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)

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