Science Fiction Poetry: Metaphor, Context, and Expectations

In my previous blog post, “Science Fiction Poetry: Some Starting Questions,” I posed a few questions we as readers of SF poetry could use to determine what we can and should expect from the genre. This post will focus on whether or not we should read SF poems differently from literary poems, and if so, what is the dividing line between them. To make this a fair comparison, we should look at fairly recent poems in both genres using SF elements published in professional-level venues for each genre.

The poems I’m using as examples will, I hope, show us as readers a few things. First, as with novels and short stories, literary poets are using the tropes and trappings of SF, though slightly differently from what we’d consider traditional SF. Second, just because SF poets use these differently from literary poets doesn’t necessarily mean that the end product will always be inferior. And, third, there isn’t clear line between what SF poets and literary poets do with SF elements anyway.

SF Elements: Metaphor vs Context

Before we get to the poems, we should look at a couple terms. First is metaphor, which, as readers, we’re all pretty familiar with. Should we look at all extraterrestrials, viruses, zombies, etc. in SF prose as literal extraterrestrials, viruses, zombies, etc.? Or should we see them as perhaps, colonizers, dangerous ideas, mindless consumers, etc. as the case may be? We’d have to go to the individual texts to answer that. Clearly, some texts are meant to be read metaphorically. But others, like Nnedi Okorafor, who clarified in social media1 that aliens in her novels are not to be read metaphorically, use the SF elements as literal extraterrestrials, and so on.

In this case, we have to separate out texts that use SF elements as metaphors and those that use them as part of the context of the piece. By context, I just mean a lot of what we mean by world-building, but also the underlying assumption that any SF elements in the text should be taken literally. This isn’t a clear-cut distinction, but I’ll get to that later on.

SF Metaphors in Literary Poems

Metaphorical use of SF elements in literary poems is commonplace, and the SF-ness of the metaphors used doesn’t require readers to suspend belief in ways that the contextual use of SF elements would. For example, in Greg Delanty’s “The Alien,” the title character is the speaker’s unborn child, “inside the spacecraft / of your Ma,” not a literal extraterrestrial. But the metaphor plays on our knowledge of often used SF elements: the speaker approaches the “alien” as a being of wisdom and power from another world who can provide answers to the human father’s yet-unanswerable questions. The same gesture toward searching for knowledge beyond what we can, as humans, know is one shared by SF and literary genres, but we’re not expected to take the “alien” as a literal ET2.

Extraterrestrials feature in Tracy K. Smith’s “My God, It’s Full of Stars”: in the third section, the speaker ponders first whether ‘the great error is believing we’re alone” in the universe, that instead “space might be choc-full of traffic.” The poem shifts to another SF trope, time travel, “So that I might be sitting now beside my father / As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe / For the first time in the winter of 1959.”–the speaker appeals not to the unborn but to the dead. Again, we’re in the realm not of the literal but of the desired, the world of thought experiments. As readers, we’re shown possible worlds, even if we don’t have to believe them to go where the poem us3.

SF as Context in Poems

As readers of SF, we’re used to immersing ourselves in other worlds as part of the reading experience. The text needs us to believe in these other worlds in order to be successful. “Letters to S. From Poet-Build Beta-3” by A.E. Ash and published in Strange Horizons requires us to drop into a world where poetry could be created by a machine, in this case, the speaker as “Poet-Build Beta-3.” The poem makes some of the same moves that we expect from literary poems (the poem as confessional: “You must know, my heart fulfills its chores / with metal-pounding-metal noise.” and as ars poetica: “Useful to know: Specifics render the fear less fearsome. The darkness less dark. [….]”). But the fact that its speaker is not human creates tension between poetry’s emotional content and what the poem aims to do: anomalies arise. And tension is one of the things we come to poetry for.

Though we talk about world-building as being the province of genre fiction (speculative fiction, of course, but also historical fiction, and so on) the details of real places given to us by writers of literary fiction also work to place us somewhere we need to believe if the text is to work for us. An example of literary poetry that requires us to believe the world as it is and a world created is Idra Novey’s “On Returning to My Hometown in 2035.” The speaker recounts a visit to a place we probably know first-hand from lived experience—with its “gun shows” and “strip malls”–but sets this present into her past. The poem transitions to a built future: its context requires us to buy into a future featuring a “data screen” and a “Honda pedi-plane” in order for us to follow the poem to the conclusion it makes about the present and the past.

Are metaphor and context mutually exclusive?

In short, no. There can be a sort of softening of the context (or use of context as metaphor), that blurs whether the action in the poem is taking place or just a meditation on what could be. Part of the appeal of poetry is its openness, its leading us to more questions than answers. A couple examples—one SF, one literary—show that this is the case.

The Grey Cathedral” by Joshua Gage and published in Apex presents a scenario in which the speaker relates his relationship to his cow, who has been, purportedly, abducted by aliens for scientific study. After conceding that the cow “was simply a cow, born of the earth” he asks the reader to “be respectful” and “Pay to light a candle or follow / the self–guided tour. Tell your friends / you found something that stirs you.” The third and second to last lines work against the earnestness of the speaker. There is something to be marketed here, and we’re left wondering if the events did happen as he said or if this is a ploy for cash.

Ambiguity is part of the appeal of poetry. In D. Nurkse’s “Venus,” the speaker warns “you must build a starship / to take you to Venus.” The speaker then turns away from this SF context to list items that one can’t make a spaceship from, taking us back out of the SF context. We’re left with two possibilities, then. The first is that the spaceship is metaphorical4, or the objects with which to make the spaceship are not literally the “catsup bottle, / a flashlight coil,” and so on, but that the seemingly unimportant or sentimental are necessary to the journey we face to find love and flee death.

What does this mean for readers of SF poetry? Or what can we expect/ask for?

SF poetry readers can ask for the sorts of things we’d ask for from literary poems. We shouldn’t see the world-building or context as a barrier to making good poems, because all poems have to be set in some context, regardless of genre. And there doesn’t have to be a clear-cut difference between what literary poems do with context and SF poems do with SF elements, though if the poet wants to situate a poem in one or the other genre, it may help guide the reader in how to view these elements.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think we should have one set of standards for literary poems and another for SF poems. Readers have to ask what the poem attempts to do and judge it accordingly. We can ask for what we enjoy and appreciate in literary poems in SF poems, even if—and perhaps because—these SF elements are present in both.


1. See
2. The Academy of American Poets has a good short article featuring more extraterrestrials here: “Poems about Aliens
3. Further examples can be found in Smith’s collection, Life on Mars.
4. A much stronger case for this option can be made, but I want to show both possibilities.