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Published: Thu Aug 24 2023
Eva Lundsager, A Pause (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Online 2023 Writing Process On Poetry Technology
Source Engine: Modding Poetry

Benjamin Voigt's poems "An Underworld" and "The Sound of Children Screaming Has Been Removed" will appear in this fall's AGNI 98.

It’s 1998, and my level is leaking. In World Creator, a tool for making video game mods, the world begins as endless space. You fill the emptiness by adding “brushes” (architecture or terrain) and “entities” (enemies, allies, anything that moves). I’m learning to mod my favorite game, Half Life, and it’s mind-boggling. Every single detail—every alien or scientist, every button or health kit—has a “skin” that must be drawn, a polygon that must be modeled and animated and placed just so. Meanwhile, I’m struggling to make a door. Somehow the way I’ve cut it into the wall is opening my building to the emptiness outside. A player could fall into the void, World Creator warns me. The void is leaking in.

Modding—short for “modifying”—is a form of hacking that’s been around since at least the 1980s, when someone modded Castle Wolfenstein to replace the Nazi soldiers with Smurfs. By the time I was twelve (and struggling to build that door), modding was big business. Counterstrike, one of the most popular games of all time, started as a mod of Half Life. This was in part because the developers of Half Life, Valve Software, made modding easy. They gave modders tools and nurtured a community, even organizing an annual expo of the latest releases. They saw the future: today, with games like Minecraft, the game itself is a toolkit.

Despite many hours in World Creator, I never got very far with modding. When I went to college, I stopped playing video games. Instead, I read and tried to write. Unlike game development, writing poetry didn’t require a team of artists. Yet I soon discovered, as many novices do, that the blank page was its own kind of void, and poetry could be as baffling as programming. I remember laughing with my roommates at our Postmodern American Poetry anthology, its strange lines sometimes spilling across the page like the indecipherable green code in The Matrix.

But I kept coming back to poetry: its cascading code was mesmerizing. Even if I didn’t understand what it meant, I stumbled onto certain poets (C. D. Wright, Richard Siken) who left me feeling “as if the top of my head were taken off,” to quote Emily Dickinson (another early decapitator). And eventually, over time, with the help of teachers and friends, I started to understand the code better, or at least grew less intimidated by it. The trick? Modding.

“Imitate,” my mentor Kristin Naca told me. We were reading The Book of Questions by Pablo Neruda. This was at the end of college, when I had plenty of questions myself. “Write your own,” she said. After all, that’s what Neruda was doing: borrowing from the Surrealists, who were borrowing from Whitman. Modding a mod of a mod.

I failed the assignment. I couldn’t even start to imitate Neruda. But failure was okay, Naca explained. Sometimes you go for John Ashbery but end up sounding like Wallace Stevens. It’s not a straight line, but you get somewhere.

I began to understand a little more once she introduced me to Larry Levis. I fell under his spell immediately and permanently. I especially loved his early long poem “Linnets.” I wanted to live in its deranging world, full of dream-like reversals and lurid with feeling. Writing my own version of it was a way of staying there. I spent months on my “Linnets” mod. I called it “Starlings,” and it got me into grad school.

Rereading “Starlings,” which I haven’t opened in ten years, it’s easy to say that the poem is a clumsy pastiche. I was like a toddler at a drum kit, not knowing what to do with each component but bashing away all the same. Looking back at “Linnets” now, I’m struck by how much Levis is also making a patchwork, though a much more fluent and innovative one. I can clearly hear his predecessors and peers—Wallace Stevens, James Wright. It’s like the iconic Half-Life crowbar showing up in someone’s mod about vampires or space stations: a resource held over, borrowed from expedience or in homage, or both.

But in Levis’s case, I don’t think the echoes are pure tribute. I read them as something deeper and more earnest: he’s playing with what he loves. He’s repeating a rhythm because it feels good, or because it haunts him. And as he makes it his own, other influences creep in. The modder wants extension, not perfect imitation.

At least that’s been the case for me. I’m not a “spontaneous overflow of feelings” sort of poet. Or maybe it’s that the source of my feelings is often  a work of art—a poem by someone else, a painting, TV show, or video game. (Notably, the engine that runs Half-Life and its sequel is called Source.)

I don’t think it’s so strange to think of poetry this way—as a series of mods, as an SDK, the kit that allows a developer (poet) to use existing resources (old poems) to make software (poems) to run on our hardware (brains, guts). William Carlos Williams wrote that “a poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words.” The same could be said about a computer program: lines of code, lines of poetry.

Indeed, there’s something inherently “virtual” about reading. The literary power of a poem doesn’t emanate solely from the words on the page, but it also doesn’t come solely from the reader. It’s found in their convergence. Whenever I played Half-Life, I saw through the eyes of Gordon Freeman, a scientist who needs to escape from an alien invasion. But I was also half myself, steering him through a crumbling research facility with my mouse and keyboard. The character is an avatar for the player and the game developers. Likewise, a written narrator or speaker is a virtual person, a proxy identity through which the reader and writer both make meaning. As Wolfgang Isler, quoting Georges Poulet, put it: “Whenever I read, I mentally pronounce an I, yet the I which I pronounce is not myself.”

It’s this virtuality, Isler thought, that brings a literary work to life. We can’t help but mod the poems we read, even if those mods never leave our heads or make sense to anyone but ourselves. Public imagination matters too, though, and context can mod a poem. This is why, after Trump’s election, people were madly sharing W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, or how lines of Walt Whitman have sold iPhones and Levi’s. I don’t think that Whitman, a rigorous self-promoter, would’ve minded Apple modding his work for TV commercials. “The proof of a poet,” he wrote in his preface to Leaves of Grass, “is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he absorbed it.” This seems to me one potential—and ambitious—end of poetry: to mod your nation. Whitman modded America, and it continues to mod him right back.

For other, less populist poets, the aim might be to mod the poetic tradition. “What happens when a new work of art is created,” T. S. Eliot writes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.” There are of course problems with Eliot’s formulation—all works of art? and what tradition is he talking about?—but I like its sense of malleability and the conversation it provokes. Poets can try to mod not only their nation and its future, but the past, too, and their very art form.

Some poets are forthright about their modding: Craig Santos Perez, for example, “recycles” poets like Stevens in Habitat Threshold. Others are less explicit, but no less creative. Robyn Schiff, in poems about nursery furniture and military robots, finds startling synergies between Marianne Moore and Sylvia Plath. And I love what Rick Barot does in The Galleons, one of my favorite books of the last few years. These lines are from one of the title poems in Barot’s collection:

Because I am reading Frank O’Hara
while sitting on a bench at the Brooklyn Promenade

I am aware it is 10:30 in New York
on a Tuesday morning

the way O’Hara was always aware
of what day and hour and season were in front of him

What begins as a gentle embrace, a nod to influence, becomes, by the end of the poem, a radical modification of a beloved antecedent. It makes me read not only O’Hara differently—I’ll never think about his cosmopolitan shopping lists the same way—but the world. Barot arrives at a meditation on colonialism and globalization that’s at once delicate and urgent. O’Hara never would’ve gotten there, but without O’Hara’s help, Barot probably wouldn’t have arrived there either. It’s because of O’Hara that the speaker is “aware” of the “day and hour and season . . . in front of him” in a new way.

If in The Waste Land Eliot saw the ruins of civilization, poems like Barot’s remind me that the culture around us, however troubled, is like an SDK—a library full of models and textures and sounds that we can borrow from, honoring, mocking, and rewriting what we find. We never begin with nothing. I’ve read that the original Unreal engine, another modding tool, worked the opposite of Half-Life’s: the void started solid, like a piece of marble, and you sculpted your map from it, carving out your own burrow, your digital cavern or garden, from what you were given.

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Benjamin Voigt’s chapbook “Postpastoral” (Poetry Online, 2023) was selected for the inaugural Poetry Online Chapbook Fellowship. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in ZYZZYVA, Poetry Northwest, AGNI, Bennington Review, and Fence. He works at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and lives in Minneapolis. (updated 10/2023)

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