Sunday, May 5, 2013

[Poetry review] "I don't mean to oogle"

I recently received the following cold-call message on LinkedIn:

Roses are red, and violets are blue
I don't mean to oogle
at your experience from [company]*.

I know this may be a reach
but let me be brief
My proposal to you is unique
for your experience as a code loving geek

I will be hoping for a reply, so I can respond and say "hi"
and give your brain the challenge it seeks

No data is bigger
no distributed system so grand
as letting 7 billion people know everything
like the back of their hand

Machine learning your thing?
Semantic understanding perhaps?
Whether it's local or social or AI or NLP
We're solving these problems for billions with [search site]

You may be comfortable where you're at
But don't let your career go flat
Even if you're not interested,
Just drop me a quick note,
And if you are,
Then get ready to fly to the stars,
Because it's an adventure you won't forget!

[search site] is holding a recruiting event in Sydney, Australia and we are looking for geeks like you! These positions are located at our global headquarters in Bellevue, Washington (near Seattle) and we do provide relocation help.

* Redactions in [bold] are my own. Names have been removed to protect the innocent.
Before I start delving deeply into this, I want to sincerely say: I'm really glad I get to encounter recruiters with a sense of playfulness like this. I'm all too aware that I'd never run into people like that if I was working in, say, medicine or criminal law, and it's great that people like these exist.

Anyway, we're not here to talk about that. We're here to do critical poetry analysis.

On first reading I was immediately struck by the metre and verse. The opening three words, "Roses are red", suggests that the ensuing lines are going to take a very standard form, namely four lines of imperfect dactylic dimeter. Yet the very next word immediately breaks that expectation -- within just four syllables the author has demonstrated a willingness to depart from tradition when suitable, which subliminally sets a daring, progressive tone for the entire missive.

It's not a coincidence either that the word inserted, "and", turns the first line into a grammatically self-contained clause (eliding punctuation), something which the original poem did not have. Thus the poet is communicating that their company is a calculated risk taker, being different not for its own sake but in order to improve things. (Consider: "Roses are red, these violets are blue" would have had a very different effect.)

"We wouldn't paint our walls zany colours just to make a splash," the poet subcommunicates, "we would paint them to make a real difference."

The first stanza's stylistic subversion is concluded by its use of an ABCC rhyming pattern, which is viscerally very different from the standard ABCB.
It's not just that the rhyming part is two syllables, either! Consider the following two poems:
Roses are red
violets are blue
Sugar is sweet
Unlike deceit
Roses are red
spinsters, unwed
Sugar is sweet
Unlike deceit

The left-hand poem above, like "I don't mean to oogle", is in ABCC format. The right-hand one is in AABB. Notice how the rhyming feels expected in the latter, not the former. In the former, the rhyme's match with the previous line provides a sense of completion, yet no closure. The poet has set up a lyric expectation and openly defied it. From there, on out, all bets are off, with the poem's style drifting in and out of hints of rhyme, never quite breaking metre enough to resonate with the reader as free verse, but dynamic enough that the rhythm of the poem keeps the reader intellectually engaged.

(Oh, and of course, 'oogle' isn't a word; 'ogle' is. But that's fine; writers mutate words for the sake of rhyming all the time! As Shakespeare said, "If I was that retentive about rhymes // My poetry would not be quite so fine".)

The poem makes heavy use of first and second person. Lines like "your experience as a code loving geek" and "give your brain the challenge it seeks" suggests that the narrator is talking to a technical person -- perhaps a 1940's cryptanalyst, or a computer programmer, or a Dan Brown acolyte, depending on how we interpret "code". The poet quite deliberately leaves this open to interpretation, suggesting that the important part is not the exact nature of the person addressed, but how he or she seeks a "challenge" like that promised by the narrator.

As someone who self-identifies as a programmer, this poem really speaks to me. It's like it was written just for me.

Or for me and everyone else in my office. It's hard to say. It feels personal, y'know?

The promised challenge, a "system so grand", is described as momentous; the idea of influencing 'billions of people' is repeated, interspersed with hints of personal connection ("back of their hand"; "local") which serve to take that incomprehensible scale and make it feel intimate. The juxtaposition of scope and closeness is emotionally overwhelming; the reader is left with a sense that everyone in the world is deeply connected to everyone else. This idea, the oneness of humanity, speaks simultaneously of beauty -- limitless diversity -- and of assimilation -- cultural homogeneity.

"Get ready to fly to the stars," the poet concludes. The message is one of hope, of limitless possibility -- if only one dares. The reader is left with an implicit choice: remain aground, mundane, career flat, or take wing with the narrator and soar into the heavens.

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