Poetry and I seem to have an unusual relation. One of the reviewers of Pearseus, my epic fantasy series, said, “Some of your writing had me shaking my head at its poetry, just because it was so beautifully said.”
Another, complained about the opposite: “Only thing I miss: the poetics. If the language could become more lyrical… it would be fantastic”.
I asked him to write a guest post, and he immediately agreed to share his thoughts with us (bless his heart!). I hope you enjoy his insights as much as I did!
Poetry and Fantasy
When you think about the history of fantasy fiction, this is quite strange. Lord of the Rings, for example, is filled with poetry- generally the characters are supposed to be singing, although Tolkien never provided music. Indeed the most famous lines in the book are poetry:
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
Robert E. Howard was the creator of Conan the barbarian. If a given fantasy cliché wasn’t invented by Tolkien, it’s very likely that it was invented by Howard. Like Tolkien, Howard often put lines of poetry in his work. For example the Conan story The Phoenix on the Sword begins its chapters with lines such as the following:
What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs-I was a man before I was a king.
He also quoted another poet, Viola Garvin, in his suicide note:
All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre;
The feast is over and the lamps expire.
H.P. Lovecraft, creator of Cthulhu, actually wrote more poetry than prose at certain points in his career. Like Tolkien, his best known lines are poetry, albeit from a prose work:
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.
Yet, it’s very difficult to find examples of poetry by more recent fantasy authors.
It seems a great shame to me that the tradition that influenced so many of ‘the greats’ has, apparently, completely disappeared from the genre. It’s strange that fantasy authors are accused of ripping off Tolkien- yet no one seems to be interested in writing their own ‘One Ring to rule them all’.
I think this is probably a symptom of the decline of poetry generally. In the early 20th century, modernist writers abandoned many of the conventions of the 19th century: James Joyce’s novels use ‘stream of consciousness’ rather than traditional sentence structure, and poets such as T.S. Eliot abandoned regular rhyme and rhythm.
Today, James Joyce is a ‘canonical’ author, taught in university courses and generally praised. Yet his innovations didn’t become the new orthodoxy. A typical novel of today is, in many ways, much more like something from the 19th century than it is like Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’.
T.S. Eliot, on the other hand, is both praised and imitated. Indeed, if you read about T.S. Eliot’s formal innovations before you read the actual poems, you’re likely to expect something a lot more radical than what you actually get. This is because his innovations have become the new norm.
It’s impossible to prove that this is why novels have retained their relevance and poetry hasn’t. However, it seems to me to be a reasonable hypothesis. Certainly I’ve found that my poems, which are ’19th century’ in their use of regular structures, seem to be much more accessible to most readers than most 20th or 21st century poets.
THE DEATH OF PAN
As I was sailing on a starlit sea
a voice cried out across the waves to me.
A grieving, golden voice, wine-wracked and broken.
I saw no ship, and knew a god had spoken.
It spoke but once, and this is all it said:
“At Palodes, cry out ‘Great Pan is dead.'”
We came to Palodes at break of day
and sailed into a darkly-wooded bay.
Who dares defy the gods? And so I spoke
though all that I could see was ash and oak
but from those woods came wailings of despair
of grief too great for human heart to bear.
One man went mad, another fell down dead
and we who lived took up the oars and fled.
They Say the Sirens Left the Seas
You can find this little gem of a book on:
You can also follow James on his blog, https://www.apolitical.info/teleleli