Reading the Rhysling: 1978
By Greg Beatty
13 February 2006
[Editor's note: The poets whose work is discussed in this article agreed to allow their work to be reprinted here for a limited time in conjunction with this essay. Strange Horizons would like to thank these poets for their generosity. The winners of the 1978 Rhysling awards were:
You may also read Greg's introduction to this series of essays here or the next in this series here.]
In 1978 Suzette Haden Elgin founded the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA). As she notes in her chapter on the history of the SFPA in The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook, individuals were writing science fiction poetry, but their gatherings had been largely informal: small groups meeting in odd corners of cons.
The SFPA became many things—a voice for speculative poets, a rallying place, the site of artistic and political clashes—but among other functions it provided these two: an ongoing presence, and a way to recognize quality. The ongoing presence has taken many forms, including the publication of Star*Line, a journal of and about speculative poetry that publishes criticism of the form. In this and other ways, the SFPA works to get science fiction poetry accepted as a valid art form.
The Rhysling Award, given for the best science fiction poetry of the year, is a major part of this mission. Currently, there are two categories, the long poem (50 lines or longer) and the short poem (0-49 lines, though how one can have a zero-line poem is a legitimate question). Each member of the SFPA can nominate one poem in each category. Nominated poems are then collected and the collection distributed, so all members have a chance to read the nominated poems before voting.
As this essay isn't about the SFPA or the history of the Rhysling per se, I invite those interested in learning more about the subject to pick up Elgin's book, and to visit the SFPA online. For my part, I want to examine the term "Rhysling," and the assumptions that using this term establishes for SF poetry.
Rhysling is a character in Robert Heinlein's story "The Green Hills of Earth." The story is straightforward but a wonderful example of pulp poetry. "Noisy" Rhysling had been a jetman, an amateur poet/musician, and a pretty serious drinker until he was blinded by a spaceship's failing atomic engines. Blinding him made him into a real poet, elevating his prior doggerel to art by forcing him to see with his ears and heart, rather than just his eyes. This results in highly romanticized versions of his travels around the solar system. These end with his masterpiece, "The Green Hills of Earth," which Rhysling dictates while solving (and dying from) a second engine failure.
The ballad becomes Earth's anthem. As poetry, the song's lyrics are only pretty good. What really makes Rhysling work as a name for the award is the intersection of the story, the poet, and the poem. The poet becomes a purely Romantic figure: Rhysling, the blind bard of the spaceways! Rhysling's blindness reminds readers of Homer, the great epic poet of preclassical Greece. Besides shared physical blindness, Rhysling resembles Homer in one other crucial way. Heinlein makes it clear that space travel was wild, and driven by economic factors; Rhysling romanticizes it, converting base motives to near grandeur, as Homer did with war in the Iliad. Selecting Rhysling as the patronymic figure for science fiction poetry suggests that science fiction poets may well be mythologizing scientific exploration in a similar fashion.
Heinlein's figure also offers several other perspectives on science fiction poetry. First, the figure of Rhysling works whether or not one knows of blind poets past. So does his pilgrimage to the outer edges of the solar system and home again. This suggests that science fiction poets will operate on the level of the immediately accessible, but also converse with older traditions. Second, Rhysling's vision stands as a metaphor for all science fiction poetry, and perhaps for all science fiction: we write in verse what we cannot see with our eyes. This is as true of hard science fiction's glorious images (Ringworld, anyone?) as of the intentionally poetic. Third, Rhysling's work is forced out of him by his job, essentially acknowledging the blend of art and commerce in science fiction poetry. Fourth, as a Romantic figure, Rhysling dies for his art as clearly as any consumptive Keats. Consciously or no, by selecting the name Rhysling, the SFPA established that science fiction poetry will align more closely with Romantic verse than with pre-Romantics or Modernists. We'll see that this is the case—that like the great Romantics, as a group the Rhysling winners accent the visionary, transcendent, and personal.
Let me leave this larger focus for a time, and turn my attention to the individual poems that won the Rhysling Award in 1978. My first observation about the first winner in the long poem category, Gene Wolfe's "The Computer Iterates the Greater Trumps," is not thematic, but structural. Wolfe's poem does rhyme, as regularly as Rhysling's, but it is primarily structured through a series of images and concepts. Wolfe also numbers the trumps, working backwards from 21 to 0, italicizing the name of each trump to distinguish stanzas without actually leaving space between them; one image stacks atop another, just as tarot cards stack one on the next. As he does so, Wolfe blends one of the archetypical figures of science fiction, the computer, with an image from spirituality or pseudoscience (depending on one's allegiances): the tarot. That is the first intersection of fantastic elements (though for many readers, simply using the tarot, as Roger Zelazny does in his Amber series, would be enough to signal that the poem is science fictional).
The tarot has a mixed history; at times it has been a leisure activity, but other traditions and times treat it as a legitimate means of divination. The design of the twenty-two major trumps, or major arcana, that Wolfe's computer counts through in this poem have been around in recognizable form for over five hundred years. Like modern science, the roots of the tarot may go back further, but the practice took its modern form largely in the Renaissance; like science fiction, the tarot looks forward, to predict, and backward, to wrap its symbols in historical resonance. Think of how often science fiction returns to the symbols found at the roots of western history; the Satan-figured aliens in Arthur C. Clarke's novel Childhood's End provide a good example. Like science fiction itself, the tarot is both just fun and serious prognostication: another fantastic/generic element.
Wolfe uses the randomizing function of the computer to imitate shuffling by human hands, prefiguring the day when computers will take over the functions of humanity. As the computer moves through the trumps, Wolfe blends lines that offer universal, inclusive interpretations such as "The Universe includes by definition all" that would be familiar to any interpreters of the tarot, with lines that would be unlikely to be found in interpreting tarot readings, such as "The Sun the dancing children love, / casts down this radiance from above. / Fusion, fission, no remission." Here Wolfe shows himself not just a poet, but a poet of science: the sun's light is not just light (an image unexamined), or just sight (a universal metaphor), but the product of atomic reactions and, as such, often itself the source of an undesired fate: cancer, without remission. Blending the traditional and the scientific thus layers the poem's meaning and intensity. Wolfe also includes genre references, as when he says man has seen "God's calling card this, upon our silver Disch" referring to SF writer, poet, and critic Thomas Disch. This adds a third flavor, whimsy, and a third tradition, that of the specific genre history.
These strands interweave as Wolfe lays down image after image. There is no single coherent narrative. Instead, like a reading of the tarot, Wolfe presents the reader with a series of question- and reflection-provoking images. Instead of a narrative flow, Wolfe creates an equivalent tension by counting down through the deck. Various individual images are quite striking, as when Wolfe presents Pope Joan as The Hierophant (associating the tradition-bending and perhaps mythical female pope with this symbol of established moral law), or when he presents Nature as The Empress.
The true power of the poem comes with its conclusion. After a fairly standard structure, with lines of relatively standard length, Wolfe breaks his pattern by presenting a very long line at the beginning of The Juggler, then shortens each line to increase the anticipation of the numerical countdown. When he concludes with The Fool, the image of spontaneous new beginnings (and lawlessness), this symbol of chaos crashes the computer, humorously commenting on the machine's inability to deal with true randomness or spontaneity. The questions generated by the machine may match those generated by a human shuffle, but answering the questions remains a defining characteristic of humanity, a message resonating with Harlan Ellison's award-winning story from the sixties, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman."
By contrast, the three winners in 1978's short poem category all focus more tightly on a single fusion of concept and image. Duane Ackerson's "The Starman" provides a fine example of science fiction poem as an imagistic story, told via stylized line breaks. Ackerson tells a story stripped to its bare essentials, at once eternally human and specifically speculative. This is the story of a man who is out of place, whom time has moved out of sync with the world around him. However, Ackerson's starman is out of place due not only to simple aging but also due to the time dilation produced by his travels. This is not stated, but implied, in the repetition of the earth's greenness, in how "The children smelled the years in him; / women shunned him like Old Man Time," and in the development of "a few new machines" while he was traveling.
Along the way, the starman reflects briefly on the science fictional changes that populate his universe—the robots that have replaced him, the alien world of "Pasha IV"—but the poem's most poignant moments come when the starman reflects on what his travels have cost him, thinking "Of the sun he'd traded for the moon, / the moon he'd traded for the stars." Here an emotional economy is established for space travel, for these are at once metaphors (as in "I'd give you the moon") and, in his case, literal: by going to distant stars, he has left our moon and the world it circles. The starman succeeds in his journey and returns safely home, but it is no longer the home he left. By picking a dandelion—an ephemeral weed whose seeds scatter widely when blasted by external winds—the starman suggests that the heroic wanderings of space may come to a scattered nothing in the end, a less satisfying ending than that of W. B. Yeats's "The Song of Wandering Aengus," which ends with its speaker promising to "pluck till time and times are done, / The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun."
The second winning poem in 1978's short poem category, Sonya Dorman's "Corruption of Metals," might be considered a work of speculative imagism. Dorman pares her poem down to about fifty words, arranging them in fiercely flashing images that suggest much time and great sadness. As the Sargasso Sea supposedly caught sailing ships, so the earth has caught "miles of glittering / whales unbuckled bellies": spaceships, grounded and, though they sport "titanium espaliers," rotting. This poem is a sigh of lament: it would hurt spaceships as much to be earthbound and cut off from space as it hurts ship captains to be far from home. The speculative twist here is not just writing about spaceships, but making it natural for space to be home to anything, for by substitution, these spaceships are we humans who long for the skies.
The third short poem winner from 1978, Andrew Joron's "Asleep in the Arms of Mother Night," tells the most complete story of the four poems. It may also be the most accessible to the nongenre reader, as a character, "An old woman walking in the snow," almost literally walks readers from the mundane world into the realm of the fantastic, and because the speculative elements, while distinct and striking, can for the most part be allowed to function as metaphor, an aspect not present in the other poems.
The poem also, like "The Starman," breaks its lines "naturally"—for easy comprehension, in thought units rather than breath units. While this poem could be read aloud, unlike Rhysling's work it does not lose its cadence through being contemplated silently. What gives "Asleep" its power is its nested contradictions. Each of the six stanzas discusses motion, following this old woman through a silent night. Each also expresses some form of stillness or continuity. In the first stanza, the woman walks "One millennium more"; in the third the only motion is snow falling "In silent apocalypse" on tombs; and so on. There is always a going on, and always a stopping or ending.
Another contradiction, or better, dynamic tension, is between the specific and the universal. Joron gives readers quite explicit images, but at the same time, the woman is the Great Mother, at once mortal and immortal, personalized and archetypical. The speculative elements underscore this and provide further tension: if our lives are really data spoken by this mother, as Joron's poem suggests, then we are spoken, heard, and gone—a tragedy of brevity. However, if we (time's children) will someday become time, as the final stanza suggests, then we may be not ephemeral but eternal.
Joron ends the poem with the woman (literally) and the reader (figuratively and associatively) poised on the cusp of eternity. As such, the poem is not a prediction for the future but a meditation on the nature of time, future, and eternity, facilitated by speculative images and informed by both images of the preindustrial past and theories of the information age present.
Taking the four poems from 1978 together, we see certain themes and images repeating. These science fiction poems grapple regularly with time, with space—literally addressing the challenges and attractions of both outer space and the nature of space-time, unlike many mainstream poems—and with the tension between information, order, and entropy. In doing so, they address concerns as old as humanity through the language, images, and metaphors of science and science fiction, making them a worthy first set of Rhysling award-winning poems.