April is National Poetry Month in the United States, and I’ll be celebrating one of my favorite forms of writing by talking about speculative fiction in poetry. I’ll be exploring themes and structures, poetry and poets I admire, how to bring SF/F/H elements into poetry effectively, and sharing my own work. I’ve been cobbling together these blog posts for a couple of months now – on lunch breaks, between writing or editing other projects – so I’m excited to finally see them publish to my website. Please feel free to comment, ask questions, or suggest work you think I’d like to read.
Where do we start? With history, of course.
Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is now held every April, when schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets throughout the United States band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.
Though a recent creation, this “holiday”, poetry has been a vital part of American culture since before there was an America. Poetry has existed longer than writing, longer than what we think of as culture. It is a living, breathing, exhalation of humanity.
Speculative fiction – that umbrella term which covers fantasy, science fiction, horror, slipstream, surrealism, and so much more – has existed just as long. The oldest known spec fic poem is “Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor”, a Middle Kingdom Egyptian text about 4000 years old. In it, a sailor nervously confides in a servant that he thinks the king will kill him for sinking a ship. The servant tells his master a story to reassure him: previously, the servant had been a sailor, and sunk a ship, and washed up on an island ruled by a giant serpent. This serpent spoke to him of family, gave him gifts, and inspired him to return home, where the sailor told the king his story and was considered a hero.
This is the basis for most of the storytelling which came after: the accidental quest, the mythic beast/figure dispensing wisdom, the hero’s journey. We find this framework too, the storyteller being presented in a contemporary setting, and then telling a story about someone or sometime else within the tale we’re reading or listening to. Like Scheherazade’s creator, the author of the ancient servant’s tale embeds a narrative into the frame story, which ends in a moral lesson. It’s a structure we see in both fiction and non-fiction, over and over again, for the next the four millennium, with great success. (Read the Bible? It’s in there, too.)
The moral here? The serpent tells how he lost his family when he was off adventuring:
It happened when I wasn’t there –
burnt when I wasn’t among them!
Then I died for them
when I found them as one heap of corpses.
If you are brave, be stout-hearted,
and you will embrace your children,
kiss your wife, and see your house.
This is better than anything.
Since today I got to kiss my man, kiss my child, and feel both safe and loved, I can tell you – the serpent was right.