Daniel Holden and Chris Kerr, “submarine” (all images courtesy Daniel Holden and Chris Kerr)

Code poetry is built on a simple premise: it is a single text that reads as poetry and executes as code. The new collection ./code –– poetry, published by Broken Sleep Books, brings a programmer and poet together in collaboration, adding proficiency and nuance to both sides of the form.

Only recently has code poetry been recognized as both a literary and technical feat. Dating back to the earliest days of computing, code poetry gained traction in the late 1980s with the introduction of the plain-English Perl programming language. Black Perl, an anonymous work from 1990, is full of Perl keywords (e.g., “kill,” “exit,” “wait,” “until,” “accept,” “die,” “redo”) and yet, when read aloud, does not suggest computation. The work’s reading as poetry established a baseline programmers expand on with increasing technical complexity.

This new book puts the code and poetry on equal footing. Its authors, programmer Daniel Holden and poet Chris Kerr, make their goal clear in the layout of the book itself. In the influential 2012 anthology code {poems}, edited by Ishac Bertran, code poetry sits alone on the page, requiring readers to run the program in their heads to imagine the output. Holden and Kerr chose to make their book more accessible. Each of their programs produces textual output, which is presented alongside the source code in two-page spreads. This allows readers to see immediately what the code does and better grasp how it conceptually connects to the poem that creates it. While the code is at times dense, the syntax highlighting shows how each word functions programmatically — as a comment, string, command, and so on. Each program has its own color scheme, but all are highly readable (although some pages are lacking somewhat in contrast in the print version). An introduction and “manual page” in the style of unix documentation at the end explain how each piece works, making the book far more approachable for a less technical audience than previous code poetry publications.

The opening piece takes aim at not only the personal, confessional style of most code poetry but also the “elegant” aesthetic of code more generally. Named by_conspiracy_or_design.js, it is JavaScript producing an ascii-art golden spiral. At the time this piece was written, in late 2015, the meme of the golden spiral as mystical explanation for Renaissance aesthetics was widely shared. This piece parallels the simplistic reasoning behind that meme with the dominant aesthetic of code, which favors the concept of elegance. Elegance is a notion of beauty smuggled into computer science by mathematicians, favoring concision and clarity. The premise of elegance is that a simple equation (like Phi, the basis of the golden spiral) is also the most “powerful” — that is, one that explains the most or finds the widest use. This poem rebukes that thinking on several levels. The code Holden and Kerr produced is far from the shortest or clearest way to draw this spiral. It is a scribble of Javascript that begins with references to infinity and the divine (and “employing(a_simple_formula);the,/ancients/ ;!KNEW”) that devolves into a rant of conspiracy-minded thinking with chemtrails, leptons, and “the lies of Washington.” Written during the first wave of conspiratorial disinformation that would later crest as QAnon, the piece establishes both feverish paranoia and the false dichotomy of nature versus technology as two of the book’s major themes. The program’s output is an animation of the drawing of the spiral, shown in three stages in the book and as a complete animation on the book website (and below). The poem is surprisingly readable as poetry and the authors have performed readings of it. Its glitchy stutter of scattered words and punctuation is reminiscent of experimental writer Mez Breeze.

Daniel Holden and Chris Kerr, “by_conspiracy or design

Most of the book’s poems are in different languages, moving from one style of code to another. In Windows, a .bat file is for batch processing, a not particularly graceful language used for systems tasks. Holden and Kerr’s program tells of a bat experiencing barotrauma from flying too close to a wind turbine. The program’s visual output reflects a sonar view of tubes belonging perhaps to the turbine — “almost like an artificial tree,” Kerr told Hyperallergic — or to an iron lung that allows the bat to breathe. 

Daniel Holden and Chris Kerr, “bark

The authors’ coding expertise (primarily Holden’s) is particularly apparent in the esolangs, artistic programming languages made without practical coding in mind. Their poem in the Piet (pronounced “Pete”) language, bark.png, is a revelation. Named for Piet Mondrian, its programs are images in which changes in color determine commands. They tend to have very orthogonal forms, which is the simplest way to make the code functional. Kerr and Holden’s piece eschews both the blocky default Piet aesthetic and the Mondrian-like style to “hide the functional in the organic,” Holden explained. Much like the prose-based code, it is immediately recognizable as Piet yet looks entirely different from previous Piet programs. It produces a haiku-like output.

The Shakespeare esolang, initially created as a joke, leaves less room for personal expression. Its programs are written as silly banter in the form of incoherent lists of insults and compliments. Kerr and Holden manage to make a Shakespeare program that fits on a single page — no small feat — and one that actually ties back to Shakespeare, listing his sonnets by number. “We had to make it a very simple program; it is a counter,” Holden said in our conversation.  “That was the most we could do in one page. Then Chris added this story part about a working workshop and conference and a conspiracy theory about who wrote Shakespeare.” Perhaps we have hit the limit of what can be expressed with Shakespeare, and perhaps we are ready to move on to lesser-used prose-like esolangs, such as those from the Esopo project.

Where esolangs are designed as oddities, conventional languages for general use are meant to be open-ended and so provide fewer specific constraints for the writers to play off of. The authors chose to approach the same language family in very different styles. The code for Ants.m (written in Objective C) is a dense wall of text, where water.c (in C) is sparsely written, with visual punning of semicolons as raindrops scattered through the code and output. Here that style, with its splintering and layering of word fragments, is referenced in runnable code, alongside concrete poetry and ascii art. While code poetry is still a niche form, this volume shows how individual voices can come through via a range of languages and styles. Perhaps this book can serve as a model for others venturing into this slowly emerging field.

./code –– poetry by Daniel Holden and Chris Kerr (2023) is published by Broken Sleep Books and is available in bookstores and online.

Daniel Temkin is an artist, writer, and computer programmer exploring the clash between systemic logic and human irrationality. Temkin's blog Esoteric Codes covers programming languages as art and other...

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