Book Review: #!

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This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman. Photo: “System Code”, by Yuri Samoilov


The phrase “code is poetry” has always been somewhat irksome. Like many simplifications that develop into clichés over time, the phrase has been interpreted many ways ranging from superficial comparisons of visual structure to general accounts of harmony and ease of contemporary computing platforms. Of the accounts that have pushed against the turning of the phrase into coinage, Matt Ward, in an article for Smashing Magazine in 2010, writes that, upon consideration of the idea at length, “[p]art of the beauty of metaphor is its ability to highlight meaningful similarities between two seemingly unrelated ideas”—an idea that serves as a good point of departure in thinking about Nick Montfort’s #!.

#!

#!
Nick Montfort
Counterpath Press, 2014
149 pp.

For Montfort, the basic similarity is between that of the mechanics of language—Oulipean techniques and code—which are ostensibly writing “machines” or methods through language. Whereas poetry has lived in the realm of human language, Montfort chooses the programming languages Python, Ruby, and Perl (the last of which has a documented history as a poetic medium) to create impressions of an ideal—machines based on the rules of language.

Many of the brands and corporate identities with which we engage are created almost exclusively of code; at its inception, entities like Facebook were once nothing more than idea produced by language—first that of discourse, then that of machine code. Albeit not a vox populi, the code that now makes the smallest ideas possible represents a kind of abstraction, though not always through metaphorical means.

In essence, like a poem, code makes an approximation of an ideal in the way that metaphor attempts to grasp something larger than itself with varying degrees of fidelity and success.

That is not to say that Montfort’s work is at all unsuccessful; in fact, #! (pronounced “Shebang”) expands the kinds of successes that code-based poetry can achieve.

Montfort makes more than poetries composed of code (such as the above-linked “Black Perl”); he exposes more than just the product of labor, but also the “mind” that makes it by including the code written to produce the “output” of the poem, making poetries composed by code—even if Montfort is still identified as the programmer. It mimics texts such as CA Conrad’s (soma)tic texts which feature physical “algorithm” (a process through which the poet must write) and product side-by-side (the output of the given algorithm).

And, in some cases, Montfort transforms language into something other language, as is the case of “Letterformed Terrain,” a poem that relies on the shapes of letters to create a physical field through code from ASCII (or, plain text) letters. The rhythm created by the spacing and repetition of letters is a feature that creates a representative “field” (the concept of terrain invoked by the title) and the population of a poetic field, as suggested by the arrangement. Each of the letters, ordered at random by Montfort’s code, acts as a potential seed caught in stasis.

“Letterformed Terrain” also reveals how Montfort’s poems, like their so-called “traditional” counterparts, can surprise human readers, too. One line of Perl code, ‘{print$”,$_=(a..z)[rand$=];redo}’ writes a 12 page poem that, while in a vernacular that the reader can read and understand, still requires a high level of reader engagement to decipher. Thus, in the same way that the poems are metaphoric approximations, they are imagistic; the impressions that each reader derives from Montfort’s modules are as numerous as the amount of readers that might approach them. Part of a section entitled “Concrete Perl,” Montfort’s concept is surprising in how many different sense impressions to which code-generated poetry can appeal.

None of this is to write that #! engages merely in rhetorical play with language. Many of the poems experiment with what a reader might recognize as semantically human expression. Some poems, such as “PPG256-4”, leverage this structure to create speakers that otherwise could not exist. In the same way that many of us have been entranced by Google’s Deep Dream, Montfort’s speakers exist as ghosts in a machine attempting to replicate human slang and patterns of speech by exhorting the reader to “premad on fapmot, bro” and “midsay the flagsot, guy.” While humorous, it appears simultaneously desperate. That is, until we reinstate our disbelief; our relationship to the poem is to a snippet of code written by a human literally and metaphorically manipulating a machine.

Montfort uses this to advantage; early in the text, the programs and routines are more complex, demonstrating a higher level of intervention on the part of Montfort-as-programmer and writer who is constructing a persona learning machine language or at least perfecting some facility with it. Again, in truth, we know that Montfort is an advanced coder and, even though the book falls squarely into the Conceptual camp, the narrative being constructed is palpable. The programs work from a place of scattered linguistic confusion back to the basic bits and bytes of raw ASCII finally coming to a resolution in “PPG256-7,” a poem that features lines of syntactically-honed prose underpinned by streamlined code featuring less authorial intervention.

Strangely, what we see in #! is an analogue text that grapples with a digital literacy that reshapes notions of how code-as-poetry functions in concept and practice. Montfort’s programmatic poems shape ways of thinking on the page that reveal a persona in the machine that, surprisingly, thinks like us even if its expression is somewhat uncanny by “human” standards.

1 Comment

  • […] My other projects include several very small-scale poetry generators, such as those included in #!, a book that gathers programs and their output. #! includes the ppg256 series and Concrete Perl. My […]