14 October 2004

Poetry and Speculation

Daniel E. Blackston at SF Reader has reviewed the latest Rhysling Award Anthology from the Science Fiction Poetry Association. It's nice to see the anthology getting some attention, because it's a nice collection, and is, for authors and editors and nominators and everyone involved, a labor of love. As a member of the SFPA, I know I found it a valuable tool when voting. In fact, it even caused me to vote for one poem I didn't nominate, because I thought it was better than the one I had, but I hadn't previously encountered it.

Blackston's review is thoughtful and shows careful reading of the anthology. It would be wonderful if more poetry got this sort of attention*. I'm also glad that he's willing to take issue with some of the collection, essentially creating a manifesto, a call to arms:
My overall verdict on The Rhysling Anthology is that the poems included probably do represent the most technically accomplished SF poems of the year. That means, you are getting grade-A quality with this collection and the Awards are going to deserving writers, but to my mind, there are creepier, more science-fictional, more heroic, more squarely speculative poems being published, and some of these should be included in the anthology, as well. After all, the academic and small press literary journals are chock-full of lyric poems in the manner of Stevens, Plath, Rimbaud, Pound and the Imagists, and even ... Bukowski. The SF field for poetry, as for fiction, isn't limited by literary tradition; we're the makers of new traditions ...
While I think my taste is quite different from Blackston's (he doesn't mention either of the poems I nominated, and only two of the six I voted for), I agree with his overall take on the anthology: it's full of competent poems, a few of which are excellent by almost any standard, but it's monotonous.

Blackston argues for SF poetry to be more SFnal. I have never been able to figure out what "SF poetry" is, what it's supposed to do, how it is different from other types of poetry**, so I can't join him in that argument, but I do think that the poetry that gets called SF Poetry ought to have a larger horizon, because by the standards of literature outside of the SF world, SF poetry makes most speculative fiction look daring and formally innovative. At least the fiction is being written as if we're living in 1950, not 1900. SF poetry has plenty of people emulating Donald Hall, but where is our Charles Olson, our Muriel Rukeyser, our Frank O'Hara? We don't need one form, we need multiplicities! (Heck, even Donald Hall's written a couple good poems.)

Of course, I'm generalizing horribly, and I'm arguing for something I don't believe in, since I don't believe in SF poetry, but just because I don't believe in it doesn't mean people aren't trying to write it. But The Rhysling Anthology isn't even within lightyears of the variety of either an average Pushcart Prize volume or Robert Creeley's 2002 Best American Poetry anthology, which is, I think, a model of what a truly diverse annual anthology can be (Lyn Hejinian's from this year seems less successful to me, but I also haven't spent as much time with it as I have Creeley's volume. --By the way, Hejinian's My Life is being blogged.)

I'm as much at fault as anyone, having been responsible for putting two poems in the anthology. Yes, "Tomatoes Cannot Tolerate Frost" is O'Hara-esque in certain ways, and I'm very fond of its out-of-left-field weirdness, but "Quasimodo Takes the Grand Tour" impressed me primarily with the vigor of its language -- a commendable quality, but the most common one among the best work nominated. I chose it because I encountered so few poems that met the length requirement for the "long poem" category and did anything other than bore me.

What we need are more editors like Alan DeNiro, who edits the poetry for Say.... You may not particularly care for the poetry Alan selects, but you can't say that it's the sort of poetry that appears everywhere else. Say ... Why Aren't We Crying includes the best poem I've ever read from Bruce Boston, whom I associate primarily with an interminable series of jokey poems about famous monsters' wives. He's actually a writer of tremendous skill, vision, and diversity, and Say... gives him at least one place where he can demonstrate that fact. (To be fair, Boston's poem "The Crow is Dismantled in Flight" in The Rhysling Anthology has fascinating elements, and got one of my three votes in the "long poem" category, though I did think it was a bit too long for its own good.)

In any case, it's good that poetry is getting some attention. Now I hope that attention will lead to more diversity, more imagination about both form and content, more pure weirdness for its own sake. Because if poetry can't revel in weirdness, what can?


*Note that Blackston has put out a call for people to send him chapbooks and collections for review. Poets -- do so! I'm also always willing to review poetry, regardless of genre, so if you've got a chapbook or a collection published, email me and see if I've got time to read it.

**"SF poetry" is a label for content, which means it has no more (or less) value than "car poetry" or "what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation poetry" or any other poetry defined solely by what it's about.

Update 10/15/04: Trent Walters is far better read than I when it comes to Bruce Boston, so please be sure to see his generous and thoughtful response to my post here. Though Trent says at times I make him want to stop blogging, I hope he doesn't quit before me, because he's good at keeping me honest.

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