Speculative poetry. What is it and does it matter?
If you know what speculative fiction is, and you know what poetry is, then you know what speculative poetry is, too. The medium goes back a ways. One can argue that Gilgamesh is the oldest known mythic poem. If we just want to look at the last hundred years or so, during which time the genre of science fiction was invented, we might notice that poetry has been there the whole time. Edgar Allan Poe? Fantasy and horror poetry is a significant part of his oeuvre. The same is true, to one degree or another, of HP Lovecraft, Roger Zelazny, Clark Ashton Smith, and others. Poems were published in pulp magazines, reprinted in collections, and accounted for a noticeable part of genre literature almost right from the beginning. Or maybe not so noticeable. More than once I’ve been reminded that a poem or poems were published in a given anthology, and I didn’t remember them. Maybe the literary weight of a one-page poem in a 200-page book just doesn’t move the scales.
Poems have been used to good effect within works of fiction. The Lord of the Rings comes to mind, and any fantasy book that includes spells in verse. Well, all right. But here the poem is little more than the framed picture on the wall of a house. You like to have it, but how much would you miss it if it wasn’t there?
Well, wasn’t this why I was asked to write this post in the first place? More importantly, is poetry as unimportant in the genre as my youthful reading experiences suggest? No. Nowadays, major science fiction and fantasy magazines routinely include poems. Many issues of Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine, for instance, contain multiple poems. The bounty of poetry in large-circulation genre magazines these days is in stark contrast to its scarcity a few decades ago. The increasing number of pages devoted to poems must reflect editorial awareness that people want to see them. If you look at the small press, both on the web and in print, poetry is even more abundant. Publications like Strange Horizons always include poetry. If you look for poetry markets at ralan.com or duotrope.com, you find scores of them. There are even quite a few poetry-only magazines, ranging from Goblin Fruit, to Mythic Delirium, to my own (Dreams and Nightmares), to the granddaddy of extant English-language speculative-poetry magazines, the Magazine of Speculative Poetry. This is no exhaustive list, but just these four publish well over 100 pages of genre poetry a year. These magazines are published year after year because people read them.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that I am the current president of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. Founded in 1978 by Suzette Haden Elgin, the SFPA publishes a quarterly journal (Star*line), an online periodical (Eye To The Telescope), and two annual anthologies (Rhysling & Dwarf Stars). These are used to choose the best genre poems published each year, and the winners commonly appear in the Nebula anthology. The SFPA has about 250 members, and of course there are many genre poets who do not belong to the organization.
I think I have established that there are plenty of poets and that they read each other’s work. I honestly don’t know how many non-poets seek out genre poetry and read it with relish. Maybe people who fit in that category will be moved to comment on this post.
I haven’t said half of what I wanted to, and I’ve used twice the requested number of words to do it. Perhaps I should have written this post as a succession of linked haiku!