The Space-Time Continuum: Science fiction poetry

My latest column for Freelance, the newsletter of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild


In his novel Time Enough for Love, science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein included a number of aphorisms supposedly taken from the notebooks of his centuries-old central character, Lazarus Long. One of these I have ever since taken a kind of mischievous pleasure in sharing with poets of my acquaintance: “A poet who reads his verse in public may have other nasty habits.”

You might think, Heinlein occupying such an exalted place in the science fiction pantheon, that his proclamation would be enough to keep poetry far, far away from science fiction, and science fiction writers far, far away from poetry, separated by a vast gulf like that between the stars…but in fact, science fiction poetry is a thriving literary field in its own right.

Just what is and is not science fiction poetry, however, is a matter for some debate (but then, so is just what is and is not science fiction).

Some people spread the umbrella of science fiction poetry so wide that it stretches all the way back to ancient Greece to encompass The Odyssey. Others consider science fiction poetry to be, simply, poetry with “recognizable science fiction themes” (space travel, time travel, etc.).

At the other extreme, there is a theoretical argument that science fiction poetry cannot even exist, because (if I’ve got the  argument right), our sense of the fantastic when we read prose arises from the narrative’s description of a reality different than our own. Poetry, this argument goes, does not describe any kind of reality, but is entirely self-reflexive: it’s about itself and its own images. This means, says theorist Tzvetan Todorov, that “poetry cannot be fantastic.”

But the trouble with that theoretical argument is that it is quite easy in the real world to point to poems and say, “that’s a science fiction poem.” How do you know it’s a science fiction poem? Because it was conceived, written and published as one. (It’s like Damon Knight’s definition of science fiction: “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.”)

Certainly there is a thriving community of poets who practice what they consider to be science fiction poetry. So…what kind of poems do they point it when they say, “that’s science fiction poetry?”

Poet Michael Collings, in his essay “Dialogues by Starlight,” identifies three main streams of science fiction poetry.

The first is poetry concerned with science and its influence on our world. Collings’s example is “Relative Distances: Nantucket, 12.29.85” by Robert Frazier, which he says uses “the imagery and language of astronomy to explore not only the distances of outer space but also the equally frustrating distances of inner space, of relationships between father and child in a world altering faster than each can understand and in which father and child may, in some critical sense, be farther apart than the stars they watch.”

A second stream consists of poems that attempt to bridge the gap between science fiction stories and science fiction poetry, presenting science fictional narratives in poetic form, so that the poetry enhances the effect of the narrative and vice versa.

A third stream, Collings suggests, is concerned with the relationship between SF poetry and poetry at large, and works “away from traditional forms, language, and/or content, to assert the genre’s ‘alien-ness,’ its other-ness within the community of poets.”

His primary example is “Shipwrecked on Destiny Five,” a 1986 poem by Andrew Joron that, he says, “lacking consistent rhyme, patterns, traditional meter, even conventional typography, and characterized by a constant use of traditionally non-poet (i.e., ‘scientific’) diction…recreates through texture and imagery the alienation, frustration and despair of its speaker…His work creates contexts that incorporate science, fiction, and poetry, all contributing to the final effect.”

So supposing you’re a poet, intrigued by the possibilities inherent in SF poetry. Where do you go for more information?

The Science Fiction Poetry Association, of course. You’ll find a paying market listing, a listing of upcoming SF poetry events and readings, news and more. The SFPA also presents the annual Rhysling Award for best SF poetry of the previous year. Works nominated by SFPA members for the award also appear in the annual Rhysling Anthology, a good place to start if you want to see the best SF poetry on offer.

For a fascinating discussion of SF poetry, also be sure to check out “Speculative Poetry: A Symposium,” an in-depth discussion by three poets and editors active in the field.

Inspired by my own column, let me take a stab at my own science fiction poetry:

An unpublished writer of rhyme

Travelled three hundred years back in time.

He stole from a poet

Who, unborn, didn’t know it.

Plagiarizing the future’s no crime!

Hmm. Maybe Heinlein really did have a point.

(The image is the cover of Star*Line, the SFPA newsletter.)

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