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Entry updated 23 May 2022. Tagged: Theme.


As science fiction does best when it is told, it may be unsurprising that the past century or so, a period not markedly friendly to narrative verse, has seen no efflorescence of good sf story poems. There are all the same a number of them, though they are hugely less frequent than examples of lyric sf poetry – short poems in which sf tropes and topoi regularly found to uncover the state of mind of the poet – few of which rank very high in the literatures of the West. This is evidently the case even when specifically sf ingredients are seen against, or swallowed into, the larger arena of Fantastika as a whole, where a wider range of accomplishment can certainly be detected; but the full theoretical range of poems that may be deemed fantastika is beyond the proper remit of this encyclopedia. Strict lines are, however, impossible to draw. As with Theatre and opera (see Music), the fantastic is so suffusive and penetrative in poetry as a whole that any attempt to make colourable distinctions between the "real" or realistic and the "imagined" seems otiose. So the range of examples cited here is wide, and the limiting boundaries are fuzzy. Nor do the practical constraints of this encyclopedia permit any significant analysis of the nature of poetry composed before prose fiction became a recognized medium, around the beginning of the Common Era. Homer's "poetry" addresses anyone with ears; Edmund Spenser's addresses a specific audience. De Rerum Natura (circa 60 BCE) of Lucretius (99-circa 55 BCE; various translations), whose speculations about the nature of things are fundamental to the literature of the West, does not depend on the distinction of having been composed in verse. On the other hand, the vatic intensity of Nostradamus's The Prophecies (complete edition 1568; best trans Richard Sieburth 2012) significantly depends on the quatrain format in which they were laid down, all executed (it should be noted) with considerable poetic craft.

Some Proto SF Satires, like "The Elephant in the Moon" (written 1676; in Poems 1779) by Samuel Butler (1613-1680), did occasionally appear, though any sf-like elements tended to be burdened to near invisibility by the weight of their assaults on the contemporary world. As we approach the nineteenth century, however, by which time prose and poetry have long been actively differentiated, speculative narratives in verse point to themselves. A consciousness that couching a "significant" narrative in verse adds to its cultural gravitas permeates both versions of Joel Barlow's The Vision of Columbus (1787; exp vt The Columbiad 1807), the second version of which climaxes in the founding of a World State. A foregrounded presentation does seem clearly to give profile to Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden (1791) (see his entry for various iterations) or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (in Lyrical Ballads 1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), a Fantastic Voyage whose metaphysical sublime seems easier to voice in stanzas, though Louis Claude de Saint-Martin's The Crocodile; Or, the War Between Good and Evil (1799) intriguingly mixes erratically arcane Cosmology and the Near Future. Lord Byron's "Darkness" (1816), as argued in his entry, seems adumbrative of the Scientific Romance, half vision, half narrative; it would not soon be followed, however, by work of substance in short forms. Percy Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts (as coll 1820), is an early example in English of the closet drama, a lyrical play in verse meant to be read not performed, and exceedingly difficult generically to distinguish from a long work in verse with dialogue, like (for instance) W H Auden's The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1947), which he describes as a poem.

But narrations do remain uncommon: they include Edgar Allan Poe's highly self-conscious prose-poem Eureka: A Prose Poem: (An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe) (1848 chap); the Matter of Britain epic Idylls of the King 1859) and sequels by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892); The Tragedy of Man (1862; best translation George Szirtes 1988), a vast Cosmological epic by the Hungarian Imre Madách (1823-1864); James Thomson's "The City of Dreadful Night" (1874 National Reformer as by Bysshe Vanolis; in The City of Dreadful Night and Other Poems (coll 1880); Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark (1876 chap), a quest narrative that, although "nonsense", subtends much modern sf. Nonsense poetry, as understood in a searching compendium like Hugh Haughton's The Chatto Book of Nonsense Poetry (anth 1988), comes into its own around the middle of the nineteenth century, and soon incorporates Surrealist and Futurist work; in nonsense, as Haughton presents it, can be found deep roots from which much of the transgressiveness of the modern poetry of fantastika takes sustenance.

After 1900 or so – as sf or sf-like narratives were becoming somewhat more distinguishable from Fantastika as a whole – it gradually became easier to encounter tales whose adherence to sf tropes and topoi was modestly firm, though The Dynasts (1904-1908 3vols) by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), a vast closet drama, violates any safe restrictions as to content, and though the example of Charles M Doughty strikes a warning note. His The Dawn in Britain (1907 6vols) is a Matter of Britain epic, but The Cliffs (1909) and The Clouds (1912) are genuine Near Future Invasion tales, though Doughty himself might not have been able to articulate what the difference was in generic terms. Narrative poems of the fantastic have never become frequent, but a variety of examples, increasingly sophisticated in their articulation and admixture of genre elements, can be cited. These include C S Lewis's Dymer (1926); W B Drayton Henderson's The New Argonautica (1928); W J Turner's Miss America: Altiora in the Sierra Nevada (1930 chap) and others; J B Morton's 1933 And Still Going Wrong (1932); W H Auden's The Dance of Death (1933 chap) – for The Age of Anxiety (1947) see above; Gerald Bullett's The Bubble (1934 chap); X at Oberammergau (1935 chap) by Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940), in which the reborn Christ is murdered by Nazis; David Jones's In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathemata (1952); Josephine Young Case's At Midnight on the 31st of March (1938); The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1938; trans Kimon Friar 1958) by Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957); Charles Williams's Taliessin Through Ogres (1938) and its sequels; Finnegans Wake (1939) by James Joyce (1882-1941), a novel-cum-prose poem which, had it been set in verse, could easily have been understood as a central triumph of twentieth century narrative poetry; Alfred Noyes's If Judgment Comes (1941 chap); The Traveller (1946 chap), a heavily metaphysical Fantastic Voyage by Walter de la Mare (1873-1956); Robert Hillyer's The Death of Captain Nemo (1949 chap); Osbert Sitwell's Demos the Emperor (1949 chap); Canto General (1950; full trans Jack Schmitt 1991) by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), a myth of origin extending at points into the future; Martyn Skinner's multi-volume sf epic The Return of Author beginning with Merlin (1951 chap) and others; Harry Martinson's Aniara (1956; trans by Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley 1963); Ko, or a Season on Earth (1960) and The Duplications (1977) by Kenneth Koch (1925-2002); Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel (1962 Contact; 1963) by Evan S Connell, Jr (1924-2013), a barely conjugated but moving vision of human beings in the grip of Evolution past and future; Lucius Shepard's Cantata of Death, Weakmind & Generation (1967 chap); George Mackay Brown's Fishermen with Ploughs (1971); Godfrey Turton's The Moon Dies (1972; chap); John Gardner's Jason and Medeia (1973); Anthony Burgess's Moses (1976); James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover (1982); William Kotzwinkle's Great World Circus (1983) and Seduction in Berlin (1985); Castle Tzingal (1984 chap) by Fred Chappell, a sequential portrayal of grotesques inhabiting the eponymous Keep, as narrated by a homunculus; Frederick Turner's The New World: An Epic Poem (1985), Genesis: An Epic Poem (1988) and the savage Apocalypse (2016); Frederick Pollack's The Adventure (1986) and Happiness (1998); Jane Wagner's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1986); Philip Gross's The Air Mines of Mistila (1988 chap) with Sylvia Kantaris (1936-    ); Peter Porter's Mars (coll of linked poems 1988 chap); Omeros (1990) by Derek Walcott (1930-2017), which replays Homer for the twentieth century; the Geryon sequence comprising Autobiography of Red (1998) and Red Doc> (2013) by Anne Carson (1950-    ); Gwyneth Lewis's Zero Gravity (1998) and A Hospital Odyssey (2010); Girls on the Run (1999 chap) by John Ashbery (1927-2017) (see Henry Darger); Losing It (2001) by Ranjit Bold (1959-    ); Christoph Ransmayr's Der fliegende Berg (2006; trans Simon Pare as The Flying Mountain 2018); Bryan D Dietrich's Prime Directive (2011); Nick Drake's The Farewell Glacier (2012 chap), Oliver Langmead's Dark Star (2015); The Half-God of Rainfall (2019 chap) by Inua Ellams (1984-    ); Jason Guriel's Forgotten Work (2020); Double Trio (2021), which climaxes many years of complex interwoven work, much of it nonfantastic, by Nathaniel Mackey (1947-    ); Harry Josephine Giles's Deep Wheel Orkney (2021); Orlam (2022) by the singer-songwriter PJ Harvey (1969-    ), which inhabits the water margins of Fantastika, but with no sf elements, as does Poguemahone (2022) by Patrick McCabe (1955-    ); Zoe Gilbert's Mischief Acts (2022); and others.

Long narrative poems form a distinctive and easily recognizable presentation of Fantastika (within which nestles sf poetry); short-form poetry was for many years, on the other hand, difficult to recognize within the enormous mass of written and published poetry; much of this material has often been incorporated without signalling genre markers in the work of authors, many of whom engage in fantastika without being set off as being of that ilk, a good example being Stephen Vincent Benét, whose thematically linked Nightmares and Visitants poems, most of them sf, were mostly published in journals like The New Yorker during the 1930s. Certainly before about 1965 – although much earlier Clark Ashton Smith had published The Star Treader and Other Poems (coll 1912), Leland S Copeland had collected his Astronomy-themed verses in Whimsical Rimes, Made by Leland S. Copeland (coll 1921), subsequently appearing in Hugo Gernsback's magazines, and Lilith Lorraine had published Wine of Wonder (coll 1951 chap), which she advertised as being the first volume of poetry devoted to sf – only isolated examples of sf poetry recognized as such appeared in such magazines as Unknown and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. From that point poetry began to appear regularly in SF Magazines, anthologies and author collections, perhaps most notably in the 1960s New Worlds and the New-Wave writers in the UK associated with the journal, one classic poem published during this period being "The Head-Rape" (March 1968 New Worlds) by D M Thomas. In 1969 Edward Lucie-Smith anthologized this and other excellent poems like Edwin Morgan's "In Sobieski's Shield" and Thomas M Disch's "A Vacation on Earth" in Holding Your Eight Hands (anth 1969), the first anthology of sf (as distinguished from fantasy) poetry, followed closely by two other all-poetry anthologies, Frontier of Going (anth 1969) edited by John Fairfax, and Inside Outer Space (anth 1970) edited by Robert Vas Dias. These were not so much autonomous sf as celebrations of Space Flight and the Universe inspired by the Soviet/US space race and the unique lexicon of terms, and dreams, which it engendered. A further anthology in Fanzine form was The Purple Hours (anth 1974 chap) edited by Lisa Conesa (whom see for contributors).

From the perspective of this encyclopedia, the short-form poetry which began to proliferate significantly around 1970 can be very loosely broken into four assorted types: (1) Genre SF, as in Susan Palwick's "The Neighbor's Wife" (July 1985 Amazing), in which a widowed man nurses a very Alien woman to health and accepts her for a wife; (2) speculative poetry, a catchall term for poems not quite sf but describable as Fantastika, as in Joe Haldeman's almost otherworldly vision of Vietnam in "DX" (in In the Field of Fire, anth 1987, ed Jeanne Van Buren Dann & Jack M Dann) or the surreal poetry of Ivan Argüelles (1939-    ); (3) fantasy and the macabre, an omnium-gatherum designation for works sometimes beyond our purview, but including some examples like Henry Treece's The Magic Wood (in The Black Seasons coll 1945 chap; 1992 chap), or Lucius Shepard's "White Trains" (Spring 1987 Night Cry) (Rhysling winner), about mirage-like trains that pass certain towns on the outskirts of their private mythologies; and (4) science fact, as in "Saturn" from The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (1976) by Diane Ackerman (1948-    ), a long work often quoted by Carl Sagan in his science books.

Other classic works that more or less inhabit these four categories include: "The Sonic Flowerfall of Primes" (September 1979 New Worlds) and "Antenna" (in Synergy 4, anth 1989, ed George Zebrowski) by Andrew Joron, with their hard-science surrealism; "The Nightmare Collector" (Spring 1987 Night Cry) by Bruce Boston; "The Well of Baln" (in Hard Words & Other Poems, coll 1981) by Ursula K Le Guin; "Corruption of Metals" (in 2076: The American Tricentennial, anth 1977, ed Edward Bryant) by Sonya Dorman; "Two Sonnets" (1983 Science) by Helen Ehrlich; "Your Time and You" (1982 Velocities) by Adam Cornford; "The Still Point" (April 1984 Asimov's) by David Lunde; "Ybba" (1983 Star*Line) by Elissa Malcohn; "Lady Faustus" (1982 Umbral) by Diane Ackerman; and the World Fantasy Award-winning "Winter Solstice, Camelot Station" by John M Ford (in Invitation to Camelot, anth 1988, ed Parke Godwin). Many of these works are anthologized in The Umbral Anthology (anth 1982) edited by Steve Rasnic Tem (1950-    ), Millea Kenin's Aliens & Lovers (anth 1983), Robert Frazier's Burning with a Vision (anth 1984) and Songs of Unsung Worlds (anth 1985) edited by Bonnie Gordon.

Within the general frame suggested by the typology described above, the Rhysling Award for best sf poetry was instituted in 1978, as well as a parent association, the Science Fiction Poetry Association, both founded by Suzette Haden Elgin. Over and above some of those already cited, poets early associated with Rhysling, and best known through that association, include in the USA Duane Ackerson (1942-2020), Bruce Boston, Peter Dillingham, Sonya Dorman, Robert Frazier, Terry A Garey, Andrew Joron, Judith Kerman, Kathy Rantala and Gene Van Troyer (1950-2009), as well as the UK's Andrew Darlington and Steve Sneyd. Established sf writers were now increasingly publishing a good deal of poetry, much of it amenable to the Rhysling ethos, and including work by Brian W Aldiss, Poul Anderson, Michael Bishop, James Blish, Ray Bradbury, John Brunner, Tom Disch, Neil Gaiman, Phyllis Gotlieb, Alasdair Gray, Joe Haldeman, Russell Hoban, R A Lafferty; Geoffrey A Landis, Ursula K Le Guin, Patrick O'Leary, Tim Pratt, Bill Ransom, Peter Straub, James Tiptree Jr (posthumously), Sarah Tolmie, Catherynne M Valente, Gene Wolfe, Jane Yolen and others.

More encompassingly, and conspicuously not intimate with the Rhysling world, was a trilogy of otherwise unconnected poets: Albert Goldbarth, author of many volumes over half a century focused on sf; James Merrill, a central figure in the American canon; and Edwin Morgan, whose sf poetry is perhaps the twentieth century's most significant. They stand at the forefront of an exceedingly large cohort of poets, of sf and fantastika in general, who are not very directly associated with genre concerns; a short sample of these (not mentioning again authors of long narrative poems, for whom see above) might include Dick Allen (1939-    ), Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Dehn, Bob Dylan (1941-    ), Marilyn Hacker, Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016), Ted Hughes, Denis Johnson, Don Paterson (1963-    ), Marge Piercy, Frederick Seidel, Iain Sinclair, William Stafford (1976-    ), Tom Whalen (1948-   ) and Heathcote Williams.

During this time, many magazines started to feature the growing genre on a regular basis. Night Cry used horror poetry, while the science magazine Science prominently featured one factual poem per issue. Amazing Stories and Asimov's Science Fiction have often used two or more poems an issue. Asimov's featured excellent sf poetry, like the Rhysling Award winners "The Migration of Darkness" (August 1979 Asimov's) by Peter Payack and "For Spacers Snarled in the Hair of Comets" (April 1984 Asimov's) by Bruce Boston; while literary magazines like Speculative Poetry Review, Velocities, Uranus, Ice River, Umbral, Star*Line, The Magazine of Speculative Poetry and the UK's Star Wine devoted themselves to fantastic poetry of all kinds.

Several anthologies of mostly original poetry made impressions around the cusp of the 1990s: the award-winning Poly: New Speculative Writing (anth 1989) edited by Lee Ballentine (1954-    ), Narcopolis & Other Poems (anth 1989 chap) edited by Peggy Nadramia and Time Frames (anth 1991) edited by Terry A Garey; a few years later, the similar Uncommon Places: Poems of the Fantastic (anth 2000) appeared, edited by Judith Kerman and Don Riggs's. Star*Line (1978-current) – the official publication of the Science Fiction Poetry Association – and Dreams & Nightmares (1986-current) continue as strong poetry magazines; The Magazine of Speculative Poetry (1984-2013) survived for many years.

And a large wave of fresh poets emerged in the 1990s and the new century who were significantly engaged in sf, though increasing numbers of poets not conspicuously so engaged have written sf works over the past decades. A very short list of the former would include Beth Cato, Michael R Collings, Tony Daniel, Denise Dumars (1956-    ), Roger Dutcher, Jorie Graham (1950-    ), most notably for Runaway (coll 2020 chap), David Kopaska-Merkel (1957-    ), Sandra Lindow (1949-    ), Terry McGarry (1962-    ), Wendy Rathbone (1960-    ), Wayne Allen Sallee (1959-    ), Ann K Schwader (1960-    ), W Gregory Stewart (1950-    ), Tom Wiloch and t (not T) Winter-Damon (1949-2008). [JC/RF/DRL]

see also: Ace G Pilkington; Ruins and Futurity; Slingshot Ending; Frederick Winsor.

further reading


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