This playable poem about gender roles in America is Allen Ginsberg meets Nolan Bushnell

The career of a practicing poet is an obscure one, often confined to the pages of chatbooks with small runs. Just imagine the difficulties of a guy who makes, um, something there isn’t a word for, videogame poems. 

Gap is a new poem, and a navigable one, by the programmer/poet extraordinaire Sonny Rae Tempest, who has quietly been posting a number of literary experiments on his blog Daily Moment Art the past year. His projects include a poetic game of Breakout, a randomly-generated retake on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and a Twitter-integrated recital of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”. 

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It’s Ginsberg that Gap reminds us most of. The disassociated poem has a “King of May” sprawl, with erratic, yage-fueled imagery, although briefer than the lovable beatnik’s poesy. 

Strangely, it also reminds us of the Atari 2600 game Haunted House

The way it works is that the player controls the letter “A,” which Tempest says represents the Alpha male. Basically, you navigate the “A” through a labyrinth of text, completing key phrases in the poem as you go. This is fascinating because it implies the poetic device of inflection, giving cadence to the word that you’re completing. The edges of the poem are clipped by the field of view, and the page scrolls up instead of down. The whole thing takes a matter of minutes. 

Like Ginsberg, Tempest’s subject here is social ills. He writes that Gap illustrates the gender gap.

What defines a “man” in America? Clothes? Job description? Dominance, through physical force or weaponry? Culturally acceptable addictions (eg. beer, coffee, gambling, porn)? From where are we choosing to learn about masculinity? From our parents? From our churches? From TV? Who gets to tell us what makes an acceptable/ideal man? Gap explores these issues. 

Besides just waxing lyrically about the mutability of gender roles in society, the shape of the Gap also influences it’s meaning, something poets have struggled with since Modernism. Speaking with the Paris Review about “The Cantos”, Ezra Pound confessed that finding the right form to fit the first Modernist poem was hair-pulling. He had to find an arrangement that wouldn’t exclude a thought because it didn’t fit in the scheme.

Maybe the form of games would have worked for him. In Tempest’s game poem, the lines are arranged in such a way that it’s impossible to see the entirety of the poem at once, and you can’t scroll backward either. It seems to echo the point made by so many existential thinkers, that culture is morally groundless and ultimately what we make of it.