The Outbound Muse's Despatch:
The Science Fiction Poetry Of Calvert And Many More

by Steve Sneyd

From Aural Innovations #7 (July 1999)

Trying to set a wall between song lyrics and poems is like making sandcastles: no matter how elaborate you make them, a wave is going to come along and wash them away.

There IS a kind of spectrum, though. At the one end, words which are pretty much nothing without music; at the other end, words which don't need music, maybe even fight strongly against it. In between, possibilities are endless.

Another way of saying it is that there are song lyrics which, printed on a lyric sheet, seem empty, banal, no matter how powerful they seemed when they rode the music, or the music rode them. They're certainly not poems for the printed page, or even likely to work as performance poems, where its the kind of live performance that just involves a reading voice, no music.

Then you find those song lyrics - a Bob Dylan's, from an earlier era a Noel Coward's, that you can read printed on a page, or hear recited without music, and they still work strongly on a reader, even, it would seem safe to say, one who hasn't heard the musical version, although in those two cases there can't be many such people. (You also get poems never intended to be put with music, that, when they are, suddenly seem a marriage make in heaven - take John Betjeman's work, or the way Beat poetry gelled so magically with West Coast jazz).

John Lennon, using the Bob Dylan example as proof there was no real way to make a general differentiation between song lyric and poem - "Everything you do "(with words)" is the same thing, so do it the same way" - did make a practical distinction, though, in the same radio interview: "If the words come first, it's a poem song. If the melody comes first, they're word sounds."

Why go this way round into starting to talk about science fiction poetry?

Because the "interface place", if you like, par excellence between spacerock and science fiction poetry began and remains in the work of Hawkwind, and particularly their relationship with two writers, Michael Moorcock and especially the late Robert Calvert.

Moorcock wrote a variety of lyrics for Hawkwind, most of them nearer to fantasy than science fiction, as well as lyrics for abortive independent musical projects like The Entropy Tango. These he thought of, and spoke of, as song lyrics rather than poems, although they have appeared in print in contexts other than as lyric sheets or a book about his music involvements: printed in little magazines, and in the case of Entropy Tango, in his novel of that name.

More relevant here, because they are both directly science fiction in content, are "Space Is Dark", which Moorcock first wrote as, in effect, a prose-poem first scene setting mini-chapter of his science fiction novel about a collapse into madness aboard a spaceship, "The Dark Corridor" (1969), before it was adopted by Hawkwind from 1972 on, and "Sonic Attack". This ferocious poem parodies the blandly misleading civil defense instructions issued in Britain at the time to the civilian population as to what precautions they should take in the event of a nuclear attack - Moorcock's satire concludes viciously "Do not panic, Think only of yourself."

Moorcock is predominantly a genre novelist - of science fiction, science fantasy, and dark fantasy like the epic Elric sequence - with only occasional insertions of verse within them.

On the other hand, Robert Calvert was very much a poet as well as lyricist, and used science fiction themes in his poetry extensively. Such poetry was recited by him during Hawkwind gigs, as well as being directly incorporated into their major Sfnal presentation, Space Ritual', for which "Captain Bob" devised the concept as well as contributing much of the word content.

In his SF-related work, the distinction made at the beginning between verse which works well as song lyric, but not on the page, and work which is capable of being stand-alone on the page, can be seen, as well as examples of the intermediate zone. Even between two pieces often linked together as one item ("Spirit of the Age") by Hawkwind, "The Clone's Poem" and "The Starfighter's Despatch" (1971), a considerable difference of mode can be seen, the former a performance rather than on-the-page poem to be read, the latter far more subtle in its ironic picture of an interplanetary future in which the android replica of a love left behind on Earth to age and die, has itself begun to malfunction and call out another's name.

Calvert's poetry appeared in 1974 in an anthology, The Purple Hours', produced for a poetry reading at a British science fiction convention, and there were two collections of his work, of which the 1978 Centigrade 232' (the title tributes Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451') contains a considerable amount of work on science fiction themes. Particularly striking are the "Landing on Medusa" ("The Awakening" and "First Landing") poems - a crew awakened from cold-sleep travel across the light years land on a planet which lives up to its name by turning them to stone - which again Hawkwind has often included in performance - and such pieces as "Ode To A Time Flower" - hesitation to damage its beauty before picking the flower that will give protective stasis - and an even more haunting use of Sfnal concepts at a level far more subtle than the simplicities of "pulp SF", titled "The Naked and Transparent Man Gives Thanks".

In this short but intense work, full of internal sound-music and employing a strict ancient form, Chaucer's rime royale, a figure lying, perhaps terminally ill, on a planet itself in possibly terminal decay - a "failing sun" over a moth-holed globe "with the "ruins of ages strewn like wreckage of an unsuccessful probe" - nevertheless rejoices at the wonder of existence and the miracle of his own body's "vermilion tapestry - living robe and pulsating weave."

The last two poems mentioned, which sum up the truth of Calvert's own remark "We make what we make of the world into music and it comes out as SF", both appeared in the science fiction magazine NEW WORLDS (in 1973 and 1976 respectively).

Under the editorship of Moorcock himself from the mid-60's, this magazine had been transformed from a redoubt of "Golden Age" SF to become the cutting edge of what became known as New Wave science fiction, open to experiments in form and content, to influences from new developments in music, arts and fashion, and the whole "countercultural revolution" of the late 60's generally.

In particular, Calvert was by no means the only poet to appear in NEW WORLDS under Moorcock's editorship, although he was the only one more known as a rock lyricist.

Many of the poets whose work appeared in the magazine were writers from "the mainstream", rather than from the science fiction field. They brought into their work for it influences from psychedelic and other drug cultures, from the "soft sciences" of the mind's own workings and disruptions, as it were of inner rather than outer space, and willingness to use forms, from free verse to concrete work in which visual patterning was as much a part of the work as verbal content (these had been present in "mainstream" poetry since before WWI, but had hitherto been very rare in science fiction poetry, that in the "pulp" magazines tending to be strict rhyme and meter in form).

As a brief but necessary digression, is all but impossible to point to a single date and place for the beginning of what can be called science fiction poetry; time after time Sfnal themes like parallel worlds, time reversal, cosmic voyages, and so on can be shown to have very ancient roots. It has been argued, if a "year zero" MUST be chosen, that just as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' can be claimed to be the first true SF novel, so two poems which grew out of the same extraordinary gathering of writers at the Villa Diodati near Geneva in 1816, Byron's "Darkness" - deprived of sun, civilization collapses into chaos, a kind of precursor nuclear winter poem - and Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound" with its stupendous transformations across time and space, above and below the planet's surface - are the first two "real science fiction" poems. The reason, however, for making such a point of the NEW WORLDS developments is that they induced such changes in the field of science fiction poetry as to in effect act as a "Discontinuity" or new start.

A couple of examples will indicate the kinds of themes involved. George MacBeth's "The Silver Needle" set a futuristic warrior into action within an extraplanetary mindscape in a war of rival addictions of mythical scope and symbolism, while D.M. Thomas' "The Head Rape", perhaps the most anthologized science fiction poem yet, explored telepathic abuse of a woman. Thomas, whose work for NEW WORLDS also included "The Songs Of Mr Black", a sequence of experimental poems partly drawing on "found" material is actually recordings of psychiatric patients, depicts the conflict of outer data and inner voices as two "realities" contend in the mind, later incorporated much of his poetry for the magazine into prize-winning "mainstream" novels.

Through Judith Merrill's anthologies of New Wave SF for the North American market, which included poetry, these works and their innovations became as well known as in Britain. In 1969, when Edward Lucie-Smith compiled the most influential anthology of science fiction poetry, Holding Your Eight Hands', the American edition in fact appeared before the British.

The anthology, which captured public attention also as appearing in the year of the Moon landing, when interest in space was at its height, included, as well as New Worlds writers, among them such well known science fiction names as Brian Aldiss and John Brunner, a variety of other poets compelled by the liberating possibilities of science fiction imagery. Thus the poet could look at our time and place from outside, and through fresh, indeed alien eyes - the established "mainstream" poet (albeit also a long time SF reader) Edwin Morgan made particularly rich use of this with his concept of "interferences", the aliens changing us in subtle as well as overt ways. (His poem, "The First Men On Mercury", illustrates this by a gradual mutation of Earth speech into Mercurian. His "into Sobieski's Shield" - refugees from a devastated Earth are matter-transmitted to an inhospitable distant planet, and find themselves changed in tiny, disturbing ways - is perhaps the poem I would choose if asked to recommend the one poem that sums up the possibilities of SF poetry in terms of both Sense of Wonder and observation of what humanness is. Morgan is currently involved in working on a vast history-of-the-universe poetry-with-jazz project, a link back towards where this article began.)

Science fiction poetry continues to have many practitioners, and the Science Fiction Poetry Association (established 1979), which publishes the bimonthly magazine STAR*LINE, votes annual awards, the Rhyslings (named after the blind singer of the spaceways in Robert Heinlein's story "The Green Hills Of Earth") for the genre, which appear in the "Nebula' SF anthology annually alongside prose winners of other prizes.

It continues to appear in magazines, both genre, among them the newsstand Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, and "mainstream", and occasional anthologies - 1989's 'Poly' was particularly notable not just for its blockbuster size but for the inclusion of some work very experimental in form and content, and for the way it drew together threads of a variety of influences on cutting-edge SF poetry - surrealism, in turn in debt to Edgar Allen Poe, and Artificial Intelligence research, as well as the New Wave, among them.

With the resurgence of spacerock in all its forms, will we see the science fiction poets relinking with the music, as Calvert and Moorcock so strikingly did back in the 70's?

Contacts and Information:

The Science Fiction Poetry Association - membership details - $15/year USA, $18 Canada/Mexico, $21 elsewhere, John Nichols, Secretary/Treasurer, 6075 Bellevue Drive; North Olmsted, OH 44070.

The Holding Your Eight Hands anthology is still available from Ocean View Books (likewise POLY), for prices including shipping. Enquire from Lee Ballentine, 2050 South St Paul Street; PO Box 102650; Denver, CO 80250.

Michael Moorcock's collected lyrics, both for Hawkwind and for his other music projects like The Entropy Tango, can be found in a history of his rock involvement, DUDE'S DREAMS - The Music Of Michael Moorcock, by Brian Tawn, Hawkfan Publications, 1997 - for price from USA enquire to Hawkwind Feedback, 27 Burdett Road, Wisbech, Cambs. PE13 2PR, England.

Robert Calvert's poetry collections are long out of print in both text and audio tape versions. However, they are archived on the Internet on Knut Gerwers' web site "The Spirit Of The Page".

Click your browser's BACK button to return to the previous page.