Against Speculative Poetry?

Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I’ll be featuring essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers, talking about anything SFF related that interests us. My guest today is Jennifer Schomburg Kanke, who is a visiting instructor at Florida State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, Star*Line, and Goblin Fruit..

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Jennifer Schomburg Kanke

Jennifer Schomburg Kanke

I’m ambivalent about the term “speculative poetry.” Is it just another way of categorizing poetry, like “nature poetry” or “political poetry”— or is it something more? Perhaps the reason I resist it, preferring [more straightforward?] terms like science fiction and fantasy, is that the term lumps us in a bit with fiction. It implies that we are subject to the same snobbery and defensiveness that plagues the world of prose, that we also view the terms “science fiction” and “fantasy” as tainted. It implies that our “establishment” builds the same walls as theirs — which is not to say that we don’t have walls, only that they’re based on style rather than content. We lack those walls that say, “This is legitimate work because it feels like the real world.” The world of fiction needs the term “speculative fiction” so it can say, “No, no, this is a good piece even though there are monsters and dragons in it.” Because, honestly, who takes a piece with monsters in it seriously otherwise?

Poets. Poets and bards have always taken these things seriously. From Beowulf to Coleridge’s Christabel, poems are full of monsters, derring-do and a sexy succubus or two. I hear you now disagreeing: Those poems are old! Of course the Romantics and crazy Anglo-Saxons were into such things. Ah, but more contemporary poets love what we could call “speculative poetry” too. Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton’s collection Transformations reimagines classic fairy tales, while former U.S Poet Laureate Louise Glück, also a Pulitzer Prize winner, brings us a glimpse of Gretel’s future in “Gretel in Darkness.”

Of course, these examples all lean toward the fantasy side of the house and since poetry has always had a strong connection with mythology, this seems logical, something rooted in the history of the form. What about science fiction, all newness and hard metallic surfaces? Who could find poetry there? Randall Jarrell, known for both his biting and insightful reviews of mid-20th Century American poetry and his well-crafted dramatic monologues, such as the much-anthologized “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” didn’t shy away from spacemen. The speaker of his poem “A Sick Child” fantasizes:

If I can think of it, it isn’t what I want.

I want. . . I want a ship from some near star

To land in the yard, and beings to come out

And think to me: “So this is where you are!”

And in 1959, Pablo Neruda gives us the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey nine years before the movie hit theaters:

I felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.

Unlike prose writers, poets have never given undue preference to reality. No one thought less of John Donne or Frank O’Hara when their narrators talked to the sun, or when the sun talked back. And even one of the greatest poems of all-time (well, it’s debatable, but let’s stick with general consensus), T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, has nymphs and tarot cards and some excellent lines of speculative poetry: “At the violet hour, when the eyes and back/ Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits/ Like a taxi throbbing waiting.” This could be mere description except that these lines are spoken by a narrator taking on the persona of the seer Tiresias who is “throbbing between two lives.” And later in the poem, a storm rages and reality begins to blur:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?
What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

Had the Rhysling and Elgin been around in 1922, I think Eliot would have been a shoo-in. And lest you get the impression this is a phenomenon limited to the big names, my poems about selkies have been published in mainstream literary journals, such as Prairie Schooner and Nimrod, as well as journals which feature only fantasy work, such as Goblin Fruit, with one winning in the dwarf category of the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s annual contest a few years ago. Many of the poems in the most recent Rhysling Anthology could just as easily have found homes in mainstream journals. When I pass on copies of Star*Line to my students, it’s not different to me than when I give them copies of The Laurel Review or The Mid-American Review. They’re all places for them to see examples of contemporary poets at play with all the old tools of the art. To me, the term “speculative poetry” isn’t a way of saying “it’s better written genre stuff” (like many feel the term “speculative fiction” implies), instead it’s a faster way of saying “science fiction, fantasy, and horror poetry.” No comment on the quality of writing, because we never thought fantastical equaled bad. It’s just six syllables instead of thirteen, because poets like to keep it tight.

Thanks, Jennifer!

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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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6 comments

  1. Margo Hurwicz /

    I agree with the characterization of speculative poetry as a shorter name for science fiction, fantasy & horror poetry. It does have the advantage of not repeating the “fiction” that’s part of SF. I don’t worry so much about other people seeing my labels as apologies – like so many others, I need to write, and so I do.

  2. Margo Hurwicz /

    Great post, by the way.

  3. In “The Monarchs: A Poem Sequence,” Alison Hawthorne Deming explores the natural world, human nature, and science fiction through poetry – to great effect, I might add. :) I wish more poets would actively explore fantasy or science fiction in their work!

    I’ll definitely have to check out Ms. Shomburg Kanke’s work, too. Thanks for the great post!

  4. I was kind of thinking about this last week. I have been looking to get into poerty in the SFF genre, and read a poem last week that was clearly of science fiction, but it was labeled as “speculative poetry”. I got to wondering what “science-fiction poetry” might look like then or if there was a difference. Now I know :)

  5. it would seem perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find the fantastical or the science fiction-y in a form that relies so much on metaphor–the two I’d think go a bit hand in hand.

    While we’re on the topic, I’ll offer up two recommendations: Drawn to Marvel, a multi-author collection of poems based on the comics; and Missing You Metropolis, by Gary Jackson.

  6. I’ve always loved the fantastical elements in “The Wasteland…” I feel validated!

    *Drawn to Marvel* is on my To Buy list but I haven’t ordered it yet.

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