Finding the Poetry in Pong and Pac-Man
If you’re a listener of a certain age, you probably recognize the title of poet B.J. Best’s new collection of prose poetry called But Our Princess is in Another Castle.
It’s a refrain from the classic video game Super Mario Brothers that comes on the screen after each of the first seven levels of the game is completed, frustrating millions of kids in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Best harkens back to the heyday of arcade games and video game consoles like Nintendo and Atari as the inspiration behind his new poems, which are all titled after games. Thematic chapters dealing with heroism, life, death, work, love and other topics are organized as "levels" like "Do World," "Dark World," and "Light World."
The inspiration might seem less high-brow than the literary allusions of Keats and Whitman. But Best believes that this art form was ripe for Mario-esque plumbing. And like the universal appeal of Tetris, he says the collection has something for everyone.
“The book isn’t written about the games,” Best says. “And therefore my intent is that the book can be enjoyed by people who did play these games… who grew up in the ‘80s, and who are real familiar with them, but also by people who aren’t familiar with the games.”
That said, Best says he did do hours of "research" - a.k.a. playing games - as he looked to the quirks of each game as metaphors for some of the themes he explores.
Best says the collection's use of video games as inspiration is based on an older tradition of poetry composition called ekphrastic poetry - poetry written about visual pieces of art. He sees video games as their own art form, albeit a strange one.
“The thing that struck me about them is simply how weird a lot of them are; they have all of these things that simply don’t make sense,” Best says.
Case in point: Super Mario Bros.
“Mario is a plumber and he is in a kingdom that was once ruled by mushrooms that has since taken over by turtles and in order to get more power, he eats a mushroom and then eats a flower for power!" Best jokes.
Best chose to write prose poems because he felt they were more accessible with the more familiar paragraphs versus stanzas. People often steer clear of poetry because they get scared off by traditional verse's off-putting formats and complex themes.
That's not to say that Best doesn't explore some complexities of his own through the guise of popular video game references. In many ways, he finds these games offer some telling insight about life - such as the realization that the hero dies more than he succeeds in the games. And like those reaching for dreams, players will keep working towards the goal of winning, and to get recognition for beating others in that pursuit.
“We all want to make our mark in some way, even if it is something small…but we are constantly seeking out that recognition for whatever we do,” Best says.
We all want to metaphorically see ourselves atop the list high scores, says Best - who incidentally, closes his collection with the poem “Congratulations, Enter Your Initials.”
Best has two previous books of poetry and three chapbooks and teaches at Carroll University in Waukesha.