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  • Poetry from a polymath games legend: Raph Koster's "Sunday Poems"

    Poetry from a polymath games legend: Raph Koster's "Sunday Poems"

    Game designer Raph Koster is a polymath. A legendary game-designer (Star Wars Galaxies, Ultima Online, etc), author of one of the seminal texts on game design (A Theory of Fun), visual artist, musician -- and poet.

    Koster's just released his first poetry collection, Sunday Poems (ebook), which is illustrated with his lovely line drawings. He's picked out four poems for your delectation, and written us a few words on the collection's genesis.

    Despite going into games as soon as I left grad school, my academic training was actually as a writer, and I even have an MFA in poetry. It's not a very useful sheepskin, as these things go. In 2005, I decided that it was an important part of my life, and that it still mattered to me. So I began to post poems on my blog every Sunday. Most of the readers of the blog were either videogame players or there for game industry commentary.

    At first I posted older work, but given either the lack of a reaction or the bemused comments, I soon started writing new poetry to and for them. Poems that answered their questions, poems that were based on challenges readers gave me, poems about the pop culture we were discussing or even about the stuff I was doing at work. Soon there were verses about writing networking code and verses about my kids' science homework. I played with old-school rhyming forms and with the rhythms and cadences of everyday language, always hoping that the poem that week would resonate with an audience that basically didn't care about poetry.

    Back in grad school, I had been told that my poetry was artsy and hermetic and self-referential. Now it was light, and sing-songy. It was often humorous. Was it better? I don't know. I do know that some of the poems ended up finding readership in the thousands, and these days, that's a rare thing for a poem. The project petered out, over time, and now I post poems only sporadically, when the muse strikes. But it's been ten years, so it was a good time to gather them up and in the covers bind them, so to speak. The book collects eighty of the poems, along with pen and ink illustrations based on photographs from my various travels around the world.

    Boston Photographs

    There is a street in Boston where the gas lamps have been burning
    For a hundred forty years; where lamplighters no longer walk
    The cycle of the twenty four, since globule mantles left to glow
    Were cheaper than the labor spent in dimming gas in rain and snow.

    The gravestones at the Granary are sunk in mud, or shattered sheets.
    The midnight ride of Paul Revere is heaps of rocks, is piles
    Of pennies, and a rain soaked flag or two. The Burying Ground
    Is older still, and the thousands share five hundred weathered stones.

    A Custom House is a hotel. A macaroni bursts in yellow sculpture
    Beside a Market square. A Brutalist town hall juts jaws beside
    Stark glass memorials and Boston’s oldest pub. They said, “You can’t
    Hear city sounds from inside Boston Common!” but they lied.

    Look!—homes upon a fisher wharf, held up by mussels and stout wood,
    The Charles for a cellar door and a neighbor in a sloop.
    With California earthquake eyes, the pilings underneath the wharf
    That hold the condominiums high are trembling on the edge of hope.

    We watch the tide; the rise, the fall, the six foot gap from tall to small.
    The fixity of history, the folly of infinity, the way the town believes itself
    The sailing ship, the catamaran, the hackneys and velocipedes,
    The ferry, horses, cabs and cars, the moving van, and the rumbling T,

    Four hundred years all held as close as simultaneity.
    Mistaken hills hold monuments to battles fought elsewhere,
    And staid New England poets paint their copperplated iambs
    In pixels on a screen, declaiming beats from Faneuil Hall.

    I cast these Boston photographs to what they once called ether,
    Where they may last as long as tiny mantles glow.
    They are the fixity of touristry, the river banks we made by hand,
    Are monuments as long as networks grow, as long as human power flows;
    Are structures standing strong upon the sand.

    Davey Flower Becomes a Pterodactyl

    “Raaaaak! Awrrrk! Kraaa! Urrgg!” I heard from down the hall,
    A piercing, plaintive, prehistoric sort of call.

    “What’s going on?” I called out, and soon my wife replied.
    “Your son’s become a pterodactyl. Seriously. No lie.”

    It’s true indeed—our little boy, our blue-eyed Davey Flower
    Had become an awkward, flapping, pointy dinosaur.

    His sister promptly cheered and laughed, the bratty little wench.
    “Yay, my baby brother’s gone!” then whined about the stench.

    And as he tried to flap his wings, she quickly wondered too,
    “Maybe could he do tricks like the parrot at the zoo?”

    His mother started out concerned, but quickly justified it
    As punishment for messy rooms and making her so tired.

    What do you feed a pterodactyl? He’s got goldfish from the tank!
    No, don’t eat the hamster too! And put down baby Frank!

    Chicken fingers, popcorn, fries. Figures, some things never change,
    That’s all he’d eat before too! Even then we thought it strange.

    Davey gained more energy at whatever rate we lost it.
    It wore off around midnight, when we were just exhausted.

    By then he’d mastered flapping, and hovering in place,
    And started eyeing windows, contemplating outer space.

    Now he’s grown, and when I ask if he recalls those days,
    He says, while diapering his kid, “It was just a phase.”

    But I wonder if he dreams at night and maybe sort of cries.
    I still do when I recall my blue-eyed son once knew the way to fly.

    Network Optimization

    Packet size, packet size, info little lump,
         This coded, that coded, TCP’ed and dumped.
    Piling into buffers, stacking up the K,
         Header bettered, ack lettered, MD5ed in clumps.

    Metrics march, events arch, tallying the toil,
         Adding tag, another tag, to running tallies coiled.
    Graphs and means and peak machines,
         Lists linked, map inserts, cauldron bubble boil.

    Pixel bobble, bubble wobble, choke the data down!
         Another bar, three sorts so far, infoviz may drown.
    Watch the python nybble tail, log files swell the mail.
         Second sampled average trampled, occasioning a frown.

    The buckets pause, optimal lost; packets stay for free.
         Bottom line, too many lumps of data with your tea.
    Machinery in motion, gears a-clank and potent,
         Guzzle not, and thirst not, you cramp your buffered belly.

    Packet size, packet size, info little lump,
         This coded, that recoded, TCP’ed and dumped.

    Ode to Code: A Geek Poem

    Just think:
    The twine of sine
    and cosine, twang of tangents,
    tangles of angles and twirls of tris,
    the way each curve is wavelength,
    like a sound is wavelength, light is
    wavelength. A four forty’s tone
    is blue, its hertz a wiggle,
    wobble, flow from
    high to low, a
    drunken walk
    the shade of skies.

    Perhaps by this was Schumann
    driven mad; the way the math invades,
    pervades, like A four forty in his ear
    for years: a cosmic radio of audio
    uncaused by any known thing.
    Oh, the song was blue,
    but blues were
    never heard.
    Or always did.
    Or thought he always did.

    The azimuth, horizon, incidence;
    The cadence, coda, recapitulation.
    These are all the whirlwind tang of life:
    >From helices in mitochondria to lacy
    fractal leaves to strings vibrating
    quarks, and time we see
    Here we
    have the arc
    of it, the seconds. Mark.

    And now, we twist our code
    in loops, recurse in tighter spirals, flow
    through chains of consequence—input
    output GIGO FILO—at play with toys
    that mimic magic, reify and
    retro-fy, a Bezier here,
    vector there,
    a wave
    of bosses, twirl
    Of blues, a count of lives, all binary.

    Signs, sines, sprites, twines, tangents, tunes, time. In rhyme.

    Sunday Poems - Hardcopy/Sunday Poems - Ebook [Raph Koster/RaphCo]


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