Dialogues by Starlight
Three Approaches to Writing SF Poetry
[This essay was presented as "Stanza by Starlight" to "Life, the Universe, and Everything" at Brigham Young University in 1988 and subsequently published in The Leading Edge (January 1989). A much revised version appeared in Patrick D. Murphy and Vernon Hyles' groundbreaking collection of essays, The Poetic Fantastic: Studies in an Evolving Genre (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989). I have revised the original essay slightly and added several clarifying notes for StarShine and Shadows.]
At the opposite extreme, however, are those who argue not only against SF poetry as an independent form but in larger terms against fantastic poetry in general.
Tzvetan Todorov, one of the pioneer theorists of the fantastic, focuses on structural considerations in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, emphasizing the fictional techniques that make the fantastic possible. Poetry differentiates itself from fiction by the "very nature of discourse" intended; poetry, Todorov argues, tends not to be narrative (1)
(i.e. overtly fictional) and is a literature of figurative interpretation rather than literal (albeit fictional) representation. Fiction defines a "non-textual reality," whereas poetry is self-reflexive, existing for the sake of its images. Todorov concludes:
We see now why the poetic reading constitutes a danger for the fantastic. If as we read a text we reject all representation, considering each sentence as a pure semantic combination, the fantastic could not appear: For the fantastic requires ... a reaction to events as they occur in the world evoked. For this reason, the fantastic can subsist only within fiction; poetry cannot be fantastic. (59-60)
In a brief article, "The Non Existence of Poetry of the Fantastic: Commentary on a Theory," published as part of an ongoing dialogue within the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA), Jessica Amanda Salmonson extends Todorov's arguments to include science fiction poetry. Considering the fantastic as "something that is figurative reality," and noting that SF poetry in general denies the elements that combine to form a "figurative reality" - that is, character, event, and action - Salmonson concludes that "the idea of a fantastic poetry is essentially a device of community," a construct helpful in creating a sense of identity among writers but ultimately meaningless except as "communal tags" under which "much good poetry will be written" (6-7).
The idea of community may, in fact, provide an ideal entry into a discussion of SF poetry. In an extensive review of The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, Andrew Joron made several importantobservations about science fiction poetry that suggest limited acceptance and simultaneous denial of the fundamental premises of Todorov and Salmonson; SF poetry does exist, but the sense of community is central to understanding its purposes and functions.
Today, SF poetry might be called a "reading community" ... but SF poetry is more than that: it is also a learning community. Over the past decade we have honed and crafted our form, not in hermetic isolation, but visibly, together, in the public pages of mass-circulation magazines as well as small-press outlets. In these ten years, we have succeeded in inventing a tradition, solidifying and defining a genre of poetry that did not previously exist (except for the premature oddities found in fanzines, the scattered mutations incapable of coalescing into a breeding population). We have produced a body of work whose best exemplars (and this is a large claim) might stand comparison with almost any of the work currently being produced in mainstream poetry. ("Is This Poetry")
In a subsequent issue of Star*Line, Robert Frazier confirmed Joron's assertions.
I remember well when it was 1975, and SF poetry was almost nonexistent (in the U.S., that is. In the U.K. there were several anthologies and New Worlds). …What strikes me most about the "invented tradition" view is that we are so much more successful than the cyberpunks at attempting to invent a new movement. We conquer far more biases, and cross into more arenas (ever see a cyberpunk story in Analog?) Best of all, we're doing it with a form of writing, not with a style of writing. (Letter)
These two statements contain major claims for SF poetry and for its practitioners; and it is appropriate that they were penned by Joron and Frazier. With Bruce Boston, Elissa Malcohn, David Lunde, Susan Palwick, Roger Dutcher, myself, and others, these two poets have been at the front of recent attempts to develop a distinctive form and style: SF poetry, as opposed to fantasy poetry or science poetry.
In this, they have been helped by the willingness of publishers to take chances on collections and anthologies of poetry. In addition to Tem's seminal Umbral Anthology, the past five years [1982-1985] have seen the appearance of Burning with a Vision: Poetry of Science and the Fantastic (1984), edited by Frazier; Boston's All the Clocks Are Melting (1984); my Naked to the Sun: Dark Visions of Apocalypse (1985) (2); Boston's Nuclear Futures (1987); Frazier's Perception Barriers (1987); Joron's Force Fields (1987); Ocean View Press's anthology, Poly (1987), edited by Lee Ballantine; and a number of chapbooks from small-press publishers, as well as important issues of Star*Line, Velocities, and The Magazine of Speculative Poetry.
In spite of reports to the contrary, then, SF Poetry is alive and well - or, at the least, it has developed a distinctive community of speakers. This is not to say that all SF poetry is of one cloth. Quite to the contrary - and rightly so - the directions the individual poets take are as diverse as their interests and their backgrounds. The names the various poets apply to their own work suggests a range of approaches: fantastic poetry, science fiction poetry, speculative poetry, extrapolative poetry, science-oriented poetry.
There are major trends within the field, however, each concerning itself with a specific set of relationships and with the connections between science, fiction, and poetry. Some are most concerned with the ramifications of science and scientific developments on the human community; others explore modifications and transmutations of form as tradition is welded to extrapolation; and still others attempt to create what I have elsewhere called "extrapolative artifacts" ("Starshine").
In addition, there are several levels of poets involved in creating SF poetry. A number of SF novelists are also adept at writing poetry; the Umbral Anthology and Burning With A Vision contain poems by Brian W. Aldiss, Margaret Atwood, Gregory Benford, Michael Bishop, Ray Bradbury, Thomas M. Disch, Philip Jose Farmer, Joe W. Haldeman, Ursula K. LeGuin, Nancy Springer, D. M. Thomas, Gene Wolfe, Jane Yolen, Roger Zelazny, and others. Similarly, mainstream writers are also represented in the anthologies: Ted Hughes, Jack Anderson, William Stafford, and Archibald Macleish. For the purposes of this discussion, however, I intend to concentrate on poets whose works demonstrate the directions developing within that community Joron identified, specifically those writers who are struggling to define SF poetry as something unique and individual.
Science and SF Poetry
Robert Frazier has been highly influential in defining the community of SF poets; he is one of the leaders of the SFPA, having served as the association's factotum and as the editor of Star*Line, as well as editing a key anthology and publishing a number of chapbooks and individual poems. In many of his poems, he confronts directly the "science" of science fiction poetry - as the subtitle to Burning With a Vision clearly suggests. Frazier can and does write specifically SF poetry; his "Birds of the Mutant Rain Forest" and "Encased in the Amber of Probabilities," both published in the March 1987 issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, explore explicitly SF imagery and themes.
Yet in such poems as 'Johannes Kepler and his Cosmic Mystery" (Perception Barriers 24) and "Twinned Stars: Newton & Halley" (Perception Barriers 26), he demonstrates one additional facet of SF poetry: the concern for science and its influence on our world. "Perception Barriers," the twenty-seven-line poem that gives Frazier's collection its title, opens with a quotation from Nigel Calder to the effect that "the old-fashioned human mind may be simply incapable of grasping some of the laws of nature." Beginning with a rather prosaic statement, "Take the case of Phineas Gage in 1848 / and the four foot steel bar / that blew through his cheek and forebrain" (1-3), "Perception Barriers" develops into a disquisition on the power of the human brain, increasingly lush - and "scientific" - in imagery and conception, arguing against the assumption "that sentience is exquisite / as a frilly, fiery orchid / high in a Brazilian wild fig" (6-8).
In a quieter vein, "Relative Distances: Nantucket, 12.29.85" (Perception Barriers 15) shows more powerfully the subtlety and force of Frazier's science poems. Essentially a reminiscence, the poem uses the imagery and language of astronomy to explore not only the distances of outer space but also the equally frustrating distances of inner space, of relationships between father and child in a world altering faster than either can understand and in which father and child may, in some critical senses, be farther apart than the stars they watch: "Each barely visible to the other, / Even on cold clear nights" (19-20).
Frazier's best work in Perception Barriers and elsewhere demonstrates the limitations we have placed on ourselves and the possibilities that science opens up for new, enhanced awarenesses; at the same time, it explores areas where science and humanity touch and, through their "interface," defines with increasing clarity what it is to be human.
Fiction and SF Poetry
As if to answer Todorov and Salmonson, several recent SF poets have attempted to incorporate not only scientific extrapolation but the techniques of narrative and fiction into their poems, beyond just attaching a façade of SF effects onto a rudimentarily narrative framework. In the best of these works, the combination of the two achieves a rare intensity. One such work appeared in the 1986 Rhysling Awards Anthology and received a Rhysling for outstanding short poem: Susan Palwick's "The Neighbor's Wife." Extrapolative in content, it is carefully traditional in form and in the recreation of a narrative through allusion and image. Whileretaining fully developed quatrains, conventional typography and punctuation, and a consistent rhythm, coupled with images that are explicitly science fictional, the poem is nonetheless a fiction, a narrative with specifically defined and definable characters, settings, and plot. What distinguishes the poem is the primacy of narrative over either traditional form or verbal/imagistic experimentation. The story itself is coherent, complete, allusive as poetry must be, yet increasingly poignant and engaging as the reader meets Colin Wilcox and the alien he believes to be his dead wife. The elements that make this a poem - form, structure, rhythm, meter - enhance the effect of the narrative, while subtly asserting the nature of the poem as essentially science fictional. Startling facts are presented as understated assumptions: "this new Marella who is purple and croaks." The juxtaposition of alien and human, of image and narrative, makes "The Neighbor's Wife" an ideal example of this second approach to SF poetry.
Similarly, my poem "The Last Pastoral" (Naked 58-60) consciously attempts to bridge the gap between traditions. The poem was a runner-up for the 1986 Rhysling for outstanding long poem and received first-ballot recommendations for the Nebula Award in the short story category. As with Palwick's poem, "The Last Pastoral" explores those areas where past and future collide. The poem links iambic tetrameter, rhyming quatrains explicitly based on Renaissance love poetry (and in fact quoting from Christopher Marlowe and Andrew Marvel), with an explicitly SF-oriented narrative: two men, alone in a moon station, observe the destruction of the Earth and must confront their own isolation and death. Imagery is based on the natural world - blood and planets "explode I like a scarlet weed" (11.21-22) against the vacuum of space, or against cold steel. Throughout, the poem links traditions while acknowledging change. Rough, violent, and occasionally obscene language struggles with the limitations of smoothly flowing, carefully rhyming lines; yet even the rhymes are undercut by enjambment. Love poetry counterpoints hatred and death. The past impinges on the future as the promises of the Renaissance are consumed in the possibilities (probabilities?) of a destructive future. (3)
Bruce Boston's "The Evolution of the Death Murals" (Nuclear Futures 7) encapsulates this technique even further. In Boston's hands, narrative has become compressed to an instant of perception, to an image that contains inherently all time: past and present and future. Image serves the purposes of narrative, and the fiction represented is both speculative and extrapolative: "For children with no knowledge / of that world, the dismembered city / is a labyrinth they roam at will" (22-24). Using the language and verbal structures of contemporary prose, as well as intricate internal rhyming patterns, Boston creates an image of a future world in which the shadowed remains of the victims of a nuclear holocaust have been outlined, painted, even clothed by the child-artists of a future era, creating "instantaneous terror upon display" (18).
The poem balances on the margin of fiction and science fiction - the collection itself clearly suggests the connections Boston finds important between artist and society, because the profits from the sale of Nuclear Futures were donated "in the cause of nuclear disarmament," and the back cover listed the names and addresses of six organizations that provide information on nuclear disarmament. The poems in the collection, then, are monitory and hortatory; they are independent artifacts creating image and narrative, yet simultaneously form part of a larger ongoing dialogue and of a larger narrative that incorporates the past decades and looks forward to its resolution - for good or for evil - within the next.
In each of these instances, SF poetry serves a specific role. A portion of each poem specifically looks backward; other elements extrapolate or speculate. Science appears present, as does science fiction; yet each also incorporates strong narrative elements. The poems attempt to relate the conventions and traditions of past literary forms with the needs and concerns of a future humanity, and to suggest what that humanity may face as a consequence of its own actions.
Poetry and SF Poetry
A third trend in SF poetry works away from traditional forms, language, and/or content, to assert the genre's "alien-ness," its other-ness within the community of poets. Poets exploring this dimension of SF poetry concentrate on the uniqueness of the SF vision and the parallel uniqueness of the language capable of communicating that vision.
Andrew Joron's 1986 Rhysling-winning poem, "Shipwrecked on Destiny Five" (Force Fields 3-5), characterizes his best work and this approach to SF poetry. Among the finest technicians in the field, Joron consistently creates innovative, highly imagistic poetry whose lines and phrases rivet attention and force readers more deeply into the poem, often at the expense of a clear, straight-line narrative.
"Shipwrecked" has a narrative, although one as disjointed and allusive as the language Joron uses to communicate it -- and as fragmented as the perceptions of its narrator. The poem relies far more on the images Joron creates as he welds familiar words into new configurations to define alien worlds in which the corpses of the dead become symbols of intrusion, "Postures / forming a tradition / Of abstract sculptures / Scattered along a scarlet beach" (79-82). Joron's lines often jar in their purposive intensity, as when he forces a single word - "why" (l. 22) - to stand alone beneath a longer, more discursive line: "Another case of petrifaction." The question represents the extremity of futile wondering, only later expanded as the remaining lines of the stanza complete the question and make possible any attempt at an answer.
Lacking consistent rhyme, patterns, traditional meter, even conventional typography, and characterized by a constant use of traditionally non-poetic (i.e., "scientific") diction - "petrifaction," "spectro/analyzed" - the poem recreates through texture and imagery the alienation, frustration, and despair of its speaker. It blends form and content to create a uniquely SF poetry; to remove either the verbal experimentation or the SF-oriented setting and characters, however rudimentarily drawn, would destroy the integrity of the poem itself. Joron's other poems in Force Fields extend this process. His work creates contexts that incorporate science, fiction, and poetry, all contributing to the final effect. Even in those instances in which narrative is not wholly re-created, the kernel of a "story" persists.
The three strains suggested here are, of course, neither restrictive nor prescriptive. Frazier writes poems as extrapolative as Boston's; Boston's lines often resonate as cryptically and forcefully as Joron's. One reviewer of Boston's All the Clocks Are Melting in fact comments on Boston's use of the "short, sculptured, almost epigrammatic, line" (Elgin 12). The proposed categories are not mutually exclusive; nor is this intended as a definitive discussion of the entire range of SF poetry. But these poets currently engage the issues most directly, their energies consumed by their attempts to create a unique, viable community of writers. Regardless of the specific direction each of them pursues, they work toward a single end: the creation of an aesthetic and a poetry capable of the adaptability, permutation, and ultimately the value of science fiction.
Ballantine, Lee, ed. Poly: New Speculative Writing. Mountain View, CA: Ocean View Press, 1987.
Boston, Bruce. All the Clocks Are Melting. Berkeley, CA: Velocities Chapbook Series, 1984.
Boston, Bruce. Nuclear Futures. Berkeley, CA: Velocities, 1987.
Boston, Bruce. The Bruce Boston Omnibus. Mountain View CA: Ocean View, 1987.
Collings, Michael R. "Starshine and Stanzas: Poetry in the SF Community." Short Form No. 2 (February 1988): 27-40. Edited by Orson Scott Card.
Collings, Michael R. Dark Transformations: Deadly Visions of Change. Mercer Island WA: Starmont House, January 1990.
Collings, Michael R. Naked to the Sun: Dark Visions of Apocalypse. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1985.
Elgin, Suzette Haden. Review of All the Clocks Are Melting. Star*Line 9 (March/April 1985): 12-13.
Frazier, Robert, ed. Burning With a Vision: Poetry of Science and the Fantastic. Philadelphia: Owlswick Press, 1984.
Frazier, Robert. Letter in "Brownian Noises." Star*Line 11 (May/June 1987):6.
Frazier, Robert. Perception Barriers. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Poets Workshop & Press, 1987.
Joron, Andrew. "Shipwrecked on Destiny Five." Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. May 1985.
Joron, Andrew. Force Fields. Mercer Island WA: Starmont House, 1985.
Joron, Andrew. Force Fields. Mercer Island WA: Starmont House, 1985.
Joron, Andrew. "Is This Poetry or Is It Science Fiction?" Portland Review 4, 27 (1981): 2.
Joron, Andrew. "SF Poetry: A Non Genre." In Synergy 2. Ed. George Zebrowski. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. Updated rpt. of "Is This Poetry or Is It Science Fiction?"
Palwick, Susan. "The Neighbor's Wife." Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. May 1985.
Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. "The Non Existence of 'Poetry of the Fantastic': Commentary on a Theory." Star*Line 9 (January/February 1985): 6-7.
Tem, Steve Rasnic, ed. The Umbral Anthology of Science Fiction Poetry. Denver CO: Umbral Press, 1982.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. 1970. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1975.
1 It should be noted, however, that many poets might argue the opposite - that all poetry is fundamentally narrative in that it posits at least one character, even if only the speaker of the poem, and a conflict that brings the poem into existence.
2 My second collection of SF poetry, Dark Transformations, appeared the year after this essay was published in The Leading Edge.
3 In 2002, "The Last Pastoral" was accepted for publication in the first issue of the CD-ROM-based journal, Visionary Magazine Vol. 1, No. 1. Much to my surprise and delight, the editor also elected to publish a translation of the poem into Klingon. The translator's notes indicated some interesting SF possibilities in the act of translation itself - for example, how would the warfaring Klingons approach the word 'pastoral', which would have no place within their culture, traditions, or language.
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