It’s not hard to see the similarities between computer code and poetry. Like code, poetry is highly formalized and structural and almost all poems attempt to effect an experience greater than the sum of their words. Call the best of each examples of very artful data compression.

Perlgeeks have been re-writing poems in code for years. Some of it is really quite good, though none of it achieves the grail of actually executing something that might be meaningfully related to the poem. (How cool would that be? A poem turned into an executable program whose runtime output was some kind of answer or manifestation of the poem subject?)

Two gents at MIT have created an application that takes this idea one step further. Metafor is a system for visualizing the “programmatic” nature of the English language. Basically the app takes standard language and creates what looks like a a formalized program. The idea is to use this method of “scaffolding” natural language as a stepping-stone to the ideal of being able to program in plain English. This is sentence diagramming on overdrive.

INPUT: “There is a bar with a bartender who makes drinks.”


def __main__():
class bar:
the_bartender = bartender()
class bartender:
def make(drink):

There’s also a great video available that makes the process clear.

Like the Perl-ified poems, this code does not actually do anything. And I fear that this method of translation will come crashing down (so to speak) when it encounters allusion, metaphor, or any of the myriad other figurative fossils embedded in the strata of English. But I like the exercise.

See also: E-mailing Richard Powers

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