22 September 2003

Poetry at Strange Horizons

I've long had ambivalent feelings about SF poetry, primarily because so much of it that I read in Asimov's and a few other places seemed awful, completely unaware of the last century or so of poetic innovations, debates, and techniques. If the "poem" wasn't a prosey joke, it was a half-baked story idea with broken lines.

More than the quality, though, I wondered about the need. Mainstream poetry has not succumbed to the deadening of imagination which so much mainstream fiction has succumbed to. A book like Verse & Universe: Poems About Science and Mathematics is, in its own way, a collection of SF poems, many written by Big Names in poetry. They had no need to label their poems as anything other than poems.

I still think most of the best SF poetry is happening in the literary journals and is not written by writers who would ever associate themselves with a literary ghetto other than the ghetto of poetry, but there are also some good poems being written by writers who intentionally identify themselves with the world of SF.

Some of the best such poetry I've read recently is at the Strange Horizons site. From the linguistic quantum mechanics of Mike Allen's "Pulse" to the literate and quite beautiful "Quasimodo Takes the Grand Tour" by Tobias Seamon, there's a wide range of styles, themes, tones, and subject matter. This is refreshing poetry, regardless of whether you read it because you are inclined to read SF or because you are interested in poetry.

There are plenty of excellent poems lurking in the archives, too. There's "The Holes through which the Scarabs Come" by Marge Simon, which, though at times a bit heavy-handed, includes at least one marvelous stanza:
You were there at the crossing
when the song of rails announced
the thunderous entry of passing souls.
Their statues draped in vines will crumble.
Then through marble holes,
through rifts of bone, the scarabs come.
There's a long, everthing-but-the-kitchen-sink poem by John M. Ford, "Troy: The Movie" (originally published in Weird Tales). There's a fond and beautiful homage to Allen Ginsberg, "Howling with Ginsberg" by Phil Wright. There's the stunning, aching, lyrical "Gwyndion's Loss of Llew" by Ellen Kushner (originally published in 1982). One of my favorite first stanzas is that of "Shepherds in the Night" by Tracina Jackson-Adams:
We weren't expecting shepherds,
and nearly tripped over them, since
we were looking at the sky. There haven't
been sheep here for a dog's age, but shepherds
have never required sheep
to guard, just wolves
to guard them from.
And there's one of my favorite poems of one of my favorite contemporary poets, Tom Disch's "Ballade of the New God", which begins:
I have decided I'm divine.
Caligula and Nero knew
A godliness akin to mine,
But they are strictly hitherto.
They're dead, and what can dead gods do?
I'm here and now. I'm dynamite.
I'd worship me if I were you.
A new religion starts tonight.
Do we need to pigeonhole good poetry as SF poetry? I don't know, though I remain skeptical. The label may serve some purpose, may bring readers and poets together who otherwise might have missed each other. What matters, though, is the quality of the writing, the sensitivity to the language -- language first and last and in between! -- the awareness of traditions and past experiments, the celebration of imagining. All of those qualities are available at Strange Horizons, and their editors deserve praise for publishing both original and reprinted poetry of high quality.