Notes on a Speculative Poetry

Notes on a Speculative Poetry (draft 1.5)

1. Speculative poetry is a practice of poetry about things that do not exist, or ideas that have not been thought. The trick is how to to engage in a dialogue with the future, not only before we die, but before those that ever knew us also die. This “trick”, which is decidedly not a trick, is hope.

2. Speculative poetry, in seeking out a future, is simultaneously exploratory and archival.

3. Despite being seemingly scarce, the potential for poetry is everywhere. The conditions for it have not changed: personhood. Although there is a growing movement to abolish personhood altogether, and although sinking material conditions and competing apocalypses throughout the world have bolstered transhumanist impulses, poetry exists as a counterweight against the disposability of human beings. Speculative poetry, in particular, can engage and critique transhumanism like no other art, as it has the same temporal arguments, though ones rooted in the self and not its abolishment.

4. Speculative poetry’s power derives not from a direct critique of post-capitalism but a striving to endure past it. And poetry, considered as a collective project, gains power when it is realized that it absolutely will outlast post-capitalism. Speculative poetry already inhabits that space, at least virtually—or it allows the existence of that space to be entertained.

5. Poetry cannot enact strong societal changes, but it can invoke weak changes. Speculative poetry is the comet; its effects on the current world is the tail of that comet, which is visible but less real than the comet itself. Nevertheless, most people will call the tail “the comet.”

6. All poetry is speculative in this sense: there is a chasm after every line break, and a deep unknowing of the next line until it is reached.

7. It is, of course, impossible to predict what forms will be “in style” a hundred years from now, or five hundred, along the Aleutian-Kansan archipelagos or who knows where else. That is why speculative poetry has no one single formal or metrical argument. It has a temporal argument. The best we can do is to have protracted conversations with future, imaginary readers about these very concerns, and what we imagine their concerns to be, and how they would be expressed.

8. This conversation must be rooted in the purest desire imaginable.

9. Because of this, speculative poetry is about, in essence, the body, the body’s position as a fulcrum between the world and the person, composition and decomposition. Personhood is not a fixed point; it is not Copernican. But neither is it a vapor or ether.

10. Aristotle said that we cannot have memories of the present, and sense-perceptions of the past or future, yet that is precisely what speculative poetry can accomplish. Because how are not the future and past tied together? The present is a connective tissue that one can never really see (spec)—at the same time, it’s the only instrument that we have that allows us to intuit the future and the past, however illusory our understandings of both might be. Especially when reading.

11. What happens when the “I” enters a poem in the future? It blows past the paralyzing dichotomies of self/no-self in relation to geological and cosmological time.

12. Speculative fiction is one form of prose literature that has intermittently tried to ask these questions about the body and identity, even when at times it hasn’t realized it. It has posited the gossamer existence of all material as we construe it against geologic and/or cosmic time. This, then, is the blurry, half-seen point where science fiction itself becomes a kind of prose poetry. The subject matters, of course, matter—but SF is globular, not granular. Peer closer, brush off the scientific determinism and cheap political assertions, into the sentence-level eddies, and one might not know what to think, how to react.

13. Science fiction also prizes the building of worlds, memory palaces of the future, detailing hypothetical or extrapolated ecologies. Simulationism for places and events that do not exist, or fully exist. Places where people talk to each other, write things down, and conceivably write poems and pass them around to each other. Speculative poetry can either create the literature of worlds that may or may not be our own, or make tactile the worlds themselves. At some distant point, teetering between writing and thought, beyond technique, these two approaches are one and the same.

14. Speculative poetry is an abandoned missile silo on the sulfuric prairie. At some point, it will be knocked down—or explode—but at various points in its history it will be mistaken for a grain elevator, tobacco obelisk, or heavenly observatory.

15. Memories of the past are about as reliable as memories of the future.

7 thoughts on “Notes on a Speculative Poetry

  1. Mike Allen

    On giving this a second read, I find I have to agree on every point, though only in a handful of poems have I pushed as far as the goal of creating from an imagined future perspective. I’ll have to give that another shot.

  2. Alan Post author

    Me too, Mike! This was one strand of speculative poetry that I wanted to separate from the others and look at more closely.

  3. Drew Morse

    Though I have trouble grasping most of the points here, there are a few ideas that I like:

    “Speculative poetry, in seeking out a future, is simultaneously exploratory and archival”: I’ve been reading a lot of SF/F/H poetry from the first half of the 20th-century and I’m often struck by how those poets’ visions of the
    future reveal more about the decades in which they were written than about the future that we now live–and in that way “archive” some aspects those eras.

    “Speculative poetry has no one single formal or metrical argument. It has a temporal argument”: I’m not sure what a “temporal argument” is, but I agree that, as much as we can talk about the one overall argument of speculative poetry, it’s most likely something other than an argument about prosody.

    “Science fiction also prizes the building of worlds, memory palaces of the future, detailing hypothetical or extrapolated ecologies”: I do tend to like SF/speculative poetry that draws on the circumstances of our world in order to speculate about how things might be in x years from now; some of Disch’s poetry does this well, as do the poems in Ackerman’s The Planets, as well as some of the Rhysling-winners in Alchemy (Lightman and Landis come to mind).

    “Speculative poetry can either create the literature of worlds that may or may not be our own, or make tactile the worlds themselves”: Ok, I’m not sure what you mean here, Alan…but longer SF/F poems that are so descriptive that
    they can actually “make tactile” alien or fantastical worlds are very rare–and generally the high-water marks of the field. The idea that speculative poetry could somehow create the literature of other worlds is intriguing. Adam Roberts’s Jupiter Magnified and K.S. Robinson’s The Martians come to mind (each of
    these books begins with prose that introduces the reader to a futuristic world and some characters that inhabit it and then ends with poetry–in Roberts’s case, the poetry is written by one of his fictional characters; in
    Robinson’s case the poetry is about the Mars of the story). In these instances, the speculative poetry is, fictionally speaking, the literature of these future worlds. One other example that comes to mind is Frederick Turner’s Genesis, a 10,000-line poem that, the book’s intro tells us, was written by a poet living in the future (a future described by the poem) and sent back in time to 1988…and so literally claims to be the literature of the future. Again, I’m not sure what you mean Alan, but your phrase does make me think about this one similarity between these three texts–which I hadn’t thought of before.

  4. Alan Post author

    Thanks for stopping by, all! Marge, I’m sure Aristotle would vehemently disagree with me. 🙂

    What I was trying to capture with mentioning a “temporal argument”: cuing the reader in (somehow; there’s probably no one single way) that a poem is “future literature”. E.g., with Robert Browning setting the table, so to speak, that he’s writing a persona poem.

    (Now that I think about it, in a way this type of speculative literature is a supra-genre of persona poetry.)

    but longer SF/F poems that are so descriptive that
    they can actually “make tactile” alien or fantastical worlds are very rare–and generally the high-water marks of the field.
    Yeah, I could see poems like this being a person’s magnum opus. And this points to that blurry line between fiction and poetry, and the relationship between the two when they cross.

    Thanks for mentioning a lot of concrete examples, one thing that I’m bad at doing in the middle of blog posts like this; I’ll have to follow through with some of them.

  5. Pingback: Playtime: speculative poetry edition « Catecinem

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