TITLE: Competition, Imitation, and Nothingness on a Sunday Morning
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: September 26, 2010 7:12 PM
Joseph Brodsky said:
Another poet who really changed not only my idea of
poetry, but also my perception of the world -- which
is what it's all about, ya? -- is Tsvetayeva. I
personally feel closer to Tsvetayeva -- to her
poetics, to her techniques, which I was never capable
of. This is an extremely immodest thing to say, but,
I always thought, "Can I do the Mandelstam thing?"
I thought on several occasions that I succeeded at a
kind of pastiche.
But Tsvetayeva. I don't think I ever managed to
approximate her voice. She was the only poet -- and
if you're a professional that's what's going on in
your mind -- with whom I decided not to compete.
Tsvetayeva was one of Brodsky's closest friends in
Russia. I should probably read some of her work,
though I wonder how well the poems translate into
When I am out running 22 miles, I have lots of time to
think. This morning, I spent a few minutes thinking
about Brodsky's quote, in the world of programmers.
Every so often I have encountered a master programmer
whose work changes my perception of world. I remember
coming across several programs by Ward Cunningham's,
including his wiki, and being captivated by its
combination of simplicity and depth. Years before
that, the ParcPlace Smalltalk image held my attention
for months as I learned
what object-oriented programming really was.
That collection of code seemed anonymous at first,
but I later learned its history and and became a fan
of Ingalls, Maloney, and the team. I am sure this
happens to other programmers, too.
Brodsky also talks about his sense of competition
with other professional poets. From the article,
it's clear that he means not a self-centered or
destructive competition. He liked Tsvetayeva deeply,
both professionally and personally. The competition
he felt is more a call to greatness, an aspiration.
He was following the thought, "That is beautiful"
with "I can do that" -- or "Can I do that?"
I think programmers feel this all the time, whether
they are pros or amateurs. Like artists, many
programmers learn by imitating the code they see.
These days, the open-source software world gives us
so many options! See great code; imitate great code.
Find a programmer whose work you admire consistently;
imitate the techniques, the style, and, yes, the voice.
The key in software, as in art, is finding the right
examples to imitate.
Do programmers ever choose not to compete in Brodsky's
sense? Maybe, maybe not. There are certainly people
whose deep grasp of computer science ideas usually
feels beyond my reach. Guy Steele comes to mind. But
I think for programmers it's mostly a matter of time.
We have to make trade-offs between learning one thing
well or another.
22 miles is a long run. I usually do only one to two
runs that long during my training for a given marathon.
Some days I start with the sense of foreboding implied
by the image above, but more often the run is just there.
Twenty-two miles. Run.
This time the morning was chill, 40 degrees with a bright
sun. The temperature had fallen so quickly overnight
that the previous day's rain had condensed in the leaves
of every tree and bush, ready to fall like a new downpour
at the slightest breeze.
This is my last long run before taking on Des Moines in
three weeks. It felt neutral and good at the same time.
It wasn't a great run, like my
20-miler two weeks ago,
but it did what it needed to do: stress my legs and mind
to run for about as long as the marathon will be. And I
had plenty of time to think through the nothingness.
Now begins my taper, an
leading to a race. The 52 miles I logged this week will
seep into my body for the next ten days or so as it
acclimates to the stress. Now, I will pare back my
mileage and devote a few more short and medium-sized runs
to converting strength into the speed.
The quote that opens this entry comes from
Joseph Brodsky, The Art of Poetry No. 28,
an interview in The Paris Review by Sven
Birkerts in December 1979. I like very much to hear
writers talk about how they write, about other writers,
and about the culture of writing. This long interview
repaid me several times for the time I spent reading.