On Speculative Poetry

20 07 2008

I’ve said it before, here I am saying it again.  There are about as many definitions of “speculative poetry” as there are people who read and write it.  I’ve been writing speculative poetry for over twenty years, even managing to publish some of my work now and again, so it follows that I am going to bring a certain amount of bias to the discussion.

But before I get all biased, I would like to create a framework to house my discussion.  Above all else, when I talk about speculative poetry I am referring to a specific genre of poetry that appears to have first gained popularity (if I may be so bold) some time during the early to mid 1970’s, around the time that Suzette Haden Elgin founded the Science Fiction Poetry Association (link is currently not working).  It is true–and I’ve had this pointed out to me several times–that a great deal of Edgar Allen Poe’s work could legitimately be called speculative.  Some of what I’ve read by E. E. Cummings and Emily Dickinson qualifies.  If I cared to, I could find speculative aspects of Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking.”  In much the same way that all fiction can be considered “fantasy,” all poetry has some speculative element in it.  But for the purpose of my discussion, speculative poetry is a genre of poetry that, at least in it’s early stages, was very closely linked with science fiction’s “new wave” movement of the sixties and early seventies.

What is speculative poetry?  How is it different than any other type of poetry?  These are the questions that I am asked most often, as regards this subject.  It would be easiest to simply say that it is science fiction poetry, and leave it at that.  But that would throw the burden of definition back on the person asking the question, depending on his or her knowledge of what science fiction is.  It’s a definition that really only speaks to people who read science fiction.  When I began writing this stuff back in the late seventies, I thought of it as science fiction poetry.  I often heard it referred to as science fiction poetry.  I don’t think the term “speculative,” as applied to the type of poetry that I was writing, even occurred to me until I saw it on the cover of an issue of Mark Rich and Roger Dutcher’s The Magazine of Speculative Poetry.

So before I start running my mouth about it, let’s see what some other people in the field have to say.  In an interview that I did with Elissa Malcohn, former editor of Star*Line, Ms. Malcohn begins from what I would consider to be a “fragmented” definition, in that she has moved away from the science fiction poetry definition and regards “speculative poetry” as several different poetry genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, and science.  She goes on to say that: “Such poetry often uses metaphors to engage the imagination and go beyond everyday reality. Even writing about the world around us, but using language other than what one might expect, can create a speculative poem.”

In his guidelines for submission to The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, Roger Dutcher says: What is most important to remember is that speculative poetry is a species of imaginative literature, and that it is a new species. Each poem in part defines the field as it is written.

All of these quotes, and any of a dozen similar that I could add, point us in the right direction, but they still leave us grasping, in my opinion.  It is the very nature of this genre to want to be as inclusive as possible, so it is rare that you will find someone willing to make a more definitive statement.  And for good reason.  It would be incredibly arrogant for any one of us in the speculative poetry realm to stand up and claim that we have “defined” the genre, and that others must now adhere to our definition.

So, what I’ve done is come up with my own definition of speculative poetry, for my own use, and apropos of nothing beyond that.  You may accept this definition as written, expand upon it, or ignore it completely.  For me, in order for a poem to be considered speculative, it must do two things:

  • The poem must inspire a sense of awe and/or wonder
  • The poem must portray or posit some fantastical element…either of science, or myth, or the supernatural realm, and this fantastical element should be contrasted with reality as the reader understands, or perceives it

For me, this is what I believe that speculative poetry–be it science, SF, horror, or fantasy–must accomplish in order to distinguish itself from mainstream poetry.

Further reading:

About Science Fiction Poetry, Suzette Haden Elgin

Speculative Poetry: A Symposium, Part 1 of 2, By Mike Allen, Alan DeNiro, Theodora Goss, and Matthew Cheney (ed.)

Speculative Poetry: A Symposium, Part 2 of 2, By Mike Allen, Alan DeNiro, Theodora Goss, and Matthew Cheney (ed.)

Bruce Boston, Writing Speculative Poetry: An Interview with Bruce Boston, by John Amen




One response

9 08 2010

Hello, I would like to invite you to The Poetic Voice. We are a writer’s community. You can enter contests add poetry, memoirs etc. Please join us on: http://poeticvoice.ning.com/

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