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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61 Comments

  1. July 15, 2014, 3:27 pm   / 

    […] Paul Cook wrote an essay titled “Why Science Fiction Poetry is Embarrassingly Bad,” in which he claimed that it was impossible for science fiction poetry to be good because […]

  2. Profile photo of David E. Cowen
    May 24, 2013, 11:37 am   / 

    Mr. Cook raises a very valid argument. The genre, if it wants to be legitimate, has to have some kind of standards. It is not good enough to excuse bad poetry because it is genre based. A poem that references a distant planet and the narrator’s experience on that distant planet has to do more than be self-laudatory exposition. Style, form, diction, expression all still count. The other thing is cliche. Most of this genre is a montage of old expressions and aversions.

    Prose has to abide by these standards so why not poetry. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is speculative fiction and it was awarded the Pulitzer. Does anyone honestly believe that science fiction poetry has any chance of being considered.
    If all science fiction and speculative poets want to do is to form a little clique of writers, giving themselves awards for bad verse, then fine. That’s their choice. However, when they put themselves out as a legitimate genre of poetry and speculative literature, they have to face the standards by which all literature is to be measured. Right now, very little of it can measure up. As Mr. Cook notes, the works in this field are often so bad that anyone in science fiction reading it is embarrassed for speculative literature as a whole.

    • Profile photo of Paul Cook
      May 24, 2013, 12:19 pm   / 

      David, thanks for your comments. You expressed in fewer words what I had said in many more. I was merely calling for a more rigorous attention to poetic standards in sf poetry (as opposed to the mere insertion of standard sf tropes and conceits). A lot o people got upset over my claims, but what I said holds for the worthiness of all literature. Just because a poem has a robot in it doesn’t make the poem a good one. Thanks, David.

  3. Profile photo of Mark Brandon Allen
    March 2, 2013, 7:35 pm   / 

    An interesting discussion and much well said. But why insist that poetry always be metaphorical. Seems to me that poetry to be successful must appeal to the eye, the ear and the mind of the beholder. That in one fashion or another it must convey a story, weather in a simple rhyming narrative or a complex metrical thought. But always a story – haiku to epic poem. Oh, wait a moment modernist even differ on their interpretation of these rules. So it would see that perhaps there is a place for Sci-Fi verse which has its roots in the literal imaginings of future rather than tropes of past.

  4. Profile photo of Vonnie Winslow Crist
    February 20, 2013, 3:17 pm   / 

    I’d like to add to the discussion of “Why SF Poetry is Embarrassingly Bad,” by suggesting there’s more to well-written poetry than “lyrical moods,” “elusive imagery,” and a “sense of discovery.” And while I agree with the author that “poetry is about language,” I believe its primary function is communication. Metaphors, similes, personification, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, form, etc. are merely tools that a poet uses in the creation of a poem. And that poem is the means of communicating with the reader (or listener).
    The most memorable poetry usually communicates to its reader on multiple levels, and Paul Cook has chosen some memorable poems indeed to illustrate “real poems.” But for every Emily Dickinson gem, I’m sure a search of her contemporaries’ poetry will yield hundreds of lesser verses. And Emily has been gone for quite some time. Perhaps Paul would do better to compare “literary” poems of today with speculative poems of today.
    I come from a poetry background. My first steps in the writing world were as a poet, and I’ve been lucky enough to have heard and talked with a number of superb poets including Linda Pastan and Josephine Jacobson. The cover comments on one of my books of poems (speculative poetry was included in the volume) are from Mary Oliver. I won an individual Artists Grant in Poetry from the Maryland State Arts Council (with speculative poetry), taught as a Poet in the MSAC’s Artist-in-Education Program for over 10 years, and earned a MS in Professional Writing from Towson University (writing speculative work whenever possible). And thanks to editors more open-minded than Paul, my speculative poetry has been published in numerous literary magazines in the USA and elsewhere.
    I find myself most saddened by Paul’s statement: “My job is to show why science fiction poetry is bad.” Would it not be a better thing for him to make it his job to acknowledge the strengths of speculative verse, then make suggestions to help the writers of speculative poetry improve their poems?
    Poetry is a small and oft ignored corner of literature. I think it’s counterproductive for poetry enthusiasts to bicker over which subjects make a poem bad or good. For, in the end, science fiction or fantasy or horror are just the subject matter of a poem and have little to do with how well the poet applies the tools of his or her trade as he or she reaches out into the darkness looking for a kindred soul and tries to communicate.

  5. February 19, 2013, 8:37 am   / 

    [...] Why Science Fiction Poetry is Embarrassingly Bad [...]

  6. Profile photo of Geoffrey A. Landis
    February 18, 2013, 12:57 pm   / 

    Interesting essay, but Paul is comparing the average SF poem to poems published in 1845, 1945, 1962 and 1868! The most recent of his comparison poems was published 50 years ago. And these are not the AVERAGE poems of fifty to a hundred and fifty years ago– these are the cream of the crop of the one tenth of one one thousandth of one percent that survived the test of time. This is rather stacking the deck: if you actually go back and look at what was popular in 1868, you know what? Most of the poetry published back then turns out to be pretty crappy.
    Here is a more interesting question: how do today’s SF poems rate in comparison to the average poems in a randomly-selected issue of Kenyon Review, say, or Ploughshares, or TriQuarterly or Sewannee Review?

  7. February 17, 2013, 2:05 pm   / 

    [...] of speculative poetry: Paul Cook writes about why sf poetry is “embarrassingly bad”. Dear readers, I’ll admit I huffed and rolled my eyes while reading this piece. Needless to [...]

  8. Profile photo of Geoffrey A. Landis
    February 17, 2013, 11:04 am   / 

    Interesting essay, but Paul is comparing the average SF poem to poems published in 1845, 1945, 1962 and 1868! The most recent of his comparison poems was published 50 years ago. And these are not the AVERAGE poems of fifty to a hundred and fifty years ago– these are the cream of the crop of the one tenth of one one thousandth of one percent that survived the test of time. This is rather stacking the deck: if you actually go back and look at what was popular in 1868, you know what? Most of the poetry published back then turns out to be at pretty crappy.
    Here is a more interesting question: how do today’s SF poems rate in comparison to the average poems in a randomly-selected issue of Kenyon Review, say, or Ploughshares, or TriQuarterly or Sewannee Review?

    • Profile photo of Paul Cook
      February 17, 2013, 12:55 pm   / 

      Geoffrey, good to hear from you! Love your work.
      I chose those older poems not because I couldn’t find anything current today to use in my essay about science fiction poetry, but because those poems were examples of what poetry does best. And what they do best in terms of language, metaphor, evasiveness and obliqueness are qualities that all good poems should have. My favorite poets working today all use the same strategies that poets have been using for hundreds of years. (My favorites right now are Philip Levine, Linda Pastan, Norman Dubie, Albert Goldbarth–who is a rabid, long-time, science fiction buff–and the two Charlies, Charles Wright and Charles Simic. I had thought of using some lines from Charles Simic, but what I chose for my essay came easiest to mind. And your last question as to how they might rate compared to the poems in any given issue of the Kenyon Review or Ploughshares is a relevant one, and one that might be tested if they published poems with sf tropes. I’ve said in some of my other responses that I do think sf poetry can be published. It’s just that what I’ve been reading over the years–decades, even–isn’t very good. I know I’ve stirred a hornet’s nest, but I think it’s something that needs stirring. I was thinking the other day if, what might “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” be like if there was a steam-driven airship sailing across the sky in the background? Just a small detail like that could have transformed the poem without the poem losing any of its philosophical punch. Stuff like that could transform the field.

      • Profile photo of Marie Brennan
        February 17, 2013, 1:15 pm   / 

        You may want to consider that talking about what could “transform the field” comes across very badly when you’ve demonstrated your ignorance of the *actual* field under discussion. Furthermore, you dodged Mr. Landis’ point: whether the poems you might pick out of Kenyon Review or Ploughshares contain SFnal tropes or not, would they stand up any better against the classics of a century ago that you chose to use as your examples? You continue to cherry-pick your evidence, and to disregard the points made by others in this comment thread. It doesn’t make your original post look any better.

        • Profile photo of Paul Cook
          February 17, 2013, 2:02 pm   / 

          Marie,
          You need to read a bit more closely. I chose my examples to counter the three sf poems I used in my essay because they best represent the kinds of things poetry does well. For irony I would always turn to Emily Dickinson. I teach her every semester and know her pretty well. Irony in the 19th century is exactly the same as it is today. You and others have pointed out my ignorance of the field. Well, that’s true to a degree. I haven’t read any of the journals where you say that real sf poetry is being published. But that’s akin to saying that while I might be reading poetry published in The American Poetry Review, we all know that real poetry is published in Poetry. (Believe me, poets do make that argument all the time.) What you’re saying is that if I’d really immersed myself in sf poetry (the real variety published in the real journals) then I’d never have written my essay because I’d know that sf poetry does stand up to contemporary poetry. It doesn’t work that way. What you and others have to do is ask Steve Davidson if you can write an essay showing how sf poetry does embrace the elements of metaphor and irony. You need to show how sf poetry does all the things well that regular poetry does. And, by the way, all critics cherry-pick their data: in order to make a point in an argument, you have to make a relevant and salient comparison with actual textual examples. That’s what I did. I know you don’t like it, but there it is.

          • Profile photo of Marie Brennan
            February 17, 2013, 2:25 pm   / 

            On what do you base your argument that Asimov’s and Tor.com are — contrary to what you’ve been told here — where the “real” poetry is being published? Circulation figures? Strange Horizons does as well, or better, and are far more respected for their poetry, but you haven’t addressed them here. Awards? Volume of poetry published? Prominence of the poets they are publishing? By all three of those metrics, you’re looking in the wrong place. Furthermore, others have pointed you not only at other venues, but at specific poems they present as counter-evidence. I haven’t seen you address their points.

            I also haven’t seen you address the points I raised in my initial comment. Please clarify for me: are you saying “this is the way in which bad SF poetry fails, but the good stuff is different,” or are you saying “this is why SF poetry as a whole fails, and I don’t think any good stuff exists/possibly good SF poetry is incapable of existing”? Your essay, and a number of your comments here, sound very much like it’s arguing the latter. And if you want to make that argument, the burden is on *you* to support it — which you have not yet done. All critics select data, but that’s not the same as cherry-picking. You need to look at what readers and writers and critics of SF poetry agree is the best in the field, and demonstrate how it falls short. You have, instead, selected a couple of poems that readers and writers and critics of SF poetry agree are resoundingly mediocre (and one — “Ragnarok” — which has the mild imprimatur of being selected for a non-poetry YB anthology), and behaved as if they are representative. You have been told, again and again, that they are not. Your unwillingness to consider that your data set and reasoning are flawed are what I don’t like, not your conclusions.

          • Profile photo of Paul Cook
            February 17, 2013, 3:36 pm   / 

            I am not making either of the two claims you seem to think I’m making. I’m saying that sf poetry (what I’ve read over the last decade or so) does not do the things regular poetry does. Instead, it seems more involved with its tropes and conceits–which are the main thrust of sf poetry. I don’t see any nuanced use of language, nor do I see the kind of nuanced language that would cause me to reread a science fiction poem the way I’d return to Wallace Stevens’ poem “Disillusionment at Ten O’Clock” for example. My claim is that by its nature science fiction must be exact (so that in a poem, a clone is a clone, a robot is a robot, but not anything else–there is no room for metaphor). I find nothing in sf poetry that I find in regular poetry. As for my “data set”, I’m not sure I know what you mean by that. When I wanted to use an example of irony, I chose a poem with an example of irony in it by Emily Dickinson. Are you angry that I didn’t chose a different poem or a different example of irony? Now, to your other point, your demand that I take on an important poem in the sf field and take it apart. That of course begs the greater question as to what that poem might be or how it was judged to be a great poem. (In fact, those criteria would be the issue. Who votes for them? Other sf writers? Literary critics?) My real claim is that sf poetry, regardless where it’s published, has to meet the same criteria as real poetry in order for us to judge its worth. As I said to an earlier commenter, when someone in your field writes a poem equivalent to Stevens’ “The Auroras of Autumn” I might reconsider my thinking. But right now, my argument stands.

          • Profile photo of Marie Brennan
            February 17, 2013, 5:27 pm   / 

            I don’t care that you chose Dickinson as your example of irony (though I do find it telling that your examples are exclusively drawn from decades ago, if not longer; it opens the question of how much your argument applies specifically to SF poetry, rather than recent poetry regardless of genre). I do care that your data set for SF poetry — i.e. the poems you choose to cite, as presumably compelling proofs of your argument, and the sources of SF poetry from which you chose to draw those proofs — is so limited, and that you show no awareness of the full spectrum of the thing you so readily condemn.

            “That of course begs the greater question as to what that poem might be or how it was judged to be a great poem. (In fact, those criteria would be the issue. Who votes for them? Other sf writers? Literary critics?)”

            Everybody votes for them. Writers, readers, critics, and so on. Great poems are a) the ones that stand the test of time — but that’s a bit unbalanced here, as “the test of time” for SF poetry is maybe fifty years at best, and most of your comparisons are older than that — and b) the ones that achieve a broad consensus of people saying “that really spoke to me.” You have people telling you that various other poems have really spoken to them, that those poems exhibit exactly the qualities whose lack you bemoan. You have ignored them. You are doing the equivalent of watching some high school football games, then going on TV and telling the NFL what they need to do to make the game interesting. (Or, given your assertion that “by its nature science fiction must be exact . . . there is no room for metaphor,” you’re telling the NFL that football is incapable of being interesting.)

            “My real claim is that sf poetry, regardless where it’s published, has to meet the same criteria as real poetry in order for us to judge its worth.”

            Is anybody disputing that? What we’re pointing out — and you are persistently ignoring — is that you’re rummaging around in the junk bin, and declaring that junk is the only thing out there. I could as easily cite Horace Smith as proof that Romantic-era poetry was all crap. Would you consider that a compelling argument? Somehow I doubt it.

            Yes, you have shown that there are bad SF poems out there. Hooray for you. We are claiming that you need a broader awareness of what is being published before you claim to be any judge of the whole. The longer you refuse to look at and respond to the counter-evidence, the more foolish you make yourself look.

          • Profile photo of Paul Cook
            February 17, 2013, 6:35 pm   / 

            I’m rummaging around in the junk bin? Wow. Those three poems might not be representative of “good ” sf poetry, but I’d hardly call them worthy of being in the junk bin. They were after all published in three high-profile venues. They were vetted by their editors and one was reprinted in a Year’s Best anthology. That says something. The fact is, you didn’t like my choices and you didn’t like my conclusions. But there they are.

          • Profile photo of Marie Brennan
            February 17, 2013, 6:41 pm   / 

            You have addressed my hyperbole, but not my point.

          • Profile photo of Samantha Henderson
            February 17, 2013, 8:40 pm   / 

            Paul, you demand examples. Here are some examples of SF poetry, by no means comprehensive and off the top of my head, that you will probably ignore as you have ignored the rest of the resources people have given you in these comments. But what the heck, here goes:

            Drew Morse, “First Cross on Mars”
            Albert Goldbarth (remember you like him?), “Cock”
            Joe Haldeman, “Old Twentieth: a century full of years”
            Kendall Evans and David Kopaska-Merkel, “Corrected Maps of your City”
            David Clink, “The Airships Take Us, Even As We Blow Out the Last Candle”
            Greg Beatty, “No Ruined Lunar City”
            CSE Cooney, Postcards from Mars”

            And in Alchemy of Stars, which you can find on Google Book Search here, there’s Haldeman’s “January Fires,” Lawrence Shimel’s “How to Make a Human,” John Ford’s “Winter Solstice, Camelot Station,” and just a gob of stuff that you really ought to read before making any comprehensive statement about SF poetry.

      • Profile photo of Stace Johnson
        February 17, 2013, 2:15 pm   / 

        Paul, I feel like we’re all ganging up on you here, and I’m a bit bothered by that, but I also think that the opposing viewpoints we’ve presented are valid.

        That said, I do have one more thing to add in regard to inserting SF tropes into poems like “Prufrock.” Simply adding an airship in the background of “Prufrock” would not make it a science fiction poem any more than would adding a rocket to Pride and Prejudice. It would be a glaringly artificial and unnecessary addition to the work, and if I were a poetry magazine editor, I would see it as an attempt to take an existing poem and shoehorn it into a genre for publication.

        Economy of words is critical in poetry, and adding anachronism for the sake of anachronism would not work for a poem like “Prufrock.” It might work for something like a Dada poem, in which random insertion is part of the point. In my opinion (and I’m sure plenty of people will disagree), poetry like Prufrock should only use words that serve the poem, and anything that doesn’t serve the poem should be flensed.

        As my playwright friends say, if you put a gun on the nightstand in Act One, it had better go off by the end of Act Two, otherwise it shouldn’t be there. Adding an airship in the background of “Prufrock” would be like putting a gun on the nightstand and ignoring it the rest of the play, I think.

        • Profile photo of Paul Cook
          February 17, 2013, 2:21 pm   / 

          I absolutely agree with you Stace. Bad example! You’re right, though an airship in Prufrock might not be an anachronism since a steampunk element would be relevant to the era in which the poem takes place (but, to your point, it would detract from the power of the poem–since the poem isn’t about airships but loneliness and alienation). My problem with sf poetry is that most sf poems are just broken lines and narratives filled with science fiction tropes or conceits. (I know I didn’t say exactly that in my essay, but it’s close to what I was feeling.) But your point is well taken. I did mention elsewhere in one of my responses that the monologue might be an avenue for sf poetry. We would get ala Robert Browning the possibility of an unreliable narrator (or a biased narrator) in a world where tropes-make-the-man (or woman). I’d love to see that.

      • Profile photo of Mike Allen
        February 17, 2013, 4:45 pm   / 

        The Kenyon Review published a special science fiction poetry issue some years back.

        I don’t doubt, Paul, that most of the sf poetry you’ve read over the past decades has not impressed you. Nobody faults you for that. Even us poets agree that a lot of it isn’t stunning stuff. We keep telling you this, even.

        The problem is that you’ve made all sorts of extrapolations and assumptions that are demonstrably wrong, as in factually wrong — enough to seriously undermine the credibility you have as a critic — and the more people try to correct you, the more you dig in your heels. You should read F.J. Bergmann’s post in response to yours on this same site. She offers genuinely perceptive criticism of the sf poetry field. You should take notes.

        Poems that keep the sf in the background, or use it only as metaphor (yes, it can be done, and has been done repeatedly) exist already, and have existed for decades. One of the best is Joe Haldeman’s “DX.” Catherynne Valente’s “The Eight Legs of Grandmother Spider” is another. I can even think of one off-hand which appeared in Asimov’s: Bruce Boston’s “My Wife Returns as She Would Have It.” You must have missed that one somehow.

  9. February 16, 2013, 11:48 am   / 

    [...] Cook’s essay on the badness of SF poetry makes a few good points—while being woefully clueless in other respects. As someone with a [...]

  10. Profile photo of Brian Garrison
    February 14, 2013, 1:26 pm   / 

    I think many people would be willing to agree that Poe did a pretty bang-up job of poetry in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror (or speculative) vein. I think it’s safe to say that people have heard of him, go back to read his stuff from time-to-time, and so on.

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178351
    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/237388
    etc.
    etc.

    While I’m here, I might as well point out that Bradbury did, in fact, write more than just purple prose, and has plenty of poems for an interested reader to sift through.

    http://youtu.be/EBtZjbTDTDk
    (starts reading around 2:00)

    http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/08/22/ray-bradbury-science-vs-religion-poetry/

  11. Profile photo of Mike Allen
    February 13, 2013, 7:20 pm   / 

    Addendum: …or at least it was 2012 two months ago. ;-)

  12. Profile photo of Mike Allen
    February 13, 2013, 7:14 pm   / 

    Hi, Paul! I have a bit of an earful for you.

    To my knowledge we’ve never met — so I may or may not be one of these too-serious speculative poets you condescendingly dismiss without actually naming any names. As I had never heard of you prior to being pointed at this blog post, I’m going to assume likewise on your part, so you can fairly assess what my biases are.

    I’ve written over 200 poems, a handful of which have appeared in Asimov’s, though most of what I consider to be my best work, for better or for worse, has appeared in Strange Horizons, one of those newfangled webzine things you might want to consider “finding a copy of.” Other works of mine have appeared in Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, Inkscrawl, and really, all over the place. I edit a poetry journal of my own, Mythic Delirium (an actual print zine, at least for a little while longer, though I also have one of those website thingies.) I am former president of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and volunteer for many years, who left the organization altogether two years ago for what I’ll characterize as philosophical differences. Of the poems that have won Rhysling Awards in the past decade, I wrote 2-1/2 of them (my poems are very prosaic, but really fun to perform at readings) and published five more of them in Mythic Delirium. I do not claim and have never claimed that any of them equal or surpass the artistry of Emily Dickinson.

    I mention that I’m also the editor of the Clockwork Phoenix anthologies and a previous Nebula Award finalist just so you know I don’t live by poetry alone.

    There are points in this post I agree with. I think that generally, your critique of the kind of poetry that Asimov’s selects is dead on. But you have mistaken one thread of speculative poetry for the entire kit and kaboodle, and presented this error as fact.

    Let me start here:

    “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 … 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.”

    This makes me question whether you’ve read any Rhysling Award winning poems at all, because these are not equivalent assertions. The last time a poem from Asimov’s won the Rhysling was in 2003. The only time a poem from F&SF won a Rhysling was in 1988. No poem from Analog has ever won.

    You would be correct about Asimov’s setting the standard for speculative poetry if this were, oh, 2000 (when they published Joe Haldeman’s “January Fires” — a terrific poem by any standard.) Unfortunately for your credibility it’s 2012. That pixel-stained wretch Strange Horizons knocked Asimov’s off the hill in the early 2000s, with an editorial team drawn together from several of the more interesting poetry-only small press print zines of that time, which you’re likely completely unaware of. Now, many of the poets you see in Asimov’s can also be found there, but have been able to do much more interesting things — at least some of the time — because of the freedom a website brings. Filler no more!

    In 2006 a pair of young poets who weren’t satisfied with what Strange Horizons was publishing, and wanted to see more of their preferred style of poetry, founded Goblin Fruit, the name taken obviously from the Rossetti poem “Goblin Market.” Two years ago another poet and writer created Stone Telling, named after an Ursula Le Guin character, to encourage poems that explore the perspectives and predicaments of groups underrepresented in sf and fantasy poetry (and the genre as a whole.) Interestingly, too, there’s been a recent turnover at Strange Horizons, with the new editorial team now more closely aligned with the approaches found at Goblin Fruit and Stone Telling.

    There’s plenty of other nuances, factions, trends, etc., etc., that I could elaborate on. My points are a) that any of our small but vocal numbers who read this post will immediately recognize that that you’ve ranted at strawmen of your own invention without having any real knowledge of the field your criticizing and b) your cluelessly-wielded broad brush spatters and insults a number of people who not only have nothing to do with your intended target, but who would probably agree with your general argument if it had been artfully presented — i.e., if you hadn’t blithely assumed all of sf poetry to be an unvariegated monolith.

    Your argument can be boiled down to two things. Generally, it’s a long-winded equivalent of “Hip-hop sucks! Beethoven rules!” Specifically, it’s “This is how I’d like to see an sf poem written, and because I’ve never personally seen it in Asimov’s, it’s never been done.”

    You may well dislike everything you see at the other venues I’ve mentioned, but at least you wouldn’t be condemning in ignorance.

    By the way, this might be a good place for you to start “finding copies of things” — it’s a roundup of recommended poems by small press poetry editors: http://roselemberg.net/?p=536

    • Profile photo of Paul Cook
      February 13, 2013, 8:33 pm   / 

      Hi, Mike,
      Thanks for the “earful”. Please understand that I didn’t write my essay on the evidence of three poems I’d read in Asimov’s. (Nor did I have you and your peers in mind when I wrote it–which in itself may offend you, but it’s true.) I’ve read quite a lot of sf poetry over the years and I’ve been rather disappointed in what I’ve seen. Your argument seems to be that I’m wrong because I haven’t read the good stuff (or have read enough sf poetry to have encountered the good stuff). That argument is specious and one-sided. My claim was to say that sf poetry puts trope before metaphor, the natural cadences of language, and the lack of ambiguity. Also, there is another issue here that I call the LOCUS effect. If you read reviews in LOCUS (as I have since the late 1970s) you’ll find them very generous and expansive. Because they’re written by fans who love science fiction. Critical assessments of novels are rarely found in LOCUS. But once you understand that it’s a fanzine, then it makes sense. Your response has a little of the LOCUS effect: you’re angry because I’ve suggested (even modestly) that there might be something wrong with sf poetry. That’s a cardinal sin in science fiction and you came down hard on me because I demonstrated why the poems I chose from Asimov’s were bad. You see, I’m not allowed to do that, am I. You were offended and your response was to suggest that if I’d read the good stuff or the Rhysling Award winners, I’d be brought around or that I haven’t studied it hard enough. When you or some other poet in the field writes a poem like Stevens’ “Auroras of Autumn” I’ll bow down to you.

      But you know, something else strikes me as odd. You seem to want to put down Asimov’s (and F&SF and Analog, though you didn’t mention them) for publishing bad poetry or at least not the kind of poetry that’s representative of the field, but even there you are wrong. These magazines are the most visible venues for sf poetry and they’ve become the face of it to the average reader. What you’re saying is that I’ve got to go where “real” poetry is written. And I’ve heard this before: among real poets. They’ll say that publishing poetry in The New Yorker isn’t such a big deal; that publishing it in Poetry or The American Poetry Review is where “real” poetry is published. But the New Yorker is the visible “face” of poetry and everyone wants to be published in it. It’s the same for Asimov’s and the others. (Since I don’t know you or your work, it’s possible over the years you’ve been published there as well.) Please understand that the three sf poems I referenced in my essay weren’t the only three sf poems I’d ever read. Had I really dug into the subject, the essay would have gone to 10,000 words in length–but it would have had the same conclusion. SF poetry doesn’t impress me. If you want to take this as a personal insult, that’s up to you, but I don’t intend it as such. I’m sure you’re a nice person (as I see myself as such). But I tried to show why sf poetry doesn’t work the same way as mainstream poetry and that’s all I was interested in. This wasn’t personal at all. I love poetry. I love sf (and have been reading it since 1958) and I care about writing. My blog entries will be about these things . . . and not about any sort of enmity toward any one author or poet such as yourself. This isn’t about you. It’s about our art and craft.

      • Profile photo of Mike Allen
        February 13, 2013, 9:07 pm   / 

        Paul, your summary here of what you said … isn’t what you said. You have made an all-encompassing blanket condemnation, whether you want to admit it or not. And I challenge you to point to anything in my response that constitutes evidence that I’m *personally* insulted. No so. I respond with passion because a) I do care about sf poetry and b) you are someone who is “Wrong on the Internet,” to quote the famous XKCD cartoon.

        Now: as for asserting that you’ve missed the good stuff, I specifically stated that you might well not like what you find in the other venues you had no clue about. But I still feel you should at least LOOK.

        You’re certainly allowed to criticize sf poetry. It might blow your mind to know that even “sf poets” criticize “sf poetry.” You continue this ridiculous assumption that we’re all a hivemind.

        Another trend you’re apparently unaware of is that there are so-called “real poets,” as you call them, who write using genre tropes, but come at them through the arena of pop culture rather than through fandom, and get published first in literary journals, then discover the sf zines as they seek more places to sell their work. It’s a bigger tent than you seem to want to accept. To use glaringly obvious examples, Margaret Atwood and Billy Collins have appeared in recent Rhysling Anthologies. To get a little more down to Earth, I proffer Jeannine Hall Gailey as one example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeannine_Hall_Gailey

        And finally, yes, we’re arguing about art and craft here. You get to criticize my field. I get to criticize your approach. Evokes passions, happens all the time, that’s what art is for. Makes for blog hits!

      • Profile photo of Mari Ness
        February 13, 2013, 10:50 pm   / 

        Hi Paul —

        I have to in turn say I have a number of quibbles with your response here. Let’s start off with perhaps the most minor: I know many “real” poets who do take publication in The New Yorker very seriously indeed. I also know “real” poets who do not. Those that do not are more irritated with the type of poetry that The New Yorker and the Atlantic currently publish, or correctly note that if Amazon is any guide, the most widely _read_ poetry is not the sort appearing in The New Yorker or The Atlantic, or for that matter Poetry and the American Poetry Review.

        I bring this up not because The New Yorker is the main topic at hand here, but because your statement here kinda encapsulates my entire problem with your original argument: you are making very broad statements about an entire field based on a narrow sample.

        Which leads me to the next quibble. You have stated that Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF are the most visible venues for sf poetry. Hmm. Let’s start with some numbers from 2011 (courtesy of Gardner Dozois):

        Asimov’s circulation: 22593

        Analog circulation: 26440

        F&SF: 14162

        Numbers for Strange Horizons are a bit more difficult to track down, but two different sites estimate between 20,000 to 45,000 visitors per month, which tracks well with its Alexa rating. Obviously some of these are bots, but that does suggest that Strange Horizon’s reach is at least equal to Asimov’s and Analog and above F&SF and thus as much of a visible venue.

        More to the point, none of these zines specialize in speculative/science fiction poetry. And here’s where your discussion also breaks down — because readers looking for speculative/science fiction poetry are not, for the most part, heading to zines like Asimov’s — because Asimov’s focuses on fiction. They are instead heading to zines that focus on poetry.

        Granted, these zines have a smaller readership than any of the journals listed above. But precisely because these zines focus on poetry and are run and edited by poets, they tend to have the type of poetry you claim to be looking for — the poetry that does not read like prose, the poetry that does compel us to return.

        I have to echo the concerns of others here that you chose to damn science fiction poetry based on publications that make no claim to specialize in it.

        • Profile photo of Paul Cook
          February 14, 2013, 1:06 am   / 

          Hmm. A lot going on here. Your defense of sf poetry is quite vigorous, given that you’ve rallied the numbers of copies of the print magazines versus the online journals, suggesting that I’m wrong to say that the print mags are the “face” of sf poetry. That’s not to the point. Your real argument is with my blanket statement that sf poetry is bad. My essay did look at three sf poems and you’re claiming my fault was in taking the three represented and suggesting that all sf poetry was bad. I did look at those three, it’s true. But my focus was on the traits inherent in those three that seem to best represent what sf poetry does and why it fails by doing so. I think you’d rather have me deconstruct those three poems only and that I should have written an essay entitled, “Why These Three SF Poems are Bad”. But as I said earlier, I’ve been reading sf poetry for years in the journals I mentioned, and have yet to be impressed. Now, if you can publish a science fiction poem in, say, The Georgia Review, I’d be very impressed. (And, by the way, I’ve published two poems in The Georgia Review. They weren’t science fiction poems, however.)

          I think the next stage in the argument is for you to show me how sf poetry succeeds as poetry. That’s the only way you can get me to change my mind. Send me a poem of yours or one you think best illustrates what sf poetry does so well and I’ll look at it. But that poem must work on the same level as all great poems work. That’s my criteria. And, yes, I did intend to make a blanket statement. I’ve read dozens and dozens of bad science fiction poems over the years and I thought a healthy dose of controversy would be nice for a change. Obviously, you don’t. But that’s fine. Send me some work. Or send me a link. I’m not afraid to read a good poem or two.

          • Profile photo of Samantha Henderson
            February 14, 2013, 2:39 am   / 

            Paul, instead of demanding that Mari go fetch you a poem to play with, I suggest you look at some of the many resources people have taken pains to point you towards – the online, poetry-specific magazines, the actual Rhysling anthologies (the winners of which tend NOT to be from the three magazines you cite, BTW), Rose Lemberg’s complied editorial recommendations from 2012 (Mike linked to it).

            The issue is not that you’re saying SF poetry is bad — in fact, a lot of it is just terrible. (Here is a better argument about why: http://catvalente.livejournal.com/590911.html) The problem is that you’re claiming some kind of expertise from reading “dozens” of poems from very limited sources — you’re the one who cites the big three. It’s like reading three years of back issues of The New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly and claiming you know that face of — or can make a “blanket statement” about — American poetry.

            And regarding SF poetry being published in such publications as The Georgia Review — Albert Goldbarth and Diane Ackerman, as well as Billy Collins, have been nominated for the Rhysling. I think their list of publications is pretty solid.

          • Profile photo of Mari Ness
            February 14, 2013, 9:05 am   / 

            Oh, I think a healthy dose of controversy and examination of the poetry field is always good. I wouldn’t be bothering to respond to you otherwise. I also have a guess that perhaps the gulf between the literary journals and science fiction poetry is not as large as you think — I’ve published in both (including Agni, though under a different name). Margaret Atwood, for instance, has written both mainstream and science fiction poetry, as has Billy Collins.

            Also, Google informs me that The New Yorker has been known to dabble in a science fiction poem or two. (Although I don’t like this one AT ALL: http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2008/01/28/080128po_poem_murray ) The others seem to be subscriber access only.

            But you are right that I have a problem with you stating, as you do in your post, that all SF poetry is inherently doomed to fail based on four poems, three printed in Asimov’s, which as you correctly stated prints poems as filler, and is not focused on speculative poetry, and one poem in Tor.com, which Tor.com just printed for fun.

            (Side disclosure: I blog for Tor.com, which gives me a bit of insight on how their National Poetry Month posts work — basically, “Hey, you know what would be fun for this month? Some poems! Do we know any poets?” Which is why the four poems they print per year are all from Tor.com bloggers (Jo Walton), Tor Books novelists (Cat Valente), or friends of Tor editors (Roz Kaveney), and all on their lowest traffic day, Sunday. This is why the poems they printed included fun stuff like the steampunk poem series, “Mouse Koan” and so on. So although Tor.com definitely meets the “visibility” threshold, I don’t think it meets the “visible face of SF poetry” threshold. That said, did you see John M. Ford’s “Sonnet: Against Entropy” on their site? http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/04/sonnet-against-entropy )

            I don’t question that you’ve read dozens and dozens of bad science fiction poems over the years — I’ve read hundreds. Nor am I questioning your critical response to the poems you’ve listed here. What I am questioning is the two assertions you’ve made from these poems: the first that those three print journals are the face of SF poetry and representative of SF poetry, and that all SF poetry is inherently doomed to failure.

            On the the first statement, I used numbers, because the other information I have — that all the science fiction poets I know are trying to get into Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, and so on, and not Asimov’s, is, alas, merely anecdotal. I can also say that when I’m chatting about science fiction poetry with people, both poets and non poets, Asimov’s just doesn’t come up. But again, anecdotal, and doesn’t really prove much here or there. I have a pretty strong science background, so I often start with numbers.

            What is not anecdotal is that at least one online zine publishing poetry on a weekly basis has at least the equivalent numbers of eyeballs that Asimov’s has. And several other zines focus exclusively on science fiction poetry. That’s where the discussion of science fiction poetry is happening; that’s where language and metaphor is played with; that’s where the stars are made to sing.

            Marie Brennan did a much better job of summing up the issues with your other argument, so I’ll leave that there. But I do want to add this: you said I was passionate about the subject. True. And that is because the tradition of Western poetry is rooted in the fantastic, in wonder, from the Odyssey through the Aenead through Beowulf through Spenser through Tennyson and yes, Robert Browning and E.A. Robinson who were known to write a fantastic poem or two. Because one of science fiction’s first novels, Frankenstein, arose from a girl listening to the arguments of two poets, showing that from its very beginning, science fiction and poetry have been intertwined. Because when I look up at the stars, when I think of spaceships flying to other planets, when I think of all the wonder that is beyond our own atmosphere, I think of poetry, of bringing the wonder of words and language to that vast space. And it makes me cringe to see this wonder dismissed.

          • Profile photo of Mike Allen
            February 14, 2013, 10:35 am   / 

            Hi, again, Paul!

            I don’t know about The Georgia Review, but Rattle, a bona fide source of “real” poetry with newsstand distribution, just did an issue devoted to sf poetry. Let me help you find a copy.

            http://www.rattle.com/poetry/print/30s/i38/

            It even *gasp* included some “unreal” poets.

            I’ve been published in Santa Clara Review, Curbside Review and The Philadelphia Inquirer once deigned to review my scribbles:
            http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/strange-wisdoms-of-the-dead-by-mike-allen/

            Can I pwease be a real poet now?

            By the way, people have been sending you links all through these comments. Maybe you should go find a copy of one, heh, heh.

          • Profile photo of Mike Allen
            February 14, 2013, 10:45 am   / 

            By the way, Sam, thanks for posting the link to Cat Valente’s post: a witty, knowledgeable shredding of sf poetry by a prolific poet and Rhysling winner (among the many other things she’s done.)

          • Profile photo of Mike Allen
            February 14, 2013, 11:55 am   / 

            Wow, Mari! Well said.

      • Profile photo of Marie Brennan
        February 14, 2013, 4:07 am   / 

        I’m responding to this from the non-poet side of things: I don’t write the stuff, and I read a relatively small amount of it (science fiction or otherwise), because the range of what I enjoy is pretty narrow. I put that up front so you’ll know I don’t have a personal dog in this fight; I think a lot of science fiction poetry is terrible for the exact reasons you name.

        However.

        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.

        As a critique of what science fiction poetry is often like, that’s fair. The way you develop your argument throughout the post and these comments, though, it stops sounding like “this is why bad SF poetry fails” and starts sounding like “this is why SF poetry will, by its nature, always fail.” (As you say later, “the realism and specificity in science fiction poetry doesn’t work and cannot ever work” — which comes across as an assumption that SF poetry must, by its nature, always be realistic and specific.) And I see no reason why poetry containing “the tropes that appear in science fiction” cannot be capable of allusiveness, metaphor, lyricism, and all the rest of it, while escaping the shackles of realism and specificity. If you want me to believe this is an inherent weakness in the genre (and your essay really makes it seem like you do), then the burden is on you to support your argument.

        A few examples drawn from magazines not dedicated to SF poetry, not honored for their SF poetry in the last decade, and generally not much admired for their poetry by the people who specialize in such things, do not constitute proof of such an argument. Even if you went and read the magazines recommended to you here — Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, Mythic Delirium — and found other examples that fail in the same way, that would not constitute proof, either. At best you would prove that the pieces held up as classics of the field by leading voices in SF poetry have not yet achieved what you’re looking for. Right now, your focus on the “Big Three” (who are not big at all within the SF poetry field) and silence on the topic of the other venues and poets named in the comments makes it seem far more likely that what’s going on is that the things you’re looking for are happening outside your field of vision.

        It isn’t enough simply to assert that SF poetry fails to be poetic. You either have to advance an argument for why tropes like robots, aliens, outer space, time travel, and all the rest of the furniture of science fiction are antithetical to poetic quality — why they cannot co-exist with allusiveness, lyricism, metaphor, and so on — or you have to concede that all you’re doing is critiquing the bad stuff and ignoring the good.

        As for the things you hold up as examples of what poetry can do: some of them I agree with, and some of them I don’t. The first two lines of Jarrell’s poem (“From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State / And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze”) are, for me, a prime example of the kind of vague b.s. that turns me off a lot of modern poetry. I do not, in fact, want to come back to that again and again and try to figure out what it’s supposed to mean. I read those lines and think “the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.” As for the Park poem: speaking as somebody who has, in point of fact, translated Viking literature, the fact that you hold up “Your mother fucks reindeer!” as a classic of the Norse art of insult makes me want to smack my head into my desk. I don’t think Park’s line is particularly brilliant either, but it’s about on par with the bog-standard “your momma!” line you seem to think is vastly superior. (“Lokasenna” it is not.)

        De gustibus non est disputandum, of course; tastes will vary, and the fact that I disagree with you about the quality of some of the things you hold up as exemplars of fine art isn’t the real point here. The real point is that if you’re saying “this is why bad SF poetry fails,” then I agree with you and we’re done. But if, as it seems, your brush is tarring more broadly — asserting that SF poetry all fails for those reasons, and furthermore is doomed to always do so — then you’ve fallen far short of establishing your argument as anything other than a badly-informed opinion.

        • Profile photo of Marie Brennan
          February 14, 2013, 4:10 am   / 

          Ack — judging by the “awaiting moderation” preview of my comment, the italics on that second major paragraph appear to have disappeared. That part, of course, is a quote from the post, not my own words. (If the italics appear after all, then, well, disregard this comment.)

        • Profile photo of Kathrin Kohler
          April 3, 2013, 1:47 am   / 

          Thank you Marie and Mari for excellent arguments and use of logic.
          As a friend pointed out: “You can find crap in any form or genre of art.” Pointing to examples that fail does not support your premise that science fiction poetry must by its very nature be bad.
          What could be more allusive than quantum physics, quantum entanglement especially (that’s even metaphorical)? I think subatomic physics is, by its very nature, poetic.

        • Profile photo of Paul Cook
          April 3, 2013, 12:18 pm   / 

          Marie,
          Very thoughtful response. I absolutely agree with you when you say: “You either have to advance an argument for why tropes like robots, aliens, outer space, time travel, and all the rest of the furniture of science fiction are antithetical to poetic quality — why they cannot co-exist with allusiveness, lyricism, metaphor, and so on …” But my point is that so far, science fiction poetry hasn’t elevated itself to the heights of mainstream poetry despite the use of those elements. I didn’t say SF poetry cannot be written. Albert Goldbarth has sued sf tropes; he’s quoted directly from sf novels, especially in his epigraphs; and he’s used sf conceits as a metaphor. One of his best books is called “Marriage and other Science Fictions” and one of his best books of essays uses a Frank R. Paul cover. Goldbarth knows his stuff. Norman Dubie also writes poetry using SF tropes. He’s got a wonderful, book-length SF poem about Mars at http://www.blackbird.vcu.edu/v1n2/poetry/dubie_n/one.htm.

          My claim is that so far sf poetry is puerile, self-congratulatory, and insular. It can be written and the writers in the field do show a modicum of talent. They simply write without a consciousness of the great poems of the past. When we produce writers as talented as Wallace Stevens, Charles Simic, and Philip Levine, then science fiction poetry will have left the nursery behind.

  13. Profile photo of DianeSeverson
    February 13, 2013, 5:03 am   / 

    Paul, I disagree that poetry is solely about metaphor, simile or similarly illusive language. Yes, it is about language, but language in all it’s aspects, and in my opinion, a well-crafted sentence and structure is more important than the use of tools like metaphor, I do not mind narrative in my poetry. And yes, SF poetry is often narrative, which is what you are referring to and referencing in your examples, which is different to literal or informational. In fact, Suzette Haden Elgin, the found of the SFPA, even requires a narrative element in her definition of SF Poetry, which you can read in her Handbook of Science Fiction Poetry. The SF magazines which you refer to cater to readers of fiction and it is generally known and accepted among SF poets that the poetry they solicit and include is filler and meant to agree with the tastes of readers of fiction. As a result the poetry you will read there is heavy on the narrative. If you read journals/magazines dedicated to SF (or speculative) poetry you will find some which reflects your tastes. I guarantee it. For immediate gratification check out the following online journals: Google “Eye to the Telescope” (the SFPA online journal); Goblin Fruit; Inkscrawl, Astropoetica and SF poetry which uses metaphor is there for your enjoyment.

  14. Profile photo of Christopher Vera
    February 13, 2013, 12:44 am   / 

    I am a member of the SFPA though I do not speak for the organization. Yes, a lot of sci fi poetry is bad. A lot. So are a lot of sci fi stories. Do we judge the entire genre of science fiction as embarrassing because there are a lot of bad stories? No, we celebrate the great ones. There are some amazing sci fi poems to be found that include all the elements the author craves here. Do the magazines he calls out publish them? I have no idea. Not every poem Dickenson wrote was a keeper either. But the author presents an interesting challenge: Let’s make an effort to have speculative poets produce products that sci fi magazines are willing to print that will meet the author’s expectations for what poetry should be.

    • Profile photo of Paul Cook
      February 13, 2013, 12:54 am   / 

      Christopher,
      Nobody needs my permission to write SF poetry or any other kind of poetry. My essay was to show how SF poetry generally fails as “poetry” and I did so by showing how several poets used metaphor, allusive language, and native cadences in the poems themselves to show how poetry works. I’ve said to other respondents here that the tropes and conceits should probably be in the background. Imagine what Browning’s “Soliloquy of The Spanish Cloister” would be like if it were in the future or on another planet. It can be done. But I do demand honesty in our appreciation of all things sf. My main gripe over the years is that there has been too little genuine criticism and too much sycophancy and worship of science fiction and science fiction writers and poets. Worship gets us nowhere and ultimately demeans what really should be valued–but only after a critical dialogue with ourselves. We can start here, with the blogs.

  15. Profile photo of Geoffrey James
    February 12, 2013, 1:22 pm   / 

    I suppose we’re lucky that nobody tries to write epic poetry with a steam-punk theme. After all, the Victorian period, in addition to cool fashions, also brought us groaners like Thanatopsis, The Song of Hiawatha or Evangeline, like so:

    THIS is the planet Prime. It’s evil. The murmuring androids and robots,
    Bearded with wires, and with carapace green, indistinct in the twilight,
    Stand like the R2D2s of eld, with voices high and squeaking.

    Anyway, you get the idea.

    • Profile photo of Paul Cook
      February 12, 2013, 4:49 pm   / 

      Geoffrey, you could write a steampunk poem. I think a poem in the Robert Browning tradition of someone living in the time, perhaps a monologue, would work just fine. I just think the sf tropes should be in the background, perhaps even incidental. It could work.

      • Profile photo of Geoffrey James
        February 12, 2013, 9:38 pm   / 

        Yes, I suppose a good steampunk poem is possible. But I just wanted to make fun of the poem Evangeline, which I forced to memorize at school.

      • Profile photo of Mari Ness
        February 13, 2013, 10:54 pm   / 

        The same month that Tor.com published the Ragnorak poem that you disliked (with reason!), they also published a series of steampunk poems just for fun:

        http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/04/seven-steampunk-sonnets

      • Profile photo of Stace Johnson
        February 14, 2013, 12:01 am   / 

        Paul, I think it’s interesting that you bring up steampunk poetry. I have a steampunk sonnet that’s currently out for submission, so I can’t really share it publicly right now. I can say, though, that it’s a pastiche based on “The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, my favorite poet.

        I tried very hard to stay true to the way Hopkins used literary devices and sprung rhythm in the poem, but instead of describing a falcon spied at dawn, the poem describes an airship crash and its effect on the viewer. Other Hopkins fans–particularly those in the priesthood–might consider it sacrilege, but I see it more as a tribute and a way to ask the question, “What if GMH had been moved more by the grandeur of machines than by the grandeur of God?”

        I find it interesting that Mari mentions the Tor steampunk sonnets, because they were part of my inspiration to write this pastiche.

        • Profile photo of Mike Allen
          February 17, 2013, 1:50 am   / 

          Stace, as the “editors” of Mythic Delirium in the sense of the editorial “we” (hee!) I just wanted to thank you for the nod to Amal’s poem. Her poem that just appeared in Strange Horizons is pretty terrific too. And I think it admirably matches the sort of thing Paul wants to see.

  16. Profile photo of Shaun Duke
    February 12, 2013, 12:41 pm   / 

    One thing I would like to see is a followup post in which you look critically at poetry from the SF poetry mags (Goblin Fruit and Stone Telling, for example). The reason being that this post looks primarily at work you consider “filler” in the prose magazines, which is perhaps not as good a reflection of the SF poetry field as magazines that cater specifically to SF poetry.

    • Profile photo of Paul Cook
      February 12, 2013, 4:51 pm   / 

      I’ll see if I can find copies of those journals. I’m not indicting all sf poetry; I’m just going on the examples I see over and over again in Asimov’s and F&SF which, to me, is embarrassing. I’d love to see someone write a poem about Mars or living on the Moon in the tradition (and voice) of someone like Robert Penn Warren or even (here’s a thought) Sylvia Plath. What would a woman’s world be like “up there” if things haven’t changed much? It could work.

      • Profile photo of Shaun Duke
        February 12, 2013, 5:38 pm   / 

        I figured that was the track you were taking, but you should know that a lot of people don’t think that’s explicit enough here. That might have something to do with the emotions such a post creates, of course. I, however, have no skin in the game, because I read almost no poetry to begin with, and am incredibly picky about the poetry I do read (Dickinson not being one of my favorites, though I understand her importance).

        I am told, however, that some of the issues you identify here are not found so readily in the SF poetry journals. I can’t confirm that, though. Hopefully you get the chance to write that new post, though.

        Thanks for the reply,
        Shaun

      • Profile photo of DianeSeverson
        February 13, 2013, 12:19 pm   / 

        Paul,
        Goblin Fruit and Stone Telling are both online Journals, as are all the publications I mentioned. If you are more interested in a print Journal you might check out Mythic Delirium, Star*line and The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, all goggle-able and order-able online.

      • Profile photo of Samantha Henderson
        February 13, 2013, 4:30 pm   / 

        Paul, I’m glad to see discussion of SF poetry and I don’t mean to be confrontational, but the fact that you don’t know that Goblin Fruit and Stone Telling are online magazines tells me you could use more research in this field. Stone Telling, for example, tends towards the mythpunk, but may I point you towards the “Catalyst” issue, which featured science poetry?
        http://stonetelling.com/issue6-dec2011/

  17. Profile photo of Paul Cook
    February 11, 2013, 3:13 pm   / 

    What you identify as “poetry” in Bradbury is merely the lyricism of his writing style and he’s one of the best. And I didn’t say that it can’t be absolutely written, but that what’s being written now, with its lack of metaphor and allusive language, isn’t real poetry. That’s all. Sure, it can be written. Imagine if “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was positioned in a steam-punk world? All he would do is have to put a mechanical airship overhead and the poem would lose nothing. It would be sf and still be about alienation and loneliness and the rapidly changing sexual mores that Prufrock/Eliot felt at the time the poem was written. This is the key: make the sf trope the background, not the foreground. SF poetry, by doing this, could be gangbusters.

  18. Profile photo of Stace Johnson
    February 11, 2013, 2:38 pm   / 

    Thank you for writing an essay about the subject of science fiction poetry. I’m glad to see any discourse about SF poetry, even if I disagree with the author’s assertions.

    Though I’m not (yet) a member of the SFPA, and will probably never win a Rhysling, I think I’m probably one of the types of people that the author expects to quail at this post, so here I go.

    Judging the whole of science fiction poetry by two examples from a current magazine issue is hardly fair to the genre. What about the Bruce Bostons, and Steve Rasnic Tems of the world? Both write incredible SF poetry, and Tem even compiled an excellent anthology of SF poetry, _The Umbral Anthology of Science Fiction Poetry_, in the early 80s.

    Granted, there is a lot of SF poetry written in free verse, without adherence to form or meter, and a lot of it does follow Sturgeon’s Law (like everything else.) But these lines from the end of the essay strike me as being particularly short-sighted and limiting:

    “Science fiction poetry cannot transcend. It cannot hint of the metaphorical. Nor can it mystify.”

    Really? It “cannot” do these things? Science fiction is literature of the imagination. It deals in transcendence, metaphor, and mystery as part of its core definition. I’ve read dozens of science fiction poems steeped in metaphor and allusion, constructed with standard poetic techniques like rhyme, alliteration, and assonance, often in meter that scans perfectly.

    Good work is out there, and its very existence refutes the author’s claim that science fiction poetry cannot ascend to the level of the top poets working today. I’m sure that when _The New Yorker_ published Billy Collins’ poem “The Future,” which won third place in the Short Poem category for the Rhysling, they didn’t just do so to be inclusive of science fiction. And I’m sure the editors of _Mythic Delirium_ knew they had an excellent poem on their hands when the published “Song for an Ancient City,” which went on to win the Short Poem Rhysling in the same year (2009.)

    Could the poetic level of most science fiction poetry be raised? Of course! But the same goes for all poetry, not just for science fiction. To assert that it is not possible to write good science fiction poetry simply *because* it’s science fiction is unnecessarily limiting, and that’s ironic, considering that science fiction is a literary genre about removing limits.

    Stace Johnson
    http://www.lytspeed.com

  19. Profile photo of Brian Garrison
    February 11, 2013, 11:01 am   / 

    Dare I say that we could examine embarrassing sci-fi novels or short stories and find a stack that even a Bradbury fan wouldn’t mind burning. How many pieces were published in the same journal/book as the Bly piece championed above? Would each of them stand up to similar scrutiny? We could examine the works of any genre and find junk that we don’t care to read, but I’m not going to lament over the content of romance novels.

    Some of my own poetic heroes (sci-fi and non) have mounds of rubbish that I have to flip through. The wonderful part is that I can turn the page and go looking for the ones that really strike a chord.

    Yes, there is a lot of bad sci-fi poetry out there. More accurate: there is a lot of bad poetry out there. More accurate: there is a lot of ugly in the world. If you seek ugly, you will find ugly. Seek beauty.

    If, for you, that means reading Emily Dickinson, please continue.

    • Profile photo of Paul Cook
      February 12, 2013, 5:48 pm   / 

      Brian, your point is well-taken (in fact, you’re preaching to the choir). That’s what my blog is going to be about–fair and honest criticism of what our field is producing. Yes, there is quite a lot of bad stuff out there. But remember, what’s bad or awful to your or me might be ambrosia to someone else. I’m not a fan of Ender’s Game. It’s a good book, but not a great book. But I’ve had students who worship him (literally, I’m not kidding here) and read nothing but him. I don’t fault them, but it’s the job of the critic that when he makes a case for something, that he back it up with a well-reasoned argument with quotes from the actual source material. If I sound like a college professor, I am. I teach this stuff every semester! But I do think SF poetry can be written well. I just haven’t seen any examples of it yet, for the reasons I suggested in my essay.

  20. Profile photo of Paul Cook
    February 10, 2013, 11:36 am   / 

    Geoffrey,
    SF poetry can be written. A poet (a real poet) named Norman Dubie has written various monologues that take place on Mars or in the future. It can be done. It’s just that the way it’s being written now isn’t working, for the reasons I suggested above. I also think the editors of those magazines are to blame as well. They’re in no way qualified to judge poetry and, as I suggest, publish them as filler. Poetry is about language, not information. It’s about the way language, through the use of metaphor, can suggest meanings but not pin-point them exactly. SF poets have to learn how to write poetry first; then they can get down to writing poetry that can use sf tropes and conceits effectively. I’m all for it when it happens.

  21. Profile photo of Geoffrey James
    February 10, 2013, 10:57 am   / 

    This is a very thoughtful post. I think that the problem here is that good poetry provides an oblique and deeper view of real experience, with the words suggesting emotions and meaning that color the actual event or situation being described.

    Because of this, it may be impossible to write good poetry about events that haven’t yet taken place. In other words, we’ll never get a good poem about being on Mars until somebody has been on Mars or even enough people have been on Mars so that the poetic evocation of the situation becomes meaningful.

    Put another way, science fiction itself is an interpretation of present reality, through which we see the events of today and our lives through a new perspective. In that regard, it functions like poetry. Writing a poem about science fiction is therefore like writing a poem about a poem…it’s one step too far from the reality of the experience that being illuminated.

    Geoffrey

  22. Profile photo of John Purcell
    February 10, 2013, 10:21 am   / 

    This is a well written, well thought out entry, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. My initial response is that the problem with SF poetry is that its writers are trying too hard. The best poetry, regardless of genre, tends to flow naturally – and that’s the hardest kind to write.

    I agree with you that science fiction poetry is damned hard to write. I have tried it myself and usually fall into the trap you describe: write it too literally, not descriptively; let figurative language do the telling, not the intrusive voice of the poet. The best poems bring the reader into the verse in order to figure out what in the heck is going on here.

    As a side note, just last night I was reading Ray Bradbury’s 2007 novella “Somewhere a Band is Playing” and fell in love all over again with the poetry of his prose. He includes verse as an integral part of the story, building off it in ways that both make sense and surprise. Bradbury was, and probably will remain, science fiction’s greatest poet. Read any of his verse and see how he does what you describe in your blog: he doesn’t tell the reader exactly what happens, but lets the reader figure it out. And that, to me, is what poetry is supposed to do.

    • Profile photo of Paul Cook
      February 11, 2013, 3:15 pm   / 

      What you identify as “poetry” in Bradbury is merely the lyricism of his writing style and he’s one of the best. And I didn’t say that it can’t be absolutely written, but that what’s being written now, with its lack of metaphor and allusive language, isn’t real poetry. That’s all. Sure, it can be written. Imagine if “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was positioned in a steam-punk world? All he would do is have to put a mechanical airship overhead and the poem would lose nothing. It would be sf and still be about alienation and loneliness and the rapidly changing sexual mores that Prufrock/Eliot felt at the time the poem was written. This is the key: make the sf trope the background, not the foreground. SF poetry, by doing this, could be gangbusters.

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