Reading the Rhysling: Introduction

By Greg Beatty

Science fiction and poetry have a long and contentious history. Some science fiction writers (Isaac Asimov, for example) have accented clear communication so emphatically that there seemed to be little room left in science fiction for poetic language. At the same time, science fiction writers have long worked with vivid images, including those who thought of themselves as not particularly poetic (again, Asimov is a good example: think of the imagery of "Nightfall"). The longstanding association of both science fiction and poetry with images, the imagination, and metaphor was explicitly championed by some proponents of New Wave science fiction. Add to that the longstanding tension between what C. P. Snow called the two cultures—the sciences and the humanities—and one might well wonder what relationship is possible between science and poetry, let alone science fiction and poetry.

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Several writers have grappled with this question, from various approaches. In 2005, Suzette Haden Elgin published The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook. Elgin's primer takes a practitioner's approach, giving those who would write science fiction poetry many practical suggestions. Thomas Disch, a well-known science fiction author and accomplished poet in his own right, regularly publishes literary criticism focusing on poetry; see, for example, his wonderful collections The Castle of Indolence and The Castle of Perseverance. Various essayists have written more theoretical or critical essays on the subject; see Bruce Boston's "Commentary: The Failure of Genre Poetry," published in 2005 by Fortean Bureau. Some of these have appeared in the electronic pages of Strange Horizons, such as "Speculative Poetry: A Symposium," by Mike Allen, Alan Deniro, Theodora Goss, and Matthew Cheney.

All of these approaches are valuable, but there is one area that has heretofore been neglected, and that is a systematic reading of the poems which science fiction poets have designated as superior. I won't go so far as to call this a canon of science fiction poetry, though one could do worse. Instead, I plan simply to devote a close reading to each of the poems that has won the Science Fiction Poetry Association's Rhysling award. I plan to move through the award winners chronologically, starting in 1978 and moving through the present, covering one year per month. Strange Horizons has only agreed to the first three essays. If this project doesn't succeed/doesn't garner sufficient reader interest, it may fall silent or migrate elsewhere, so if you find the essays useful and/or interesting, let us know.

In doing this, I have several purposes. Science fiction novels have been reviewed for decades, and less formal discussion of individual stories, such as via fan letters, has gone on at least as far back as the pulp era. Venues that review short fiction come and go. However, there are only a few venues that even discuss speculative poetry, and most of these, while valuable, are both recent additions and discuss individual poems fairly briefly (see, for example, Multiverse), and so my first purpose is to bring these award-winning poems more of the attention they deserve.

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In doing so, I hope to work with specific poems to achieve other purposes. I want to see how they work. I want to see how apparently conflicting components (science and fiction, science and poetry, science fiction and poetry, etc.), fit together. I want to see if I can explain them, if I can explain what makes them work, and if I can explain what makes them good. Along the way, I expect I'll stumble into discussions of the larger questions, such as what is science fiction poetry.

I hope you enjoy the process. Strange Horizons is hoping to obtain reprint rights to each of the award-winning poems, but in case they don't get rights to all of them, or in case you want your own copies to read along with me, I suggest you pick up a copy of The Alchemy of Stars, which collects the Rhysling winners from 1978 through 2004.

[Continue on to "Reading the Rhysling: 1978" ....]


Any rumors you've heard about Greg Beatty's time at Clarion West 2000 are probably true. Greg (email: gbeatty@earthlink.net) publishes everything from poetry about stars to reviews of books that don't exist. Greg Beatty lives in Bellingham, Washington, where he tries, unsuccessfully, to stay dry. Greg recently got married. You can read more by Greg in our Archives.