Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Poetry in Fantasy and Science Fiction...

I’ve got a little confession to make, I didn’t actually read all of ‘Shadow Prowler’ before writing my review...
Don’t worry! I’d say that I read a good 99.5% of the book, plenty enough to give a good account of myself in my review. I didn’t read it all though. I tried, I really tried, but there were two small passages where (despite all my best attempts) my eyes glazed over and slid down the page until they were on safer ground. Yep, ‘Shadow Prowler’ had a couple of verses of poetry in it...

This isn’t an isolated incident either. I’d say that Michael Scott Rohan’s original ‘Winter of the World’ trilogy was one of the biggest influences on my genre reading as were Tad Williams’ ‘Memory, Sorrow and Thorn’ books. I couldn’t get enough of them... until they started breaking out in verse. The second this happened I’d find myself skim reading until the prose kicked in again. Even Arthur Dent’s introduction to Vogon poetry, a chapter that has others laughing out loud, inspired nothing more than a feeling that I’d accidentally mislaid the story and needed to find it pretty damn quick!

And don’t get me started on the man Tolkien...

Tom Bombadil may well be a merry fellow but that is not going to stop me giving the little pest a clip round the ear if I ever come across him in real life. Not only did he seem to have very little to do with the plot (to the point where it almost feels like he’s trespassing in the book!) but he had to go and show off his poetry ‘skills’ as well. It’s not just him either. Aragorn gets in on the act (as does Sam) and various elves give away the real reason why Sauron was after killing them all. I sometimes wonder how much of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ I’ve actually read and how much I’ve skipped over...

So what is it with me and poetry? This is the first post I’ve written on the subject but I’m pretty sure that I’ve made mention of it before elsewhere on the blog... I suppose that, first and foremost, I love prose and will always chose it over poetry as my preferred reading matter. For me, prose offers a reading experience that feels somehow deeper than poetry. There’s more room to explore themes etc than in poetry where the verse structure seems to limit this exploration (although there could be an argument made that having to work to a tighter structure actually enhances the final product). I’d also say that pretty much all of my early exposure to poetry was going through the education system where reading is geared towards passing coursework and exams rather than actually enjoying what you’re reading. I’ve always enjoyed reading prose but I’ve never got away from the feeling that reading poetry is anything other than a chore...

Maybe I need to give some other fantasy/sci-fi poetry, that I haven’t read, a go? The only problem is that I don’t really know what else is out there other than the examples I’ve mentioned. I really don’t read poetry at all... Can any of you folks help a guy out here? If there’s anything along these lines that you think I should try, just leave a comment and let me know. Alternatively, if you think I’ve given Tom Bombadil a raw deal then leave a comment and put me in my place... ;o)

10 comments:

Mardel said...

Just like I don't think that you should ever work at eating something that you need to "acquire" a taste for...

If you don't enjoy poetry, don't force it. The enjoyment should come naturally. I would just feel more frustration if I kept trying to acquire a taste for poetry or liver. or caviar. or dry red wine, (gag)

There are some poems that I like - mainly easy to understand poems written by Shel Silvertein or Jack Prelutsky. I'm talking CHILDREN'S poetry here, fun and easy to read, very palatable poetry.
But there are some out there usually meant for adults (just like caviar, dry red wines, pate, etc) that are just unfathomable to me and therefore frustratingly boring. I'm referring to the types where I'm not sure What In The Holy Hell the poet is trying to convey. ugh!

So my vote is, don't force it. There's a lot of wonderful books that you'll enjoy!

mechanicalhamster said...

Tom Bombadil's nonsense aside, the poetry in LOTR mostly harks back to the tales of the Silmarillion and adds something of that lost age feel that makes Middle-Earth what it is.

And it does start with perhaps the most famous poem in fantasy:

"Three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky..."

I have deliberately avoided poetry through The Sundering series*, even those it's chock-full of elves, for two reasons:

1. A lot of readers share your views.
2. I'm not so well-versed at poetry to convincingly pull it off ...

On the other hand, Grudgebearer does contain some dwarf songs - but they're based on rugby songs, so it's a very different vibe!

*Disclaimer: There is a short poetic prophecy in the forthcoming Aenarion, but that's an audiobook and hopefully it isn't a distraction.

suneokun said...

I think the mechanical hamster hit it on the head here. Poems are the Fantasy version of the soaring soundtrack in film. When done well, they can epitomise an 'epic' quality which brings a real depth to the scenery ... when 'dropped in' (like Steven Erikson), where as quality as the poetry may be ... it's out of context and easily 'skippable'... the best poetry, like the 'one ring' stanzas are where well put verse is put to capture the imagination, and the verse itself is an integral part of the plot ... the habit of 'inserting' verse into chapter headers is simply annoying.

Celine said...

Can't help you out at all Graeme, because we're of the same mind. I hate and detest when a story is interrupted by the full lyrics of a song or a big long poem. I always, always skip. ( I'm sure I'm missing a gansey load of meaning and texture by doing so - but I can't help myself.)

Bill said...

That's interesting. I never realized that it was such a onerous thing.

I might agree that Tolkien had an overwhelming amount of poetry in his stories.

But I include a little in mine, and I don't mind a little in whatever I'm reading.

If you figure how much music/song is a part of any humanoid culture, a song in fiction can be a glimpse into that.

I do agree that it should be highly moderated, because ultimately, it's world building, not plot advancement.

Yagiz [Between Two Books] said...

You should read G.G.Kay's Under Heaven ;).

Ms. Laura said...

I love the Lord of the Rings but I skipped all the poems with the exception of the ones read aloud in class (I took a Tolkien course in University). I found them distracting and I'd rather get back to the plot/action at hand.

Outside of Tolkien I avoid books that I know have extensive poetry.

I agree with Bill, though I was never that succinct in expressing it, poetry is more world building than plot advancement.

The Evil Hat said...

If you've enjoyed his prose, you could try some of VanderMeer's poetry in The Day Dali Died. As for me, I don't mind if it's the occasional bit. I'm very, very particular about what poetry I actually enjoy, but I can generally skip it if it isn't relevant for me. That being said, if a story is drowning in the stuff it's a serious problem.

But, really, are you telling me that you DON'T crack up every time you read The Bear and the Maiden Fair in A Storm of Swords?

Graeme Flory said...

Mardel - That's what I usually end up thinking but sometimes I wonder if I should go back and give stuff another go, just to see if my tastes have changed in the meantime...

mechanicalhamster & Sunokun - That makes a lot of sense and I'd never considered it along those lines. I'd also forgotten about Erikson's poetry, probably because I skip that too... :o) Also ties in with what Bill was saying.

Yagiz - There's poetry in GGK? That's one of the books I'll be reading next!

Evil Hat - Thanks for the recommendation, I've enjoyed Vandermeer's work so I might just look out for that. Was there poetry in ASOIAF? I think I must have skipped that during the read...

Esther said...

I just had one of those 'So it's not just me?' moments.

I quite like poetry and am a fan of Shakespeare but poetry suddenly popping up in the middle of prose puts me off my step and takes me out of the story.
I'm sure it uses a different part of the brain and I feel like I have to relax and recalibrate before I can understand what it is talking about.

AS for poetry on it's own I prefer when it is read aloud, as it is supposed to be. I am quite fussy about which voice and if worse comes to worst I read out loud to myself!
This is probably why I quite enjoy poetry in film adaptations even if I have skipped it in the actual book.