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. Continue reading

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