The Moon in Poetry (and Code)

Friday, November 13th, 2009

I was particularly taken by the poetry of Li Po and Du Fu after a recent discussion with the World Literature students. There’s something about “talking it out.” I’ve been involved in reading Chinese poetry over the last few years in an effort to see and hear better. The study of these poems is linked to the study of code, particularly with the new media students who are writing in the Inform 7 environment, and my independent study with Kristen, a student in fiction, who, at the moment, is examining Stanley Elkin’s technique of compression in A Poetics for Bullies.

Consider Li Po’s My Feelings

Facing my wine, unaware of darkness growing,
Falling flowers cover my robes.
Drunk I rise, step on the moon in the creek–
Birds are turning back now,
men too are growing fewer.

Li Po’s is a striking moon, as this moon is a reflection and, at the same time, written as the moon itself, the moon but not the moon, a perfect reflection or “not moon.” The poet steps on the moon and, of course, shatters the perfect reflection. In this vast but little poem, Li Po supplies a definition of poetry: poetry is “the moon in the creek.”

The moon returns in the poetry of Du Fu. Here’s Moonlit Night, the translations of which differ greatly and conflate interpretation (it’s always a little foolish to take translations too seriously):

The moon tonight in Fu-chou
She watches alone from her chamber,
While faraway I think lovingly on daughters and sons,
Who do not yet know how to remember Ch’ang-an.
In scented fog, her cloudlike hairdo moist,
In its clear beams, her jade-white arms are cold.
When shall we lean in the empty window,
Moonlit together, its light drying traces of tears.

The poet’s wife is drawn with memorial closeness or nearness, as if the poet and his wife are in he same room. The poet is, however, behind enemy lines, cut off from his family by An Lu-shan. In the poem, the poet isn’t thinking about his wife. He’s “with” her in the form of a poetic image. Rather, he’s thinking about “daughters and sons” who are too young to write poetry and thus “don’t know how to remember” him.

I can only imagine the chunks of marble and stone dust about their desks, even if Li Po could hammer them out quickly, as legend has it. But the process and the work reminds me of work the students are doing writing convincing worlds in Inform. These students, much like student poets, are trying to capture reality in their room work, creating objects in rooms that could be written in more compressed manner. Indeed, this is one of the links between poetry and code. The writer doesn’t try to recreate reality, but writes with an efficiency that they think best reflects the world. Consider John Timmons’ Arrest example in Inform 7

[Create a type of a person that can be applied to different persons.]
The guilty is a person that varies.

[Create a new verb for arresting persons.]
Arresting is an action applying to one visible thing. Understand “arrest [someone]” as arresting.

[As the game starts, we randomly select one of the persons in the game as being guilty – but not the player character.]

When play begins:
change the guilty to a random person who is not the player.

[This provides a clue to the guilty person simply by examining them.]
Instead of examining the guilty:
say “[The noun] certainly looks fiendish!”

The Foyer is a room.

The gun is in the Foyer.

Joe and Ed are men in the Foyer.

Sue and Mary are women in the Foyer.

[A new rule for arresting the guilty party and provide actions as appropriate.]

Instead of arresting a person who is guilty:
say “‘[The noun],’ you slowly begin, ‘you have the right to remain silent…'”

[A new rule for trying to arrest a person who is not the guilty person.]
Instead of arresting a person:
say “[The noun] is not who you are looking for.”

Timmons supplies four lines of code that create the world for the player: the foyer, the gun, Joe and Ed, and Sue and Mary. The gun, however, is the key image. The gun turns a potential evening out or return from a movie into a “problem.” It’s a clue that signifies something wrong in the world. But the gun doesn’t have to be held. The gun doesn’t have to do anything but provide a clue. We might add that Joe is tall and keeps touching his ear and that Ed has a monkey on his shoulder. But the monkey won’t have to be written into the code as an object, as the monkey merely gives Ed a little flavor, a little character. If we did want the monkey to do something we wouldn’t create a monkey in Inform, we would simply identify a monkey as an animal and give that animal a description as close to rhesus as possible or, as Timmons does with a dog in this snippet, write:

Ralphie is a male animal in the Kitchen. The description is “Ralphie, a black lab, sleeps quietly in the corner.” Understand “dog” as Ralphie.

In other words: follow the rules of Li Po and his moon.


One response to “The Moon in Poetry (and Code)”

  1. Poet Me:) says:

    The moon is rushing in the river flow.
    by Du Fu

    Oh, silver stars filled the river, and my donkey’s riding over them:)
    by Poet Me