The poetry of unexecutable code

An unexecutable code poem by Mez Breeze
An unexecutable code poem by Mez Breeze

Along with the growth of executable code poetry, code poets are writing poems that draw on the aesthetic, formal, and visual dimensions of computer code without focusing on the executability of the code itself. The work of Mez Breeze, is one such example. Breeze is an Australian net.artist who uses the internet as a primary medium for her work. Her digital multimedia work combines sound, image, text, and code, and her writing includes electronic literature and code poems. Breeze is arguably best known for her interventions in code poetry, which she began writing in the 1990s. Her “Mezangelle” style blends textual features of internet communication, computer code, and human language. The result is a hybrid poetic form that incorporates the syntax of programming languages.

Breeze’s recent poem “Anthropo[S]ceney||AnthropO[bs]cene” exemplifies the creolized aesthetics of her work:

Here, Breeze offers a meditation on the Anthropocene, a term that has come to signify our current age in geological time, marked by the beginning of humanity's effects on the environment on a global scale. A buzzword of late, the Anthropocene evokes the anxieties of late capitalism, the possibilities of human extinction, and the terrifying realities of the impact that humans are having on the earth.

The brackets ([…]) interspersed throughout the poem are common features of programming languages and can function as operators or be used for syntax markup. Through bracketed letters, Breeze continually insists on a technological dimension to the Anthropocene. Brackets prevent us from easily reading the word “Anthropocene,” insisting that it is “morphically_s]c[r]e[e]ne[d],” “[Sh]e[e]ne[d],” “P[r]o[bos]c[is]ene” and “O[bs]cene.” The “morph” suggests both the local variety of a species, in the biological sense of the term, and a gradual, computer-generated change from one image to the next, in its computational usage. The Anthropocene, it seems, is at once the global phenomenon of humanity’s effects on the planet and the local dimensions through which those impacts are “_s]c[r]e[e]ne[d].” Humans alone aren’t implicated in the Anthropocene. Breeze links humans, animals, and inanimate objects in her invocation of anthropomorphism. Her use of P[r]o[bos]c[is]ene” at once recalls elephants - perhaps invoking memory - and proboscis monkeys,  one of our fellow primates. It further alludes to the nose - the proboscis - and its homophone “knows.” Breeze hints at the ways knowledge is produced in the Anthropocene, in concert with and continually interrupted by the “[Sh]e[e]ne[d]” screens that mediate much of human engagement with technology in the 21st century. The structural elements of the poem remind us that it’s not only screens that mediate between humans and computational technology but also computer code behind the screens.  Finally, Breeze's last line inserts the notion of the “obscene” into the Anthropocene. Perhaps "obscene" refers to the large-scale disregard of the effects of industrialization and technological innovation on the planet, the treatment of animals by humans, exploitation of human labor, or the failure of humanity to understand its impact on the world. Breeze’s use of brackets adds new dimensions and questions to her poem, disrupting both the experience of reading and the possibilities for interpretation.

Breeze’s poetry experiments liberally with different dimensions of programming syntax. In contrast to executable code poems, poems that don’t rely on executable code are not bound by the rules that constrain programming languages. Rather, they take advantages of the structures of code to represent the relationship between computational technology and human experience in symbolic ways. In doing so, these poems draw attention to the structural elements of computational technology that we may not see but are central to our experience of technology and of the world.