Apr 282004

An old joke has a grocer trying to explain business ethics to his son. “Suppose a lady comes into the store,” he says, “buys two dollars worth of merchandise, pays with a fifty, and leaves, forgetting to take her change. Here’s where business ethics comes in: do you, or do you not, tell your partner?”

Now a harder one, from real life. Suppose you own a second-hand store. You run profitable weekly auctions, the seller’s best friend, by gussying up a window with a few especially nice items and inviting customers to bid. One week you take two lamp bases, outfit them with new shades, and put them in the window, describing them, accurately, as lamps, not as valuable antiques. The lamps find two bidders, who both offer substantial amounts of money. As you wrap them for the winner you both notice price tags at the bottom of the bases, for an embarrassingly small amount, from an embarrassingly modern store. The winning bidder understandably balks at paying several times for the lamps what he would have paid for the bases and shades retail.

Here’s where business ethics comes in. What do you do? You can’t very well demand that the winner pay his bid, giving him a lecture on the subjective theory of value. It’s not gonna happen. Do you simply remove the tags and go to the underbidder, who hasn’t seen them? Are you obliged to tell the underbidder about the tags, which are now essentially public information? If you don’t, what do you tell the winner, now loser, when he comes back to the store, as he surely will, and asks what happened to the lamps? Do you have to tell him anything at all? Or do you ignore the underbidder and renegotiate a deal with the winner?

I honestly don’t know the right approach, and am curious what my readers think.

(Update: John Venlet comments.)

Apr 282004

As of this moment, God of the Machine is being read in twenty-five time zones. Hello Madagascar! (In what Guinness has certified as a new world record, it is being misunderstood in twenty-four of them.) We celebrated our 1,500,000th unique visitor and 10,000,000th page view, and that’s just this afternoon. (How do I know this? I counted, every one of them.) I’d love to write more, but my wine column’s due for The Spectator, Car and Driver is simply insisting that I take this damn Lamborghini out for a test drive, my agent needs to discuss the movie rights to my New York Review of Books piece on Proust’s influence on Balanchine, I’m already running late for my date with Uma Thurman, and Gisele Bundchen’s holding on the other line. Gisele so hates to be kept waiting.

(Update: Terry Teachout comments, generously. And points out that I owe him a link. So there you go. Rick Coencas thinks I missed something.)

Apr 272004

What distinguishes poetry from prose? Any poetry critic who can’t tell you should turn in his union card. Yet the answers to this question, from the history of criticism, are surprisingly unsatisfactory. The old Horatian formula of “instruction and delight” is not unique to poetry. Wordsworth offers “emotion recollected in tranquility,” a definition in which neither element seems strictly necessary, and which again applies equally well to prose. Other critics, especially poet-critics, take refuge in impressionism, like Emily Dickinson’s “if it feels like the top of my head has been taken off, that is poetry.” Paradise Lost has not, I suspect, taken off the top of anyone’s head for quite some time, but no one calls it prose on that account. Most critics do not trouble themselves over the question at all: they assert, like Justice Stewart on pornography, that they know it when they see it. But remarks like “that isn’t poetry” are slung about frequently, and even offered as criticism. Clearly the question is worth troubling over.

I suggest a more prosaic definition, so to speak: a poem is what scans. Two objections suggest themselves immediately. The less serious is that it fails to exclude doggerel, like obscene limericks. But if obscene limericks aren’t poetry, are they prose? Or is there some third category of neither/nor? If we do not deny the title of prose to the speech of Monsieur Jourdain, I see no reason to deny the title of poetry to the limerick. Poetry, like art, is not an evaulative but a technical term.

The more serious objection is that my definition excludes vers libre, which doesn’t rhyme, doesn’t scan, but is poetry nonetheless. To deal with this requires a brief theoretical preamble. The basic foot in English is the iamb, an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. All natural speech in English is iambic. The previous sentence, for instance, is a line of iambic pentamenter (with a feminine ending).

Iambic rhythm so dominates English that its avoidance often sounds comedic, a fact that Lewis Carroll exploited brilliantly in his Longfellow parody, Hiawatha’s Photographing. It is written, like the Longfellow original, in unrhymed trochees, which are iambs in reverse.

Next to him the eldest daughter:
She suggested very little,
Only asked if he would take her
With her look of “passive beauty.”
Her idea of passive beauty
Was a squinting of the left-eye,
Was a drooping of the right-eye,
Was a smile that went up sideways
To the corner of the nostrils.

Hiawatha, when she asked him,
Took no notice of the question,
Looked as if he hadn’t heard it,
But when pointedly appealed to,
Smiled in his peculiar manner,
Coughed and said “it didn’t matter,”
Bit his lip and changed the subject.

Nor in this was he mistaken,
As the picture failed completely.

The ridiculous matter, set to trochees, is rendered supremely ridiculous. Other non-iambic meters lend themselves to similar effects, like George Wallace’s beloved double dactyls. Feminine line endings tend to undermine iambic movement, and although some serious poets, like Greville and Dryden, are partial to them, they are seen more often in light verse like W.M. Praed’s.

When writing poetry in English, you can studiously adhere to iambic meter or you can studiously avoid it. Anything in between is prose. Free verse consists, essentially, in avoiding any metrical norm by varying the movement continuously. This is much harder than it sounds.

An example may help. Let’s begin with a free verse poem that obviously is a poem, W.C. Williams’ To a Dead Journalist. Read it first, then look at the scansion. Primary accents are bold, secondary accents italic:

Behind that white brow
now the mind simply sleeps
the eyes, closed, the
lips, the mouth,

the chin, no longer useful,
the prow of the nose.
But rumors of the news,

cling still among those
silent, butted features, a
sort of wonder at
this scoop

come now, too late:
beneath the lucid ripples
to have found so monstrous
an obscurity.

Williams wrote in a letter that for him the purpose of free verse was to vary the speed of the foot, and one could not find a better demonstration. The lines range from two to seven syllables, and no two scan, let alone move, alike, even if we disregard strength of accent. The short lines, like 4 and 12, tend to be slow, and the long lines, like 2, 7, and 14, tend to be fast.

Discernible consecutive iambs appear in three places, with point. The list of features in lines 4 and 5, bracketed by the heavily accented monosyllable “closed” and the lightly accented appositive “no longer useful,” is echoed, metrically, by their description in line 10. Williams produces a metrical miracle in lines 12 and 13, with its heavy iambs, after which the poem trails off in a sort of low mutter. The colon at the end of line 13 cleaves life from death absolutely. Continuous variation is impossible to sustain, and would weary the reader in any case, which is why good free verse is short, and scarce; but this poem succeeds completely.

For comparison most any selection from the poetry magazines would do, but let’s pick on someone famous. Let’s pick on Frank O’Hara. This is an excerpt from The Day Lady Died, which in its entirety runs too long for my purposes; you’ll have to trust me that the rest of it is exactly the same:

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the Golden Griffin I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the Park Lane
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a New York Post with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 Spot
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Here the conscious variation one finds in Williams is absent. There is no point in scanning this: it has no scansion. Note the indigestable chunks of iambs, like lumps in the mashed potatoes, in line 2, lines 4-5, and lines 16-17. (There would be more, and they would be more obvious, if not for O’Hara’s habit of stringing together sentences with “and” to simulate the breathless effect that Williams achieves without such cheats.) Any reasonably sensitive reader will recognize this passage as prose, and not very good prose either. O’Hara, along with other bad poets, is sometimes praised for his “prose rhythms,” which is like praising a mouse masquerading as a rat for being a mouse after all. O’Hara, says one reviewer, “expand[ed] our ideas about what is poetic.” What say we contract them a little?

(Update: Jim Henley accuses me, correctly, of treating the term “poetry” normatively while taking others to task for doing the same thing. I should have picked a “poem” that I thought was prose but good prose, instead of the one I did. I’ll think about a suitable example and post it when I find it. Kevin Holtsberry comments. Was it really that arcane? mallarme comments.)

Apr 182004

On most days I believe the world is essentially rational. Not that God’s in his Heaven or whatever is is right, but for the most part well-directed effort is rewarded, virtue triumphs and talent will out. Then there are other days, like when a new Quentin Tarantino movie opens.

“In a world of impossible things that could not happen,” says David Carradine to Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol. 2, “who would have imagined that I would cap your crown?” Yes, he really says “cap your crown.” In a world of impossible things that could not happen, who would have imagined that Quentin Tarantino would acquire a reputation for being able to write dialogue? I blush to admit that I once toyed with the thought myself.

On NPR this morning Terry Teachout counseled critics to devote their best efforts to plot summaries, and I’d like to, I really would. Let’s see…Uma Thurman joins a crack team of freelance assassins, for no reason, who botch every job you see them do. Impregnated by David Carradine, the team’s mastermind, she succumbs to the maternal instinct and quits, moving to El Paso, for no reason, to get married. Carradine hunts her down and has his team kill the entire wedding party, for no reason. Despite having it in for Uma in particular, for no reason, they somehow manage not to snuff her, putting her in a coma for four years instead. Uma awakens, journeys to Japan where she is provided, for no reason, with a magic samurai sword, with which she proceeds to annihilate her former employer and colleagues. KB2, to its credit, does answer the most pressing question posed by the prequel, which is what happened to Daryl Hannah’s right eye.

KB2 fails to distinguish itself even in awfulness. Unspeakable, metaphysical badness, at the level of, say, My Own Private Idaho, requires pretention, to which Tarantino, being innocent of civilization, cannot rise. To be nauseating is the most that he can muster. Sometimes he induces it unintentionally, as in the scene in which Thurman insists that a female assasin sent to kill her first inspect the results of her pregnancy test.

Review the famous Tarantino set-pieces, the ones he didn’t steal: the ear-severing in Reservoir Dogs, the homosexual rape in Pulp Fiction. KB2 adds Uma Thurman plucking out Daryl Hannah’s remaining eye and stepping on it, at which last night’s audience squealed deliriously. What do you remember? Not the characters, all crooks and scumbags. People, in a Tarantino movie, can scarcely be said to exist at all. He cares only for the act; he dwells on it tenderly, in every grisly detail. The violence is always for its own sake.

Tarantino is no nihilist in the sense in which Turgenev’s Bazarov, for instance, is a nihilist. For Tarantino himself, and for his legions of male adolescent fans, his movies are mere pornographic revenge fantasies, wide-screen versions of the journal of a high-school spree killer. Nihilism presupposes a certain familiarity with the beliefs and ideas you’re rejecting. Tarantino’s lint-trap mind fastens entirely on movies and TV, and his nihilism is no nihilism at all. In fact KB2 evinces his belief in motherhood, of all things, like the jailbirds with the “MOM” tattoos.

His intellectual admirers have more to answer for. The 20th was the century of violence, violence as an end in itself. It opened with a ghastly war about nothing in particular, closed with a group of religious fanatics flying planes into office buildings, and remade, in between, the complete Top Ten List of the bloodiest regimes in world history. And 20th century intellectuals worshipped violence, apotheosized it. They served as lickspittles to Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro, and Arafat. They made cults of thug writers like Jim Thompson and William Burroughs. And now degenerate intellectuals, newspaper movie critics, praise a thug director like Tarantino in terms that turn out, upon inspection, to be suspiciously elliptical. After all the “deliciously perverse” and “voluptuous,” “uniquely twisted,” “sumptuous” and “operatic,” the question remains: what is it about Tarantino that these people really like?

(Update: Nate Bruinooge agrees with me, pretty much. What’s up with that? Rick Coencas is holding out, but weakening. David Fiore and J.W. Hastings comment. Marc Singer comments.)

Apr 102004

Next time you’re dilating about how stupid George Bush is — and I know this will be very, very soon — and some annoying right-wing interloper points out that Bush has a Harvard MBA, and you can’t be stupid and graduate Harvard Business School, all you have to do is smile and say:

Kwame Jackson has a Harvard MBA.

No charge.

Apr 082004

They’re advertising Colby Cosh’s blog on ESPN now. “What’s Cosh writing about?” “Hockey.” “What’s he writing about next?” “Hockey.” I’m getting the same way about programming. We will release the honest-to-god production version of our software Monday, and the experience has been, shall we say, instructive. The lessons include:

  • The trouble with most programmers isn’t that they’re too lazy, it’s that they aren’t lazy enough. Never write anything until you absolutely have no other choice. (Regular readers will note how well I have absorbed this.)
  • More classes = less code.
  • “Marketing” tends not to attract the sharpest tools in the shed.
  • If you refuse to test your own code righteously enough, eventually you can con somebody else into doing it for you.
  • You cannot write good business application software unless you understand the business better than the people who make their living at it. This is mostly why business application software sucks, especially when it’s written by people in the business.
  • In a client-server application, given the choice between working on the client or the server, always take the server. This is a lemma of the more general principle that at any job you should strive to stay as far away from the customer as possible.
  • You never discover the right design until you have written an enormous amount of code based on the wrong design.
  • A mediocre programmer is useless. His time would be better spent washing dishes or picking up trash.
  • The better two programmers work together, the likelier they are to end up despising each other.
  • In programming, especially, is George Pólya’s dictum true that it is often easier to solve the general case. In fact solving the special case is usually a waste of time.
  • I’d rather be blogging. Honest.
Apr 012004

Immersed, by necessity, in technical matters lately, I began to wonder what my vocation, software, and my avocation, poetry, have in common. (Meanwhile my readers, if any remain, began to wonder if I was ever going to post again.) The literary lawyers go on about the intimacy between poetry and the law and compile an immense anthology devoted to attorney-poets. Who better to speak for the programmers than I? And I do have some company in these two interests: Richard Gabriel, the well-known Stanford computer scientist, is a poet, and among the poet-bloggers Mike Snider and Ron Silliman, two poets as different as you’re likely to find, both write software for a living. Less illustrious, perhaps, than Wallace Stevens and James Russell Lowell and Archibald MacLeish, but computer science is an infant profession while the lawyers have been with us forever.

What the programmer shares with the poet is parsimony, and here we leave law far behind. Programmers, like poets, often labor under near-impossible conditions for practice, and for fun; Donald Knuth, responsible for TeX, the world’s best typesetting program, says that his favorite program is “a compiler I once wrote for a primitive minicomputer that had only 4096 words of memory, 16 bits per word. It makes a person feel like a real virtuoso to achieve something under such severe restrictions.” A popular game in computer science is to try to write the shortest possible program, in a given language, whose source code is identical with its output. Is this any different from writing poems in elaborately complex forms, like sestinas or villanelles, or playing bouts-rimé? In a sense, it’s the constraints that make the poetry.

Successive versions of the same program shrink, even as they improve. In Version 1.0 the developers usually lack, like Pascal in his letters, the time to make it shorter. In 2.0 excess code is pruned, methods and interfaces are merged that at first appeared to have nothing in common, more is done with less. Successive drafts of the same poem shrink the same way, for the same reason. The Waste Land was supposed to have been cut by Ezra Pound from five times its present length. (Pound claimed that he “just cut out all the adjectives.”) Whether it wound up any good is a topic for another day; that it wound up better than it started no one can reasonably doubt.

Good programming requires taste. Certain constructs — long switch or if/else blocks, methods with a dozen arguments or more, gotos, labels, multiple return statements, just about anything that looks ugly on the page — these must make you queasy, your fingers must rebel against typing them. Some programmatic and poetic strategies look eerily alike. The classic way to avoid switch and if/else statements in code is polymorphism, which closely resembles ambiguity in poetry.

Donald Knuth maintains a complete list of errata for all his books, and pays $2.56 ($.028) for every new error you find. In most human endeavor the perfect is the enemy of the good, and many people who have never written a program or a poem might regard Knuth’s quest for perfection as insane. Randall Jarrell once defined a novel as “a long stretch of prose with something wrong with it,” which is amusing but overbroad. A poem is a stretch of verse with something wrong with it; a program is a stretch of code with something wrong with it. A novel is a stretch of prose with something hopelessly wrong with it. For poets and for programmers, perfection seems always a few revisions away. This may be an illusion, but it’s an illusion that the novelist, the civil engineer, certainly the lawyer, cannot share.

In truth, however, yesterday’s code had more in common with poetry than today’s. The great lyric code poems, the brilliantly compressed algorithms, have mostly been written, and live on in the native libraries that all modern programmers use but few read. They are anthologized in Knuth’s three-volume opus, The Art of Programming, one volume each for fundamental algorithms, semi-numerical algorithms, and sorting and searching. Where yesterday’s tiny assembly programs were lyric, today’s n-tier behemoths are epic, and epic programs, like epic poems, never fail to have something hopelessly wrong with them. Nonetheless, in programming we have entered the age of the epic, and there’s no going back. Once, in a bout of insanity, I interviewed for a programming job at a big bank, and encountered a C programmer who liked to work close to the metal. He asked me to write a program that would take a string of characters and reverse it. I asked if I could use Java and he said sure. My program was a one-liner:

string reverse ( string pStr )
return pStr.reverse();

The point being that Java has a built-in method to reverse a string, called, remarkably, reverse(). Now I knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted me to use one of the classic algorithms, which have been around since at least the 1960s and are described in Jon Bentley’s excellent book on programming in the small, Programming Pearls, among other places. He wanted a nostalgia tour. But these algorithms are great poems that have already been written. Any decent function library, like Java’s, includes them, and it makes no sense to reinvent them, priding yourself on your cleverness. I didn’t get the job.

(Update: Rick Coencas comments. mallarme comments. Ron Silliman points out in the comments that he’s not a software developer after all; I apologize for the error.)