Monday, January 18, 2016

`Fresh Wonders Clamor for Language'

Fred Chappell begins his verse letter to Guy H. Lillian III in the first section of his book-length poem Midquest (1981) with a qualified dismissal of science fiction. I say “qualified” because Chappell himself has dabbled in the genre and its cousin, horror fiction. In one of his stories, “Weird Tales” (a title borrowed from the title of the fantasy and horror pulp magazine founded in 1923), H.P. Lovecraft meets Hart Crane. Chappell often alludes to Lovecraft, whom he read avidly as a boy, in both his poetry and fiction. Lillian, by the way, is a science-fiction impresario. In “Science Fiction Water Letter to Guy Lillian,” dated May 28, 1971, Chappell writes: 

“The usual s-f novel is as numb, deaf, and
odorless as a patient readied for surgery.
Surely imagination is sensual, truthfully
septic, like a child wallowing his dog. S-f is
self-indulgent also, but less pleasurable to
the fingers; a deliberate squeamishness obtains;
finally nothing is at stake. Intellectual,
is it? But why propound ideas no one would die
for or live with?” 

All reasonable questions, though my objections to science fiction are more fundamental. First, it’s boring. Henry James noted that the least we ought to expect of a piece of fiction is that it be interesting. The stakes in the genre are always trivial. With few exceptions – J.G. Ballard, some of Tom Disch – science fiction is amateurishly written, in purple or sub-journalistic prose. Like pornography, it is stylistically indifferent while aiming at a single purpose. Regardless of how an author tarts up his story, the results are trivial and the stakes non-existent, except to adolescents (of any age). Its attraction to Big Ideas has changed nothing. In sci-fi, Chappell says, “the difficulties / to be solved are never hard, the insolubles are / taken as premises.” It has “no feel for pastness,” which suggests a fatal flaw in any art form. Chappell then apologizes for his “bitching,” saying, “No use to fault stuff that never / aimed at much in the first place,” and moves on to his real but seemingly unrelated subject: 

what troubles me most is the poets; usually
everything’s their mucking, anyway. They let it get
by them, all that pure data, those images, that new
access to unplumbable reaches of space-time.” 

[In a word, wonder, less than two years after Neal Armstrong’s lunar ballet.] 

still whining, liked flawed Dylan records, about their poor
lost innocence, and the manifold injustices
continually visited upon them, and their
 purple-murky erotic lives, and their utterly
horrid forebears—maybe now and then pausing to gawk
a Flower or The Sea. The heart of it is, if the
stuff’s not employed by poets, it’ll find somewhere a
position, if it has to be among the anti-
poets. Fresh wonders clamor for language, and if the
word-order is second-rate, they’ll take it in lieu of
braver speech.” 

From our perch, 1971 looks like a Golden Age for poetry. Chappell might be taking a cue from science fiction and peering into the future while seeking inspiration from the past: 

or Donne or Vaughan wouldn’t let such opportunities
rot on the stalk; they’d already have one-foot moon-bound
and a weather eye out for pulsars; they had senses
alive apart from their egos, and took delight in
every new page of Natural Theology.
(If that thought is not correct, it ought to be.) And all
this material would be virgin as an unfilled
pie shell if Heinlein and Asimov hadn’t got there
first, prinking hobnail-boot tracks and scattering beer cans.”

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