Poetry vs. programming: Wandering the city, a writer finds the intersection of literature and code

The Doppler building reflected in the Amazon Spheres (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)[Editor’s Note: Frances McCue is a poet, writer, co-founder of nonprofit community writing center Hugo House, and a teaching professor at the University of Washington. She reads this piece in a special installment of the GeekWire Podcast, embedded below.]
A poet wanders the city and asks, “Who are all these tech people? What do they actually do?”
I needed to take a break from work and get outside. Also, I’d been reading a lot of Baudelaire so I imagined being a flaneur when I headed out to walk in the city. I live in Seattle, (it could be Dublin or Boston or Washington DC) and a lot of people are living in tents and doorways and parks while some well-dressed minor athletes run by or pass on bikes. Buildings are boarded up and the shiny big technology palaces, typically humming with thousands of workers, are epidemic-level quiet.
Being an urban explorer without an itinerary, I soon found, was harder than it seemed. Wandering is challenging; it’s a mind game, willing yourself to get lost. I tended to move in straight lines and fall into old routes, so I had to force myself to make random turns. The more I walked, the more ironic this became because I was thinking about the linearity of computer coding as I passed big buildings where tech workers, until recently, had clicked away on their computers. What did they actually do? I wondered. As I strolled, I aspired to the whimsical turns and pauses that Baudelaire took as he roamed Paris, a city that ramped up being a flaneur to a whole new level, especially during the mid 1800’s when that metropolis, too, was a mix of finery and filth.

That afternoon, I passed the glass spheres in front of the Amazon headquarters. The domes are Buckminster Fuller-ish orbs — pentagonal hexecontahedrons actually — that serve as terrariums for misty faux jungles. I imagined the programmers taking a little time off from their desktops and sitting inside those exotic plant enclosures, dreaming of nature. Sadly, the lights were off and the place was empty. The coders were all at home. Maybe they were lying on their couches and stringing lines into their laptops, as I did when I wrote poems.
Was writing code, I wondered, really like writing poems? Around me, the city was filled with the effects of technology: glassy new buildings and sleek new bike paths. Artists and poets lived here too, mostly in the soon-to-be-teardowns off to the side of this Tupperware-scape. I considered that, despite their difference in earnings, poets and coders followed similar processes in their work, playing with images and symbols to make something happen.
The Amazon Spheres and Space Needle through a window. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)Those coders and I — we both traded in language. Whether the language was Java or C or our own spoken languages, poets and coders manipulated symbols into syntax, promising logical paths that shimmer with different effects. A coder made the Word program that catches my spelling errors and simulates paragraphs. Her goals were specific though the “reader,” for her, is a computer that does not ingest nuance, only instructions. For this, I’m thankful.

Urban planners and people in Silicon Valley will tell you that a lot of coders are artists, and as Richard Florida (Rise of the Creative Class) pretends, they live happily with other artists in tech communities. To me, the notion that IT people are making symphonic level lines of code is a marketing ruse in which artists, performers, musicians, designers and poets are laid out as bait to attract highly-salaried software engineers. Florida’s rickety idea that coders and artists are tilling the same ground predicts the monoculture harvest of mass gentrification.
I can see the manifestation of this as I pass a whole new line of buildings that have shot up in the last two years: monoliths with fake balconies and enormous garage entrances. They’ve smothered the old warehouses, car dealerships and carpet outlets. Florida’s classification of “cultural creatives” within a “creative class,” felt pretty phony in this part of the city, one I didn’t usually didn’t visit. A poet and a coder at Amazon live three full time wages apart from each other and several neighborhoods apart. Just because they both string symbols together doesn’t mean that the engineer making algorithms about online shopping is an artist.
Poets want to make beautiful things out of language. Coders, to be fair, want to achieve elegance in their work and elegance in coding, specialists say, is about brevity and clarity. For insiders, it’s also about taking suave turns that other people might not, leading to the same result. Installing an unexpected swerve in a line of code and still arriving at the desired point showcases a coder’s voice. Clarity through innovation is a triumph.
Entrance to Seattle’s Link light rail line. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)I was passing a light rail station when this idea of clarity had me thinking of Imagist poetry, a movement in the early part of the 20th century, that also condensed language to an essence. Imagists worked until words felt transparent and disappeared into the picture conjured in the reader’s mind. Ezra Pound’s poem “In a Station of the Metro” is the epitome, the imagist object lesson, and I find it be the one closest to computer code and a haiku simultaneously:
In A Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.[19]
I remembered this poem as I looked into the dark stairwells that led to the trains. The “apparition” of strangers floated before me: their faces as “petals on a wet, black bough.” That bough has a way of staying in your psyche. It protrudes. It stuck out in my consciousness as I walked by the station.
As miscellany is stripped away, both imagist poetry and well-honed code shine in their sleek designs. Code resonates in the style of the commands, though the outputs might be the same for different methods. For example, Javascript, if used to form a poem, could arrange the same set of lines with different commands. The coder would get the same outputs. Poems, on the other hand, shift with juxtaposition. In both cases, resonances are in the textures made by form, either in the commands or the results.
Downtown Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)Thinking like a poet engineer and a coding spiritualist was thrilling. When I returned from the Amazon spheres, all pumped up on ideas of code and symbols, I took to my couch and I propped up “Magic,” an essay by WB Yeats from his strange book, Ideas of Good and Evil. “Magic” explores symbols and transcendent imaginings while skating through some pretty Jungian ideas about the collective unconscious, though when Yeats wrote it in 1901, Jung was early in his career, still working on his dissertation: On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena. However, even though they were both drawn to the occult, creative processes and the interventions of magic, and though an underground river of collective consciousness and archetypes connected them, actual correspondence did not.
Yeats’ fascination with symbols and their effect on consciousness was probably influenced by his sessions with occultist theosopher Madame Blavatsky whom he had visited in the late 1880s as a young man in London. He tried to run experiments, to no avail, in which naturally occurring phenomena were altered by his mind. Nonetheless, his interest in the occult persisted into the automatic writing he began with his wife Georgie twenty years later, and A Vision, an accumulation of these matters published in 1937, when the poet was an old man.
What caught my attention and spun my thinking about symbols even further was a moment in “Magic” when Yeats claims that “the borders of our minds are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.”  He pushes the idea of a “single mind” into “one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.” The way to delve into this common memory, according to Yeats, was through symbols. A common consciousness excavated through symbols—of course. I’d read Joseph Campbell’s work on myths and symbols; it wasn’t a new idea to me. Those were what all artists traded in.
“The symbols are of all kinds,” Yeats continues, “for everything in heaven or earth has its association, momentous or trivial, in the great memory, and one never knows what forgotten events may have plunged it, like the toadstool and the ragweed, into the great passions.” If the toadstool and the ragweed can become part of the “great memory,” why not computer code? Across different symbols and languages, it also had a connective circuitry. Indeed, Yeats seems open to symbols coming from many sources: “Almost everyone who has ever busied himself with such matters has come, in trance or dream, upon some new and strange symbol or event, which he has afterwards found in some work he had never read or heard of.”
“Grass Blades,” a sculpture by John Fleming at Seattle Center. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)But I couldn’t quite resolve the notion that the “great memory” always led back to the memory of nature. For a software engineer and coder, the “great memory” seemed to me to be more of a common algorithm that re-calculates our desires to solve problems. It’s mechanical. Symbols, for poets, could indeed access archetypes and images from our most atavistic human memories, back into a common sense of nature. But the effect is not a pastoral one. For poets, it’s feral — not the Anthropocene that we are living in.
The opposite of feral, the antithesis of Yeats’ occult and reliance on the great memory as an unfathomable mystery, was in the work of futurists and philosophers. Ray Kurtzweil and John Searle explore the idea of machine learning expanding to “singularity,” a point when AI is far smarter than any human processing. That’s when we’ll see the “intelligence explosion” that some say could doom us. Yeats would imagine it as a consciousness that the universe already possessed.
Poems rely on a reader’s consciousness to fill in the leaps of association and, through that process, they reach into a subconscious undercurrent. Little pivots in their imagery and music move a reader away from the predicted route (at least in good poems). While coders may embed processes in language for particular uses, poets aspire to use language to uncover intention and surprise, both secrets and revelation. Code, on the other hand, sticks to the program, arriving at a predicted end no matter what innovations have led there.
In poems I love, my psyche feels snug within a coded experience and then set free. I couldn’t exactly explain to you why a particular poetic turn works. It’s something you feel and hear though a voice that plays inside you. Here, for example, is a poem I love for its tidy, reasonable lines in a column, for its quirky turns and for the voice that carries lyricism and surprise, to no expected end:
Bait Goat[1]


There is a
distance where
magnets pull,
we feel, having
held them
back. Likewise
there is a
distance where
words attract.
Set one out
like a bait goat
and wait and
seven others
will approach.
But watch out:
roving packs can
pull your word
away. You
find your stake
yanked and some
rough bunch
to thank.
“Bait Goat” reads like code. It moves linearly; the poem’s short lines jump easily, one to the next, like well-formed, simple commands. The images and sounds flicker with tension: the speaker is exploring a “distance where/ words attract.”  That’s the turn. How, you might ask, is the “distance where/ words attract” measured by “a bait goat?” In the poem’s short lines (ironic for a poem about measuring distance), roving packs of bait goats implode the expanse that makes us draw towards the poem and then, at the end, your “stake” is “yanked” and you, the reader and the poet both, have “some/rough bunch to thank.” Disruption, in other words, comes intentionally and then takes over.
Who can say why the disruption is “a bait goat?” But it is, and it works. We’re down there looking into a river of common experience that we are brought to by quirkiness, by a magical, guiding hand. And then we arrive to face the truly unexpected: goats. Goats are smelly and they spit. They bite and play roughly in groups. They eat garbage. By the poem’s willful insistence to focus on setting out one goat as bait, it sends us reeling with those smells and sounds and images.
Kay Ryan’s poem is a contraption that springs on sonics: attract/back; wait/bait; stake/yank/thank. These rhymes roil underneath the visual content to draw connections. How the language sounds inside your head as you read it is what pops loose the quirky sensibility and strange logic within. The lines can’t be too long admired visually, nor interpreted without the sound track that rolls along with them. The music connects and fulfills the little art trap that the poem is. You can’t help hearing that.
Poetry’s language, the currency of the tongue, is human-tethered to the dark caves of our beings. Poems are crafted out of that darkness and brought, then, into view. One who writes computer code might ask: “But is a poem useful? What does it actually do? We can’t measure that. We have no data.” Indeed, to our coder, a poem might be a machine in which usefulness is the nexus of interactions both quantitative (syntax and sonics) and qualitative (the feelings and insights these inspire). Code’s utility, on the other hand, may have no qualitative aspect other than aesthetic elegance. Brevity and fresh command paths are earmarks of beauty and may be code’s only hint at narrative. The form is hermetically sealed. The Amazon dome, I speculated, was like a pen for the coders.
Wandering in urban Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)Wandering was innate to a poem because it imitated how consciousness worked. A poem is reader-activated, dormant until she rolls her mind over the lines. Poetry relies on its own music, whereas coding isn’t a heard-aloud language.  Coding’s a ploy that instigates certain processes and its non-sonic wrappings are purely visual and algorithmic. It all unspools externally, outside the human body. In that way, it feels cool and logical– machine-activated, as it slides through processors.
Doesn’t logic run out of tarmac? I put down Yeats’ essay. I imagine a hunk of machinery within his “great memory of nature.” Don’t useful things eventually become wreckage, caught in over-growth?
Here we were, poets and coders living together in this expanding and shut down urban space, and we were both wandering indoors, into our syntax, looking for turns and seeing the unexpected. Maybe poetry was the logical and liberated manifestation of coding. I could imagine Yeats saying that, but he always aspired to magic. To me, code forced a bloom back into its bud.  A poem held, always, its own promise of blasting open.
Finally, I was roaming like a flaneur, except that I was reclining on the couch. Weren’t we all –coders and artists and poets — flaneurs creating symbols within forms? We wander and then we find ourselves standing at the river of collective memory where we ask: “Does it end up where I want it to?” “Does it look interesting and beautiful along the way?”
Audio editing by Curt Milton. Photography by Kurt Schlosser.