Science Fiction Poetry: Some Starting Questions

Classifying literature as one genre or another helps us as readers to set our expectations before we ever open a book (or e-reader file or website, as the case may be). Genre gives us the first clues to the “What am I looking at?” question we need to orient ourselves in relation to a work of art. But those first clues may also mislead us. We may look at a book with a bill and webbed feet and think, “duck,” even though on further inspection, we find that the book isn’t even a bird. Instead, we have an egg-laying creature with a four-chambered heart: not what we were expecting at all.

Discussion of science fiction poetry seems to be an exercise in grappling with classifying a platypus. There’s the “really, it should give up the duck bill and feet and give being a good mammal a go, since that’s what it’s leaning toward” camp. There’s the “it’s perfectly fine as it is, stop trying to make it anything other than it is” camp. And then, there’s the “it’s an abomination, so let’s all go back to watching the real ducks and forget the platypus ever happened” camp.

I’m inclined to think we should stop calling SF poetry a platypus at all. Maybe, what we’ve seen as an agglomeration of parts is actually not a single creature, but a set of animals, plants, shadows, and expectations, all of which deserve their own consideration and their own set of questions.

What is science fiction poetry?

So we start with “what is science fiction poetry?” And is this even a good question to ask? Suzette Haden Elgin gives us one definition in her essay “About Science Fiction Poetry,” though even she concedes the difficulty of defining what a (well written) poem is.

Maybe a better question is “what do we want from SF poetry?” One of the catalysts for this blog post was my own curiosity about this: I know, as a reader of SF stories, what I’m looking for from genre, and I know, as a reader of literary poetry, what I’m looking for in that genre. Ideally, I’ll get the best of both worlds in SF poetry.

Another push toward writing about SF poetry is a couple articles from last year, one decrying the current state of SF poetry, another defending the good work being done in the genre. Paul Cook concludes in his essay “Why Science Fiction Poetry is Embarrassingly Bad” that the science fictional element prevents the poetry from being anything other than literal and simplistic. In her follow-up essay, “Science Fiction Poetry: Worlds of Potential” in Apex Magazine, Amal El-Mohtar counters with examples that move toward the poetic ideals Cook finds lacking in his examples.

I agree with El-Mohtar’s assessment that there are very good examples out there: it’s a matter of where to find them. The best SF poetry I’ve read in the past couple years has been in electronic form (e-book venues or websites) and in non-SF publications. So as we’re answering the “what is it?” question, we should also answer the question: “where do we find it?”

Should we read SF poetry differently from the way we read SF stories?

The answer to this one seems obvious at first: different genres, different readings. But I think going back to the “what are we looking for?” from SF stories—I’m grouping everything from flash to multi-novel series in here, so basically SF prose—is a useful exercise if we want to answer this question.

A lot has been written on why reading SF is good for us as individuals, as a society, and so on. While we may look at reading SF, especially thoughtful SF that raises important questions, as eating our vegetables, we may as well call it the whole dinner. Reading SF for pleasure is just as wonderful as that slice of blueberry pie at the end of the meal: sure, we’ll say it’s full of antioxidants, but really, we just want to savor the sweetness of the filling and the buttery crispness of the crust. Question is whether we can get the same pleasure or intellectual stimulation from both poetry and prose, or whether we should expect to be able to do so.

Should we read SF poetry differently from the way we read literary poetry?

Much of the disparagement of SF poetry occurs when critics look at SF poems in comparison to literary poems, usually prize-winning or much anthologized examples of the latter. As I’ve said, defining science fiction poetry (or its component parts) is beyond the scope of this blog. But it may help us as readers to go back to the “What am I looking at?” question. In “About Science Fiction Poetry,” Haden Elgin breaks the ideal SF poem into three component parts: a poem, written with the skill one would expect from a master in the genre (to return to the anthologized examples above), that includes both science and fiction (or narrative). So we’re looking at something that adheres to both the standards of good poetry and to some aspect of science being critical to the world in which the speaker of the poem is speaking.

That’s a start. As a long-time reader of literary poetry, I have a good feel for the initial answer to “what am I looking at?” when I look at poems. I know I may encounter certain elements: musical quality to the language, striking imagery, metaphor, an individual quality to the speaker’s voice, an ending that opens up more questions than it answers, and so on. But I don’t go in with a checklist expecting all these components and mark the poem as a failure if not all are present.

Aside from looking for the SF component, should we read SF poetry any differently from the way we read literary poetry? And if we should, then why is this the case? Should we read SF poetry the way, say, we read formal literary poetry, as an exercise in adding constraints (meter, line length, rhyme, etc. vs the SF elements)? What do we want to get out of reading poems—literary or SF—in the first place?

Where do we go from here?

In future entries, I’ll attempt to answer some of these questions. To narrow the scope of the examination, I’ll stick with lyric poetry (as opposed to epic poems) and use as examples poems that fall more or less in the science fiction (as opposed to fantasy, etc.) genre. My concern is with contemporary poetry, so examples will be written generally within the last ten years or so.

As with good poems, the endings to these explorations may contain far more questions than answers.

2 thoughts

  1. I’m really looking forward to seeing where this discussion goes…awesome, thought-provoking post!

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