Tuesday, April 02, 2013

SF Poetry

A guy named Paul Cook posted an essay on the Amazing website on why science fiction poetry is so awful. Amal El-Mohtar, who edits a fantasy poetry magazine, posted a reply to him on Apex. My friend Catherine Lundoff alerted me to El-Mohtar's post, which I read and liked. Then I clicked the link to Paul Cook's essay and got thoroughly pissed.

Remember that I write poetry as well prose, and I belong to workshop of poets who write science fiction and fantasy poetry. I think our best work is pretty darn fine. I don't like someone dismissing what we do.

I posted this at the Apex site:
Thank you for replying to Paul Cook. I found his essay wrong and angering, much like the literary critics who explain that science fiction is not real fiction. There are all kinds of blurry lines here. Science fiction poetry and fantastic poetry are not, it seems to me, sharply divided. Nor is SF poetry sharply divided from poetry about science. Nor is fantastic poetry sharply divided from “literary” poetry that draws on fantasy, romance and myth. I don’t know enough to carefully divide all these categories and compare them. I don’t think Cook has done the job.
But then I wanted to post on the Amazing site, home to Cook's irritating essay, and their anti-spam defense won't let me register. This meant I had a rant without a home. So I posted it on facebook.
Cook wrote: "I was inspired to write this essay because David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer decided to include a poem called “Ragnarok” by Paul Park in their Years’ Best SF 17 that was written to mimic the Icelandic Sagas. Setting aside the fact that English does not have the same kind of syntactic cadences that Icelandic does, thus dooming the poem, Park nonetheless tells a tale that could just as easily have been written out in prose in a story."

The sagas are prose, not poetry, and their syntax is pretty straightforward: subject-verb-object. Because the language is inflected, this structure can be altered for effect. If you want to emphasize the verb, move it ahead of the subject. "Struck he Thorvald in the head." Not a big deal. You can do it easily in English. I use these sentence structures fairly often in my fiction. "Then came fall, when the days shortened and the sheep were gathered in, then winter, dark and long."

I don't know what Cook is talking about here. If Park were imitating the sagas, he would be writing prose. My best bet is he is imitating Eddic poetry, if he is imitating anything, though the stanza Cook quotes does not sound much like Eddic poetry. I'd have to read the entire poem to be sure. I'm not sure what a syntactic cadence is.

Eddic poetry has more tangled sentences than saga prose, but it's not really bad. You can figure it out, unlike skaldic poetry, which is crazy. And it has cadences, if this means that it has a meter. However, the marked stresses and alliteration of the Eddic line can be reproduced in English. People do it when they translate the Poetic Eddas -- or Beowulf -- into modern English.

The short form is: I don't know what Cook is talking about on a topic that I know a little. I suspect I would find other problems with the essay, if I looked at it more closely. But maybe I am simply crabby.


Blogger Jordan179 said...

There is a very strong prejudice in the mainstream literary world of today against plot-driven fiction. I would imagine that this translates in poetry into a prejudice against epic forms. This prejudice explains in part why the mainstream literary world has disappeared into a cave of navel-gazing and navel lint analysis, and I suspect it has more than a little to do with why mainstream poetry has become utterly irrelevant.

Consider the fact that, a century and more ago, people excitedly read new books of poetry. Popular poetry existed.

The most important form of poetry today is song lyrics, though the literary poetic world scorns them. But think about this with your status filters turned off -- what form of poetry is actually read, re-reread, and heard by hundreds of millions?

It sure as heck isn't mainstream literary poetry!

7:41 AM  
Blogger FJBergmann said...

Note that shortly after Cook's ill-thought-out essay appeared, I posted a rebuttal on the blog itself, at http://amazingstoriesmag.com/2013/02/a-broader-view-of-science-fiction-poetry/

6:08 AM  
Blogger Eleanor said...

To F. J. Bergmann: I will read your comment. You were able to get through the spam filter that utterly stopped me.

8:09 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've long since gotten tired of responding to people who want to attack speculative poetry using the same broken-record cliches that prove they haven't actually read enough of it to know what they're talking about -- Cook's smug pride in his own ignorance still ended up inspiring me. I'm glad Apex gave Amal a platform to set the record straight.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

For some reason Blogger signed me in as "unknown." But I'm Mike Allen, and I approve the previous comment.

8:25 AM  

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