accentual (you could have any number of syllables in a line as long as you had the proper number of accented syllables) and modern English poetry is a mixture of the two (called "accentual-syllabic"). Within each language, different forms (e.g., iambic pentameter or haiku or sonnet) have different rules such as the number of feet per line or repeating patterns (as in the pantoum), which can be stretched a bit in several directions but only so far. This is not all that dissimilar from types of programming languages (say, functional vs. object-oriented) or different coding styles (how you break up program logic into functions is a bit like how you break up poetic logic into lines and stanzas). And then there are free-verse programming languages like C or JavaScript that are a lot more loose in the kinds of structures they allow.

I wouldn't take these analogies too far, but I do find them interesting...

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