Why Science Fiction Poetry is Embarrassingly Bad

I have been bothered for a long time by what passes for science fiction poetry, at least the kinds of “verse” (I use the term hesitantly) that currently appears in the three main short fiction journals in the field: Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Analog. I’m sure the urge by editors to print poems their journals is something akin to those wonderful cartoons by Gahan Wilson that used to appear in F&SF back in the Sixties and Seventies: They’re sort of fun and make for nice filler, but as poetry (or as works of literature to be taken seriously in the way that contemporary poetry is taken seriously) they wouldn’t stand up against the poems of Charles Simic, John Ashbery, Carol Muske or Linda Pastan–to name four out of three hundred excellent poets writing today. Nor are these the kinds of poems that you return to for their lyrical moods, their elusive imagery, and that sense of discovery we get when we read our favorite poems over and over again. Stand any contemporary Rhysling Award winner up against Philip Levine or Mark Strand and you’d see immediately that their poems seem puerile and, more often than not, embarrassing.

But even if the editors of the aforementioned magazines publish poetry as filler or as items merely meant as entertainment, the winners of the Rhysling Award and the members of the Science Fiction Poetry Association take themselves very seriously and would quail at the remarks I’ve just made. Here is the contradiction: though the poems might be published as filler (which may or may not be true in actuality if you ask any given editor), the poets themselves think very highly of their achievements, their awards, and their careers as science fiction poets. I’ve met more than just a few at conventions. These are very serious people.

My job here is not to insult them or even to discourage them (or you) from writing science fiction poetry. My job is to show why science fiction poetry is bad. There is a reason why SF poetry doesn’t work and it has to do with the nature of science fiction itself. (And that reason is the chief explanation why we don’t return year after year to science fiction poems when we return to Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy, E.A. Robinson, and Wallace Stevens).

The reason why true poetry allures is that poetry by its very nature is allusive. It is also metaphorical and it relies heavily on the lyrical nature of the naturally iambic English language to assist in conveying meaning. Science fiction poetry contains none of these aforementioned elements. Science fiction poetry is literal, realistic, and usually–unless it’s rhymed and metered–lacks any lyrical cadence within its delivery. Putting it differently, poetry is about language. It is not merely about anecdote, nor is it slavishly devoted to the simple tropes that appear in science fiction. These last two make up nearly all of what’s contained in science fiction poetry–to its detriment.

Here is an example of a poem that is allusive, metaphorical, and uses language to assist in meaning:

There’s a certain slant of light (258)

by Emily Dickinson

There’s a certain slant of light,

On winter afternoons,

That oppresses, like the weight

Of cathedral tunes.

 

Heavenly hurt it gives us;

We can find no scar,

But internal difference

Where the meanings are.

 

None may teach it anything,

‘Tis the seal, despair,-

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the air.

 

When it comes, the landscape listens,

Shadows hold their breath;

When it goes, ‘t is like the distance

On the look of death.

(ca. 1861)

 

Ms. Dickinson doesn’t come out and tell us that we (or some people) get depressed on cloudy, New England afternoons, or that she herself is depressed. She makes a vague claim: “There’s a certain slant of light/ . . . That oppresses . . .” And it’s “. . . like the weight/Of cathedral tunes.” She’s referring to the deep bass notes of a church organ. And this “feeling” she gets seems to come from on high: “Heavenly hurt it gives us;” and it goes to the core of her being and it’s an “imperial affliction/Sent us of the air.” It comes from the sky–the clouds, the gloom, the darkness, all of it in the domain of the “gods”. What it leaves us with is a sense of real despair that, to her is like the look of death. Again, she doesn’t come out and say, “Boy, am I depressed. It’s cloudy and can’t get out of bed.” Certainly, the poem isn’t about Seasonal Affective Disorder and the need to take Welbutrin. A poem like this succeeds because it’s ambiguous.

Here’s another classic poem, one from our century, that even though it’s filled with specifics, has language that pulls us into the terrifying moment of the poem (and we never get tired of reading it year after year).

The Death of a Ball Turret Gunner

Randall Jarrell

 

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

(1945)

 

We “get” the situation. But what does “From my mother’s  sleep . . .” mean? What does it mean to fall “into the State . . .”? And where comes the narrative authority that says the stunning last line? You can see that it’s literally about the remains of a hapless ball turret gutter on a B-17 or a B-25 being hosed out of what remains of his Plexiglass housing. Yet how effective would it be to say: “The remains of Sergeant Bill Hazlett were washed from his ball turret at Croydon Field yesterday afternoon after his plane returned from a bombing mission over Hamburg, Germany”? The latter is news, and it’s just prose–information, data. We move on in our life, ultimately indifferent (in Kierkegaard’s sense of the passionless indifference that conveys no actual meaning in life). Yet Jarrell’s poem is narrated by a lingering ghost-like voice telling us rather cryptically what happened to him. (I say cryptically because “he” is on the Other Side, he’s fallen out of one state and into another, and he’s telling us what happened to him. No journalist could accomplish this.)

What does a science fiction poem do? It tells us straight out what it’s about–it’s like a news report with staggered lines. Here’s a recent poem from the December issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction:

Your Clone Returns Home

Robert Frazier

Back from far star systems

everything about home is similar

the Altairan rug shimmers in the hall

a tall tank of familiar blue ticklefish

& too her siblings’ smiles

though they’re rounded & more wry

you greet her with a kiss

tug at her hands with wrinkled care

the champagne pares at her senses

the dinner talk feels so strained

as she cries to sleep upstairs

she wonders will she break new ground

or will her time here remain

more common than simply common

or remain her own

There is none of Emily Dickinson’s allusiveness or coyness here. The language is neither richly cadenced nor is it metaphorical. The clone doesn’t stand in for us, or for anyone else as does the speaker in Dickinson’s poem above. Nor does Frazier’s poem contain anything metaphorical. Indeed, if you frame it as a series of sentences, you see that it’s just journalism:

Back from far star systems, everything about home is similar. The Altairan rug shimmers in the hall, a tall tank of familiar ticklefish . . .And too her siblings’ smiles, though they’re rounded and more wry, you greet her with a kiss, tug at her hands with wrinkled care. The champagne pares at her senses. The dinner talk feels so strained as she cries to sleep upstairs. She wonders will she break new ground or will her time here remain more common than simply common or remain her own.

This reads like something on the sports page. This happened, then this happened, the end. Indeed, we are given so much in this poem that there is no need to return to it “ages and ages hence” (to quote Robert Frost). There is no metaphorical resonance to the poem. It’s all there.

I do not mean for a moment to insult Mr. Frazier or any other science fiction poet for even attempting to write poetry, but there is nothing about this poem that is richly cadenced as a poem should be. Another way of saying this, there is nothing poetic about this poem. It’s centered down the page and written without punctuation–technical strategies borrowed from poets as far back as Milton, Crashaw, or Donne. But that’s it. Would you return to this poem a year later? If so, why would you?

Here’s a key how this works: We return to poems, great poems, not only for their music but to see them at different angles. The Jarrell poem above is good for this. It’s both literal (the ball turret, flack, hoses) and evasive (“my wet fur froze . . .”). Is he human or is he an animal? Does it even make a difference when faced with his death? After all, I’m still not sure what “From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State . . .” actually means, but it’s fun to explore it with students. In fact, not knowing is what draws us into the poem.

What draws us into the Frazier poem above once we’ve read it? It’s literalness and mere reportage tells us all there is to know about the poem, even if it ends with a slight touch of irony. Irony alone isn’t enough to make a poem. We have to feel that irony. Again, look how Ms. Emily plays with irony, putting herself (as our stand-in) in the midst:

Because I could not stop for Death (712)

by Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

 

We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility –

 

We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –

 

Or rather – He passed us –

The Dews drew quivering and chill –

For only Gossamer, my Gown –

My Tippet – only Tulle –

 

We paused before a House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground –

The Roof was scarcely visible –

The Cornice – in the Ground –

 

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity –

 

The irony is that Ms. Emily seems to suggest that Death is doing her a favor by pausing in his hectic day for her.  “Because I could not stop for Death –/He kindly stopped for me . . .” The poem has humor and terror both. It’s about death, in an abstract way, but science fiction can only deal with the real, the literal, and this is why science fiction poetry will always be limited. And we return to this poem over and over again–mostly because the specificity of Death is left allusive (and elusive).

It’s not as if the literalness of science fiction poetry is what dooms it. Here’s a literally characterized poem that is one of the greatest poems of the contemporary era that loses nothing because it’s framed in a real moment in the poet’s life.

Driving into Town Late to Mail a Letter

Robert Bly

It is a cold and snowy night. The main street is deserted.

The only things moving are swirls of snow.

As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron.

There is a privacy I love in this snowy night.

Driving around, I will waste more time.

(1962)

 

This poem is literal (it actually happened), but its short sentences creates an easy-going cadence that gives the poem a sense of casual movement and necessity (after all, the letter must have been important enough to leave the farm on a cold Minnesota night), but it ends with the strange (almost) Zen-like statement, “Driving around, I will waste more time.” This is what makes a good poem: a mix of the literal and the transcendent, the mystical, if you will. Certainly, the last line compels us to wonder what he means, if anything (because like Emily Dickinson, Mr. Bly could just be being coy). There is nothing in science fiction poetry that leaves us wondering or perplexed or mystified. Science fiction poetry tells us exactly what the poem means and what we are to understand by it.

Here’s a poem from the same issue of Asimov’s that underscores this:

 Flower Power

 Karin L. Frank

 Dinosaurs

 couldn’t stomach flowers–

 the fleshly petals

 engorged with juices,

 the rude displays

 of inflamed colors,

 aroused stamens

 cavorting in the breeze,

 skin perfumed from within–

 the whole

 combining and entwining

 pollination dance.

 Relic of a bygone era,

 raised on the rough, spiny edges

 of gymnosperm manners,

 I, too, already starved

 will be blasted aside before

 the cataclysmic appearance

 of some species knockout beauty event

 wither beneath ensuing glacial caresses

 and go extinct.

 

Again, the literalness of this poem tells us everything we need to know about the poem. There is nothing ambiguous here, nor is Ms. Frank a stand-in for us. I do think there is considerable merit (and humor) in a line like “. . . species knockout beauty event . . .” referring to the Chixulub asteroid that did in the dinosaurs and the poem could have benefitted from such wit throughout. But it’s all here. There is nothing for us to return to (or sink our metaphorical teeth into).

I was inspired to write this essay because David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer decide to include a poem called “Ragnarok” by Paul Park in their Years’ Best SF 17 that was written to mimic the Icelandic Sagas. Setting aside the fact that English does not have the same kind of syntactic cadences that Icelandic does, thus dooming the poem, Park nonetheless tells a tale that could just as easily have been written out in prose in a story. But this stanza really summed up the banality of the whole poem for me:

 

. . . Who among us

Steals such a thing, thieves though we are,

Jesus’ house, Hallgrimskirkja?

Now you threaten me, though I am helpless,

With your Glock Nine. Go on, shoot me.

Cunt mouth coward–I dare you.

Jesus loves me. Laughing, I tell you.

Fuck you forever.”

 

I can’t imagine anything less ambiguous than the specificity of a Glock Nine or a curse such as “Cunt mouth coward . . .” though I find the latter a bit uninspired, given the sassy, lurid, and vivid manner the Danes, the Vikings, and the Icelanders have of cursing one’s enemies. “Äitisi nai poroja!” Which means: “Your mother fucks reindeer!” Where is this kind of riposte in “Ragnarok”?

Paul Park is an otherwise fine writer of prose fiction, but his poem “Ragnarok” which was published at Tor.com has nothing of the rich cadences found in the original Icelandic sagas and it’s too literal for any ambiguities to creep in. I will never reread “Ragnarok” because it’s all there. Nothing is left to the imagination. This is the curse of science fiction poetry: structure it as you will, put in as many familiar tropes as you wish, it will still read like prose, it will tell us all we need to know, down to the specific part of the plant (stamens) or the specific weapon used (a Glock Nine). We’ll have a good time (like a moment a Gahan Wilson cartoon), but we’ll never be back. There’s no reason to go back. It’s all there, all we need to know. But take any Wallace Stevens poem. Take “Sunday Morning” or “The Auroras of Autumn” or “The Palm at the End of the Mind”. These are poems that compel us to return to them, to puzzle them through: because that’s what poetry is supposed to do. It’s meant to weave and dodge, not to paint a single picture.

Let me let Ms. Emily prove my point why the realism and specificity in science fiction poetry doesn’t work and cannot ever work.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant (1129)

Emily Dickinson

 

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

 

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

(ca. 1868)

 

Science fiction poetry cannot transcend. It cannot hint of the metaphorical. Nor can it mystify. This is because it comes at us directly, the thing in itself (or as Heidegger puts it, it is the Ding an sich). It doesn’t cajole us, romance us, seduce us, surprise us, skirt us, or flirt with us. We want the mystery in our poems (and our art), we want the ambiguity good poems suggest because life itself is ambiguous.

–Paul Cook

Postscript

Lest you think it’s unfair to compare science fiction poetry with real poetry, think again. Walk up to Orson Scott Card or Harlan Ellison at any convention (should they deign even to attend) and ask them if they write literature or science fiction. They will tell you unequivocally that they write “Literature”. I know this because they’ve made this claim both in person and in writing. Other science fiction writers feel the same way It is very fair to compare all of these writers and what they do to what “real” writers and poets do. My attempt in the foregoing essay was to show how and why science fiction poetry fails at poetry. If you or someone else wants to claim that the term “poetry” that is used in the term “science fiction poetry” is not quite the same term as used by other, more literary poets, then the onus is on you to show how the term “poetry” is being used differently by science fiction poets. Robert Frazier has published dozens of books of science fiction poetry. I’m absolutely certain he thinks that his poems are in the same category as contemporary American poetry. My claim is that it really comes down to one of degree rather than kind. It’s the same kind. It’s just several degrees lower. We’re talking subterranean here.

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