The recent flap (well, maybe more of a flutter) caused by tomsdisch in his "disching" of the Science Fiction Poetry Association raised an issue I've encountered over and over again as someone who wears his "poetry orientation" on his sleeve: the idea that poetry can't or shouldn't be "subdivided" into genres.
There's an analogy that I've used when confronted with this, and which I used most recently on stillnotbored's journal. Saying that poetry can't be distinguished by the nature of content is like saying you can't have grape soda or orange soda because in the end it's all soda. This analogy reflects my own view of what "science fiction poetry" or "fantasy poetry" or "speculative poetry" is: not a separate school of thought or commercial category but a particular flavor or set of flavors.
And having said that, I'm not sure how easily those flavors can be quantified. Consider how diverse things are in the fiction world: the idea that Cormac McCarthy's The Road has something in common with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or that these have something in common with Titus Groan, is a bit mind-boggling; yet there's an inexplicable way in which the tastes go together, especially if you're a relatively omnivorous "speculative reader" like myself. Similarly, poems about a post-apocalyptic future, slapstick time travel or surreal castle dwellers would for me readily fit the menu. An autobiographical poem that briefly uses an sftnal idea as a personal metaphor, perhaps not so much, but — this highlights one of the valid gray areas: Joe Haldeman's masterful "DX," widely reprinted in SF and fantasy "Best Of" anthologies, and which I adore, does exactly that. Does "DX" end up being counted as a "speculative poem" because of Joe's identity as an sf writer? Because of who his readers are? I think it's both, but more the latter; it's a poem written in a way that his particular audience will appreciate.
Grasping speculative poetry seems to be a matter of what you read during your formative years; to me the idea of "speculative poetry" as a description of something distinct (or to continue my analogy, with a different taste) from "regular" poetry seems as obvious as daylight and shadow; to folks who haven't encountered the flavor before the idea can result in a blank stare. They're not at all familiar with applying the concept of world-building to poetry.
But again, speculative poetry doesn't have an agenda; it's more a type of seasoning. It may be that if speculative poetry could be focused into a school of thought of a sort, an idea advocated in different ways over the years by folks as diverse as Suzette Haden Elgin and Alan DeNiro, there would be more unity and concert of action within the field among those who practiced it; but then, it might also put an expiration date on said school, where as the SFPA to me seems to have survived as long as it has simply by functioning as a gathering place for folks who appreciate the proffered flavors.
It honestly delights me that such lucid, thoughtful and thought-provoking posts have been written as a result of that stupid, negative ramble.
I love the food/flavour analogy, Mike, and I think it's really apt.
Grasping speculative poetry seems to be a matter of what you read during your formative years
I think this is true, too, and that the reverse is equally so: that a poet writes based on what they read during their formative years, that a poem's informed by the "speculative" worldview of the poet. I mean, if you see the world in terms of myth and stories and wonder, can you help but write your poetry that way, no matter what the poem's "about"? A poem like "The Eight Legs of Grand-mother Spider" -- deeply personal and totally mythic, with the personal and the mythic augmenting each other to astonishing effect.
...And this point has totally wandered away from me, but there's alot here I want to unpack and pull out and so on. Thanks so much for reflecting on this, Mike!
If I'm permitted to boast about a poem I'm responsible for publishing, as soon as I read "Eight Legs" I felt Cat had hit a home run in exactly the same way Joe did with "DX," though on the surface the poems don't look much alike.
I guess that's an illustration of my point about quantifying the flavors. "Eight Legs" recounts a Native American myth while "DX" makes a brief reference at the end to the concept of alternative timelines. How can I call these "the same technique"? But if you're a "genre reader," I think you get it. Both poems use these elements to illuminate something deeply personal, and both are, in my opinion, heart-breaking.
I'm with Amal - the posts and e-mails Disch's post inadvertantly sparked have been amazing.
Something in your post here made me think that perhaps ice cream would even be a better analogy than soda when it comes to the flavors of poetry.
Sometimes a poem may take elements from more than one flavor - it could have a mythic element AND a science fiction element, so the end result becomes more like a sundae than a scoop of an individual flavor of ice cream on a cone.
This, of course, makes the completed poem more unclassifiable, but in the broader sense of speculative poetry (versus "sf" or "fantasy"), it works just fine.
Thanks a lot for posting this. It is a very lucid post on an important topic to speculative poets.
Ooohh, and then there are ice cream sandwiches, and creamsicles, and Blizzards, and we could go totally crazy combining soda and ice cream to make a float......
hungry author vanishes
into her freezer
In your honour, Debbie! ; )
This is an interesting discussion. I do want to add that I don't want to prescribe a single school of thought for speculative poetry (the little essay-thing you linked to is "Notes on A Speculative Poetry", not "THE")...
Disch is a good writer. Disch is a cranky writer. :) Have you read his book of poetry criticism, Castle of Indolence? Pretty much goes after everyone.
Hi, Alan! Yeah, you're right, it's not accurate for me to imply you have some sort of program you want everyone to follow. I think the reason why I felt the need to include you in that sentence was this, from our symposium: "it doesn't necessarily have to involve science at all, but rather having the language enter a speculative space. Here, different possibilities of language can interact. Much like in a science fiction story, this world where new poetries come about doesn't quite exist, but neither does it not exist. ... This speculative process has almost nothing to do with content, but rather the inquiry itself."
Your post made me think of other things, which I'll do a separate entry for, I think.
I think this an approach to what speculative poetry is that it's quite different from the SFPA-centric way of thinking, and has more the feel of a "school of thought," though maybe more in the sense of a school of fish than an institution...
Yeah, I know that Disch is an equal-opportunity curmudgeon — and I guess I should say somewhere that I really don't take any personal offense at his remarks; I did feel his factual misfires had to be addressed, though. I mean, I knew darn well Goldbarth was a Rhysling nominee, I had to typeset the man's poem!