Poet to Poet: Eavan Boland on Grace Hopper

Tributes have been paid around the world to Eavan Boland, the Irish poet, feminist and academic who died on the 27thApril. Her writing is distinguished by clarity and depth, by the precision of her language and her ability to pull together details of simple, everyday experiences, opening our awareness to their profound underlying truth.

A poem of Eavan Boland’s that I turn to again and again is Code, her own tribute to Grace Murray Hopper. Grace Hopper (1906 – 1992) was a pioneer of computer programming and a member of the team that developed the first compiler in 1952. A firm believer that computer programming should become more user-friendly and accessible to non-mathematicians, she played an active role in advancing the popularity of COBOL so that, by the time I learned to program in the 1970s, it was the most widely used programming language.

Good code, like good poetry, should be elegant and succinct: combining creativity with craftsmanship, visually pleasing in its layout on the page and satisfying in its content. There should be nothing extraneous to detract from the clarity of the message. Grace Hopper and Eavan Boland were equally masterful in both the art and the craft of their chosen professions. Both earned their rightful place in largely male-dominated disciplines, Hopper in the nascent field of computing science and Boland in the realm of Irish literature. And, by all accounts, both were also outstanding teachers and mentors. 

The opening line of Boland’s poem acknowledges, concisely and exquisitely, the connection between writing poetry and writing code: ‘Poet to poet.’ As always in her poetry, Boland’s use of language is deceptively simple yet startling in its imagery:

‘The rainbow has leaned down to clothe the trout 
The earth has found its pole, the moon its tides.’ 

The careful arrangement of stanzas and precise punctuation suggest the laying out of code while Boland elegantly signifies the creative process – equally applicable to both disciplines – by weaving references to the book of Genesis into the poem’s fabric.   

‘Code’ is a meditation on language and its creative potential, what it can express and how it can be used. Boland imagines Hopper as being ‘at the edge of language’, at her work station in New Hampshire working with such intense concentration that she is oblivious to the passing of time. Appropriately, temporal transition words such as when and yet have no meaning in the language of code. And Boland carefully avoids them too, referring instead to the changes in the light as the earth rotates:

‘You are west of me and in the past.    
Dark falls.  Light is somewhere else.’

There are echoes of another of Eavan Boland’s poems, ‘This Moment’ in her use of sensory detail to describe the transition of night into day:

       ‘The first sign that night will be day
           is a stir of leaves in this Dublin suburb
             and air and invertebrates and birds’.

The two women are bound by language, even though they use it differently: ‘I never made it timeless as you have’, Boland writes. ‘I never made it numerate as you did.’ 

After her retirement as a rear admiral in the US Navy at the age of 79 (!), Grace Hopper continued to work as a consultant until the year before her death in 1992. The poem eloquently signifies her contribution to the world, her role as ‘Maker of the future’ and her work ethic even in the later stages of her life:

                                            ‘There is still light
       in my suburb and you are in my mind--
         head bowed, old enough to be my mother--
           writing code before the daylight goes.’

Deeper still than the bonds of language are the bonds of womanhood. ‘Code’ ends with a delicate lyricism that brings us neatly back to its opening lines:              

            ‘I am writing at a screen as blue, 
               as any hill, as any lake, composing this
                  to show you how the world begins again: 
                   One word at a time. 
                     One woman to another.’

Posted on 6th May 2020.

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