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Friday, May 15, 2009

The Words You Need to Know to Appreciate Heather McHugh's Poem in the Current New Yorker

Posted by on Fri, May 15, 2009 at 4:42 PM

Having read a lot of poems by Heather McHugh—recipient of a Stranger Genius Award in 2007—does not necessarily equip you to make any sense of the poem she has in The New Yorker this week. Not unless you talk tech. The poem is called "Hackers Can Sidejack Cookies," and I read it the other night in line at a grocery store and was so lost I did that cerebral fake-out "I am so lost in this poem's mysteries and that must be the point" thing, and then I went home and did some Googling, since an italicized note at the top explains the poem is "a collage-homage to Guy L. Steele and Eric S. Raymond"—who? yet more poets I've never heard of?—only to discover that Steele and Raymond are eggsperts in deep-nerd jargon and, respectively, the author and editor of The New Hacker's Dictionary. Sure enough every word in the poem I didn't know ("oif," "ooblick," "dogcow," "moof") is hacker vernacular.

The poem is here.

To get the most out of a poem built out of information superhighway jargon you have to immerse yourself in the information superhighway: frustrating at first, yes, but kinda fun and pretty brilliant, finally. You probably know what a cookie is ("a small string of text stored on a user's computer by a web browser...containing bits of information such as user preferences"), but do you know what "sidejack" means? Here are some terms to help you through merely the title and first stanza, compiled by yours truly (hat tip: internet):

sidejack v. also called "session hijacking," it refers to "the exploitation of a valid computer session—sometimes also called a session key—to gain unauthorized access to information or services in a computer system. In particular, it is used to refer to the theft of a magic cookie used to authenticate a user to a remote server" (source).

beige toaster n. a Macintosh computer (source).

maggotbox n. "An even more derogatory term than Macintrash" (source).

bit bucket n. "jargon for where lost computerized data has gone" (source).

data sink n. "a device or part of the computer that receives data" (source).

farkled adj. "a synonym for hosed" (source).

hosed adj. "a somewhat humorous variant of 'down,' used primarily by Unix hackers. 'Hosed' implies a condition thought to be relatively easy to reverse" (source).

flamage n. "flame postings considered as a group" [think "flame," "flame war," etc.] (sources here and here).

weenie n. "a derogatory play on 'Unix wizard,' common among hackers who use Unix by necessity but would prefer alternatives. The implication is that although the person in question may consider mastery of Unix arcana to be a wizardly skill, the only real skill involved is the ability to tolerate (and the bad taste to wallow in) the incoherence and needless complexity that is alleged to infest many Unix programs" (source).

That took forever. You're going to have to look up the rest. (Best one? "Ooblick." Explains this computer-jargon dictionary: "A bizarre semi-liquid sludge made from cornstarch and water. Enjoyed among hackers who make batches during playtime at parties for its amusing and extremely non-Newtonian behavior; it pours and splatters, but resists rapid motion like a solid and will even crack when hit by a hammer. Often found near lasers." This site elaborates: "most hackers don't smoke and many don't drink; thus, the need for such stuff as ooblick.")

Skipping ahead to the last three lines of the poem: "the daughter of the programmer / has got her period. It’s all about wetware at last, / and wetware lives in meatspace."

God DAMN I love Heather McHugh.


Comments (12) RSS

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This merely seems like Big L's "Ebonics (Criminal Slang)" in hacker drag.
Posted by Scoo on May 17, 2009 at 7:32 PM · Report this
attitude devant 12
CF, I totally get it. I once wrote a (very good) poem using a particular chemical reaction (formation of a pi bond, if you must know) as a metaphor for yielding control in an intimate relationship----and got blank stares from all my fellow poets, who (surprise!) had never taken organic chemistry. Some things approach the limits of oxygen-breathing creatures. Again, thanks to you, I get the fuller breadth of the poem, and if you must know, I have emailed your post all over the country to friends and family who otherwise would be adrift. Thanks again, and most sincerely.
Posted by attitude devant on May 16, 2009 at 10:05 PM · Report this

Yes, of course--you don't need to know these words to appreciate the poems, I just though that made a better headline than "A Few of the Words You Might Want to Know the Meanings of If You Want to More Fully Appreciate..." And sure, you can read and love the poem in an I-just-love-the-sound-of-the-words sorta way without knowing that all these words also do mean specific things to certain people, but that's a light, passive, who-cares-what-it-means style of reading, and you might as well get as much out of something as you can, especially a McHugh poem, which always read so easy but are full of deep jokes and impossibilities and contradictions splitting open. I got home from the store and started Googling all the terms and laughed and laughed.

Posted by Christopher Frizzelle on May 16, 2009 at 4:44 PM · Report this
attitude devant 10
#7 is right. I enjoyed the poem (in a sort of Jabberwocky way) when I only dimly intuited the source of the jargon, and loved the close....but thanks anyway CF for doing all that googling and saving me the trouble!
Posted by attitude devant on May 16, 2009 at 8:44 AM · Report this
Greg 9
I thought everybody knew what the Dogcow was.
Posted by Greg on May 16, 2009 at 7:29 AM · Report this
Christampa 8
meatspace is the best word period
Posted by Christampa on May 16, 2009 at 3:24 AM · Report this
You can actually appreciate this poem without knowing any of the hacker jargon, because it's apparent that it is not only hacker jargon but also words that have meanings and resonances outside of the hacker context. The doubleness is what matters, not what these words specifically mean -- and most people, even relatively computer-illiterate ones like myself, know enough of this lingo to get some gestalt of things, and (as someone already pointed out) their opacity actually adds intrigue, rather than takes away. If you have to look up every word in order to take pleasure in the poem...well, I don't know what to tell you. I doubt that McHugh cares more about the sense of these words than she does about the sound and texture of them.
Posted by bottsford on May 15, 2009 at 10:00 PM · Report this
Matthew 6
Professor Heather McHugh gave me a 4.0 on my senior thesis thingy in undergrad. And she never fails to amaze with her poetry. Yay Heather!
Posted by Matthew on May 15, 2009 at 7:09 PM · Report this
reverend dr dj riz 5
i remember bartholomew and the ooblick as well one of my fave books when i was kid. but i think that was only illustrated by seuss i could look it up..but i just woke up from my disco nap...
Posted by reverend dr dj riz on May 15, 2009 at 6:21 PM · Report this
Greg 4
Bullshit hackers don't drink.
Posted by Greg on May 15, 2009 at 5:53 PM · Report this
Jenny 2
Didn't it come from Bartholomew & the Oobleck (Dr. Seuss)?
Posted by Jenny on May 15, 2009 at 5:36 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 1
Actually, Ooblick came from some old SF books originally, but then so did a lot of the daemon names.
Posted by Will in Seattle on May 15, 2009 at 4:46 PM · Report this

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