September 16th, 2006

ozarque figure

Science fiction poetry; gigs and metaphors...

Yesterday I did a brief warble about how much I envy Cowboy Poetry all its props, and how much I wish that I could take a dragon with me to science fiction poetry gigs, and Elizabeth Barrette sent me an off-LJ comment:

"So Cowboy poetry has horses and campfires and such. We can match that.The Society for Creative Anachronism has a higher-than-average appreciation of poetry, and they also have gorgeous clothes, campfires, and other fun props. On the SF side, I'd say start with the clothes. People already dress up for masquerades, and I've seen a few folks dress for panels. Suppose you were reading some of your Ozarque poetry; you could wear one of those lovely patchwork dresses."

I hear what Elizabeth is saying, and I appreciate the suggestions. But the truth is that we -- we science fiction poets -- can't match the Cowboy Poets. [Clue: I feel perfectly comfortable capitalizing Cowboy Poetry; I'd feel silly capitalizing Science Fiction Poetry. There is a Cowboy Poetry movement; science fiction poetry is only just stumbling in that direction.] What the Cowboy Poetry movement has is a unified metaphor -- The Old West -- that is instantly recognizable to every part of the mainstream U.S. culture and to an awful lot of the culture that's nowhere near the mainstream.

Everybody knows the roles in that metaphor: the Cowboy; the Bartender; the Saloon Girl/Woman With Heart Of Gold; the Outlaw (in two versions -- Wicked, and Noble); the Wagon Train leader; the Sheriff; the Lone Gunslinger... and more. Everybody knows the creatures and objects that go with the metaphor: the horses; the cattle; the campfires; the guitars; the guns; the spinning lassos; the covered wagons.... Everybody knows the scenarios and the scripts that belong to that metaphor: the cattle drive; the shoot-out between the Lone Gunslinger and the Outlaw; the bar brawl; the riding-off-into-the-sunset-all-alone; the wagon train setting out across the prairie.... Everybody knows "Wagons, ho!"

Bring up any chunk of that metaphor and all the rest of it appears instantly in people's minds. That's why it's possible to buy a book called "a Western" and be reasonably certain what will be inside. And of course we all do know perfectly well that the real Old West was brutal and exhausting and dangerous and heartbreaking and squalid (like the real Middle Ages were brutal and exhausting and dangerous and heartbreaking and squalid), but we treasure our sanitized metaphorical version of The Old West all the same.

Science fiction poetry does not have some one beloved unifying metaphor that's instantly recognizable to most of the population that way. Instead, we have a wildly varied batch of them, recognizable to assorted subgroups of the population. We have Star Trek. We have Klingons. We have the Middle Ages. We have the Starship In Space. We have The Dragonriders. We have Earth After The Global Catastrophe. And on and on and on; it's a long list.

I'm glad of that; I'm glad science fiction is that spacious and supple and that able to head off in all directions. But I wish there were at least one of its metaphors that had the same "universal" status that the Old West has, so that it could serve as a cultural anchor and make it possible for me to capitalize Science Fiction Poetry.