About Science Fiction Poetry

Suzette Haden Elgin

Talk about your passionate controversies: science fiction poetry is one of the worst. There's the problem of how you define something as a poem in the first place, let alone defining science fiction poetry as a subgenre of poetry at large. (We'll come back to that in a minute.) The big question, assuming you have the definitions nailed down, is this one: Is a great poem as valuable a literary item as a great short story, or a great novel or a great movie? Is it worth as much to the world?

In theory, the answer has to be yes, and no question about it. In practice, however, that would mean that someone who wrote a great science fiction poem would have the same status, and qualify for all the same perks, as someone who wrote Canticle for Leibowitz or [insert the title of any sf short story or sf novel or sf movie you consider great]. At which point a whirlwind of protest comes roaring out of the world's corners, carrying with it objections that we can summarize roughly like this: "Now, wait just a cottonpicking minute! In the first place, there aren't any great sf poems, and even if there were, nobody's going to read them! Certainly nobody's going to pay anything for them! And in the second and third place, it's not fair! It takes maybe fifteen minutes to type a poem; do you have any idea how long it takes to type a novel???"

It's a sad old story, yes, and this isn't the place to tell it yet again. Suffice it to say that it was because it was so sad a story that I founded the Science Fiction Poetry Association, so that there would at least be somewhere on this earth where the handful of people interested in the subject could get in touch with one another and share their thoughts — and their poems.

The definition thing is a monstrous barrier. Whole shelves of books exist on "how to define poetry"; let's just wave a magic wand, the way we're forever waving the fabled universal translator. (And for the same purpose: to let us get on with things.) Let's assume someone has defined "a poem" adequately. How, then, could we define a science fiction poem? Suppose I write: "The stars of Venus/ shone down between us." Is that a science fiction poem? Well, why not? How would you exclude it? I'd be willing to accept your judgment that's it's a very bad whatever-it-is, but I defy you to find any way to prove that it's not a science fiction poem.

It seemed to me that the field of sf poetry badly needed rigor (the quality that makes hard sf hard), so that there'd be a way to stand up and argue for its literary value. People look at Picasso's abstract paintings and object that their six-year-old child could do that — but Picasso could put a pencil on a sheet of paper and draw a magnificently realistic horse (or anything else you asked him for) as a single line, without ever lifting the pencil from the paper. That's rigor. Because he could do that if he chose, he could also break all the rules if he chose; that's fair. I wanted sf poetry first to prove that it could do the thing rigorously; after that, if it wanted to fly off into the never-nevers, it would at least be possible to point to the body of rigorous work and say, "When sf poets choose to, they can write like this; they've proved that, and now they have the right to break the rules." So I assumed "poem" as defined, and proposed that an sf poem was one that had two parts: a science part, and a fiction — narrative — part. Like most grandiose projects, mine didn't go far; the sf poets shouted me down in short order. But I still think it was, and is, worth a try.

I'm going to wind this up with two poems — a short one and a long one, to allow for your tolerances — written with the intention that they should meet my proposed definition, so that you can see what I had in mind. Whether they're good or bad poems isn't relevant, although I hope they're competently done; I'll leave that judgment to you. Both have science; both have fiction.

Here's the short example.....

Brochure From the Intensive Care Ward: 2081

"Emerson has written that the poet is the only true doctor. I believe him, for the poet, lacking the impediment of speech with which the rest of us are afflicted, gazes, records, diagnoses, and prophesies."

— Richard Selzer; Mortal Lessons, page 16

You will be pleased to know:

Today we have therapists to provide
the blessed impediment — the tongue, tied,
the nerves laced decently, and laced inside.

Today we find them early, diapered, nested,
before their brains are hopelessly infested
with images; today, they can be tested,

the diagnosis made, the remedy applied
before the poison spreads. Our pride is justified —
poetry was a slow and agonizing suicide.

No more those gouts of wet and living rose.
Now we apply the tourniquet of prose
and staunch the torturing truth before it flows.

And here's the long one......

Psalm To a Higher Power

"Come in the kitchen, toss the newspaper on the table, and what's there to see? A great mob of tiny creatures fleeing for their lives. ... Here on the kitchen table they're flailing and twisting and desperately trying to make it to the far side."

—David Bodanis, writing of household bacteria on page 20 of The Secret House.

Holy One,
You of the sacred mathematics:
I think we all forget.
I think that when we say "a Higher Power"
we have entirely forgotten what that means.
What are we, You asked someone once,
that You should be mindful of us?
And that is just the point.
The problem is one of order and degree;
the problem is scope.

I arise in the morning and lift mine eyes
and brush my teeth.
In the dark caverns of my mouth the tiny ones —
who have done NO wrong —
writhe, and fall, and die by the hundreds of thousands.
Suddenly, out of the mists of an ebony morning,
they are trapped on the killing fields whose crop is words.
And they die in their innocence,
in an instant,
dead by the harsh stiff bristle and the scented foam.

Holy One:
I will tell You the terrible truth, just this once.
It's not that I have given it careful thought.
I have not sat down and considered the plight of bacteria.
I am not like Churchill agonizing over Coventry,
measuring the doomed few against the many I might save.
I am not like Descartes, kicking pregnant dogs,
certain to his bones that they did not mind,
could not mind, had no mind.
I have not solemnly concluded,
based on solid research,
that bacteria

are without conscious awareness
feel no pain
have no objection to being slaughtered
could care less

It's not like that.

I have not weighed their welfare against my own or others',
trying to square myself.
I have not thought with grave regret
that my children depend on me,
and that I cannnot earn our living with a fetid mouth.
It's not like that.

Though I would raise those pointed excuses readily enough,
if I were called to account,
the truth is: Bacteria are so very unlike me,
by so many orders of meaningful magnitude...

Holy One: I never think of them at all.
What are they, that I should be mindful of them?

Well, they are life; for all I know, they have plans.
But I slaughter them endlessly.

Pouring antiseptics onto wounds.
Pouring ammonia out of plastic bottles.
Pouring chlorine into pools of water.

I rain down death,
and I am not mindful!
I am not mindful, Holy One, at all.

There is a bacterium the color of melted butter,
under the microscope,
stunned and limp in the maw of a great blue molecule
that can only be sicced upon it by prescription.
I look at the gory photograph by chance,
as it caught my attention
— I was just passing by — I feel compassion.
(I am reminded, eyeless though it is, of the baby seals.)
What plaints it raises, and to what power, I will never know;
but I cannot keep from thinking: "Poor little thing!"

We stand under the sky and we shake our fists.
We demand to know why You have forsaken us.
We flatter ourselves.

Holy One:
Do You ever think (perhaps of Somalia or the Sahel
or of the South Bronx):
"Poor little thing!"???

Holy One:
Be mindful.
We are flailing and twisting
and desperately trying to make it
to the far side.