Poetry as speculative fiction; or, being naive

I don’t share in ritual contempt for literary criticism as an enterprise—how could I and still bear to live with myself?—but having spent too much of the summer engaged in a massive review of several critical fields, I feel annoyed about the whole endeavor. English Departments are full of brilliant, passionate people but most of them aren’t using their publishing powers for good: shouldn’t criticism persuade others that reading and thinking about literature are intensely rewarding experiences? Dull writing is The Big Awful. If you can’t be consistently fascinating you should at least be clear and concise, and few of us meet that bar.

My peeve this week, though, is how every critic fondly dismisses the previous critic’s naïveté. Oh, Frye, he’s so naïve about genre. Oh, all those guys, they think literature is mimesis. Silly theorists. Here’s how things actually stand… I find myself wanting to answer with a manifesto claiming naïveté as my personal philosophy just to save everyone the trouble. It’s okay, Future Critic. I already know I’m benighted.

I really am doomed to be so damned. I’m writing a book about twenty-first century poetry, arguing that it’s all (well, often) speculative fiction or perhaps fantasy. Definitions of the latter tend to include the words “possible,” “knowable,” or “reality”—I can promise you this because I’ve read ALL OF THEM—with the frequent co-stars “strange” and “uncertain.” Fantasy is literature preoccupied with the question “what’s real?” or its corollary, “what are the rules?” Its arch-nemesis, according to various explainers, is sometimes realism and sometimes science fiction, both being arts invested in plausibility, whereas fantastic literature proposes that everything is more mysterious than we thought. I prefer “speculative fiction” as a term to “fantasy” because it suggests a useful kind of blurriness, potentially including straight-up genre books as well as all the crossover territory, but for most people it’s so blurry it doesn’t mean anything, so I may have to give it up. The working title of my book is Poetry’s Possible Worlds and since June I’ve drafted four chapters of a projected dozen. I’d like to sketch out the whole monster in the next thirteen months, but I’m burnt out right now and I teach full-time from September through May, so we’ll see.

I realized in early July: oh, I’m writing literary theory. Which is stupid, because I have a limited tolerance for reading literary theory; the gist is often interesting but the nuances make me sleepy. And sleeping through chunks of Jameson or Todorov is bound to make me extremely naïve.

Worse: I can’t even use the butt-covering jargon du jour. Poetry’s Possible Worlds is also a book about reading. It’s aimed at anyone with some interest in, though not necessarily deep knowledge about, contemporary poetry. Each chapter begins with a poem quoted in full. Permissions will be tricky, but it’s really important to me that readers have their own encounter with each poem before I start messing around with it. My premises are that it’s pleasurable to get lost in a poem’s pocket universe, that we should take poetry personally, and that we have a right to our own responses. The chapters add layers to those responses by telling stories about the personal contexts of my own readings—yep, that means memoir—as well as fiddling around with exegesis and what-it-all-means argument (a.k.a. theory). I think twenty-first century poetry is absolutely worth reading. I’m selecting focal poems with variety in mind (national and aesthetic diversity as well as diversity in race and gender), but my most important criterion: I have to find each poem powerful, and imagine it could detonate powerfully inside readers who don’t recognize allusions or linguistic fashion statements.

Anyway, you can see why I really need next week’s mindless beach vacation. The chapters are not very long (4000-4500 words each) and the writing has been really fun, but it taxes every resource at my command. The style is essayistic—driven not only by arguments but motifs and lyric association—and I’m including a scaffolding of endnotes, at least for now, to keep track of the sources influencing me most. I’m getting feedback as I go from my spouse, a fiction writer who’s really good at macro/ structural considerations, but mostly I’ve just been charging ahead like a maniac. I’ll probably send a couple of chapters out to lit mags that publish creative nonfiction with a critical bent, but I’m not ready yet. I need to be quite sure of where I’m going first. Plus, creative writing just needs more fermentation time as text than the writing that appears in scholarly journals, which is really just a delivery system for ideas—the sentences need to be balanced and elegant, with no clumsy transitions, and that takes multiple rounds of scrutiny.

This is the most urgent book I can think of to write at this moment. Caring so much about it makes the work harder. I know my argument is idiosyncratic. Some people will think I’m diminishing poetry, or fantasy, or both. Others will find huge blind spots in the poems I include or neglect. There will be too much criticism for some readers, too much personal crap for others. The experience of writing it reminds me more of poetry composition than criticism-writing, in large part because of the driving terror. After all, if something about the jostle of the words in a poem doesn’t delight, confuse, or outright alarm you, why are you writing it? Who knows if you’ll ever have readers, so you have to imagine them and forget them. You have to please yourself.

Reviews the length of an irritating splinter

I’ve been having fun condensing reactions to books and movies into 140 characters—sort of a Twitter diary of reading and watching. I don’t include works I didn’t find interesting or the five million books of lit crit and theory I’ve been reading for a current writing project. As I get older and more impatient, I become more convinced the latter should be either 1) quickly, clearly informative or 2) genuinely fun to read, and SO little of it is. Reviews should meet the same criteria, actually. Not sure if mine do but hey, you can’t get any briefer! Here are some from June and July. No attitude about my pathetic film choices: I live in rural Virginia, people, and I have a twelve-year-old son and I’m married to this guy, so if it’s big, noisy, and PG-13, I basically go to it.


The way Carson uses slash marks to frame dialogue in Red Doc>: anyone seen that before? Technically ingenious.

Reading Tim Seibles’ Fast Animal means receiving urgent dispatches from the edge of the known universe

Revenge served warm: in Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds makes her ex look like an ass by loving him so well.

Novels (with two for the new Neil Gaiman):

Ghosh’s future in ‘95 Calcutta Chromosome: the tech’s wrong but he nailed how it isolates. Best not to tweet about the silence.

Found myself arguing over dinner that Mrs Hempstock is way cooler than Galactus. #OceanLane

Middleaged profs with portals in hearts endorse OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by @neilhimself. I speak for all of ’em.


On Krypton it’s fake Brit vs evil New Yawk, but they’re all humorless. Must be those uncomfortable metal clothes

The scene with the carnivorous bunnies almost makes Lone Ranger worth sitting through.

Forthcoming @LesleyMWheeler: I am LOVING Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I have a lot of poetry in the pile. And I sense the giant machines of Pacific Rim looming in my future. What the hell. Samuel Delaney liked them.

Chimeras in the poetry zoo, or speculative verse novels

Knock me over with a griffin feather: even though I published one, I did not understand that the contemporary speculative verse novel for adults was a thing. Much less a thing that gets published by Norton and Knopf.* So I’ve been roaming the field, discovering weird beasts lurking around the poetryscape. Preliminary conclusion: the stories I most want to read are not out there, or I haven’t spotted them yet. But here are some interesting ones anyway.  I’m deploying the terms “adult,” “speculative,” “verse,” and “novel” pretty loosely, by the way, but more on definitions another day.

The best verse: Marly Youmans’s Thaliad (2012) tells a future matriarchal civilization’s origin story: eleven-year old Thalia, because she’s on a field trip to a cave, survives the apocalypse (solar flares, I think) and ends up leading a small band of other children to safety. Thalia’s story has a frame narrator, a young woman poet deciding to dedicate her life to books instead of love, whose attempt to create myth about her recent ancestors makes sense of the Thaliad’s form and allusions to classical models. This is a beautiful poem in pulsing iambic pentameter. Some of my favorite passages are the beginning of XVII: The Bridal May, which is hypnotically romantic, and snarkily funny bits like the opening sentence describing our pre-apocalyptic decadence:

It was the age beyond the ragged time
When all that matters grew disorderly—
When artworks changed, expressive, narcissist,
And then at last became just tedious,
A beetle rattling in a paper cup,
Incessant static loop of nothingness,
When poems sprang and shattered into shards,
And then became as dull as newsprint torn
And rearranged in boredom by a child
Leaning on a window seat in the rain.

Fashionable poems of 2013: blank verse is coming from the future to whoop you. However, I’m not satisfied by the ending, even though it’s supposed to reflect the goals and desires of the nation-building poet more than any truth about the original survivors. I was captivated by Thalia as unlikely leader, but the book closes on a romantic note and that ends up casting a different light on the whole tale. I was a hungry marriage-plot reader as a teen and learning that my life did not end at marriage was kind of important. Marly Youmans, maybe we need a sequel?

The most linguistically astonishing: I can’t believe Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution (2006) even exists. Scene: a fictional luxury zone called The Desert in 2016. Dramatis Personae: the Historian from Sierra Leone, whose voice appears in standard English prose, and the Guide, whose invented Creole includes bits of her native Korean, English, Middle English, Latin, German, Spanish, French, and a billion other languages. Most of the book is from her perspective in a series of individually titled lyrics such as “The Lineage of Yes-Men”: “Me grandfadder sole Makkoli wine to Hapanese colonists/ din he guidim to insurrectas…sticka hop? Some pelehu?” There are plenty of brilliant poems out there composed in various Earth One Creoles and reading Hong’s book was actually an experience of comparable difficulty, for me anyway. You just work slowly, sounding it out. My problem was I couldn’t see a reason to commit the effort required for full understanding of the full book—I read it through with spots of intense attention, but otherwise just absorbing the texture. I know from reviews that there is a plot, but the intellectual obstacles to its detection are just crazy. I wish Hong cared about hooking and moving her readers, because if she did, I would follow.

The most improbably moving: In both Red Doc> (2013) and its 1998 precursor The Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson creates not a future dystopia but a classically-inflected world that’s just off to the side of the dimension I personally inhabit. The hero Geryon (in the second book, “G”) is a winged red cowherd-photographer who he can drop a television from an overpass in one scene and meet Hermes in another without busting the space-time continuum. I really don’t understand how poetry so experimental and disorienting can at the same time be gorgeous and full of heart, but I guess it’s a lesson: writers should follow their weirdest impulses, marketing be damned, because those projects are the ones that turn out to be truly amazing. Amazed as I am, though, I kept putting Red Doc> down to pursue assignations with less austere books. I wouldn’t sacrifice a jot of complexity, but I wouldn’t have felt condescended to by, say, an occasional pre-canto argument. Only my love for Geryon, instilled by the more accessible Autobiography of Red, made me keep at it.

The best candidate for film or TV adaption is also the most novelistic and least poetic. Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth (2007) conjures up turf battles among werewolf gangs in L.A. Baroquely plotted, full of interesting characters, it’s well-paced and often smart and funny. The choice of free verse teases out an aesthetic of mixture exemplified by cross-species romance and all kinds of border-crossings. Barlow sometimes handles race clumsily—some of the “native American legends” references seem ignorant as well as corny—but deep in its DNA, this is a book about affiliation, about how love and kind attention can ameliorate the world’s horrible brutalities. Being human means being mixed. For me, a more fundamental problem is that the verse just isn’t good. Standard phrasal lineation here, so it’s easy to read, but line breaks provide neither a score for performance nor artful layers of meaning. Plus, I know I sound like an English prof, but the punctuation’s a mess. Missed opportunities here.

It’s as if the verse novel might be a difficult form to pull off…still, I’m hopeful, and would be glad to hear more recommendations. I suspect the menagerie is much more various than I can currently see. All verse novels may be little uncanny, prone to sprout fur and claws at the slightest provocation.

*I did know and can recommend Anne Kennedy’s The Time of Giants, 2005, although I don’t have a copy anymore. A twentieth-century speculative verse novel that was a “where have you been all my life?” literary love affair: James Merrill’s “The Book of Ephraim” (in Divine Comedies, 1976, and eventually part of a much longer trilogy). “The stories I most want to read” are that insanely inventive, spooky, engaging, high-stakes, and smart, but with a middle-aged mother in the leading role and all good-looking teenaged lycanthropes required to sulk in the wings.