Hiding in plain sight: Yes, Speculative Poetry exists!

Gautham Shenoy July 21, 2019 6 min

Haunting and harrowing in its portrayal of existential struggle, Aniara is a wonderfully crafted film recommended for anyone looking for a quiet, contemplative film that is the antithesis of the loud, blockbuster sci-fi movie. What is also interesting to note is that, in a very rare occurrence for a science fiction film, Aniara is an adaptation based not on a novel or a short story or a comic – but a poem! To be very specific, an epic science fiction poem of the same name written in 1956 by Swedish poet and Nobel laureate Harry Martinson.

Which brings me to the point that, contrary to popular perception, Speculative Fiction – which includes science fiction, fantasy and horror – as a genre of literature, finds expression not just in prose but in verse.

It can of course be argued that speculative poetry has existed for as long as ‘poetry as we know it’ has been around. Be it Beowulf or Meghadūta, poems have had elements of speculative fiction at their heart. A case can be made that so many of the poems we consider classics – such as PB Shelley’s Ozymandias and HW Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha to name just two, or many of the poems of Lord Byron, Edgar Allan Poe, and of course all of HP Lovecraft – are all examples of speculative poetry. If one were to look at just science fiction poetry in the 20th century only, after the genre came into its own, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction tells us that Lilith Lorraine (the pen-name of Mary Maude Dunn Wright) published a collection of poetry in 1952, Wine of Wonder, billed as the first volume ever of science fiction poetry. While in the beginning, science fiction poetry was to be found only intermittently in magazines, things would begin to change in the 1960s with New Worlds magazine leading from the front and with a lot of poetry coming from ‘New Wave’ SF authors. All this would lead to the first anthology of SF poetry in 1969, Holding Your Eight Hands: An Anthology of Science Fiction Verse, edited by Edward Lucie-Smith. Over the course of the next two decades, speculative poetry would come into its own with SF greats such as Joe Haldeman, Gene Wolfe, Ray Bradbury, Thomas M. Disch, James Blish and Ursula K. Le Guin, to name just a few, publishing speculative poems in no small measure.

A turning point for SF poetry was the founding of SFPA, The Science Fiction Poetry Association, in 1978. In 2017, it changed its name to ‘The Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association’ (with the ‘F’ doing double duty), and in the same year also designated November 3rd as International Speculative Poetry Day. In a post titled ‘About Science Fiction Poetry’, SFPA founder Suzette Haden Elgin puts forth her reasons for founding the SFPA and offers a working definition for a science fiction poem as ‘one that had two parts: a science part, and a fiction — narrative — part’, with the ‘poem’ assumed as defined. A definition that was quite limited in its scope as she herself admits (it ignored fantasy, for instance) but that, thankfully, was not applied to the poems that could be submitted for the Rhysling Awards.

Named after the radiation-blinded spaceship engineer, poet and songwriter from Robert Heinlein’s 1947 short story, The Green Hills of Earth, the Rhysling Award has been presented annually by the SFPA since 1978, focussing primarily on poets whose careers have been shaped by – or have helped shape – the SF genre. Awarded in two categories, Short (poems of up to 49 lines) and Long (poems of 50 lines or more), the list of Rhysling Award winners reads like the who’s who of SF and should be the starting point for anyone wanting to explore the wondrous world of speculative poetry. The latest winners of the Rhyslings, for instance, were Mary Soon Lee for Advice to a Six-year-old in the Short Poem category, and Neil Gaiman in the Long Poem category for his feminist poem, The Mushroom Hunters.

Going beyond the winners of the Rhysling Award, one should also note that the science fiction and speculative fiction magazines of today are still continuing the tradition of publishing some really fine speculative poems. From personal experience, I know of SF fans who ask about speculative poems or specifically science fiction poetry, but haven’t read any. Well, these poems are – if I may say so – hiding in plain sight, in SFPA’s own newsletter Star*Line, and in the pages of must-read SF magazines and publications such as Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Amazing Stories, Uncanny, Stone Telling, Mythic Delirium and the Amal El-Mohtar edited Goblin Fruit (the last three sadly being on ‘indefinite hiatus’, but enjoy the archives).

One of the big reasons why Speculative Poems aren’t as popular– or spoken of – amongst science fiction fans, as opposed to SF in prose, is perhaps because most of the major SF awards don’t have a separate category for Best SF Poem. Leave alone awards, most SF anthologies – even the ones that collect the ‘best of’ the year – don’t often include speculative poems. At this point, one must single out and commend Tarun K. Saint, the editor of The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction for including not one but four speculative poems in the anthology (Chenobyl by Somendra Singh Kharnola; Moksha by Sumita Sharma; Seventy Years After Seventy Years After Partition by Kaiser Haq and Were It Not For by Arjun Rajendran). On can only hope that more anthologies feature speculative poems and that the ‘big SF awards’ have a separate category for this oft ignored expression of speculative fiction, the SF poem.

Since this edition of the New Worlds Weekly column began with a film inspired by – and adapted from – a science fiction poem, it feels only right to end it, in the interests of symmetry, with one of the most enjoyable science fiction poems of all time: a classic SF poem that was inspired by a film. The film being Attack of the Crab Monsters directed by the ‘King of B-movies’, Roger Corman, which inspired a poem of the same name by poet Lawrence Rabb:

my voice. I’m not used to all these
legs, these claws, these feelers.
It’s the old story, predictable
as fallout—the rearrangement of molecules.
And everyone is surprised
and no one understands

Further reading: The Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry on ‘Poetry’, Science Fiction Poetry: Worlds of Potential by Amal El-Mohtar (Apex Magazine), The Idea of the Real: Notes on the History of Speculative Poetry by Mark Rich (Strange Horizons); Speculative Poetry: A Symposium (Part 1) by Anya Johanna DeNiro, Matthew Cheney, Mike Allen, Theodora Goss (Strange Horizons), and Crabmonsters and Sentient Darkness: Ten Great Scifi Poems by Esther Inglis-Arkell (io9).

Lead Image: Detail from a panel of The Mushroom Hunters, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell.


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