Roundtable on Poetry

Karen Burnham

“… and I haven’t even started on poetry.”

If anyone would like to follow up on Guy’s post (near the end of the previous discussion) and mention any poetry that they find useful/inspirational, I’ll happily run that as an extra discussion. I feel that poetry is often sadly neglected, and that it is critically important for writing beautiful prose.

Terry Bisson, Guy Gavriel Kay, Gary K. Wolfe, Cecelia Holland, Peter Straub, Cat Rambo, Karen Lord, Russell Letson, Michael Dirda, Karen Joy Fowler and others weigh in on poetry. By the end, Guy is engaging in spontaneous verse. You’ve been warned. As always, this discussion is broken up into multiple pages for ease of reading. If you’d like to read it all on a single page, select ‘View All’ from the drop down menu above. If you don’t see the drop down menu, please click here.

Terry Bisson

Bad prose too.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Does I hear you dissin’ William McGonagall as an influence, Terry?

Sabres at dawn on the bridge of the silv’ry Tay!

A responsiveness to language is important, but in fairness people can get that in various ways, or exhibit it. Some writers either disdain the notion of ‘beautiful’ language, either because because their work aims for something else, or because they buy in to that ancient dichotomy within sf (more than fantasy) between ‘literature of ideas’ and ‘writing as well as the best mainstream writers do’. This is still being played out, of course. (Hartwell’s Age of Wonders tracks some of this, and I am sure others can cite other chronicles.)

There’s also a publishing mantra that being ‘accused’ of using poetic language will kill you with a large segment of readers. (And, to come clean as a reader here, sometimes those allegedly lyric writers feel overwrought, or worse.)

Not sure if various lists of favourite poets fits this thread, though I suppose at the very least it might offer names to scribble and chase down!

I’ll bite this far here:

Stephen Mitchell’s version of the first of Rilke’s ‘Spanish Trilogy’ poems is one of the great, personally talismanic poems I know (even in English!), and feels as if it should be for any writer.

I often quote or recommend Richard Wilbur’s ‘Junk’ – as to craft as something to focus upon, and value.

Cecelia Holland

There are bits of poetry I use as charms, when times are tough,or I’m scared,or whatever–Delmore Schwartz’ Dark December, the bit about the ark, and the dread and white of the terrified animals’ eyes–that’s gotten me through some real bad moments.

Cat Rambo

Poetry wise, the Coleman Barks translation of Rumi is one of my go-to books for inspiration.

Peter Straub

As to poetry, here’s a list of  what I’m slowly chewing these days, some of them from a long time back: everything by Mark Doty; everything by C.D.Wright; everything by Ashbery; Philip Larkin’s new Complete Poems; Littlefoot, Charles Wright; Mercury Dressing, J. D. McClatchy; Horse Latitudes, Paul Muldoon; Easy, Marie Ponsot; Attack of the Difficult Poems, Charles Bernstein.

When I say “everything by” I don’t mean all at once, but a long-term involvement that involves every book by these poets & a slowly gathering & developing appreciation of what they do.

Karen Lord

Ooh, poetry. In no particular order, the ones I return to are: Khalil Gibran, Ben Okri (poetic prose?), Emily Brontë, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Browning and Langston Hughes. Music, rhythm, passion, dance and play. I also read poetry in Spanish, French or Scots. I don’t have to fully understand it to enjoy it. Sometimes the sound alone is enough.

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5 thoughts on “Roundtable on Poetry

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  • March 21, 2012 at 2:39 pm
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    The original poster’s choice of “useful/inspirational” as a standard for desirable poetry gives me the willies. Literature functions on many levels, of course—but I am saddened to see speculative fiction writers (whose work would generally not be primarily intended as either “useful” or “inspirational” applying these narrow strictures to poetry appreciation. And I am even more grieved to see, with few exceptions, tastes restricted to the ancient, non-living, or geriatric poets (I will grant you that Russell Edson, despite his codgerliness, is way cool). The real outrage, though, is the apparent lack of any awareness of science-fiction poets. While any decent writer should be reading a broad spectrum of work outside their field, to exhibit a complete lack of interest in and awareness of a whole subset of active writers within one’s own genre when discussing poetry is pathetic. Not a single poet mentioned identifies as a speculative poet.

    The Science Fiction Poetry Association, which encompasses SF, fantasy, and horror, has existed since 1978. Its members have been widely published in mainstream as well as SF venues. SFPA publishes a quarterly journal, Star*Line, as well as annual anthologies. The winners of its annual Rhysling Award appear regularly in the Nebula winners anthology—but somehow, it would seem, fly completely below the radar of those who have posted here. Many, if not most, venues that publish short SF also publish SF poetry—do none of you read the other works in the periodicals where you are published?

    We write—and read—speculative poetry for the same reasons that apply to the reading and writing of speculative fiction: to entertain, evoke, and stimulate, and to present new ideas (as well as old ideas made new), using original ways of looking at the world. Those are appropriate standards for poetry, not the dreary utilitarianism that would define poetry as having only didactic and motivational purposes.

    F.J. Bergmann
    Star*Line Editor
    starline@sfpoetry.com
    Science Fiction Poetry Association

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  • March 27, 2012 at 3:30 pm
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    I’d like to apologize for the “useful/inspirational” language. That was very sloppy, as I tossed it off in a rush. I agree that there is some very fine spec fic poetry out there that deserves to be better known.

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  • March 27, 2012 at 8:09 pm
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    Kenneth Burke called literature “equipment for living,” and I found that view a, um, useful corrective to the art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic that dominated my early education–and also an alternative to the flatter moral-critical approaches of, say Marxist theorists. So thinking of poetry as useful or even inspirational isn’t a big deal, even if neither of those terms exhausts our relationship to the art. As for which poets one reads for whatever reason–when you start putting words on paper, you’re playing with the big boys and girls, and if you have to be prepared to be compared to two or three millennia’s worth of news that has managed to stay news. If you want to know who the great poets of the twenty-first century are, ask me in a hundred years or two. (Though you shall find me a grave man.)

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