Is It Poetry?

As someone who did a lot of literary criticism while he was in college — and absolutely enjoyed it — I do a lot of picking apart literature to explore what it’s really getting at. You’ve seen that on this blog, what with looking at how Pacific Rim resonates in the middle of a pseudo-apocalypse and getting into the relation between lightsabers and character arcs in Star Wars. 

It can feel (and look) a lot like conspiracy theorizing: connecting strings across plot points and turns of phrase to try and tease out some deeper midden in a work of literature does make you wonder if you’re actually onto something or just going somewhat mad with imagined connections. Of course, there is usually a meaning to be found in things — no story exists in a vacuum, after all — the trick is digging out what that meaning is — or finding a new one.

But what if meaning is accidental?

Ghost of Tsushima is a video game where you’re a samurai trying to rid your island of Mongol invaders. Throughout the game you’ll do some samurai stuff, like fighting Mongols and becoming better at being a samurai, and some un-samurai stuff, like forgoing your code of honor for underhand tactics to help you, one of the last samurai of Tsushima, fight an army. It’s compelling stuff, and Jin Sakai wrestling with having to sacrifice his own honor to save his home is an interesting question.

Anyway. One of the samurai things you can do is write haiku, ‘cuz that’s a thing samurai do. The mechanic for it is pretty neat: a prompt appears, Jin sits down on a tatami mat and you navigate the camera around the area, picking from three options for each line out as you take in the landscape. You do five syllables, you do seven syllables, you do five again, and bam, you wrote a haiku! That’s right, you can now write poetry as part of a video game.

Looks like a nice place to write a haiku

But can that poem mean anything? You’re picking out each line not knowing what your options for the next will be, sometimes leading to a bit of discord in the direction of your haiku. Take one from my playthrough: 

Lanterns in the dark
The open wounds grow deeper
Trained to never fail

Prompted as a meditation on perseverance, I definitely thought I’d have something different to choose from for my second line; I was really hoping to continue that light metaphor. It didn’t pan out and I was left looking at something that didn’t quite work.

Or, does it? The lanterns are wounded but unfailing against the darkness. Perhaps the haiku benefits by not belaboring the metaphor and instead allowing the reader to draw their own connections (thus making it more personal, because it’s you figuring it out).

Poetry is a medium that I find deeply personal, because it’s often the poet sharing something with a specificity that goes beyond prose. Often poems aren’t just about an event but about an emotion behind it, one that digs deeper. I recently read Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s Questions For Ada and, aside from being a beautiful collection of poetry, she’s particularly adept at doing so much with so little. Consider the following untitled one on page 119:

Like you,
I am tired of waking up to news of death.

Umebinyuo uses the second person to draw in the reader and ally herself with them. The line break is a quick breath before the rest of the sentence, and it’s a heavy sentence about the omnipresence of death in life and the news. It circles back, of course; if you don’t wake up to the news of death, you are fortunate to not share in this tiredness. 

Like I said, there’s a deliberateness to poetry, and my gut response is to resist the generated haikus in Ghost of Tsushima when I can’t even follow through with my intentions when ‘writing’ them. But then again, maybe that’s part of the beauty of it, finding meaning in disorder — and these haiku lines were written by the game makers, so the deliberateness remains. Maybe by framing the haiku of Tsushima not as haiku per sé but as a sort of post-modern create-your-own poem project allows it to flourish more as poetry unto itself. It’s still poetry, it’s still got meaning.

So I suppose I’m okay with this gamification of poetry — and it’s actually really cool! Now I’m going to go back to Mongol hunting and other samurai things.

1 thought on “Is It Poetry?”

  1. Perhaps the fact that you cannot choose the next line gives it more immediacy, less overthinking, more spontaneity? If you gain something from it, why overthink it? I’ve certainly seen poetry that meant less than the one your game served up.

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