So, this is a divisive thing. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about random poetical interludes in fantasy writings. The use in fantasy is no surprise, really. Much early fiction we know about was poetical. That’s how you got your story remembered. The metre helped your verse steep in a performer’s brain, back when people hadn’t moved to see that writing could be used for fiction as well as accounting. And even when fiction became a genre divorced from both the performative and poetical aspect, if one wrote epic, one could not help but think of Homer, Virgil, and (later) Milton. Not to mention the folk music in which the fantastical continued to breathe in the shared consciousness to preserve aspects of celtic culture, and other magical tales: fairies, druids, dragons and other lore*. (See, for example, the Ballad of Tam Lin, which inspired Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock.)
Verse is embedded in fantasy.
However, I don’t know about you, but I can’t write poetry for toffee. And neither can many much more successful fantasy authors. I have no fixed opinion on Tolkien’s verse, but at least half the people I know who call themselves fans readily confess to skipping the ‘song bits’. (I can’t bring myself to skip any of it, personally, but I can’t deny it wasn’t the main draw on the books.) I’ve heard the same about Watership Down, but I have to say, on rereading, I found the rabbit epics both captivating and spine-chilling. (But then, that is a book very carefully and subtly tied to the Homeric root.)
In the average fantasy, though, what is your opinion? Love? Hate? One can’t blame an author if they aren’t a natural poet, but then, why try if you know you suck? And yet…
And yet some poems of fantasy and SF poetry genuinely catch me. Take but one piece from Anne McCaffrey’s song-rich Pern books:
Drummer, beat, and piper, blow,
Harper, strike, and soldier, go.
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Till the dawning Red Star passes.
I know this rhythm is yanked from some famous poem, but I can’t for the life of me think what it is**. I just know that if I start out intoning the original I usually end up wanting to finish with the one from Pern. And that’s OK – every poet is a thief. Churchill stole rhythms from classic literature to create some of the most powerful and iconic speeches in history, and I think that’s a good thing.
Or take John Brunner. I remain in profound awe of his achievement in Stand on Zanzibar, not least the folk poems and dirty limericks that add colour to the ‘Tracking with Close-ups’. Oddly, on a random flipping through of this rather lengthy book I only found the dirty ones about the woman who attacked the super-computer, go figure (e.g. one of 5 poems given in ‘Tracking with Close-ups’ 17):
The case of Teresa’s instructive-
It shows how extremely seductive
A shiggy can be
If her an-atom-ee
Is first rendered super-conductive
I also find Pamela Belle’s sparsely but powerfully used poetry profoundly moving. Take this, describing Sar D’yenyi, and giving us a first, personal glimpse into Ansaryon’s heart, as he quotes it:
Though skies may fall, and put an end to dawning:
Though seas run dry, and fiery mountains roar:
I once saw Sar D’yenyi in the morning,
And my heart is filled with joy for ever more.
Some fantasy poetry sucks bottom, I think most people would agree to that, but some of it is profoundly beautiful, moving, and effective. Do you have a favourite bit? Is there some fragment of made-up epic you want to hear the rest of? These are just some of my favourite SF&F fragments, what are yours?
*Of necessity I realise I’m giving a woefully brief and hopelessly anglocentric account.
** I remembered. Try this on for size:
Double, double, toil and trouble
Fire burn and cauldron bubble
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Till the dawning Red Star passes…
Oh, wait now, I’ve done it again…