Science Fiction Studies

#55 = Volume 18, Part 3 = November 1991

Douglas Barbour

In Search of the Poetic Fantastic

Patrick D. Murphy & Vernon Hyles, eds. The Poetic Fantastic: Studies in an Evolving Genre. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1989. xxviii+226. $39.95.

Scott E. Green. Contemporary Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Poetry: A Resource Guide and Biographical Directory. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1989. xviii+234. $35.00

As a writer and reader of poetry as well as a reader of SF, I can be expected to find a study of The Poetic Fantastic interesting, even if I may not be sure just what the title-term refers to. Indeed, I am not alone in referential anxiety, as both the editors and the contributors appear to have a most elastic sense of definition when it comes to "the fantastic" or "fantasy" as applied to poetry. There is something in me which happily embraces their confusion: I am, after all, someone who, after having spent half a decade trying to discover a workable definition of "science fiction," still found Damon Knight's ("It means what we say when we point to it") the most useful formulation I could come up with. Nevertheless, I found myself wishing, as I read through this mixed collection of essays, that more definition could be given to what all the contributors clearly wanted somehow to separate from other "kinds" of poetry. (But what does "kind" mean in this context: Generic differences such as lyric, epic, etc., or something else, such as romantic, classic, modernist, postmodernist? The general difficulties of definition clarify in a kind of chaos-theory manner as we ask such questions.)

Almost all the contributors and, most especially, the editors tend to begin their search for a definition with Todorov's statement that "[t]he fantastic occupies the duration of [an] uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event" (25).1 As various critics have pointed out, this is a very narrow definition which relegates to those other two "genres"--the uncanny and the marvelous--most of what the ordinary readership calls "fantasy"; but that is not our worry here. What the editors of The Poetic Fantastic seek to refute is one of Todorov's further statements:

If as we read a text we reject all representation, considering each sentence as a pure semantic combination, the fantastic could not appear:for the fantastic requires, it will be recalled, a reaction to events as they occur in the world evoked. For this reason the fantastic can subsist only within fiction; poetry cannot be fantastic. (Todorov 60)

Thus, in an early essay, Patrick Murphy insists: "I believe that such hesitation occurs not only in fiction but also in poetry. Poets use techniques of the Fantastic, in the broad generic sense, including those of the fantastic, as Todorov narrowly defines the term."2 And in his foreword to The Poetic Fantastic, he quotes himself from another essay to provide a "broad definition of fantastic poetry":

Fantastic poems range in the material they treat from the strange but explainable to the utterly fanciful, from horror to wonder, and from the rigidly verisimilitudinous to the purely surrealist. They may utilize traditional prosody or may avail themselves of the discontinuities and fragmentation of modernist free verse. They may use as setting the primary world, a secondary world, or a combination of the two. (xii)

He adds that "[t]his last point recognizes the existence of fantastic poetry as both 'low' and 'high' fantasy" and insists therefore that "[f]antastic poetry includes all three 'genres' Todorov considers in The Fantastic: the uncanny, the fantastic, and the marvelous" (xii). I think we're getting close to Damon Knight's territory here, but that's all right; this is a definition that is Open (something like Canada under the Tories' Free Trade Agreement with the US), and maybe that's the only way to approach a "genre" (surely another term of extraordinarily wide application) which these critics wish to see operating from pre-history to the present day (as Murphy's appeals, in ranging from Homer to Margaret Atwood, demonstrate).

I am willing to accept that the fantastic, so defined, plays its role in poetry throughout the ages, but I begin to wonder how useful it remains as a concept for analysis of individual works. As a reader of Canadian poetry, I can (now) easily apply this wide-ranging definition to a number of poets whose work, so far as I'm concerned, is far superior to many of the contemporary poets alluded to or discussed in this collection. I would point not just to such Atwood texts as "Circe/Mud Poems," but also to Nichol's massive The Martyrology (whose preface is marvelously science-fictional); John Newlove's "The Green Plain"; Michael Ondaatje's "Peter" (a poem I am sure he never thought of as fantasy, a genre he never reads, although he would willingly accept that it is mythopoeic), as well as his The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (which did get listed in Locus once, as I recall); many of the early poems of Susan Musgrave; and various works by Al Purdy, Robert Bringhurst, Earle Birney, Leonard Cohen, Jeni Couzyn, Phyllis Gotlieb, and many others. None of whom are mentioned, of course, in The Poetic Fantastic--and why should they be? But neither are many US poets who come to my mind (I am thinking of a really interesting essay that could be written on such poems of Robert Duncan's as "My Mother Would Be a Falconress," to name just one of many. To be fair, Vernon Hyles admits as much in his Afterword). Nor are such major British poets as Edwin Morgan and David Jones. I could go on in this vein; but as we all know, there's never been an anthology (of poems or essays) which will satisfy everyone, so I'll carp no more on this point.

What we do have in The Poetic Fantastic is an eclectic collection of essays ranging from the mediocre to the very fine, and offering an even wider array of definitions that the Foreword has prepared us for. Although Hyles's Afterword is generous and intelligently outward looking, his "The Poetry of the Fantastic" is too generalized and superficial to prove successfully its major point: that "[t]hat aesthetics of poetry and the aesthetics of fantasy...are the same" (8). This rather grandiose statement does allow all poetry to be studied as "fantastic," however--if one considers that a useful critical gain. Yet Peter Malekin's "Poetry and the Pre-Fantastic" differentiates "the fantastic" from "fantasy" in such a way as to deny Hyles's main point. One is left with the feeling that making definitions is a mug's game, and turns with relief to the essays on specific poets and poems.

Of these, a few stand out as interesting and valuable studies, even if some are all too short, stopping just when the really useful close readings might have begun. Four consider pre-modernist works (I include C.S. Lewis as essentially a pre-modernist writer). Martha Nochimson's "Lamia as Muse" makes a good case for re-interpreting Keats's poem, although I'm not sure she needs the concept of "the poetic fantastic" to do so; her argument is at least as much based on feminist rehistoricizing of the Lamia figure. Benjamin Franklin Fisher's essay on Poe is too thin to be of much use; but Charlotte Spivack's "The Hidden World Below" has a substantial argument to make about why fantasy was a necessary method for "Victorian Women Fantasy Poets" both psychologically and aesthetically, and her call for further study rings true. Murphy's reading of C.S. Lewis's "Dymer" as "a long, continuous narrative poem that begins as a hesitation fantasy but is resolved as a supernatural (marvelous) fantasy" (67) is interesting--although the quotations did not win this reader to the poem as poetry.

Turning to modernism and beyond, Carl Schaffer, in one of the best essays in the collection, eloquently argues for the use of the fantastic in holocaust poetry as a method by which "to define in poetic terms the essentially indefinable" (79). Lance Olsen suggests that Mark Strand's "project" is to "overthrow 'reality' by generating metaphorically autistic worlds of phobia, oppression, and entrapment" (95), while Karen Michalson presents Anne Sexton's Transformations as a work which "attacks the assumptions [that] realism as a literary genre is based on" yet "confirms the existence of some kind of consensual reality at the same time it denies its own ability to describe this reality" (101). One of the basic problems with definitions appears here, for if "the fantastic" is no more than a kind of troping, do we need it as a category at all? Clearly the contributors to The Poetic Fantastic believe so, but ofttimes their own arguments undercut that belief. For example, the appeal to Alice Ostriker's concept of "Revisionist Mythmaking"3 by many of the critics of women's poetry reveals a separate concept outside genre boundaries which is equally useful in showing how such poetry works with and against inherited ("natural"?) ideologies. Nancy Lang points out how humor and fantasy mix to play their parts in the postmodern poems Slinger and "Ko," but her essay is far too short for its topic. Murphy returns once more to write about Ursula K. Le Guin's poetry, arguing that the kind of approach to her prose that Robert Scholes takes in Structural Fabulation could equally be applied to her poetry; but while Murphy begins promisingly enough, he too undercuts his own project by referring to Ostriker's work. Ralph Yarrow writes about a group of unknown British poets whose work deals with consciousness-in-stillness in a manner which he finds connected to recent studies in cosmology; but to fit in here, he offers a definition of "fantasy" which seems unnecessary to the rest of his paper. Finally, and most to the point of the volume, Michael Collings outlines three modes of SF poetry today with examples; his is one of the few essays to pay attention to writers who consciously present themselves as SF poets.

The Poetic Fantastic is a useful and often rewarding collection of essays, despite the difficulties some readers may have with the problem of definition. I suppose I have harped on that problem so much because it continues to trouble all of us who write about SF in any form. I'm still of two minds on the matter, wishing to have as much freedom as possible to include whatever I like under the rubric SF while never quite giving up on the elusive Eldorado of a working definition which will not exclude any work I personally want to keep in. When it comes to poetry, I approach the problem from a somewhat different perspective: it's all poetry, why do we need any further narrowing of contexts? Instead, I want simply to seek out what I believe to be the best or most interesting or most challenging texts to read. I don't find

many of these texts in the pages of the usual SF anthologies or magazines, although, as always, many other readers will. Yet I do often find, in the poetry texts I seek out elsewhere, a reading experience similar to what happens when I read a truly fine work of SF. I remain, in this as in so many things, confused.

All this being the case, Contemporary Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Poetry is not an especially useful book for me--nor for most readers of prose SF, perhaps. It is precisely what it says in its subtitle: "A Resource Guide and Biographical Directory," mostly to those writers who have published in the genre anthologies and magazines. Therefore it actually has little in common with The Poetic Fantastic (the only essay which connects the two directly is Collings's). On the whole, most of the contemporary poets discussed in The Poetic Fantastic are not listed in Green. Certainly none of the Canadian poets I mentioned earlier are, not even Atwood, although Charles de Lint, a widely accepted SF&F writer is present and accounted for. Equally, a number of the poets represented in such landmark anthologies as Poly do not get into Green's directory, apparently because they do not tend to publish as "genre" writers. What all this means, as far as definitions are concerned, I'm not really sure. I was pleased to see a solid bio of Edwin Morgan, but what does one do with a paragraph like this?

In Britain the attempt to classify writers and their work by genre has not been a problem. Writers are less likely to suffer from having their work viewed or published according to narrow definitions. It seems doubtful that Edwin Morgan would have enjoyed such success and acceptance if his career had started in America. (136)

This simply raises far too many questions to take on here. I will say that, as a reader, I would have liked to see some examples of various writers' work, as I know much of it would strike me as uninteresting verse but some would prove an exciting new discovery. Green's, in short, is essentially a reference book for libraries, and as such does its job proficiently. (I must mention, however, that a number of typos mar both books--to cite one of the most egregious, Michael Collings's name is misspelled in his biographical entry [but correctly spelled in the byline on the same page]. But then, in the super-high-tech publishing world of today, where no human being ever enters the copy-editing process, typos are nothing new, are they?)

When read in tandem, these two books suggest something of the complicated ways in which market "gentrification" and critical attempts at literary definition collide with and contradict one another today. This as long been true for fiction; but poetry, partly because it has such a small market, has not had to worry about it. For the most part, and despite the efforts of the critics in The Poetic Fantastic, poetry is going to remain untouched by this particular controversy (it has enough problems of its won). But for those interested in poetry and also fans of SF, these essays will be of use in a number of ways: they will engage you in the ongoing arguments about definitions and what they actually do to our reading; they will provide a new way of looking at some well-known poems; and they may just introduce you to some exciting and marvelous poetry you hadn't known about before.


1Todorov, The Fantastic. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1975.

2Murphy, "Mythic and Fantastic: Gary Snyder's 'Mountains and Rivers without End."' Extrapolation 26.4 (Winter 1985): 291.

3Ostriker, "The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking." The New Feminist Criticism. Rd. Elaine Showalter. NY: Pantheon, 1985. 314-38.

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