There is a long tradition of fantastic poetry, going back to medieval romances—heck, going back to The Epic of Gilgamesh. But I'm going to start my history with Holding your Eight Hands, an anthology by Edward Lucie-Smith. It was published in 1969 and was part of the English burst of energy that produced The Beatles, the Michael Moorcock version of New Worlds, and a lot of fine writing, music, art, and clothing design.
The poetry in Eight Hands explicitly drew on modern science fiction, rather than traditional myths and legends. It was part of 1960s fascination with contemporary popular culture. The best of the poetry in the collection is excellent.
In the US, Suzette Hayden Elgin founded the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA) in 1978. SFPA established the Rhysling Award for SF poetry, named after Robert Heinlein's bard in “The Green Hills of Earth.” Most years, the winning poems are publishing in the Nebula Anthology. They also appear in the annual SFPA anthology of Rhysling nominated poems.
Another SF poetry anthology, Burning with a Vision, edited by Robert Frazier, appeared in 1984. Other collections are Time Gum, edited by Terry A. Garey (1988), Time Frames, also edited by Terry A. Garey (1991) and Lady Poetesses from Hell, edited by the Bag Person Press Collective (2012).
Lady Poetesses from Hell have been doing readings at Wiscon and local Twin Cities cons for years. The core group of Twin Cities poets are joined by distinguished out-of-town writers such as Jane Yolen and Ellen Klages. The best of the poetry is very fine, and it's often funny. The size of the audience varies, but LPFH has played to packed rooms and enthusiastic listeners.
Fantastic poetry has not been put in a ghetto the way SF fiction has. My friend Ruth Berman says she had little trouble placing her fantastic poems in mainstream literary magazines that refuse to look at SF fiction. This may be one reason fantastic poetry has been less prominent and respected in the SF community than it deserves. It lacks the genre hallmark and the imprimatur that comes from mainstream hostility or indifference. The other reason is—many intelligent and enthusiastic readers of SF fiction don't like poetry and refuse to read it.
This is a mistake. You miss out on some of the best fantastic tales ever composed—Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Beowulf, the Arthurian romances, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, The Idylls of the King—because they are poems.
Yes, you can read prose versions, but this is like reading Classic Comics or CliffsNotes. You aren't reading the real story.
Why am I telling you this? I want you to explore SF poetry. The anthologies I have mentioned are all available at Amazon. The SFPA magazine Star*Line is available online. As mentioned before, the Nebula anthologies contain Rhysling Award winners. Asimov’s publishes poetry regularly. Don’t skip over the poems. Read them. Many are fine.
In addition, I recommend The Last Selchie Child by Jane Yolen, Fairy Tales for Writers by Lawrence Schimel, Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar, The Adventures of the Faithful Counselor by Anne Sheldon, The Receptionist by Leslie Wheeler, and any books of poetry by John Calvin Resmerski you can find. These are not the only books of science fiction and fantasy poetry available. I am simply listing what I found when I looked through my bookshelves. Many of them are by poets or publishers I know as individuals. Do not limit yourself to this list.
Finally, some examples.
cell walls break
DNA prisoners are on the lam
my body is like wildfire
dancing in the night
to the stars
only a woman, they said
would care to take the chance
only a woman, I said
would need to.
Terry A. Garey
The Boy in the Golden Atom
I want the miniaturized solar systems back.
I want the electrons orbiting
The nuclear sun,
And my true tiny love
In his toga and scientific sandals
Inventing a space ship
So that when I invent my nano-miniaturizing fluid
And fall into the immensity of space within the gold
In search of him,
He'll find me.
Programmable Ruby Slippers
Guaranteed to get you home,
wherever your little heart determines
home needs to be. Just write down
the coordinates of home on a little
slip of paper (the back of a fortune
cookie is ideal for the purpose),
fold it up and tuck it into one little
toe-tip. Or if you're pressed for time
when it's time to go home, you just
speak into one of the little heels and say,
“Emergency override sequence O–Z;
code words No, Place, Like.”
That should do it. A wizard said so.
Home's sweet, home is;
any home in a storm.
John Calvin Rezmerski
Why the Coffee at Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota, Tastes the Way It Does
An old cowpoke came riding
through the Badlands dust.
His hair was white as silver.
His horse was red as rust.
In his hand he carried
a pot as black as sin.
The same dark liquid trickled out
no matter what went in.
“Pard, I'm going to a place
where cookies never call,
‘Get up you lazy cowpokes,’
and cattle never bawl,
“Where irons stay unheated
and ropes remain untied.
No one needs a rifle
or a six gun at his side.
“No need for bitter coffee
in that place of perfect rest.
So take this goddam coffee pot.”
And he vanished in the west.
I suppose the last poem is only borderline fantasy. But I think of the cowboy as a kind of ghost, and the pot is certainly magical, since the coffee it makes is always—always—awful.
The coffee at Wall Drug in South Dakota, which led me to write this poem, is awful, at least the last time I was there. The cinnamon rolls are fine, and there is a splendid bookshop devoted to books on the West. Other shops in the complex are devoted to western clothing and souvenirs. There are dinosaurs out back. I have never checked them out, so I don't know if they are effigies or mechanical or alive. Never miss a chance to stop at Wall Drug or to visit the Badlands National Monument, which is nearby.
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