What Is This Thing Called Genre Poetry?

by F.J. Bergmann

Constellation of the Dragonfly
, Colored pencil on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, by F.J. Bergmann

First, what is genre literature? Genre is generally defined as fiction that fits into the categories of mystery, suspense/thriller, horror, romance, western, fantasy, science-fiction, and all work that falls into the interstices between them—readership of genres frequently overlap.

Partly due to the proliferation of shallow, melodramatic genre stories in the cheap pulp magazines of the 1940s and ‘50s, each of these special subcategories—science fiction in particular—became ghettoized. “Real” (mainstream) literature has subsequently attempted to distance itself from the genre taint. Genre work has long been perceived by the non-aficionado public as a “bastard stepchild of literature,” to quote a modern horror writer, Matthew Warner, in Horror Isn’t a Four-Letter Word. Books that are frankly genre, when written by respected mainstream authors, are shelved with their literary oeuvre rather than in the fantasy or science-fiction section (many of these authors, most notoriously Margaret Atwood, hastily insist that they are not writing genre), or given a more respectable-sounding classification; e.g., “magic realism” or “slipstream.” While its cultural stature may still be debatable, the marketability of genre work—especially science-fiction, or SF (think Star Wars), fantasy (Harry Potter), and paranormal romance (Buffy,Twilight)—is at an all-time high. Perhaps those who are dismayed by the current marginalization of poetry can take heart in this perceptual turnaround.

Fantasy, horror, and SF are sometimes referred to collectively as “speculative,” using the word in a special rather than general sense. A rigorous definition of speculative work invokes the visualization of beings, events, or places that do not currently exist: in the case of SF, based on technologies and discoveries that have not been developed to the extent described or that have not yet occurred; in the case of fantasy, generally based on magic, myth, or near-legendary history. Horror has one foot in the speculative world and the other in the mundane: paranormal horror (think ghost, vampire, werewolf, mind control, black magic) sits squarely in the realm of fantasy or, occasionally, SF, but serial-killer or abducted-child horror without supernatural elements does not.

A sub-subgenre, alternate history, involves adding imagined alterations to actual historical events: what if magic worked in 19th-century Britain? (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, by Susannah Clarke). What if the Black Death had killed virtually all Europeans, allowing non-Western civilizations to gain global ascendance? (The Years of Rice and Salt; Kim Stanley Robinson). What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? (The Guns of the South; Harry Turtledove). How about the Napoleonic wars, except with dragons? (Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series). A further cutting-edge variation is that of adding genre to historical works of fiction, e.g., Pride and Prejudice and Zombies . . . ah, the endless possibilities. These examples are all novels; speculative poetry, by its nature, deals with much smaller aspects of imagined worlds.

Fantasy and horror poetry antedate science-fiction poetry by centuries, if poems about what was understood to be science fact at the time of their writing are excluded from the definition of SF. One of the oldest poems in English, Beowulf, clearly dwells beneath the fantasy aegis (swordsman vs. monster? C’mon!) So do folk tales and myths, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and old ballads, folk songs, and poems too numerous to mention. Edgar Allen Poe is celebrated as the father of horror and its poetry in the U.S. But science fiction had few manifestations before Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and, even later, the novels of Jules Verne, and only came to full flower toward the middle of the twentieth century, at which point science-fiction poetry began appearing. The Science Fiction Poetry Association was created in 1978.

Poetry has had a habit of ignoring or transcending barriers that exist in other forms of literature; for example, the question of whether a poem is fiction or nonfiction, i.e., “true,” is normally never raised. By the same token, aspects of genre have long been incorporated into mainstream poetry without raising eyebrows or provoking disclaimers. Love poetry is a traditional part of mainstream poetry, although it rarely enters the rigorous constraints of artifice that define romance fiction’s deviation into genre. Mystery and suspense are far less common in poetry, though they do occur; John Hollander wrote a book of thriller/spy poems, Reflections on Espionage (with a master spy named Cupcake!), and best-selling mystery writer Martha Grimes wrote a delightful detective novella-in-verse, Send Bygraves. But science-fiction poetry is seen manifesting simply everywhere: in 2009 the august New Yorker published a wistful, blatantly science-fictional poem, The Future,” by Billy Collins, which subsequently won third place in the annual SFPA Rhysling Award competition.

Science-fiction poetry seems to be the only poetry genre with enough followers to have its own organization, although the Horror Writers Association does give an annual award for poetry. The SFPA includes not only science-fiction poetry, but also fantasy, horror, and science poetry under its starlit, ciliated parasol. Attempts have been made to group these under the term “speculative poetry,” but that nomenclature has not made much recognizable headway within the cultural lexicon. Idiosyncrasy and wrangling persist regarding the inclusion of subgenres, or what constitutes SFnal content.

Cosmic Yolk, by F.J. Bergmann

One definition of science-fiction poetry in Michael Collings' essay Dialogues by Starlight suggests that SF poetry in the purest sense is only possible when it is narrative poetry; in other words, that the inclusion of “fiction” as part of the genre name is essential. This argument is even more pertinent when applied to other types of genre poetry; e.g., mystery, which is solely defined by narrative content. Non-narrative SF poems tend to use the meager options of genre tropes as catchphrases in the absence of meaningful content, or as metaphors, which I do not consider justification for their inclusion in the genre. The mere mention of moonlight does not an astronomy poem—or an SF poem—make. The same article also presents the claim that SF poetry is defined by the perception of community membership, rather than the content of the poem, which may account for the frequent inclusion in SFPA publications and award lists of poems whose SF aspects are invisible.

The inclusion of science poetry under the SF banner appears to stem from reasoning that if science fiction is fiction about science, poetry about science is the equivalent form, which is a flawed rationale; the key point being missed is that science fiction is about imaginary science, or at least imagined, rather than actual, uses of technology. A novel about Marie Curie may well be fiction having to do with science, but it would not be considered “science fiction” (not without suggesting that Marie Curie was secretly mentored by giant lizard aliens from Fomalhaut VII, anyway). I suspect that science poems are included solely to give SF poetry the lengthy historical pedigree it would otherwise lack.

Suzette Haden Elgin, the founder of the SFPA, said, "A science fiction poem must be about a reality that is in some way different from the existing reality." The hallmark of science fiction is that its core concepts are currently not extant (although this can change rapidly—a writer whose story, published in mid-WWII, described the use of something very like an atomic bomb endured a visit from the FBI to discuss the origin of his ideas). Perhaps the root of the problem in defining SF poetics is that it is more a subset of science fiction than a school of poetry, and a conspicuous element of both SF writing and fandom has become accustomed to thinking of the borders between fantasy, science fiction, and actual science as permeable—if you actually believe in ESP, UFOs, and fairies at the bottom of the garden, it all becomes a seamless continuum, doesn't it?

Fantasy poetry—whose core concepts are based on magic rather than technology, or derived from myths or fairy tales—is in most cases presented as if it were fused at the hip with science-fiction poetry. A few journals observe more rigid distinctions; e.g., Cabinet des Feés publishes only fantasy, while Analog and the now-archived Atomjack specialize in “hard,” technology-based SF. Horror poetry, while frequently lumped with SF, is its own viable genre and penetrates others sufficiently that “dark” fantasy and science-fiction poetry are prominent subcategories.

While many contemporary poets dabble productively in sf and fantasy tropes (#24 in a recent list of popular poetry “moves”), few poets self-defined as speculative appear in mainstream lit journals, due to a tendency to consider themselves a subset of science-fiction writers rather than a subset of poets—and since science-fiction journals habitually pay poets for their work, in contrast to most literary journals, there is little incentive for SF poets to rematerialize in the world of mainstream poetry.

Wisconsin has its share of contemporary genre poets; to name a few, Robert Borski, Sandra Lindow, Mark Rich, and James P. Roberts have published widely in both science-fiction and mainstream lit journals, Michael Kriesel uses the tropes of ritual magic and the Cthulhu mythos in his award-winning poetry, and Margaret Benbow’s poems frequently enter the dark cellars of horror. Megan and Therese Arkenberg, college undergraduates, each have a long list of published fantasy and SF work; Megan is the editor of the online fantasy journal Mirror Dance. Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets president Lester Smith’s Popcorn Press recently published other familiar names in Vampyr Verse, an anthology of vampire poems, on Hallowe’en 2009. Madison hosts several science-fiction conventions; at least two of which, OdysseyCon and WisCon, host poetry readings. Beloit, Wisconsin is home to Roger Dutcher’s Magazine of Speculative Poetry, one of the oldest journals of science-fiction and fantasy poetry.

Examples of other excellent science-fiction and fantasy journals that publish poetry include Asimov’s, Dreams and Nightmares, Fear and Trembling, Goblin Fruit, Mythic Delirium, Strange Horizons, Tales of the Unanticipated, and Weird Tales. There is even a haiku journal, Scifaikuest, exclusively for science-fiction and fantasy haiku (and horrorku, as that sub-subgenre is known in the trade).

I avidly read science fiction and fantasy for decades before I began writing poetry, but did not regularly incorporate SF themes into my poems until a few years ago. I enjoy speculative poetry because, unlike reality, it has no limits at all, excepting only those of the poet’s willingness to explore what does not—or cannot—exist. Anything that can be imagined can be portrayed on the page. Of course being able to relate a poem in some way to actual existence is necessary for its interpretation, but boundlessness of content is what I value most about science fiction, and why I spend as much time as possible in what amounts to an infinite, exciting playground for the imagination, unencumbered by the constraints of the mundane world.