Anxious Mo-Fo

An anxious m*********** from Seattle

Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Fun with Edmund Spenser and the O.E.D.

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I am slowly working my way through The Faerie Queene. Spenser refers to the poem’s hero knight as an elf, e.g., from Book I Canto V, “Which when the wakeful Elfe perceiu’d…” In what sense, I wondered, could this knight be referred to as an elf?

One of the O.E.D.’s definitions of “elf” is:

By Spenser applied to the knights of his allegorical ‘faerie land’.

Ah. In that sense.

Similarly, one of the O.E.D.’s definitions of “faerie” is:

The realm or world of the fays or fairies; fairyland, fairydom (cf. FAIRY n. 1). Usually, the imaginary world depicted in Spenser’s Faery Queene, the personages of which have little or no resemblance to the ‘fairies’ of popular belief.

Written by JPP

January 2, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Posted in Poetry

George Chapman’s Iliad

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Starts off with a bang:

Achilles’ banefull wrath resound, O Goddesse, that imposed
Infinite sorrowes on the Greekes, and many brave soules losd
From breasts Heroique–sent them farre, to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their lims to dogs and vultures gave.
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begunne
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike Sonne.

I found a used copy for four dollars. I guess I can thank most of you for not reading poetry: if you did, it probably would have cost me more.

Update Jan. 4th, 2010: It is not available on Gutenberg, but there is a somewhat lame Google Books version online.

Written by JPP

August 16, 2009 at 8:17 pm

Posted in Books, Poetry

LISP poetry

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Sometime in the mid ’90s, in Magus Books, a used bookstore near the University of Washington in Seattle, I saw – but, to my regret, did not purchase – a curious book called LISP Poetry. The cover was mimeographed onto light green paper which was slightly thicker than the paper used for the inside pages. Both the cover and the inside pages were composed of letter paper folded in half. The cover featured the title, “LISP Poetry”, and an inept drawing of William Shakespeare, with his face replaced with a terminal screen upon which blurry (apparently) LISP code appeared, shaped more or less into a crude representation of a face, which was smiling. No author was listed.

Opening the book, one saw that the inside pages were also mimeographed. There was no copyright notice, nor was there mention of a publisher. For the first ten of the book’s thirty-two pages, each spread consisted of a left page of LISP code printed in Courier and a right page of English text printed in Computer Modern or Bookman. The remainder of the book was devoted to two longer works, eighteen pages of LISP code followed by four pages of poetry.

The poetry did not appear to have much to do with LISP (except, peripherally, the fourth poem, a limerick which rhymed “Stallman” with a filthy phrase ending with “almond”), nor did the LISP code appear to have much to do with poetry. After noticing that the first few poems shared words with the LISP code on their facing pages, I gathered that the purpose of the LISP code was to produce the poem as its output. Often the LISP code provided misdirection to a human reading it, turning one phrase into another. (The longest program transformed – using hard-coded substitutions, not general purpose translation – a poem in Latin into a poem in English.) As an example of the kind of game these poets played, here is a simple program of my own invention:

(setq But "N") (setq Nan "u") (setq Nantucket " t")
(setq Ran "c") (setq There "An") (setq Who "he")
(setq a ",") (setq a_man "t") (setq all_his "uc")
(setq away "k") (setq bucket " ") (setq cash "ke")
(setq daughter "n") (setq from "or") (setq his "a")
(setq in "t") (setq kept " b") (setq man " f")
(setq named "t") (setq once "d ") (setq was_a "as")
(setq with "e")
(message "%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s%s"

         There once was_a man from Nantucket
         Who kept all_his cash in a bucket
           But his daughter named Nan
           Ran away with a_man)

Years after finding the book, I found a set of LaTeX files – no longer on my hard drive, and which I can no longer find online – with more examples, some of which were much more baroque than even the longest poem in the book. While none of the examples were dated, some were apparently quite old: one mentioned the release of Emacs 16, another celebrated Minsky’s 50th birthday.

There were at least three ways in which these pairs of LISP programs and poems could be appreciated: (1) the qualities of the poem produced as output, (2) the English-language semantics of the LISP program (e.g., in my poor example above, the variable names spell out the first four lines of a limerick), and (3) the cleverness of the LISP code. A fourth and more peripheral way is the appearance of the code: as with many high level languages, white space is generally not relevant to the compiler, and one clever programmer exploited this to produce a LISP program in the shape of a fish which produced a short bit of doggerel which began something like “Beloved, as the leaping salmon leap’th / So my heart leap’th to thine…”

Unlike a Perl poet, a LISP poet is constrained by a relative lack of keywords in the language which are also words in the English language. Where a Perl poet would use a Perl keyword like “bless” or “return”, a LISP poet would use function names and variable names (which must be defined before they are used, which occasionally led to LISP programs with a very long preamble in which function names and variable names are defined, with the part of interest to human readers appearing at the very end). Using variable names and function names, as opposed to language keywords, is neutral to the human language of the poet, so LISP poetry was multilingual to a degree which Perl poetry is not: In that lost tarball of LaTeX files, I saw poetry in French, Spanish, and Latin. (I did not see a type of hackneyed work produced by some Perl poets, code meant to be read as a poem by humans which does not actually produce any output when run, e.g., “return $my_beloved; my $love; bless $me, $with_your_return; i_love_you();”, which can be considered tantamount to a long chain of irritating puns.)

As far as I know, LISP poetry is an art form which can be considered lost: in spite of my best efforts, I have been unable to find again the examples I saw years ago, and I know of no new efforts in this area.

Update August 17th: This post is a joke: I made it up. I wrote it for my own amusement, not expecting that anyone would actually read it – but, now that it’s getting the number of hits that it is, it seems reasonable to add a disclaimer which is a wee bit stronger than the “Fiction” tag applied to it at its birth. If I’m lucky, perhaps the Internets will make it true.

Update August 18th: Thanks to reddit user gst for linking to this post.

Written by JPP

August 16, 2008 at 11:17 am

A pair of conversations with my daughter, age 5

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We have a book of kid’s songs compiled by a group called Wee Sing, and it’s full of innocent and/or Christian children’s songs (e.g., “Big Rock Candy Mountain” with the lyrics changed so that the streams are lemonade, not alcohol). A couple nights ago, we sang songs from the book.

Who‘s got the whole world in his hands?” she asked.

“It would have to be someone with really big hands, right?”

“Like Zeus?”

That is what happens when an atheist with an interest in literature has a kid: the kid ends up more familiar with the Greek myths than the Christian ones.

The other conversation happened a month or so ago. She asked me what I was reading. I replied,

“Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze…”

(Source, and the rest of the poem, here.)

After I got up to about “And the last age should show your heart,” she asked, “When am I going to die?”

Written by JPP

August 11, 2008 at 11:46 am

Posted in Parenting, Poetry

The Devil gets the best lines

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Satan, after overhearing Adam exhort Eve to follow God’s commandment not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, speaks:

… All is not theirs, it seems;
One fatal tree there stands, of Knowledge called,
Forbidden them to taste. Knowledge forbidden?
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord
Envy them that? Can it be sin to know?
Can it be death? And do they only stand
By ignorance? Is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?
O fair foundation laid whereon to build
Their ruin! Hence I will excite their minds
With more desire to know, and to reject
Envious commands, invented with design
To keep them low, whom knowledge might exalt
Equal with gods…

John Milton’s Paradise Lost, book IV, 513-526.

Written by JPP

April 27, 2008 at 4:00 pm

Posted in Atheism, Poetry, Religion

“Y todavia no has escrito el poema”

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From Borges’ “Mateo, XXV, 30” (Matthew 25:30), after a Borgesian miscellany of things the narrator has been given (“Estrellas, pan, bibliotecas orientales y occidentales, / Naipes, tableros de ajedrez, galerías, claraboys y sótanos…”, “Stars, bread, libraries of East and West, / playing-cards, chessboards, galleries, skylights, cellars…”), we find this:

En vano te hemos prodigado el océano,
En vano el sol, que vieron los maravillados ojos de Whitman:
Has gastado los años y te han gastado,
Y todavia no has escrito el poema.

And the English translation:

In vain have oceans been squandered on you, in vain,
the sun, wonderfully seen through Whitman’s eyes.
You have used up the years and they have used up you,
and still, and still, you have not written the poem.

If I were to write “Y todavia no has escrito el poema” on the ceiling above my bed so I would see it when I woke up, or above my office door, or below the monitor of my laptop, maybe, just maybe, I would at least entertain the thought of not squandering my inheritance.

Both the Spanish and the English text quoted above are from Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems, edited by Alexander Coleman. The English text is Alaister Reid’s translation.

Written by JPP

April 20, 2008 at 10:35 am

Posted in Poetry, Writing

If one were to pick a font for the cover of a book of poems by John Milton…

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… one would pick pink Helvetica and kern it tight, no?

Written by JPP

April 14, 2008 at 11:27 am

Posted in Books, Design, Poetry