Sunday, December 7, 2014



#! by Nick Montfort
(Counterpath, Denver, 2014)


I knew the definition of “shebang” as in “the whole shebang”, where shebang means “a matter, operation, or set of circumstances.” While its etymology is obscure, 

The surprising thing is that we do have a fairly good map of the history of “the whole shebang.” We know that it first appeared in print during the American Civil War (1862, to be precise) meaning “a hut or shed, one’s living quarters,” at first a temporary shelter for soldiers in the field, but later meaning any sort of crude, makeshift dwelling (“We’ve got a shebang fixed up for you to stand behind, in No. I’s house,” Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872). Oddly enough (and this is pretty odd under the circumstances), at roughly the same time “shebang” started being used to mean “a vehicle, especially a rented coach.” The first use of this sense in print found so far comes, in fact, from the same 1872 Twain book “Roughing It” where “shebang” has first been found meaning “shed” (“You’re welcome to ride here as long as you please, but this shebang’s chartered”). It may be that in both instances Twain meant simply “shambles” or “rattletrap,” but “shebang” went on to be used by other writers as well to mean “vehicle.” It’s also possible that this particular sense of “shebang” is related to, or influenced by, the French “char-à-banc” (literally “benched carriage”), meaning a bus or coach with benches. Closer to the end of the 19th century, we come upon yet another use of “shebang,” this time to mean a tavern or hotel of low repute and dubious legality, i.e., a “dive” (“There was a sort of sheebang — you couldn’t call it a hotel if you had any regard for the truth — on the outskirts of Walsh for the accommodation of wayfarers without a camp-outfit,” 1908). This sense seems logically connected to the “hut” or “shed” sense. Almost since its first appearance in print in the 1860s, “shebang” had also been used in a persistently vague general sense of “the thing” or “the matter,” and it was this sense that evolved into the idiom “the whole shebang,” first appearing in that form in the 1870s, but becoming truly popular only in the 20th century. While the verifiable origin of “shebang” may be, as the OED says, “obscure,” there is one source considered likely by many authorities. The Irish term “shebeen” (from the Irish “seibin,” small mug), which first appeared in print in the late 18th century, means an unlicensed tavern in a shed or even a run-down private house where liquor is illegally dispensed. Given that a popular use of “shebang” in 19th century America was to mean “dive,” it seems highly likely that our “shebang” began life as the Irish “shebeen.” (“The Whole Shebang”, at ( Word Detective)

It seems that usage remained more or less constant until quite recently, when shebang took on a new meaning, in programming. I am not a programmer, but as Wikipedia tells me, shebang (in this case, “spelled” #!)

In computing, a shebang (also called a sha-bang, hashbang, pound-bang, hash-exclam, or hash-pling), is the character sequence consisting of the characters number sign and exclamation mark (that is, “#!”) at the beginning of a script. Under Unix-like operating systems, when a script with a shebang is run as a program, the program loader parses the rest of the script's initial line as an interpreter directive; the specified interpreter program is run instead, passing to it as an argument the path that was initially used when attempting to run the script. For example, if a script is named with the path "path/to/script", and it starts with the following line:


then the program loader is instructed to run the program "/bin/sh" instead (usually this is the Bourne shell or a compatible shell), passing "path/to/script" as the first argument. The shebang line is usually ignored by the interpreter because the "#" character is a comment marker in many scripting languages; some language interpreters that do not use the hash mark to begin comments (such as Scheme) still may ignore the shebang line in recognition of its purpose.

What I take from all this are two things 1) Montfort could have called his book sha-bang, hashbang, pound-bang, hash-exclam, or hash-pling, but chose shebang; and 2) that he did so because it recalls the non-programming meaning, the “persistently vague general sense of ‘the thing’ or ‘the matter’.

Thus, it is an apt title for a book of program-generated poems, one which includes the programs, because it encompasses both that which sets the ball rolling, so to speak, the very first bit of the program’s language (“In the beginning was the word (logos)”, the logos that wasn’t light but “let there be light”), AND the resulting creation, the poems that the programs generate (“the whole shebang”).

It is therefore functionally equivalent to the Kabballah’s concept Ein Sof.

As Ein-Sof evolves it is progressively revealed as "nothing whatsoever" (Ayin), the totality of being, the Infinite Will (Ratzon), Thought and Wisdom, the embodiment of all value and significance (the Sefirot), the wedding of male and female, and ultimately the union of all contradictions. Ein-Sof is both the totality of this dialectic and each of the points along the way. Ein-Sof must be constantly redefined, as by its very nature, it is in a constant process of self-creation and redefinition. (Sanford L Drob, “Ein Sof”, at New Kaballah)


Now that we have more or less set the stage, one might wonder what kind of poems Montfort’s programs generate. If you are looking for lyrics about how sad it is that I can remember how when I was a boy I rode my bike thru orange groves that are now housing projects, you won’t find them here. If you are looking for uncreative typing, you won’t find it here. What you will find is a kind of language set free and not free at the same time. I consider these poems a kind of magic, in which the program is a spell, and the poem is that which both fulfills and exceeds the spell-caster’s expectation. Think of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene in Fantasia. It is possible to say that these poems are abstract uses of language, but I don’t believe language is ever abstract (at the very least it sings), tho sometimes it is more or less referentially “clean”. More or less is key here for me. You know how, famously, modernity is characterized by the reader having to do some work in order to get anything from poetry? That’s definitely true in this case.

OK. Example time. The book opens with “Round”, which I take in the sense of a musical round, tho it isn’t one exactly:

form intends intense verse crease to tense form tense vent verse tone
verse form crease form vent tends to crease to tends form form vent
form crease tone verse tense

crease vent vent tends inverse tone into verse form verse verse form
tone tense in

tone vent crease

verse tone tends verse tends tends tense verse crease form

and so on for another 6 pages. This sings. It can also be parsed, e.g. I believe everyone who reads this will be able to parse “form intends intense verse”, and at least some readers will be able to see how this is indeed the case for “Round”. [In some ways this poem reminds me of a kind of softened gentled Harsh Noise Wall in effect]

Repeating that I’m not a programmer I find the program that precedes and generates this poem, as well as all the others, worth reading. Personally, I consider the programs poems in themselves.

Given that the programs are all short, #! (shebang) manages to generate a remarkable range of effects. “I Am That I Am” (I didn’t mention Ein Sof without prompting!) takes all the vowels and permutes them into what I assume are all possible combinations:


One can think of the “I” in the title being either language or God or both at the same time. Again, I also think of music, and how many variations are possible given the few notes of the western scale (we haven’t exhausted them yet!), and this leads me to think of how, with so few letters at our command, “there is no end to the writing of books”, to quote Ecclesiastes. Or, if we are to think in terms of big C creation, how many substances have been created by a finite and not large number of elements …

“Through the Park” almost tells a story, by rearranging a set number of phrases. Here’s the program (I believe you will see why I think of the programs as poetry):

# Through the Park
# A 1k story generator (excluding comments) that uses only elision
# Nick Montfort, 2008-2009
# Thanks to Michael Mateas & Beth Cardier
# JavaScript version:

import random, textwrap
text = ["The girl grins and grabs a granola bar",
"The girl puts on a slutty dress",
"The girl sets off through the park",
"A wolf whistle sounds",
"The girl turns to smile and wink",
"The muscular man paces the girl",
"Chatter and compliments cajole",
"The man makes a fist behind his back",
"A wildflower nods, tightly gripped",
"A snatch of song reminds the girl of her grandmother",
"The man and girl exchange a knowing glance",
"The two circle",
"Laughter booms",
"A giggle weaves through the air",
"The man's breathing quickens",
"A lamp above fails to come on",
"The man dashes, leaving pretense behind",
"Pigeons scatter",
"The girl runs",
"The man's there first",
"Things are forgotten in carelessness",
"The girl's bag lies open",
"Pairs of people relax after journeys and work",
"The park's green is gray",
"A patrol car's siren chirps"]
while len(text) > 8:
print "\nThrough the Park\n\n" + \
    textwrap.fill(". ... ".join(text) + ".", 80)

This should give some sense of the range, the types of poems Montfort generates in #! (shebang), and how they are generated. I think this is a lovely book, with as much imagination etc etc (all those “attributes” of “poetry” that we might still expect no matter the “kind” of “poetry”) that can be found in more traditionally written books. Good stuff.


John Bloomberg-Rissman has maybe six months left on In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life mashup called Zeitgeist Spam. The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press, 2007), and Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press 2010). His tentative title for the fourth section, which he is already planning, is The Giant Notebook of Harsh Noise Wall Bejeweled Barrettes Anything Sumak Kawsay OK The Orphaned Zag Kledonomancy Tome. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, the main other things on his plate right now are reading proofs for an anthology which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg, titled Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Anthology of Outside & Subterranean Poetry, due out from Black Widow Press sometime early in 2015, and a collab with the visual collages of Lynn Behrendt, which will hopefully be published by the end of this year. He's also learning to play the viola and he blogs at (Zeitgeist Spam).  

1 comment:

  1. Another view is offered by Eileen Tabios in this issue, GR # 23, at