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Goldbarth, Albert

Entry updated 29 October 2021. Tagged: Author.

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(1948-    ) US academic, collector of 1950s space toys and poet who remains outside the loose grouping of poets (see Poetry) that has dominated American sf poetry for many years; he has not, for instance, ever won a Rhysling Award, though he has received some more general recognitions, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the National Book Critics Circle award twice. His one novel, Pieces of Payne (2003) is a disjunctive Fabulation. Along with Thomas M Disch and Bryan D Dietrich – though not perhaps James Merrill because The Changing Light at Sandover (omni 1982) accesses its sf content through occult means – Goldbarth may be the most important contemporary poet in America who habitually foregrounds the use of sf topoi and tropes. Even more than Disch, many of his poems are in fact sf narratives.

From the early 1970s, in various collections beginning with Under Cover (coll 1973 chap), he has published work whose long-lined loose-seeming expansiveness seems rhetorically to express a panoptic vision, a highly energetic project to grasp the whole of things. Less successful poems can be shambolic, though Original Light: New and Selected Poems 1973-1983 (coll 1983) is an astute selection from his earlier work. Much of the material assembled in Marriage, and Other Science Fiction (coll 1994), Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems 1972-2007 (coll 2007) and To Be Read in 500 Years: Poems (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2009) more successfully matches form to grasp. Goldbarth's central technique is similar to a central characteristic of the workings of Fantastika in general: that although figures of speech may of course flower, at the heart of his work there is nothing – no Spaceship, no Time Travel – that is not meant literally. In his work, sf topoi are not metaphors of the human condition; they comprise the human condition, seen slantwise. A good example may be the title poem (Spring 1993 The Paris Review) of Marriage, and Other Science Fiction, in which a time traveller concludes his observations of twentieth-century marriage:

... he thinks this is the age
when people "worked at" marriage ...
tries to remember: did they tell time by notched bones?
or by monitoring their protein-code mutation? or the cesium atom?
No, no – now he remembers this age.
A "watch", they called it: two hands held a face.


Albert Goldbarth

born Chicago, Illinois: 31 January 1948

works (selected)




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