Science Fiction Poetry: Defamiliarizing Language

One potential problem with science fiction poetry is that often we readers come to it with the same set of expectations as we would SF stories (I touch on this briefly  in my post “Science Fiction Poetry: Some Starting Questions”). There are plenty examples out there of speculative poems that offer speculative ideas or future-world characters, but do little to play with language or ambiguity. As a reader, I’m drawn to poems that raise more questions than they answer and that complicate their subjects through language. It’s this bias that I’ll put on the table before we launch into the discussion of what maybe we as readers should seek out in SF poems.

Lyric poetry and science fiction, in poetry or prose, should, ideally, make us pause and consider our use and expectations of language. In his book How to Read a Poem, Edward Hirsh notes poetry’s ability to do so: “Poetry never entirely loses sight of how the language is being used, fulfilled, debased. We ought to speak more often of the precision of poetry, which restores the innocence of language, which makes the language visible again. [….] The lyric poem defamiliarizes words, it wrenches them from familiar or habitual contexts, it puts a spell on them.” Poetry’s attention to language—or the poet’s attention as embodied in the poem—should guide us to our own heightened attention to it.

Science fiction shares this ability with poetry. Jay Lake’s discussion of the difference between science fiction and fantasy genres in Writer’s Workshop of Science Fiction and Fantasy captures this idea: “Science fiction in its prototypical form is about disruption rather than restoration.” Something changes the world, Lake explains, and society must adapt to that change rather than go back to where it was before. These changes and adaptations parallel ones we find in lyric poetry. Much like a new technology can change the way we see ourselves in society, a word used in an unusual context can, in the space of heightened attention poems provide, alter our worldview.

Samuel R. Delany speaks to this in a September 2012 interview for To The Best of Our Knowledge. “When you start looking at a whole range of specifically science-fictional phrases with specifically science fictional interpretations to them. What you find is in science-fiction again and again collections of words that are metaphoric in naturalistic fiction are taken literally when they occur in science-fiction. And it produces a different range of possible meanings.” This opening up of meaning is what we seek in lyric poetry: a richness of language that doesn’t close off possibilities but instead fractures our understanding of them.

What Mark Yakich says of poetry in his article “Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies” for The Atlantic should be true of SF in poems or prose: “In fact, a poem’s greatest potential lies in the opposite of paraphrase: ambiguity. Ambiguity is at the center of what is it to be a human being.” Good SF prose should show us a complicated future. Good poems, literary or SF, should show us our complicated selves.

Part of the problem of SF poetry is that the poet must contend with two sometimes conflicting and sometimes complementary tasks: to provide enough “world building” language to give the reader an idea of the context of the poem while doing so in a manner that works toward this defamiliarization. When we do find SF poems that handle these tasks well, then we’re rewarded with this transformational experience. And I think that coming to SF prose with the same expectation of language that does the work of moving the reader, not just the work of moving the plot, then we can resolve the issue of coming to both poetry and prose with the same criteria in mind. It’s not that we should go to SF poetry expecting what we’ve experienced in SF prose. It’s that we should maybe ask more of the language of SF prose.