If you are anything at all like me, you and poetry have passed like ships in the night: Lights on, blaring your horns, and doing your able best to avoid one another. Sure, you read some poetry during your school years, but much of it was either really, really old or so new it just didn’t make any sense (I’m looking at you, e. e. cummings) to your still forming brain. Maybe you remember a few terms such as meter and rhyme, perhaps even what an iamb is, or how syllables affect our understanding of poetry—but that’s about it.
Perhaps you were one of the fortunate few who had an instructor who brought poetry alive, and who made the reading of poetry a lifelong pursuit. If so, this article is not particularly for you, though you may still enjoy it. But for those of you who remember poetry as the most annoying, exacerbating, torturous snore-fest of your school years, you might want to lift your head from your desk and pay attention.
If you are a reader of speculative fiction (you know, science fiction, fantasy, and horror type stuff) you probably read it because you enjoy it. For you, the reading of a book by Isaac Asimov or Robert Jordan is a pleasurable experience, one that you look forward to after a long day at work. Maybe you curl up in your pajamas with a coffee, or you go to the bookstore or library and enhance your experience by being surrounded by a wealth of words. Maybe you curl up in bed with only a single dim light, or sit outside on the patio drinking in the sunshine. However you do it, you find the act of reading a work of speculative fiction a pleasurable experience.
Poetry can be a pleasurable experience too, if you let it. If speculative prose is something you enjoy, there is a good chance that speculative poetry may also be to your liking. You may not find “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost to be all that exciting an event, but listening to or reading “Song for an Ancient City” by Amal El-Mohtar brings visions of the ethereal, the old, and the beautiful. To you, “Return of Zombie Teen Angst” by Mike Allen sounds like it might actually make a fun read, but an “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats sounds like the poet simply lacked imagination.
If this describes you, you are not alone.
Many, many people have allowed the possibilities of poetry in science fiction and fantasy to pass them by. For the writer, it may be perceived there is no market for their work in poetry (as we will see later, that is an erroneous belief). For the reader, a bad experience with poetry, a belief that it is only for the “intelligentsia” or “literary” or simply a lack of contact have prevented them from enjoying the wealth that is poetry.
I too, was one of those people.
So I set myself a task. I went out, learned what I could about poetry, experienced some of what is being written today in SF poetry, and compiled for myself a sort of guide to appreciating verse. My hope is that my guide will help you find beauty and entertainment in the reading of SF poetry through some practical tips, a better understanding of analysis, and some exposure to some poems in the SF genre.
WHAT IS SF POETRY?
First, some definitions. What is speculative poetry? Suzette Haden Elgin, founder of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, defines speculative poetry in The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook as “A science fiction poem must be about a reality that is in some way different from the existing reality.” This broad and nuanced definition can be applied as much to prose as verse. The genres of science fiction, fantasy, and even horror posit an alternative to reality as the writer and reader may understand it, and so speculative poetry does the same albeit in a unique form. Of course, not all alternate reality poetry is SF poetry.
What then makes it different from any other poetry? For the casual reader, such as me and possibly you, the best way to differentiate between SF poetry and so-called “mainstream” poetry is simply to rely on the old adage “I’ll know it when I see it”. We must be like Damon Knight, who once defined science fiction as “whatever I am pointing at when I say ‘science fiction!’” For you and me, it really doesn’t matter if the critics define a work of poetry as SF poetry or not, because if that is how we experience it, then it is so. It might be content, it might be form, it might be the similar emotional response you get from reading a poem to that which you get from reading SF prose. Of course, some poetry is specifically and intentionally SF poetry. This will usually be clear in the fact that the work is published in a genre magazine, or the author self-identifies as an SF poet, but no matter what, as with any reading experience, the reader will choose to define a poem as s/he wills. This may actually be a good opportunity for debates between appreciators to arise, something that will likely enhance your experience of poetry, not detract from it.
Now that we have defined SF poetry by not defining it, let’s turn our attention to getting acclimated to the pleasure that can be had from reading poetry.
Like when you first learned to read, enjoying poetry is going to take a little bit of effort on your part. Whether you learned English via whole language or phonetics, you learned to read through a significant amount of effort, especially for a young brain. You pounded those words and syllables into your mind, memorizing them and their relationships, working time and time again to understand the various nuances of a given word and how context can change a world. You fought over homophones, homographs, and the multiple exceptions to plurals, verbs, and adverb use. You worked hard.
Fortunately, you won’t have to work quite so hard at enjoying SF poetry. You have already done the hard part in learning to read. Now you just need to learn the differences there are in reading poetry as opposed to prose.
Attend a Poetry Reading
Why would I put “attend a poetry reading” first in my list of acclimatizing tools? It is because often, poetry is best experienced aloud. It is very, very hard to learn to enjoy poetry in a vacuum, especially when your only contact is black letters on a white page. It is just so sterile, so utterly devoid of any feeling to read a poem in that way. When first learning to enjoy poetry, it is best to get poetry “from the horse’s mouth” as it were. Much of the poetry at a reading will be original, will be by the poet, and will be read in the cadence and tone which the author intends. Naturally, it is unlikely that much of this poetry will be of a SF variety, but the goal here is to learn that poetry has a music born of words alone. Just as the enjoyment of a play, once read, is enhanced by seeing it on stage, so too is seeing and hearing a poem performed.
Poets.org has a National Poetry Map on its website that can help you find readings in your area. Next time you go to a Barnes and Noble, check their events calendar and see if there is a poetry group or special appearance. Many of the Barnes & Noble stores where I have lived have hosted teen poetry groups. These would be good places to go, as the crowd is small, you can slip away when you like, and although the poetry may not be extremely good, the youth of the budding poets makes it easier to feel less intimidated. This is where I began, afraid that a more formal poetry reading would be too much like the atmosphere in So I Married an Axe Murder when beat poet Charlie Mackenzie (Mike Myers) reads one of his poems in a poetry bar. (Silly, I know, but lack of experience or a fear of trying new things can make fools of us all.)
If finding a poetry reading is difficult or you lack the time to commit to one, you might also try looking on YouTube or other video-sharing sites for some poetry readings. Author Neil Gaiman’s “Instructions” (http://youtu.be/bi2pBZGJqj8 ) can be found there being read by the author himself, as can work by Theodora Goss (http://youtu.be/tLSANHt9Neg) and Mike Allen, both noted SF poets. There is sure to be more various categories and/or genres that I have yet to discover.
The point here is to experience the poetry, getting a sense of it as read aloud.
This is fairly self-evident. If you want to experience and understand poetry, you are going to have to read it. Fortunately there are a lot of great places to find SF poetry, not least of which is in the very pages of Electric Velocipede. The dedicated poetry magazines Dreams and Nightmares, The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, Star*Line, Mythic Delirium, Goblin Fruit, and Astropoetica are all excellent places to find a wealth of verse. Many of them are online magazines and offer the poetry free of charge. (An entire listing of publications which accept and print poetry can be found at: http://www.sfpoetry.com/markets.html) In some cases, print editions are available if you prefer. Thaumatrope, a Twitter zine, often includes haikus or limericks in its daily dose of mini-fictions. Asimov’s, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Abyss &Apex, Sybil’s Garage, Ideomancer, Black Gate, and Strange Horizons are all publications which include SF poetry in and amongst works of prose and essays. And many individual authors will include poetry in their websites or blogs, such as Jim C. Hines’ series of “zombie rhymes” which are parodies of old nursery rhymes (http://www.jimchines.com/tag/zombie-rhymes/).
There are also several poetry collections and anthologies produced each year. Those links will take you to the Science Fiction Poetry Association lists that they maintain. The SFPA also releases their own anthology of the Rhysling Award winners each year. The Rhysling Award is the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s annual award for the best speculative poetry, which has been awarded since 1978.
Again, the point here is to acclimate yourself to the nuances of poetry, to learn the different styles by feel if not by specific name. You won’t be able to define which poem is a limerick, or which is written in iambic pentameter (unless, of course, you remember these details from your school days) but you will be able to enjoy the poem at an emotional level, the level of the heart. Let the mind come later, let the specifics of a particular poem’s construction not be what you first experience; rather let the beauty of the language flow over you. Bruce Boston, a multiple Rhysling award winner, illuminates my meaning:
“Speculative poetry is about suggestion; it is elusive and rich in allusions; it functions at multiple levels; it may sometimes appear opaque until you give it a deserving read. Unlike most genre poems, speculative poetry does not use language to communicate in a strictly literal way, but recognizes the analogical quality of language, the play of words, the connections and contradictions inherent in sounds and meanings. It takes words beyond themselves, beyond their literal definitions, and whether its syntax is simple or complex, rhymed and metered or free verse, it understands how to make language not only speak but sing.” (Originally in Fortean Bureau, Sept. 2005; now found at http://estranghero.blogspot.com/2008/10/just-so-people-will-know.html)
Now that you have been experientially acclimated to SF poetry and know where to find it, we need to turn our minds towards understanding the poetry we have experienced with our hearts. To do so, we will need to continue to read and listen to poetry.
Read Reviews of Poetry
Find reviews of speculative poetry. Find out what the experts in the field are saying about different pieces of poetry. Reading reviews will assist you in learning to discern a “good” poem from a “bad” poem, at least in a critical sense. You will, of course, not always agree with their conclusions on a particular piece. One of the very aspects of poetry that make it so enjoyable is disagreeing with others about a particular piece. It is rarely quantifiable, and every reader will react just a little bit differently to a particular work. You can find reviews of speculative poetry at places like SF Site, Star*Line, and Illumen. The “Distillations” section of the (now-defunct but still available to read) online review magazine The Fix was one of the most comprehensive and thorough locations for reviews of SF poetry. In addition, The Fix often reviewed the publications where the poems first appeared and so it is a great place to find reviews of poetry in the broader content magazines. Tangent Online also reviews many of the publications where SF poetry can be found with excellent and thoughtful reviews.
It is just as important to read reviews of poetry as it is to read the poetry itself, as it will add to your critical understanding of a poem, perhaps illuminate some aspect of a poem you read that escaped you on first reading, and give you a better sense of where a poem might fit into history and genre. Poet Matthew Zapruder, who selects and edits much of the poetry published by Seattle’s Wave Books, was interview by Publishers Weekly in preparation for a panel on poetry reviewing. In the interview Zapruder said, “The most valuable thing about a review of a book of poetry is its potential to deepen the reader’s experience of the work under consideration.” He continues, “The thoughts and insights of a perceptive, educated, interested writer who has spent a significant amount of time with the poetry can be of great help to someone who is new to the poems.” (read the entire interview with Zapruder and his fellow panelists at the Publishers Weekly website)
Now, before you cringe in agony, this is not your poetry analysis from school. For one thing, you probably care a great deal more about understanding poetry, or you wouldn’t have even made it this far into my column. Because poetry is a significant part of literature, there are many resources available to help you better understand poetry, from Poetry for Dummies to critical editions of the poems of Tennyson or Frost. There is a great deal out there, only a little of it dedicated to speculative poetry, but to be sure, a good understanding of the techniques and the ability to analyze a poem is a universal skill.
Analyzing a poem is much like critiquing a work of fiction. By asking yourself a set of ten questions about the work, you will be able to critique it in such a way as to enhance your enjoyment of the work. (Adapted from Brock University—Professor John Lye’s “Critical Reading: A Guide”)
1. What is the poem’s genre?
What Lye means here, is the poem a sonnet, an elegy, a lyric, a narrative, a dramatic monologue, an epic, etc.? Lye contends that identifying the form of a poem is important because “different forms are usually associated with particular subjects, aims, and attributes.” Before asking this question, be sure you are familiar with the most common types. Most of them are discussed and explained in books written for the average reader.
2. Who is the poem’s narrator?
This is what is commonly called “point of view” when analyzing prose. Lye says, “Identify the voice. What does the voice have to do with what is happening in the poem?” I particularly liked how Lye phrased his next point, “How involved in the action or reflection of the poem is the voice? What is the perspective or ‘point of view’ of the speaker? The perspective can be social, intellectual, political, even physical—there are many different perspectives, but they all contribute to how the world of the poem is seen, and how we respond.”
3. What is the poem’s subject?
Quite plainly, what is the poem about? What happens in the poem? In speculative poetry this may appear to be evident, but remember that poetry loves to play about with language, and the apparent meaning is not always the only one.
4. What is the poem’s structure?
How is the poem put together? Does it have sections in stanzas or does it employ paragraphs? Also pay attention to the “plot” of the poem, the way the presentation of the material is developed.
5. How does the poem use its setting?
Try to find the time, place, and physical location of the poem. This is especially important in speculative poetry as the time could be the far future or the distant past. The location could be a spaceship or a castle in a swamp. Knowing where and when the poem takes place will either make the poem more concrete as you associate your knowledge of a time and place with that in the poem, or it will set the mood or create other associations based on what is in your memory.
6. How does the poem use imagery?
You already looked at the images of the physical realm in question 5, but you should also pay attention to figures of speech such as metaphors. These extend the imaginative reach of the poem, an aspect especially important to the speculative poem.
7. Examine the poem’s language.
How does the sound of the poem contribute to its meaning? Try to find the rhythm of the poem (not always an easy task, especially in free verse). Look at the kinds of words that are used, pay attention to multiple connotations or associations. Are there multiple meanings of the words the poets used? Did the poet use puns?
8. Look at the references and history.
Can you associate this poem with another piece of writing? Lye uses the examples of the U2 song “Trip Through Your Wires” where the lyrics “I was thirsty and you wet my lips” area a direct reference from Matthew 25:35 in the Bible. Bono is perhaps blowing up his own ego by using the same words that are ascribed to Jesus. In the Bible verse, Jesus says “I was thirsty and you wet my lips” to the people who were saved as an explanation of what they did correct.
9. What qualities does the poem evoke in the reader?
Works of art evoke a reader’s memories of taste, experience, and values. These memories work to inform the reader of the poem. Well-written poetry will evoke these memories from a reader even if the specific details of the poem are such that never occurred in real life to the reader.
10. What is the poem’s worldview?
This is perhaps something to look into when you have more experience reading speculative poetry. Lye asks, “What are the basic ideas about the world that are expressed? What areas of human experience are seen as important, and what is valuable about them? What areas of human experience or classes of person are ignored or denigrated?” Even as you explore this, be sure to understand your own historical and cultural distance from the work. Your own experiences and your understanding of your own culture (or sub-culture) will inform your understanding of the poem as a whole and its worldview in particular.
There is simply no better way to understand poetry than to attempt to create your own. Whether it is a simple acrostic, where you take the letters of a word and make a line of poetry from each, to a complex free verse, to an epic written in iambic pentameter, only in attempting to write a poem can you truly feel out the subtleties and beauty of the text. It’s like learning a foreign language. Sure, it is difficult, and yes, working with the grammar can be annoying at times, but in the end you have an appreciation and better understanding of your native tongue. Poetry opens up prose to a whole new level of meaning and an appreciation of one enhances the other.
Your own poems will likely be pretty poor at first. I know mine are and will be for a time to come. But as with most things, perseverance will win out. Sure, I’m not a good poet right now, but I can already better appreciate the poetry written by others. This is what I really seek in writing my own poetry. Just like the students I teach—who always begin with “I hate poetry” whenever I begin their poetry unit for the year; only when the students go through the effort to create their own poetry do they come to value it as an art form.
SF poetry is out there, and it wants more readers. Hopefully this little guide will make approaching this seemingly daunting part of SF a little bit easier, a little more fun, and a little more valued. I know writing it has for me.
John Ottinger III is a graduate student and educator whose reviews, interviews, and articles have appeared in WORLD, Publishers Weekly, Black Gate, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, SF Signal, Sacramento Book Review, and at Tor.com. Find him online at www.graspingforthewind.com.