Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Sunday, November 18, 2018

On a "Tribute to Speculative Poetry" in Rattle, Number 38

One may well ask why one should review in 2018 a magazine released in Winter 2012. Unlike magazines largely available only in university libraries or private collections, however, Rattle makes past issues available on-line, so that the 2012 issue may be read at no cost save the electrical. More to the point, however, it had been bothering me, during my lengthy near-silence as a writer, that I had not responded in some way to that particular issue's "Tribute to Speculative Poetry."

I feel that I may fairly offer comments since my only input into the "tribute" came at its call for manuscripts for a special "science fiction poetry" section. I wrote to editor Timothy Green urging a term-change. As I recall I wrote but a short note without lengthy reasoning. I never submitted a poem. Had the initial call gone out for speculative poetry I might have felt obliged to do so. That the call was for "science fiction poetry" left me feeling obliged to ignore it.

Rattle has taken to running theme sections constantly; and these have come to seem to me "too much of a muchness," to use a wonderful phrase favored by an old professorial friend. When I received this Winter 2012 "tribute," with the speculative label slapped on, I felt a certain dread, and then, when reading it, a bit turned off, put off, and, unfortunately, bored. Reading it again this year I have made it a point to read all the issue's poems at least twice, due to having felt in 2012 that the only speculative poem in the issue appeared outside the tribute section. I must have been thinking of Kenny Williams's "The Return," which has entertaining natter but seems at heart a jazzlike riffing on denial, a voyage into a vacancy of meaning. Its conceit involves a far-future return to Earth, framed in language that should engage most listeners.

The tendency to make cleverness be a poem's point does turn many attempts at poetry into page arrays of words that easily can be read as "speculative" — as with Michael Meyerhofer's "Pasteurization," in this issue but not in the tribute, or John Lane's "The Poetic States of America," within the tribute. In such cleverness the verbal intellect rules. Richard Krohn's non-tribute poem "Pancakes," for instance, offers the associational chain that some poets enjoy taking to the level of absurdity, often to good effect. The absurd did play its role in speculative poetry's rise, without becoming necessary to its flourishing: for the impulse tends to favor a disregard for sense more than it does the reshaping of sense that may lead toward an altered view on existence.

I think that, rather than outward cleverness, the speculative poem must rely on wit as it does on wits. Wit reflects a deeper mental movement toward realization — toward a mental rapture, in large or small. We live in a world that largely goes along forgetful about wit — a world that keeps itself attuned to the current cleverness, which so often is a device, an automation. This situation should make it, you might think, a premium occupation to be a speculative poet, who is unavoidably devoted to the wits as muses, witty for a time after having burned candles at the proper shrines, and weak-kneed and immolated by the thought that society would like to force upon us all death by cleverness. A ruling society thrives by keeping us well out of our wits, and well into our emotions.

In my current readings in Rattle 38, Conrad Geller's "The Destination" has emerged as the highlight in the "tribute" and perhaps the issue. It reflects memory and desire meshing, in language that removes the listener from immediacy. It suggests motion away from this-worldliness. A particular reason to like it lies in that it has not shed its lyricism, it being loosely iambic, with one line breaking from blank-verse ("other January nights ablaze with stars"). In line-count a sonnet, it achieves sonnet-closure through its combined internal and ending slant rhymes.

In the vague luminosity it has, the poem moves beyond the realm reached by, for instance, a sonnet trio in the issue, Anna Evans's "Zeitgeber," concerned with a woman's courtyard garden and her dementia: quite fine as a sequence; quite this-worldly in its reaching. Conrad Geller's added quality might be the "glow/ you can't quite touch" — as the prosaic language cannot, in John Philip Johnson's "Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town," even though that poem contains that line. I do wonder if it can ever be an issue, whether or not one can touch a glow. Johnson's poem, in the "tribute," may be the most unshakably speculative poem in the issue. Despite its prosaic, talky language (for what could be more prosaic and talky than, "It's creepy/ because it's so bland"?) I think it fair to call it a poem. In the speculative poem a music besides the music of words exists. The music of the idea, if lovely enough, carries the prosaic into the poetic. It has long seemed to me, moreover, that some notions, to reach the listener, must appear in prosaic guise almost of necessity — which suggests why open-form flat verse so strongly dominates in speculative poetry, and why the "prose poem" seems so congenial a quasi-form. In Johnson's poem, unfortunately, the idea will come across as music mainly to those too young to know that the endless staircases must be endless in number, in imaginative writing. Lacking both music of idea and of word does tend to leave a poem seeming broken prose, however skillfully executed. This poem's ending, with that mentioned glow, does nearly make up for its flatness. Had it more invoked the glow and less talked about it, it might have taken a reader farther.

It should leave me unsurprised that poets might lack historical perspective on imaginative writings. Personal, confessional, mock-emotional, and autobiographical writing has risen to so high a university-honed level in audience-pleasing excellence that it must seem silly to read older imaginative works, even if one feels inclined to write imaginatively oneself. I myself forever lack enough perspective in this area. A "tribute" poem, Laurence Snydal's "Eye in the Sky," for instance, shares its title with a 1950s science fiction novel that I have left unread. I recall reading once about how poor an effort it was; and its opening page inspired in me no turning to the next. Even so, in meeting with this poem, I doubted that the poet had read the novel — perhaps influenced by such instances as the one that occurred in the Winter 2014 Rattle, no. 46. This made it seem that it is the latest cleverness to appear to make a literary reference when one is simply exposing one's innocence of knowledge — a state worth having in Eden, perhaps, if one is unlucky enough to be there. The poem in no. 46 was Christopher McCurry's "The Man Who Was Thursday (after G.K. Chesterton)." Comfortably though it reads, the poem stands in no relation whatsoever to Chesterton's old, odd religious fantasy except in its having co-opted the name. McCurry left out from his subtitle a few words: "after (not bothering to read) G.K. Chesterton." History matters nothing to some would-be writers. Why study and consider it in a time when one simply trumps it? As so often happens, cleverness smooths over an emptiness.

To judge from an interview in the issue at hand, history seems even to be taught in erased form — insofar as here a university teacher says, "I think free verse is a form additional to metrical poetry." Any dictionary, at least any pre- or early-television dictionary, will describe free verse in a way that includes or involves the metrical. (From the 1948 American College Dictionary: "verse unhampered by fixed metrical forms, in extreme instances consisting of little more than rhythmic prose in lines of irregular length." Webster's Third: "verse whose meter is irregular in some respect or whose rhythm is not metrical.") In a Venn diagram of "writing with a sense of measure," I find it difficult to imagine that free verse's smaller circle could extend much beyond the larger one's. Blank verse's five feet constitute the constricting shackles that free verse burst and laid aside, with a glee that seems to me a little excessive: for Romantics had already loosened the tightly bound foot and often threw foot-counting and even line-counting to the restless winds. The term that has seemed best for what dominates, in our self-indulgent literary scene, is the "open form" — open for business, open to any influence, open versus closed, open to being dull or opaque in one's language — as in "open-form flat verse," the term I consider more apt. Yet obviously people are being taught about "free verse" by teachers who neglect history and logic. For if free verse does include the irregularly metrical, and also does include the "rhythmic," how can one say that it lies outside the bounds of the metrical and the rhythmic? If they mean flat verse, let them say so. Or simply "flat," since short writings so often seem verselessly that.

Even current history seems neglected, as it happens, in the "tribute." The world in which I exist contains astronauts, robots, and human-appearing automata. For Moderns these may have served as gateway tropes taking the listener from now to whenever or wherever. At present they take the listener from now to now, or from here to here. By themselves they imply continuity rather than disjunction. Similarly the poems that draw upon trademarked characters (Amorak Huey's "Rocket J. Squirrel Goes Alone to Couples Therapy" and B.J. Ward's "Wolverine the X-Man Kisses") refer explicitly to communal experience. Mannerist in nature, they borrow even the reader's character-recognition for sexual imagining — a central imaginary adventure for postmodern flatness. (The presence of such poems in the "tribute" does echo a similar mannerist tendency in genre prose.) These poems reflect a thinness in our culture. Compared to the steady and crystal-clear fantasy and violence found on comic pages and movie screens, the individual soul must be a flickering and fading-away one that should offer such borrowings as sustenance for other souls. The fact that these poems have quite positive qualities on their side — they did win placement here, after all — makes the conundrum the deeper.

In a similar vein the religious-influenced poems — "Seraph" by David Kutz-Marks and "One Possibility" by Marilee Richards, both in the "tribute" — reflect primarily consensus reality, playing upon belief structures that to participate in require little imaginative leaping, especially since religions keep hoping to have us off our toes in just these hackneyed ways. Both, as it happens, seem worthy efforts; and the Richards poem adroitly leavens its conventional nature with humor.

That such a range in poem-types should appear in this section seems only natural for a "tribute" whose editor has "let the community of writers dictate where the boundaries might be." The editor does well in his introduction, "On Speculative Poetry," by contrasting this form to poetry that is "self-oriented, pseudo-biographical, and set in something like the present reality." He then notes that old epics "might all be described by an impartial observer as 'speculative,'" and adds, "This is what we mean by 'speculative,'" — having invoking A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Faerie Queen — "a term often attributed to Robert A. Heinlein as a broader alternative to science fiction." Heinlein's coinage was "speculative fiction." Its "broader" aspect must be laid at the doorsteps of Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and Judith Merril. Green then turns to Suzette Haden Elgin for a definition of speculative poetry as "about a reality that is in some way different from the existing reality." In other words, he turns to the one person most responsible for the continuation, in the 1980s and afterwards, of that awkward 1930s flapping of ostrich wings, the term "science fiction poetry," to obtain a definition based on what The Magazine of Speculative Poetry was offering by the 1980s for the term "speculative poetry." To top this, the opening poem in the "tribute" relates a beach incident involving drinking, urinating, and the police.

Thus does "speculative poetry" appear with banners and cornets in a magazine that enjoys a high circulation, by poetry standards.

I should note, being not an impartial observer, that Homeric and other epics offered historical narrative in movement toward the mythic. In the speculative poem, as seems the case in Geller's — or as in Kirstin Berkey-Abbott's "Currencies," another fine work in the "tribute" whose theme has kinship to Geller's — the imagined scene inhabits a realm that approaches the mythic. The realm exists outside history, and outside the contemporary world picture — just barely outside the latter, in these two poems. In these, the speculative poem offers an invented motion to take the listener toward and perhaps into that realm.

Shakespeare's Midsummer, drawing from the mythic, offered its audiences a fairy tale. The Tempest as a fairy tale might have presented a happier example from the Bard, in that its early-Modern quality comes through in more pronounced fashion. In his times, fairy tales and the contemporary world picture were diverging, yet remained in touch with one another — as they would remain, in the folk mind, well into Frost's day.

Spencer, lastly, conceived visions with allegory, not false reality, in mind. Whether he was drawing more from chivalric history and myth than he was moving toward it and into it may be known to one who has read and studied farther in those pages than have I. Separations between worlds do appear, naturally, in both Tempest and Faƫrie Queene, as they do in Paradise Lost after them. They achieved their power through their converging, as narratives, with cosmological visions common to the time. The diverging from common vision, by separating the irrational from the rational and placing the former upon the landscapes to be found within the mind, constituted the innovation found first, to the best of my knowledge, in Poe.

(Completed, as with the previous essay, 13 March 2018)

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Treaders of Starlight, the 1974 Coinage, and Rebecca S. Marcus

In some ways traveling back in a life seems but the matter of a moment. Now we are here; now, there. Yet to take anyone else into paired moments of the Now and the Then becomes an exercise in drawing lines — between vagueness and precision, between the dimly possible and the clearly impossible.

I cannot help the vagueness. As to the precision, I have kept records, if incompletely, as well as copies of publications, all now scattered and hidden on shelves and in boxes. Sometimes I have kept journals, though where they might be the mouse telleth not. And I may have old correspondence, since in mythic times people wrote on paper, gave them wings of perforated postage, and had "correspondents" afar who opened envelopes to have their lives changed, in small.

At an early point in my life I became a drain on my parents' pocketbooks due to my correspondence. While stamp collecting had not yet died for me, there in the early Seventies, rejection-slip collecting was gaining its hold on my affections. I long have had the memory that my first poem appeared when I was thirteen, the age I was through most of 1972. In 1973, having been in correspondence with writers in a circle surrounding a fantasy-magazine effort named Wyrd, it came to me that I should attempt the same for a type of poetry that was as much imagination-based as was the fiction in Wyrd or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, where the classified ad appeared that had led me into the small press.

I have wondered about putting words to memories about these small-press efforts — which did result in tangible publications in 1973, 1974, and 1976. I long have avoided it. I did feel curious as to whether facts about them, meager that they are, would sift out without my help, through anyone else's sieve. Yet I think my tendency to silence and avoidance prevailed, with my curiosity being simply a blind in which I could hide myself from myself. That tendency has served me sometimes poorly — as I know all too well after the self-imposed silence following my Kornbluth biography's publication.

I dwell often, these days, on the hide-and-seek motif in Robert Frost's early poems "Going for Water" and "A Revelation," which he paired in A Boy's Will in 1913. The injunction appears in the latter that those "who hide too well away/ must speak and tell us where they are." When first I learned these lines they stood out for me since they refer, I believe, to Frost's own Symbolist instinct and practice, while offering an injunction, a homily, that easily I could take personally. Having seen too many creative people advancing their own interests with finger-cymbals and party horns, I have tended to let works speak for themselves — and to speak for me, if necessary. Yet the taciturnity in my Grandpa Kikuchi, so formidable and impressive in him, to me as a child, also made him unreachable, and perhaps unknowable. Often upon this, too, I dwell.

I needed to go back to handwritten records, just now, to write those 1973, 1974, and 1976 dates. At hand now, too, I have the first Treaders of Starlight: The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, with its October 1974 cover date. I have been meaning to set hands on a copy since late in 2015, when I learned, thanks to a conscientious instinct on her sister's part, that Rebecca S. Marcus, my co-editor for that issue, had died. Born 1958; died 2015. I know little about what life held for her after her middle-teenaged years — although the sister relayed that Rebecca did continue working on her poetry.

Apparently she taught for a time at a Christian school, where she must have done well, since she was intelligent and adept at the written word. In the brief time that I attended Gateway High School in Aurora, Colorado, she and I served as teacher's aides to our mentor-friend Mary Ella Langsford, whose name and spelling I hope I recall aright; and no doubt Becky went on and made similar work her calling. Her interest in Christianity already existed. Since my father taught the philosophy of religion and since as a family the Riches belonged to First Baptist in downtown Denver, I felt not entirely awkward in Christian territory, even though I felt less so outside it — say in the state historical society museum next-door to the church, where sometimes my mother allowed me to go that I might avoid the liturgies and sermons that droned so grayly. Rebecca and I both read C.S. Lewis; I remember the Denver pastor being surprised that I had read and enjoyed The Screwtape Letters. Yet Rebecca would dip into his nonfiction, where I delved only into his fiction. My exposures to other influences, especially the glimpses given me of Japanese Buddhist life — which in Denver seemed to maintain a cheerful influence within the Japanese community alongside the quite strong Japanese Christian life — no doubt helped me feel that a person could flourish outside the Christian churches, ever-present though they seemed to be. Somewhere early I acquired a distaste for the word god if capitalized into a name; and surely had not circumstances intervened, my impulse to look cockeyed at Christianity would have made spaces between Becky and I, however inseparable we were as companions for a time in those, our middle-teenaged years.

In looking again at her poem in Treaders, "Crowns," I learn now about another difference that existed between us, invisible to me at the time. The relevant words were but names to me. I admired in 1974 and do still today those closing lines in her poem: "The sky no longer red, but grey,/ The sea no longer surging." I had no specific influence on this poem, beyond possibly the spelling for "grey," since back then I preferred it that way, and was the typist for publication. With those lines it seems apparent to me now that the poem completes an arc that reveals its Romantic nature. In Romantic idealism the individual emerges against the backdrop of a ruined age:

Crowns and cups and silver candles,
Golden wings lofty in the dawn.
Dragons roaring fierce defiance,
Clouds of glory ascending to the sun.

Mortal rankings rise and fall,
Yet man stands upon the earth,
And throws his challenge to the skies;
Lightnings slash the crimson plain.

Once this was, but now man gazes
On asphalt, where his battlegrounds stood.
The sky no longer red, but grey,
The sea no longer surging.

The last lines ring with the plaint that "we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon." It echoes those laments for mythic powers that were there for us in Wordsworth and somewhat still with us in Frost, as, in prose, in E.M. Forster. These motifs — the sense of a vanished age, of our diminished selves, of the draining of myth — might seem strange from a teenaged poet, except that teenagers so often flare once or twice into glorious perceptiveness, with apt and canny insight, before fading into and struggling against the grays and sea-calms that the adult world forces against the maturing soul. Whether these motifs reflected movements in her own soul at that age none can probably say, if I cannot. My recollection fails as to whether she wrote the poem before we Riches left Colorado for Kansas, or after. Yet I do know that I read it gladly and thought that nothing about it was not like her; and those last lines left their impress.

It has occurred to me that the Romantic idealist's view upon Robert Frost's poems would be the common one: that he is a New England realist, as opposed to the Scottish Symbolist he might rather have had the world see him be. He left evidence as to that preference. This thought that occurs does have relevance to Treaders of Starlight, insofar as this little magazine happened to present Rebecca's Romantic idealist poem, flavored with the quasi-Medievalism of Modern fantasy, against the poems that are Symbolist expressions. Whether or not those other poets knew what they were about, their poems took that tack — such as Ron Nance's "Palingenesis" and "The Sound of Frightened Breathing," JeanPaul Jenack's "Sun Dream," Duane Ackerson's "Old Uncle Willie," and my own "We, Starlight Treaders." (Other poems beside Rebecca's express Romantic idealism, especially Walter Shedlofsky's "Ephemera" — but also Amos Salmonson's "A God of Virtues.") These works by Nance and others I specifically regarded as speculative poems, although I was willing to have the related, congenial, or simply handy-at-the-moment other poems and verses to place alongside them. Nance's "Amanacer Exit," for instance, took a personal and realist turn, as I remember he himself noted in a letter. Yet it bites at and almost swallows thoughts and images yearning toward the Symbolist leap; and I wanted to publish it, quite liking it.

It seems striking, now, that this split should occur between us, the two editors. I had suggested the magazine project, thinking it might be nice to have a reason for our keeping in touch. Since manuscripts came in the mail to Kansas, whatever passed before Rebecca's eyes had been seen first by mine; and since some contributors were my correspondents, such as Nance and Salmonson, my influence over our choices was undoubtedly too strong, while Rebecca probably too willingly heeded my preferences. Her own poem tells me now that she might have assembled the issue with a different flavor, given the chance, and had a wider range in submissions arrived than what we actually received.

Frost's poem "Revelation" may be Symbolist or, more simply, serious verse. It depends on how you read it. Yet the thought that it is a pity "if the case require ... that in the end/ we speak the literal to inspire/ the understanding of a friend" becomes striking when taken in relation to the Symbolist realm. There, the symbol reigns within its kingdom without exposing the fact that it is the king — or is not the king, if it happens in the poem to be called the king. In other words, the poem never speaks the literal. I understood this in a skewed and partial manner already as a teenager; and even though I would come to define speculative poetry in a similar way, the close kinship, and the necessary kinship, between speculative poetry and Symbolism has only become clearer to me in relatively recent years.

The poem in the speculative mode speaks from the world it inhabits, without reference to the listener's; or perhaps it assumes the listener is moving into that other world, abandoning briefly this one that is shared with other readers of the page, other listeners to the poem. I usually have used the term "consensus reality" for the realm that is slighted or ignored by the speculative poem. The Symbolist poem moves along with that same attitude, that same conceit, usually doing so nearly invisibly, so that a king may hide his symbolic true self behind the outer fact of being a merely factual king; or a leaf may pass unnoticed as a persistent, unrevealed symbol because it is what it is on the page: a leaf. The listener hears the word "leaf," and believes it to be simply that, even while being moved into a second realm. Speculative poetry takes a step just a little beyond, and some might say too much beyond, in that it aims for — in the terms I was using by the 1980s — mimesis of that which is not here in consensus reality. Mimesis of the nonexistent. Imitation of the unreal.

Perhaps from the beginning I have practiced avoidance, having some sense that whatever I had in myself to say would never quite come across to others if spoken directly. To "speak the literal" would fail me. And while I felt attracted to what was being called "science fiction poetry," to me it seemed not the thing to do, to call it such. I read Peter Dillingham's article about it, in the genre small-press zine Eternity SF, and argued with his having embraced that term. I also had Edward Lucie-Smith's anthology Holding Your Eight Hands. Being a fascinated delver into the New Worlds anthologies that somehow had become mine, I knew the term "speculative fiction" as one to apply to the works that strained old boundaries. For me, taking a like approach to poetry only made sense.

At this point I regretted having announced the Treaders title, since now I yearned to name it The Magazine of Speculative Poetry. I exchanged advertisements with Steven Gregg at Eternity SF, and there announced the new subtitle. I have little doubt, though, that I also sent off a letter to Rebecca with the subtitle idea, being excited over this simple coinage.

I have no doubt, moreover, that I did coin the term, since I arrived at it through a conscious process. All the same it seemed, and still seems, quite possible that someone else had the same idea. Simultaneity so frequently marks innovations, large and small. So I made no claim to priority, then or in later decades. In small part I felt that any show of proprietary interest might slow its adoption; in larger part, that time would resolve questions that I could answer only for myself, as to the term's beginnings.

The term itself I assumed would take care of itself. I had trouble thinking that anyone could accept "science fiction poetry" as anything but awkward and embarrassing, and imagined others would soon accept a better name, whether mine or another's. In some ways my choice did take immediate hold. In others, it slumbered in backwaters. I disappeared into college, a stimulus that put to sleep some matters in my mind, for a few years. By this time I had released a second, extremely low-budget Treaders issue two, with only my name on the masthead. Rebecca's and my correspondence, already having lessened, ended not long after I entered college in 1976. Having seen her last when I was age fifteen, I was now a half-worldly half-adult, age seventeen.

While the part she played in speculative poetry was perhaps simply a role to play, without the undertones that an involuntary, intellectual passion gave the part that I played, Rebecca must have been among the first to learn of my coinage; she was one of the two first editors to be associated with it; and, thanks to small-press and "zine" historians, she has seen her name preserved in its connection.

For me, in my own inner life, I believe she was the focus for a poem whose words if not page-arrangement I recall — "I am afraid/ of the gardener/ and his hoe// Sometimes I think/ our roots will touch/ forever" — which appeared in the Denver Post not long after I wrote it. The same holds for a second poem I wrote that was worth publishing, which may or may not have appeared somewhere, whose words I cannot conjure without help from some old paper slip that I hope still exists somewhere.

I leave it at that. For a year or two, or more, we were great friends — youthful, enthusiastic, and constantly trading thoughts. The constancy stretched thin over distances first geographic, then temporal. Time always alters for the worse the wonders that we are as youths, even if it makes up for any diminishment with the far-stringing, the knotting, the stretching of those strands that hold us to others — those strands that present our most obvious and most outwardly turned semblances to the world — that define us and seem indistinguishable, in the end, from who we are. Even when one of us goes, those strands linger, connecting us to a place that never quite can be called an emptiness.

(Completed March 13, 2018)