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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: confrontation between art and technology

Allen, Dick
[Editorial comment: the poet looks at space--inner and outer],   pp. [184]-193 PDF (10.1 MB)

Page 186

ease with which "transistor" and
"mini-" have been absorbed.
A second common difficulty is the familiar
one of labels. All serious poets have
a dread of being called writers of light
verse. Space-oriented poetry has been
(like science-fiction short stories and
novels) considered as a sub-genre, mediocre
best-seller type of literature, to
be read as one reads a gothic, a
western or a detective story. The serious
poet fears that as soon as his
reader sees a phrase heard on Space Cadets
that he is in for a humorous poem
or one of those miniature verse
monstrosities sometimes produced by
established s-f novelists.
Despite these handicaps, the challenge
of writing about space is a compelling one
to the contemporary poets. If they
wish to capture the important essences
of their time they cannot ignore
quasars and lasers, radio probes and
magnetic storms, free fall and the
Big Bang versus Steady State theories.
And in a time when contemporary poetry
seems on the verge of turning, finally, from
186     its submission to the lyric toward
increasing emphasis on longer narrative
and dramatic forms, the possibilities
of creating epic heroes and of establishing
concerns large enough to support the
longer poem, are extremely compelling.
This is in addition to the natural
compulsion which comes from any man's
natural wonder at the universe.
Walt Whitman put it best in "When I
Heard the Learn'd Astronomer":
When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged
in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams,
to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer
where he lectured with much applause
in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became
tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I
wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air,
and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
Perhaps the inspiration of most poets
comes from an experience such as
this: an experience of space, a feeling of
being lost in the universe, a feeling
of having to do something about it, to
write your name, to create order
as a brave defiance to everything out there
which is impossible to order. The
Russian Cosmonauts have told us that
they have been up in the Sputniks and
they looked around and God was not peeking
at them. But if there is not a God,
then perhaps we have been using the
wrong definitions - for at the very least
there is a feeling of the unknowable;
there is a necessity for acceptance, much
as Job is supposed to have felt.
The great English poet and novelist,
Thomas Hardy, puts it this way in
Chapter Two of Far From the
Madding Crowd:
To persons standing alone on a hill during
a clear midnight . . . the roll of the
world eastward is almost a palpable
movement. The sensation may be caused
by the panoramic glide of the stars
past earthly objects, which is perceptible in
a few minutes of stillness, or by the
better outlook upon space that a hill
affords, or by the wind, or by the
solitude; but whatever be its origin the
impression of riding along is vivid and
abiding. The poetry of motion is a phrase
much in use, and to enjoy the epic form
of that gratification it is necessary to
stand on a hill at a small hour
of the night, and, having first expanded
with a sense of difference from the mass of
civilized mankind, who are dreamwrapt
and disregardful of all such proceedings at
this time, long and quietly watch your
stately progress through the stars . . .
Contemporary poets share this kind
of attraction to universal awe, or operate in
reaction to it. Their work, it seems
to me, can loosely be placed in four
major categories. First comes the
poetry which, although not primarily
future-oriented, uses many allusions to
current space concerns. Related to these
poems are those occasional ones
by major contemporary poets which,
although not written as per se science
fiction, do fit the general category. Third
come poems by science fiction novelists
and short story writers and s-f
addicts. And fourth - perhaps most
important - are the song-poems of the

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