On the Irrelevance of Genre Poetry

Michael A. Arnzen has won four Bram Stoker Awards (including one for Poetry) and has been publishing speculative fiction and poetry since 1989. His latest book is The Gorelets Omnibus: Collected Poetry, 2001-2011 (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2012) — a compendium of his twisted and often funny imaginations from the past decade. Arnzen holds a PhD in literature and teaches in the MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University, where he is currently the Division Chair of the Humanities. Visit him online at gorelets.com or join his social network at michaelarnzen.com

In a Locus Roundtable first, you can also hear a recording of Mike performing this poem on his website.

I’m going to write this in the shape
of a poem.
But you will not think it is a poem
because it is sort of an argument
that genre poetry’s irrelevance today
very well may be its greatest strength
and this poem also
sort of
does not rhyme/use meter/orbogglethemindmuch
even if it plays loose with language
and poses plucky with its line breaks

and this is the thing about poetry:
it flaunts its linguistic play
as audaciously as a clown at a church service
honking his horn during the prayer.

I’ve been asked to write about genre poetry
today, and I begin with a clown in a church.
The question is not who does this clown
think he is? The question is what
is this church and what makes it holy?

And I don’t know the answer to that
especially when the church is a genre
and its hymnals are its novels
and its canon is its gospel
but I do think that poetry by genre writers
for genre readers
is something of a “holy fool”
and also lurking there
beneath the canon and hymns.

And while I don’t know the answers,
I do know how to define poetry:
poetry is language, respected.
poetry is words, stopped. listened to.
focused on. contemplated.
yet on the edges,
or ignored. present as an echo.
peripheral, past the edges. liminal.

poetry tugs your attention away from what you take for granted.

and this is why poetry is so very important —
and this is a poem —
even if nobody reads it,
even if nobody speaks it,
right now, just yet —
its rhythm lives undead, awaiting an ear to pick it up
or a chorus of mouths to sing its song.

and there are times when speculative fiction
feels less speculative and more fiction
and its books feel untimely and outdated,
the moment they’re printed,
and this isn’t just because of its ideas
but because it lacks poetry…

and poetry, somehow, resists this problem
by capturing the impetus of wonder
and the discovery of difference
in a profound cadence
or a strange strangeness of words estranged.

poetry takes for granted that it can tug your attention away
sometimes by reminding you of your youth
or returning your repression
or simply degenerating the big headed big world
into the baby talk it really sometimes is,
like whalesong in the cosmos.

genre poetry, so undefinable, so strange,
simply by existing — even if ignored —
lends our genres some sense of authenticity
some semblance of respectability
some seeming situatedness
in the history of literature —
because it is literature —
and it is holy, even when it is only
even when it is only
even when it is describing
the most unholy of horrors imaginable (or implied).

Too abstract?
Here’s a terrible but apt comparison:
“you need people like me,”
Scarface cries, drunken and slurry
with cocaine tongue as he’s kicked out of a bar —
and this too is the cry of the outlaw genre poets:

“you need writers like me.”

I have some advice for the skeptics
who may be opening their minds
by reading the poetry written by masters
they are familiar with —
from Poe to Piccirilli,
Lovecraft to Ligotti,
Dunsany to Disch:

read beyond the horizon of your library
and listen to the voices unfamiliar.
if you think a poem is a bad poem
then you are probably right,
but there is no singularity here
and one sinner does not damn us all —
poetry is a cacophony of voices
and you need to search to find the harmony
of the ones that speak directly to you,
because they can reach you in a way
that other sounds and structures simply can’t.

Fiction, even the most speculative,
sometimes sadly sacrifices
its own language
on the altar of realism —
paring its ideas down with a machete
to construct the redundant chant
of subject-verb-object;
we see it. we know it. we repeat it.
it marches us step-by-step,
one step closer to the boredom of clones,
the nightmare of the hive.

Fiction, even the most speculative,
must strangle its language sometimes —
and even when a cool expression is sprung free
in the middle of a paragraph
as unexpectedly as a jack-in-the-box
that pops, wobbles and leers —
smacking its lips on the edge of the sublime —
it often must be pushed back in the box,
muffled by the walls and machinery
of coherent narrative form.

But not poetry.
Poetry is a box that rattles and ticks
with its chiming rhythms
lurking in wait for the reader
to echo its undying cadence
to read with his lips
and re-read with hers
and crank the jack-in-the-box handle
over and over again
just to be surprised
when it pops out
from a different side of the box
or jettisons out into the sky
screeching a raven’s cry.

And if you pay closer attention
to genre poetry than most people do
you may find yourself in the box, too,
cramped but writing poetry,
eager to surprise
eager to feel the spring unspool behind you
as your imagination sets sail.

That’s why I do it, anyway.

But I am constantly asked:
why bother? you’ve published novels!
you’ve won awards for horror fiction!
why do you waste your time
writing things no one really reads?

And the answer is something I dare not say:
that all writing is a waste of time,
and so is reading,
but time is infinite
and there’s something very pleasant
about wasting infinitude
just to share the wonder,
or the squirming shudder,
with another
as the world continues to turn
indifferent beneath our feet.

Poets dare to pay attention
and may be distrustful of those
who would call attention to themselves
instead of pointing out the wonders
of the world below and above and nowhere.

And yet I’m asked: why?
why do writers even bother
writing verse nowadays
when it is a dead form
and nobody reads much of anything
anymore anyway?

And the answer is that
our job is to pay attention.
and besides,
poetry is there, too,
there in the advertising jingle
and the twitter feed
and the streaming line of text beneath the newscaster.
Poetry is there,
in the road sign
and the bookshelf spines
and the medicine cabinet.
Poetry is there,
you’re just not looking
at what you’re doing.
Poetry is there,
telling you so.
Right now.

The irrelevance of genre poetry
in fact, may be its greatest strength,
because it is an Other to speculative wonder —
an Unwonder —
doing the wondering
that speculation
cannot do in prose.

But it is not just poetry,
it is genre poetry —
which I think of merely as poems
written by readers of genres
who may or may not flaunt
its conventions as much as its language.
and in that manner it is
always already relevant
and most powerfully so
when other genre writers
claim it is not.

But all this is moot.
Poetry defines itself
with each line
that it foolishly spools.
Poetry is language unconstrained
by anything but its own rhythm.
It’s a lot like your body,
that way,
and your body is a particularly good dancer —
especially when no one is paying attention.

One thought on “On the Irrelevance of Genre Poetry

  • June 9, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    Wonderful, Mike! Irrevernt, relevant, and I love the form you chose for expressing what I (and others) know so well to be true.


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