[Editor's note: The poets whose work is discussed in this article agreed to allow their work to be reprinted here for a limited time in conjunction with this essay. Strange Horizons would like to thank these poets for their generosity. The winners of the 1979 Rhysling awards were:
- "For the Lady of a Physicist," by Michael Bishop (Long Poem)
- "Fatalities," by Duane Ackerson (Short Poem, tie)
- "Storybooks and Treasure Maps," by Steve Eng (Short Poem, tie)
While early science fiction was quite varied—think of the immense differences between the work of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, for example—it was full of innocent certainty about its goals. Its practitioners were excited about the profitable possibilities inherent in speculating about the future and, especially, about the impact science and technology might have upon the human race. However, even in those early years there was much debate about what science fiction should be—take, for example, the sniping between Wells and Verne. This debate only intensified as time passed and literary schools and camps multiplied.
Poetry is one of the most self-reflective of literary genres. Poems as ancient as the Iliad, which calls upon the muses, and poets as great as Shakespeare have referred to the poem being written in the body of the poem itself. What's more, form is much more of an issue for poets than for fiction writers. Fiction writers may enjoy a good discussion of the relative merits of short stories versus novels, but rarely do such discussions splinter on details as specific as the length of the line discussed, or the nature of the rhythm indicated. These issues are specific to poetry.
Given the intersection of science fiction and poetry, it should come as no surprise that issues from all threads of these disparate traditions appear in the poems that win the Rhysling Award. What is surprising is when synchronicity occurs, as it does in the conflux of poems that won the 1979 Rhysling. Taken together, the three poems that won offer examples of and commentaries on science fiction's core purposes, demonstrating its possibilities and the possibilities specific to science fiction poetry—sometimes all at once. In the process, they reflect on the relationship between time, story, identity, and the physical universe.
The first winner in the short-poem category, "Fatalities" by Duane Ackerson, is a brief piece, only nine lines long, but it is a fine example of a science fictional adaptation of a form, specifically that of the prose poem. As Mary Oliver notes in A Poetry Handbook, the prose poem is usually short—most often a paragraph or two and rarely longer than a page or two. The prose poem, Oliver notes, must create "the same sense of difference from worldly or sequential time" that poems written in verse do but without the advantage of the line, the primary formal characteristic of poetry (p. 86-7). This means that Ackerson has to achieve his effects primarily through image and concept.
I quote Oliver's statement on the prose poem for two reasons. First, to note that there is in poetry a natural parallel with speculative fiction. Straightforward extrapolation, alternative history, time travel stories, or simply invention of the new: all of these create a disjuncture from worldly time. Second, to note that Ackerson's "Fatalities" creates this sense of otherness by providing an extended physical evocation of precisely the sequential time that Oliver wants poems to dispel. Ackerson reshapes time by discussing its passing vividly and directly. He focuses on a single ancient invention, the clock, and takes a metaphor traditionally associated with it—saying that it "strikes"—and treats it as a literal, physical event.
What the clock strikes is the hour, which dies. As the clock's hands are weapons, so the hours are made physical. They are made first into individual colors, then into a rainbow. Rainbows are especially apt in speculative poetry, because they mark both a promise coming down from Judeo-Christian mythology (God's swearing not to flood the earth again), and a major scientific advance. Newton "chopped" pure light into colors via his experiments with his prism, just as the clock divides the hours. As Newton allowed us to see the different qualities of bands of light, Ackerson shows us, emotionally, the qualities of different bands of time, ending with an evocation of time's compression: the fall of the Roman Empire in a single afternoon, the very sort of time compression common to reading, especially reading history—or science fiction.
One final point is worth noting about Ackerson's use of the prose poem form. First, while it was developed early in the 19th century (French writer Aloysius Bertrand is usually given credit, in 1836), the form was raised to greater popularity by Charles Baudelaire, a Symbolist writer. One of the qualities defining Baudelaire's prose poems, or those of mainstream contemporary writers like Campbell McGrath, is a sense of surging flow, a feeling that one is barely under control due to the torrent of images. The blocks of print often overwhelm the reader due to simple visual impact. By contrast, Ackerson's work flows smoothly, but without the impetuosity of many prose poems. He uses grammar, brevity, and cadence to match his form to his content.
1979's second winner in the short-poem category, Steve Eng's "Storybooks and Treasure Maps," is more traditional in its poetic structure. Eng uses a strict ABAB rhyme scheme and limits himself to six quatrains. The rhymes are smooth, but provide more than simple order or verbal virtuosity. Instead, Eng produces conceptual order through his structures—"forgotten" is rhymed with "rotten," both terms relating to the passage of time. A few lines later, "fable into time" is linked with "ancient nursery rhyme." The result is a story and message that loops back on itself: lines connect with lines, quatrains link together, and each leads to the next inexorably. There is also a logical order created by a second set of structures—Eng starts his first stanzas with flat statements: "The kings . . . ," "The chivalry . . . ," and then shifts to demanding a response from both himself and the reader: "But you and I . . . ," "You and I . . . ," "But you and I . . . ." This repetition becomes like an incantation when read aloud, and the poem's structure tacitly creates confidence in the poet.
But what is the message that confident voice delivers? Though Eng focuses on fantasy tropes like "demons and dragons," his central point is one that has long been held as foundational to science fiction. Eng chants his way through a review of the process of demystification that happens in the world, one that is often associated with maturity: those old fairy stories don't apply. Put them away. Grow up. Though he is more dignified, Eng essentially says, "Screw that. These dreams, these stories, this wonder, is the truest thing in the world." In short, Eng's poem is a manifesto in support of the sense of wonder.
This sense of wonder is found everywhere throughout the 1979 long poem winner, Michael Bishop's "For the Lady of a Physicist," though it is produced in an even more complex fashion. The first hint at this complexity comes from the dedication, "after Andrew Marvell." Marvell was a 17th century English poet—a contemporary of Newton's, actually, born about twenty years earlier. In addition to being a major poet in his own right, Marvell was an assistant to John Milton and involved in Restoration politics. Contemporary readers usually encounter Marvell in college English classes, where they read Marvell's wonderful poem "To His Coy Mistress."
"To His Coy Mistress" is a satire that mocks both logical argumentation and love poetry. It can be easily divided into three parts. "If we had world enough and time, / This coyness, Lady, were no crime," the first section begins: "if I had all the time in the world, I could wait forever to make love to you." The second section begins, "But at my back I always hear / Time's winged Chariot hurrying near." In other words, but we don't have all the time in the world. I hear death coming. Section three follows with a blunt conclusion that shocks even now: "Now, therefore?" While you're young, let's have wild sex.
Bishop's poem follows a similar structure, but there is a second factor to take into account before turning to it. Between dedication and poem Bishop inserts an extended quotation from physicist Stephen Hawking on the nature of black holes. Hawking is well known today for the striking combination of his scientific genius and his crippling disability. (Hawking suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS. He has long been confined to a wheelchair, and, more recently, lost his voice. Hawking "speaks" only through a voice synthesizer.) However, Hawking's fame is a relatively recent matter, beginning in the 1980s and after, especially after the 1988 publication of A Brief History of Time. To use a quotation from Hawking in a poem published in the late 1970s demonstrates a familiarity with physics and assumes the same on the part of one's readership. To use it in conjunction with a reference to a 17th-century metaphysical poet assumes something even rarer: that one's readers are situated at the intersection of literature and science.
Bishop not only evokes the two traditions, he applies and blends them in "For the Lady of a Physicist." As "To His Coy Mistress" uses a three-part logical structure, so does "For the Lady of a Physicist." Bishop even uses the same verbal structures to signal the parallel logic: he divides the poem into three sections, indents the first lines in each, and begins with "If," "But," and "Therefore." As Marvell evoked the wonders of his world—the exotic locales of our Earth—to create a sense of poetic desire for his mistress, Bishop evokes the wonders of our larger world. However, where Marvell ended with sex, Bishop begins with sex, having his narrator say that "If I with her could only join / In rapturous dance, loin to loin," then the whole galaxy would see the powerful intensity of their sexual passion. As Marvell used mythological references to explain the slow pace he would ideally take, Bishop uses scientific references to idealize intensity.
But. But Bishop's narrator "is no star." He lacks the physical characteristics that would support his flaming desire, just as Marvell's narrator lacked the immortality that would allow him to wait forever for his woman. He is no star. He is instead a black hole, pulling and gripping his beloved. Therefore Bishop's narrator cannot light up the universe with his love; he can, though, "draw her into my embrace / Collapse her will and show my face." They will, in short, become one inescapable unit. However, while black holes are often used in science fiction as the source of tragedy, that is not the case here. They are complete, and their love would survive even this compression into absolute blackness. Rather than light, they have love.
As he moves through his poem, Bishop echoes Marvell in many ways. He keeps the same strict rhymed couplets. He alludes, in passing flashes, to other poets (such as Dante), claiming the qualities they celebrated in their women for his beloved lady. Finally, he echoes the ending couplet even more specifically than most that had gone before. Where Marvell wrote, "Thus, though we cannot make our Sun / Stand still, yet we will make him run," Bishop writes, "Thus, though we cannot create light / from love, yet we will vanquish night." In itself, this is technically masterful, but there's another key point: by ending here, Bishop has reversed the path of Marvell's poem. Marvell's poem passes through three stages: proclaiming a pure love, voicing objections to this love, and substituting sexual desire. Bishop's poem also passes through a reversed version of these stages. It proclaims pure sexual desire, voices objections to this desire, and closes by voicing in its place a love that survives even the dark of a sunless black hole.
In the process of reversing Marvell, Bishop also refers back to Hawking, via the line about "Quasar sets and Marcel Proust." This lets his readers know that the inclusion of the extended quotation from Hawking is not some decorative conceit but rather that the logic of his poem's contents follows the logic of the black hole Hawking explained: it is equally likely for love poetry as despair to emerge from black holes. One wonders, as well, who is the physicist referred to in the poem? Is it too much to wish for a different world in which Hawking dances and loves as freely as the lover in the first stanza?
If the three poems are taken together, they offer further suggestions about the nature of science fiction poetry. Ackerson's "taming" of the prose poem form and the regularity of the other two poems indicate a preference for clarity, even when discussing highly entropic events. The contents of both Ackerson and Eng's poems comment on the nature of science fiction, reading, and dreams. Time compresses, and the images that spark a sense of wonder are at the center of things. Finally, Bishop's dance with Andrew Marvell and Stephen Hawking displays speculative poetry's bravura ambition. It also indicates that unlike claims sometimes made for poetry—most often by the New Critics—speculative poetry is not self-contained. It cannot be. Speculative poetry depends on referring to our understanding of the world, the stars, and love.