Speculative Poetry: Past, Present, and Future
Richard H. Fay
Occasionally shoved into a dark, stuffy corner of the literary attic by its critics, speculative poetry actually possesses a heritage and current potential at least as rich and exciting as that claimed by its mainstream kin. Dealing with the fantastic as opposed to the mundane, speculative poetry travels winding roads leading to wondrous worlds, regions never traversed by mainstream verse. It mines the same creative vein as speculative fiction, using verse instead of prose to delve into the limitless depths of human imagination. With roots planted firmly in the mythic and folkloric epics and ballads of yore, and branches reaching high into the endless skies of modern fantasy, science fiction, and horror, speculative poetry is a historic and vital poetic genre.
Speculative poetry of one form or another has been with us a very long time. Ancient myths and legends presented in verse form were merely speculative poems cloaked in the shroud of belief. Even though these tales may have been accepted as fact at the time of their telling in the courts of ancient kings or before ancient hearths, their fantastic natures firmly planted them in the realm of the speculative.
One of the earliest literary works, the Ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, was also an important antecedent of all later heroic epics. Written in cuneiform on clay tablets, the poem described the incredible adventures of Gilgamesh, the King-God of Uruk. The strongest super-human that ever lived, Gilgamesh was two-thirds god and one-third human. After besting Enkidu in a furious wrestling match, Gilgamesh befriended the hairy wild man. The hero king and his hirsute companion then battled Humbaba the Terrible, the demonic guardian of the great Cedar Forest, and slew the mighty Bull of Heaven. Enkidu’s eventual death sent Gilgamesh on a futile quest for immortality. All of these elements would feel right at home nestled within the pages of a modern fantasy work.
The Ancient Greeks continued the tradition of including speculative elements in their own versified myths. Homer’s Odyssey, one of the foundational works of Western literature, recounted the tale of Odysseus’ long journey home from the Trojan War. Along the way, the Ithacan hero encountered many fantastic creatures and situations. He blinded the Cyclops Polyphemus, resisted the shape-shifting spell cast by the sorceress Circe, sought counsel from the dead, avoided the fatal allure of the Sirens’ song, navigated past the double-threat of Scylla and Charybdis, and ended up a captive of the amorous nymph Calypso. With aid from the gods, Odysseus finally made it back to Ithaca after a ten-year odyssey. All the trials and tribulation faced by Odysseus during his long voyage home influenced later journey tales.
No less imaginative than their ancient predecessors, medieval bards and balladeers wove fantastic threads into the tapestry of their own mythic, legendary, and folkloric works. In the Old English epic Beowulf, the eponymous main character battled the monstrous Grendel, Grendel’s ogress mother, and a deadly dragon. Another Old English poem, “The Dream of the Rood”, told the tale of the Crucifixion as witnessed by the tree that became the Holy Cross, an unusual viewpoint reminiscent of the inhuman perspectives found in some modern speculative verse. In the Middle English chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the enchanted Green Knight lost his head without apparent ill effect. Some medieval ballads such as “Thomas Rhymer”, “The Unquiet Grave”, and “The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea” drew on supernatural themes, featuring fairies, ghosts, dragons, and other fantastical beings and beasts.
Although the veil of belief may have slowly lifted from the Renaissance on, poets still continued to incorporate elements of the fantastic into their works. The Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser set his allegorical epic The Faerie Queene in a “Faerie Land” populated by chivalrous knights, noble ladies, deceitful witches, shape-shifting sorcerers, heroic satyrs, and terrible dragons.
At times, the great playwright and poet William Shakespeare penned scenes containing fantastical characters and situations. Some of his dramatic verse delved into the realm of fairies, witches, ghosts, and sorcerers. Shakespeare featured fair folk meddling in the love lives of mortals in his romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Scheming witches foretold the future with ominous results in Macbeth. The ghost of the murdered Danish king haunted Elsinore castle as well as the prince’s troubled mind in Hamlet. Served by the airy spirit Ariel, the sorcerer Prospero conjured up a storm in The Tempest.
A proponent of the Sturm und Drang and later Weimar Classicism movements, the German poet, novelist, playwright and natural philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe echoed folk themes about malevolent forest spirits in his poem “Der Erlkönig“. Composed in 1782, this chilling ballad followed the haunting ride of a father and his doomed son through the Erl-King’s wood. Invisible to adult eyes just like any modern bogeyman or monster-in-the-closet, the increasingly aggressive Erl-King eventually took the boy by force. At the end of the journey, the father was left holding a corpse.
Several Romantic-era poets must be included among the predecessors of modern speculative poets. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Queen Mab” may have been a revolutionary philosophical poem, but much of the imagery involving the Fairy Queen and her chariot’s flight through time and space was fantastical in nature. John Keats’ “Lamia” drew heavily from the well of ancient mythology, but also contained a drop or two of fairy folklore. The macabre and occult poems of the American Romantic writer Edgar Allan Poe could be considered the grand-sires of some of the more horror-tinged verse composed by today’s dark speculative poets.
Later Victorian and Edwardian poets also created works that contained the fantastic, poetry that could be considered speculative in nature. “Goblin Market” by the Victorian English poet Christina Rossetti told the tale of two sisters and their experience with the deliciously evil fruit of goblin men. One fell into temptation and ate their fruit, and then the other braved the goblins’ wrath to rescue her sister from a pining death. Alfred, Lord Tennyson created The Faerie Queene of his age when he penned the Arthurian cycle Idylls of the King, a work based on Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and the medieval Welsh collection of tales called the Mabinogion. Merlin’s magic and miraculous visions mingled with the chivalrous exploits of Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table within the pages of Tennyson’s masterpiece. Rudyard Kipling explored mythic and fantastical themes, often as allegories of his own experiences, in some of his poetic works such as “The Centaurs” and “Pan in Vermont”.
William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet who bridged the gap between the Victorian and the Modernist and was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival, found inspiration in Celtic myths, legends, and folklore, as well as personal mystical encounters. “The Wanderings of Oisin”, one of Yeats’ earliest works, presented the mythic story of Oisin’s adventures in the isles of Faerie as told through his dialogue with Saint Patrick. Niamh called seductively as the fair folk rode out from Knocknarea in “The Hosting of the Sidhe”. The poem’s narrator tells of his imaginative vision of a sphinx, a Buddha, and a girl who danced herself to death in “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes”.
Some well-known authors responsible for the creation and popularity of modern fantasy literature also penned fantasy poetry. Robert E. Howard, father of the sword-and-sorcery genre, wrote poems such as “Cimmeria”, a work about the gloomy homeland of Conan the Barbarian. J.R.R. Tolkien, a writer often considered to be the father of high-fantasy and one whose works sparked a resurgence of interest in fantastical literature, interspersed song and poetry throughout his wondrous prose tales. He also wrote a collection of poems, ostensibly taken from the Hobbit manuscript the Red Book of Westmarch, entitled “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”.
With the advent of science fiction as a literary genre, poets soon found ways to put the genre’s varied wondrous subjects and themes to verse. Just as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells pioneered the writing of science fiction in prose, a handful of far-sighted poets pioneered the writing of science fiction in verse. Ray Bradbury, one of the masters of the science fiction or science fantasy genre, also wrote speculative poetry. In 2008 he was named the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s latest Grand Master. Several magazines devoted to publishing science fiction in prose, such as Asimov’s, also published science fiction poetry. Some journals such as Star*Line focused on publishing poetry of a speculative nature.
In the recent past, science fiction poets, or genre poets in general, have experimented with different poetic forms. One such form adopted by speculative poets is the haiku, a minimalist poem of Japanese origin. In 1995 Tom Brink laid out the rules for scifaiku in The Scifaiku Manifesto, but science fiction haiku had been around at least since the publication of Karen Anderson’s “Six Haiku” in 1962. Speculative haiku need not be inspired by science fiction alone; they may also utilize fantasy and horror themes, with horror-themed examples often called “horrorku”. Scifaikuest, a Sam’s Dot magazine published in both print and on-line versions, specializes in the publication of scifaiku and horrorku, as well as other Japanese-inspired forms like tanka and haibun (haiku combined with a prose paragraph). All these forms continue to be a valid method of poetic expression for speculative writers, and can be a great exercise in word economy.
As ancient poetry often presented fantastical myths, legends, and lore in verse form, modern speculative poets use verse so their readers can experience wonder, weirdness, and horror. Many of today’s genre writers and poets practice the art of speculative poetry composition, including Bruce Boston, David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Kendall Evans, Deborah P. Kolodji, and Mike Allen. Many magazines and journals such as those mentioned above continue to publish works by speculative poets. Many venues, both print and on-line, offer opportunities for rising poetic talents, giving them a chance to let their imaginative voices be heard. With a potential limited only by the poet’s imagination, speculative poetry possesses the capability to grow far beyond its parent genres.
To muddy the waters just a bit, actual individual definitions of speculative poetry may vary almost as much as individual definitions of poetry in general. Some see speculative poetry in broad terms, covering all verse containing elements of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Others take a narrower view, claiming that speculative poetry is a special kind of genre verse, moving beyond the literal and into the suggestive and allusive. However you look at it, broad or narrow, speculative poetry is the poetry of the fantastic, poetry of the wondrous, poetry of the “what if?”. And such poetry should appeal to all fans of genre literature, whether they think they like poetry or not. After all, the family tree of speculative fiction has poetry at its roots.
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(“Speculative Poetry: Past, Present, and Future” originally published in the on-line version of Abandoned Towers, January 2009.)