I somehow become more aware of time and transience when thinking about speculative poetry. I type at this old Smith and Corona, as I have done many times before, over the years, in thinking about this topic, and I become subtly conscious of snow lightly falling outside, of a gray sky, of the sound of typewriter keys, and of the rushing of air through this building's air ducts. I have no idea why this should be, unless it is simply that I feel the historical nerves being tickled. Small details rise and acquire the smokiness of significance.
I have engaged in only a handful of poetry studies in the last decade; yet all have fed into this internal mental picture I have, not quite of a historical pageant, but of a rough map drawn on a well-folded rag sheet, of the history of this form called speculative poetry.
The editors of this extremely attractive paperless magazine have thought to ask me for a history, at fortune-cookie size, of science fiction poetry; and since I see science fiction poetry as a special case of speculative poetry, I agreed to the happy task without letting the editors know I might never mention science fiction poetry before running out of fortune-cookie papers. I have now mentioned it three times; that may need to do.
What I will try to do is convey some sense of that folded and refolded map in my mind.
Whenever you attempt this sort of thing you buck crowds of people rushing at the theater showing the latest hits of Homer and other golden-haired literary deities. All these theater-goers are sure the roots of this-ism and that-ism are found expressed in the twitching eyebrows of Homer's Zeus, or somewhere in the lovely mysteries of De Rerum Natura. This may well be. I will certainly not bar you from following the crowd. I might well find them entertaining myself, tomorrow. For now, I ask only that you first consider the nature of the speculative poem.
That nature is this: in the speculative poem, the poet presents an unreal world as though presenting the real one.
This may seem an easy piece of nonsense. It was, however, an extremely hard kind of nonsense to achieve. A poet could not truly do this until society, or at least an important part of society, was capable of perceiving the real world for what it was. I use the word "real" here as an empiricist might. For our Western ways of thought, we have a long line of cerebral figures, many of them from the ranks of the British Royal Society and the Deists, to thank for bringing to our attention, front and foremost, the notion that things can be verifiably determined about the world around us. True, Aristotle, of the golden hair, had similar concerns. Yet the West went its merry way after Aristotle went his merry way. Aristotle's writings went somewhat into the building of the Catholic church, and very much into the creation of Middle Eastern science. Western intellectuals, however, never quite got around to studying him until the Royal Society and the Deists truly, deeply began looking at the world as though the world itself mattered.
If our beginning steps toward acquiring a full sense of the real were taken in the 1600s and 1700s, then the final important step was made at the beginning of what I will call, following Northrop Frye's lead, the Modern Century. The publication of On the Origin of Species closed the last big, gaping hole in the West's scientific, rational understanding of the workings of the world. Turning our focus back to poetry, this means that before 1859 the intellectual climate was of necessity partially mystical. A poet could to some degree separate the real from the unreal, without, however, achieving true disconnection. The idea of the real had yet to reach maturity. A few poets came close to achieving disconnection, as in the case of Lord Byron, George Gordon, and one whose name I will mention soon.
I gave a paper on the speculative poem some twenty-odd years ago, as I write this. This was in France, at a conference. I mention this not out of self-elevation nor any need to flaunt credentials, for I was brash, young, penniless, and even more remarkably stupid then than I am now. Yet I had a paper to present that the listeners, who were from several countries, received with at least the appearance of respect and attentiveness. In leaving the session that afternoon, a French scholar approached me and said, "This speculative poetry. It really is something new, isn't it?" I remember his reaction clearly, and with interest. I had just finished presenting a paper on Edgar Poe. The "something new" the French scholar was referring to had been introduced by a writer who had died about one hundred and forty years earlier.
Poe we must necessarily consider a semi-mystical rationalist. A careful reader of Poe will emerge with the knowledge that he regarded intellect and rationalism as of uttermost importance. He possessed a fine mind himself, if he lacked the advantages of wealth, family connections, and social introductions that helped Darwin to become the preeminent rationalist of his time. Poe's mystical understanding of the universe fell exactly within the sphere Darwin's work would demystify. Poe spoke of the "fittingness" of things in the natural world, as a kind of sign of divine action in the world. Had he lived to see publication of Darwin's work, which I believe he would have devoured with greater avidity than did most of his countrymen, Poe quickly, easily and comfortably would have sloughed off the remnants of an older, mystical worldview.
Despite living in an intellectual climate that encouraged and possibly required a vestigial mysticism, Poe did manage to achieve the divorce of poetic reality from our consensus reality. What occurred within certain of his poems occurred without reference to the world we hold in common. The world of the poems was unreal, yet real within the context of the poems.
The Modern Century stretched very roughly from 1850 to 1950, or from about the years that encompassed Poe's death and Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species to the first years when a shadow was being cast upon the globe by the existence of multi-nationally based atomic weaponry. While I am far from fully aware of the poetic output in this country and elsewhere during that century, I doubt any figure will appear from obscurity to loom larger than that of James Thomson (B.V.). This Scottish poet's life overlapped Poe's; yet he lived to see publication of Darwin's greatest works, and was part of the first generation to honestly grapple with the implications of a thoroughly rational worldview. Since his popularity was chiefly posthumous, he made the speculative poem a major form with little encouragement from the general literary community. Other, more minor figures also emerged, from George Meredith to Edna St. Vincent Millay, to affect in some way the history of the form.
The time following the Modern Century may end up being designated, as it has in the past, the Space Age, the Atomic Age, or the Age of Plastic, or something else entirely, such as the Polluted Age, the Silicon Century, or even Postmodern Century, to keep the lit-crit types content. So far, this period has been marked in part by the widespread acceptance of several forms that came of age in the Modern Century, including speculative poetry, the science fiction story, and the detective story. The two dominant strands of speculative poetry might be typified by two writers I have lately read, Anselm Hollo and Philip Dacey. Hollo, a scientifically literate, intellectually adventurous poet, has written both the purer kind of speculative poem, in which the words of the poem construct a reality not corresponding very well to ours, sometimes for humorous ends; and a more dilute kind, in which language or terminology borrowed from a speculative form, in this case the science fiction story, is employed within a poem that makes explicit reference to our consensus reality. Hollo's works, among the most effective of his generation, reflect the workings of a genuine and honest literary mind. Dacey, on the other hand, excels at a weaker form of speculative poem, of a sort that has become quite popular. For Dacey, an overheard phrase or random notion is something that will produce, almost mechanically, a set of entertaining lines that are arranged as verse is. The reality of the poem derives primarily from the phrase or notion, and to only a limited degree from any active and engaged reflection on our contemporary world. This disjunction sometimes has humorous effect. Dacey does have his serious concerns, especially about intimacy, love, and sex; yet his seriousness is undermined by the lightness of his formal approach and his unsure command of tone.
Dacey has made a great success for himself as a contemporary poet, probably much more than has Hollo and undoubtedly vastly more than someone like Thomson, who worked in poverty and almost complete obscurity until near the end of his life. Dacey's reputation as poet, and particularly as a popular, extremely accessible poet, rests in no little part upon the speculative poems he has published. In itself this gives clear indication that the form has undergone a maturation. It is a form reaching an audience. Speculative poetry may even be a particularly fitting form for our times, whatever times they are we live within. That, however, remains to be seen.
Copyright © 2002 Mark Rich
Mark Rich has fiction in the Feb. 2002 issue of Analog, and music coming out from his own newly established independent label, Iguanodon Smile. His third book about toys will also appear in early 2002. He was a founding editor with Roger Dutcher of the Magazine of Speculative Poetry. For more about him, visit his Web site.