When someone writes as much as I do on as many subjects as I do, the impression is bound to arise that I know everything. Not so. I freely admit to areas of ignorance and incomprehension, and one of these areas is that of modern poetry.
Nevertheless, I am bound, by my own understanding of my job as editorial essayist, to discuss every facet of the science fiaion field at one time or another, and we do publish occasional poetry. Not much poetry, to be sure, but then no one willingly publishes much poetry these days.So I'll give my thoughts on the matter, asking you to remember my admitted lack of expertise.
Why do we publish poetry? Why not?
Surely science fictional themes and emotions can be expressed in poetic form now and then. Consider, for instance, the most remarkable example of science fiction poetry (in my opinion) that has ever been written. It was published in 1842 and here it is:
For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dew
From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging through the thunder-storm;
Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furled
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world
Aerial commerce and aerial warfare (the "ghastly dew" might even be an unconscious foreshadowing of radioactive fallout) culminating in a world government are foreseen. Not bad for 1842!
The chances are you are familiar with the passage, which is a measure of its success, for it has been quoted and requoted endlessly. It is from "Locksley Hall" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Concerning its quality I have nothing to say; I am no judge. However, it scans perfectly and it rhymes, too.
Scansion, rhyme, together with other devices such as alliteration, assonance, and so on grew up in English poetry out of the needs of an illiterate society. When people can only tell a long story from memory, rhythm and rhyme are an enormous help. It is for this reason that the epic poem is as old as history, while the prose novel is a creature of modern times and a literate society.
Thanks to the rhythm and rhyme, the passage I quoted can be easily memorized and is pleasant to recite. Tennyson also supplies us with colorful phrases that are impossible to forget, once read. (The same poem contains the line "In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.")
Then, too, the content is science fictional beyond cavil. Indeed, later in the poem is a couplet that states what I might call the central dogma of science fiction, and does so in a way that, in my opinion, cannot be improved:
Not in vain the distance beckons. Forwards forward let us range;
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.
And yet all those poetic devices that make poetry quotable, however useful in an illiterate society, are irritatingly confining once the society grows literate. The poet finds that the restrictive rules of such poetry, the endless jigging alternation of stresses, the deadly repetition of final syllables and initial letters force him into saying what he wants to say in second or third best fashion, because first best won't fit. It forces him into archaisms, inversions, elisions, and other artificialities. It wears him out to no purpose.
Nowadays, therefore, rigid scansion and careful rhyme are confined, almost entirely, to light verse and to sentimental ballads. In the former case, the jigging and repetition are strong elements in the humor being sought for; in the latter case, they help the words fit the music and let the singer remember how it goes.
There's nothing essentially wrong with light verse, of course. Most of what we print is light verse, which is usually short, straightforward, comprehensible, and, often, humorous. The three contests I have set up, involving acrostic sonnets, double dactyls, and limericks, all involved light verse. In each of the three cases, the output was judged on mechanical perfection and on wit; in no case did I try to judge poetic content.
But if you take away rhyme and meter and all those other devices, what's left? Haven't you abolished poetry?
Not really. We're so used to the appurtenances, we mistake them for the real thing. It's like imagining that if males and females stripped, the first removing their shirts and pants and the latter their blouses and skirts, it would then become impossible to tell the sexes apart.
The central core of poetry is compression and combination. The trick is to say a great many things in short space by the clever use of words not only for their literal meanings, but for their fringe-shades, their connotations and associationsand by combining words in such a way that together they take on more and deeper meaning than either word would if it stood separately.
Furthermore, modern poetry seems to be largely autobiographical. That is, the poet talks chiefly about the self, its experiences and emotions, and through the poetry we can come to know the poet deeply. Whereas a long, reasoned, logical essay might, like the steady, calm light of the Sun, gloss over a person's character and show the surface only, a heartfelt piece of poetry under a hundred words long might illuminate a person's character in a flash of X rays, showing an uncertain glimpse of something not otherwise visible at all. And if we come to understand one person, the poet, more deeply than is possible in flat prose, we might, by that fact, understand ourselves and all humanity more deeply as well.
That sounds like a huge advantage to be gained by shaking oneself free of the artificial shackling of syllables-by-order, but there are disadvantages:
1) It is hard to do. Because there are no artificial rules and it is all a matter of well-chosen words in well-arranged juxtaposition, it seems to the amateur that anyone can do it. And everyone tries. The result is that most modern poetry is, I suspect, simply awful. But then we know, by Sturgeon's Law, that most of anything is simply awful.
2) It is intellectual. The meaning is not on the surface; it can't be. There isn't room on the surface, and some of the meaning has to be underneathin layers under layers if the poem is good enough and rich enough. This means that the reader must work at it and think about it and consider subsidiary meanings of words, and the association of various words in combination. It's not easy. Most people aren't equipped to do it because they don't know the language subtly enough or the poet deeply enough. Some people who are equipped to do so have other things to do and don't want to "waste their time" at the job. (In this latter category, I am afraid that I myself am included.)
3) It isn't quotable. The absence of rhythm and rhyme; the juxtaposition of words not for beauty of sound but for depth of meaningmakes the poem hard to memorize, hard to recite, and hard to listen to. While none of this diminishes the essential value of the poem, it does diminish the casual pleasure in it.
4) It isn't immediately moving. When there was talk of decommissioning the USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides") as hopelessly obsolete, a twentyone-year-old medical student, Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote a poem that began "Ay, tear her tattered ensign down" that was printed in a newspaper and that brought a lump to the throat of every reader. (It still does, at least to mine). Millions of people were moved to protest against the action, and into contributing money to save the ship. Even schoolchildren brought in their pennies. And the ship was saved. It still exists and no one would ever dream of decommissioning it. I don't know of any modern poem that could possibly achieve such a result.
Such disadvantages are important from the standpoint of a magazine such as ours, which must please its readers. We can print modern poetry if it strikes us as unusually good, but we can never expect a majority of our readers to approveso we can't do it often. We therefore stick, for the most part, to light verseold-fashioned in its structure, but easy, pleasurable, and usually eliciting a smile.
AFTERWORD: I suppose you have heard of the village idiot who found a donkey that the rest of the village had looked for in vain. When asked how he did it, the village Idiot said, "i said to myself, 'Suppose you were a donkey, where would you go?' Then I went there and there he was."
Well, when I am dealing with a subject I know nothing about, such as poetry, I say to myself, "Suppose you were a poet, what would you say?" Then I go ahead and say it. After this essay appeared, I met a woman from the neighborhood who said she taught poetry in school and had just read the above essay. I said at once (defensively), "I don't really know much about poetry." But she said, "You could have fooled me. That was a wonderful essay." I didn't really dare believe her, but I loved her for saying it.