Best of 20th Century Speculative Poetry #1: Craiglist Haiku

This list is in no particular order, so being #1 doesn’t represent anything other than it’s a Friday night and you’re probably not looking for serious. You want something fun, something quick, maybe a little dirty, and hopefully, anonymous. You want that chance encounter, that late night thrill, that you can only find on Craigslist.

Wait, that can’t be good, can it?

It’s poetry. In public. On the Internet. In a place overrun with trolls, scammers and the socially awkward. – netinsanity.com

Yeah, well, it is that, but it’s not all bad. It even used to be popular. For a a few years, starting in about 2008, everyone was talking about this off sub-section of the popular classified ad site, but that fervor has faded. The Haiku Hotel tumblr only updated in September 2012. Most of the top pops on a Google search for “craiglist haiku” are 5 or 6 years old. But the interest hasn’t completely waned, and some good things are still happening here. (Hey, this guy gave away a rug!)

While much of the haiku posted on Craiglist in the last decade have been sports-related, ad-relatedfocused on the city center, undecipherable, or simply bad, some of it is legitimately speculative:

night-flight radio,
cue the alien music,
destiny…unknown.
  link

let the dragon sleep
tip toe across jaded scales
into the cavern link

Women disappear
No magic marking moments
Houdini’s heartbreak link

 

(more…)

We Have Always Dreamed In Poetry – Part 3 (Colonialism, Romantics, and into the 20th century)

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Wrapping up our brief overview of the history of speculative poetry, this post will take us into the 20th century. Beginning in the mid 1400s, the Age of Colonialism (also called the Age of Discovery, generally by the people doing the discovering and not by the people who were perfectly happy not having been “discovered” yet) is an important moment in the history of poetry because it marks the collection of “native” works along with the creation of pro-European propaganda about those works. It also coincides with the development of the printing press, and the broader circulation of literature and literacy in general.

Portuguese, Spanish, and eventually British invaders, settlers, and missionaries* traveled the world, planting their flags. The idea of courtly love – where a virtuous, charming, and heroic man completes quests in order to win the heart of the beautiful but disdainful woman – spreads throughout Europe, screwing up relationships for centuries to come. Troubadours write and sometimes sing these poems for wealthy patrons, so popular that poets couldn’t keep up with demand, making poetry profitable for a large number of people for the first time in recorded history. The Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet, invented in the 13th century, grows more popular and is brought over to England by the 16th, just in time for Sir Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare to fall in love with it and make it their own. In the midst of all this… the perfect example of colonialist speculative verse is collected and popularized: the Arthurian legends.

Sir Thomas Malory started Morte d’Arthur while in prison in 1450 and finished it somewhere around 1470. The book contains some 13th century French stories, at least one Middle English tale, plus original writing by Malory. William Caxton introduced printing to England in 1475, and in 1485 printed  Morte d’Arthur, which saw several reprintings – and changed every single time. The basics stayed the same: Arthur is the lost son of a great king, conceived and hidden through magic, rises up, unites and conquers, has mythic adventures, fucks his sister, tries to have his son killed but instead creates a nemesis, loses his wife to his best friend, and retires to Avalon when he’s near unto death. It’s recently become popular with American white supremacists**, who see a glorious, Jesus-like white man who ruled over all and brought prosperity to the land, but even in contemporary times it was used in Britain for the same purpose. The Welsh Annales Cambriae claims that in 516 Arthur was victorious in battle because he carried the True Cross for three days and three nights on his shoulders (though later works argue that it was a chip of the cross he wore in an amulet), making the British people the new Chosen of God. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 The History of the Kings of Britain paints Arthur as a man filled with so much goodness everyone just knew he was the right and true leader, but who also took over Ireland and Iceland so brutally*** that other kingdoms offered to surrender if he would only promise not to treat them the same way. This makes Arthur certain he should rule the world, so he conquers all of Europe and was about to conquer the Romans before Mordred tried to seize his throne.

The British spent several hundred years trying to get back this Arthurian empire, even though it never existed in the first place.  (more…)

We Have Always Dreamed In Poetry – Part 2 (after the Roman Empire and into European Colonialism)

Read “Part 1 (beginning of recorded history through those dramatic Romans)” here.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, poetry didn’t die. In the almost-thousand years between when Odoacer deposed the Emperor Romulus and the Portuguese conquest of Ceuta, poetry flourished all over the world. Much of the extant Latin-language work is ecclesiastical, with occasional references to “pagan” gods and goddesses. The 5th century poet Coluthus, who lived in Lycopolis/Asyut in the Egyptian Thebaid, left behind a Greek-language poem in 394 hexameters called The Rape of Helen, which tells the story of Helen and Paris prior to their arrival in Troy. It’s got nymphs and goddesses and spite, and because the author was a most likely a Christian and believed this story to be a “myth” his poem falls squarely into the realm of speculative fiction. Dracontius of Carthage, another Christian poet, also wrote poetry about “the rape of Helen” (a popular subject), Medea, Hylas, and other Greek mythic staples.

Around the same time we get the Silappatikaram, one of the Great Epics of Tamil literature. This poem begins with a precis telling the reader what is about to happen, and then unfolds the tale in three chapters. It introduces the intermingling of poetry with prose, a form not seen in previous Tamil works, and is also credited with introducing folk songs into literature. It’s the story of a wronged woman who’s husband – a guy with maybe not the best judgement or luck – gets beheaded when he’s accused of stealing the Queen’s bracelet (in order to restart his life in a new town after his “inappropriate relationship with a dancer”). The wife proves her husband’s innocence and then IGNITES THE CITY with, essentially, the glorious power of her rightness.

You can read it and more here.

In the 6th century, pre-Islamic poetry hits the big time, but was largely concerned with biographies, inter-tribal disputes, and the occasional zoological description.* In that sense, it is very similar to Greek and Roman classical poetry in subject, though with a dearth of “mythic” fiction which may be attributed to destruction by later religions or governments. Example: during this century, Musaeus Grammaticus wrote 340 hexameter line  on the story of Hero and Leander (the one where the boy from the wrong side of the straights convinces the girl to have sex with him because “the Goddess Venus would want it that way”), later considered “the most beautiful of the age”. He’s also said to have written a cute little version of “Alpheus and Arethusa”, a classic of the Greek “chase+rape=love poem” oeuvre, so there’s that. Oh, and Procopius of Caesarea, principal Western historian of the 6th century, wrote Secret History, which says – in part – that Emperor Justinian was actually a headless monster who phased in and out of reality late at night.

We also get the rise of the Welsh bardic tradition, collected in later centuries as the Book of Taliesin (named for the earliest identified Welsh poet, whose work is included). Mixed in with elegies and Christian hymns are prophecies about the future and several poems about magic. Battling trees, evil witches, princes under a curse, hounds of hell – all the good stuff. We even get the introduction of Cerridwen, the Middle Welsh aspect of Homer’s Circe. (more…)

We Have Always Dreamed In Poetry – Part 1 (beginning of recorded history through those dramatic Romans)

Last time, I talked about the earliest recorded speculative fiction poem. Before the end of the month, I want to talk about  where poetry has ended up, and where it’s going. To get there, we need to have at least a basic idea of what poetry has explored between 2000 BCE and the early 20th century. 4000 years of poetry in a singe blog post?

Actually, we need to start farther back. And, this is going to take more than one post.

Speculative fiction – the stories we tell which have not happened in our reality and contain some element of fantasy – has always been a part of our recorded literature. From the very beginning, we imagined, and then expressed those visions. But it is important to be aware that Western culture prejudices the reader to think of stories of certain gods and epic events as “myth”, while simultaneously promoting certain other gods and epic events as “gospel”. If we want to look at all of these stories as fiction, then it could be said the earliest fantasies in literature were created by Enheduanna, an Akkadian princess who served as High Priestess of moon god Nanna during the third millennium BCE. She lived in the Sumerian city-state of Ur, is one of the earliest women known from historical record, and is the earliest known author and poet.

Except - Enheduanna wrote hymns to her god. She exalted her worship in poetry and song. True, her work was revered. Copied and saved by kings, remembered, and revised 4500 years later*. It was beautiful, but to her and many of the people who came after, it wasn’t fiction. We cannot include it in this discussion without dismissing her beliefs, so we’ll mention her as a forerunner to SFF poetry in that she was an early creator of poetry, but we need to come forward in time a little to find what we’re looking for.

Around 2000 BCE, we find the oldest known love poem, a Sumerian tablet recording a “risque ballad” where a priestess asks her king to take her to bed, and then compliments him afterward. It’s possible that this was actually a performance piece instead of a personal note, and scholars have argued that the people represent gods, are taking part in seasonal fertility/agriculture rituals, and so on. Since it’s either romantic or religious (or both) it’s like the hymns of Ur: we can see the beauty in this work but can’t consider it fiction.

“Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor” is different because it is a narrator’s account of one person telling another person a story, and the storyteller recalls an event which could not have happened** in order to deliver a moral lesson.*** At most, it’s a parable or metaphor, but contemporary people seemed to have considered it entertainment (therefore, fiction) so it’s safe for us to do so as well. (more…)

Celebrating National Poetry Month the SF way: In the Beginning

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.

#SFWAPro