The curse of verse
My latest novel is, except for the frame story of a brief introduction, told entirely as a series of 116 poems. What is this, career suicide?
Well, maybe. Right now, poetry is about the least commercial thing anybody could write. And ironically, in an age when everybody is shouting relentlessly about themselves online, it’s still tainted by self-indulgence.
Unless, of course, you set it to a rock beat.
For me, writing this novel was a return to my literary roots. I spent the first twenty years of my life, at least from the point at which I knew the job existed, determined to be a poet.
From the age of 11 onwards, I filled notebooks with shameful verse, including one memorable doggerel in which I declared myself proudly to be “homo erectus” which my English teacher made me read in front of the school, presumably to give the staff room something to snigger about afterwards.
Although poetry was also the first creative writing I ever published professionally, I eventually gave it up. I couldn’t reconcile writing as art (where the writer himself is foregrounded) with writing as a means of imparting information (where the writer tries to make himself as invisible as possible).
Much of my early career as a commercial writer involved trying to divest myself of the academic baggage I’d accumulated in my education: to learn to write again, literally from scratch, not as a self-conscious crafter of a perfect sentence but as someone who wants to get across an idea as simply and efficiently as possible.
I believe that the best thing any novelist can do is spend time as a commercial writer, preferably in a technical discipline. Whereas writing itself is easy, the logic of writing is a craft that must be developed, slowly and painstakingly, over years of toil. It’s hard, yes, but it’s of immeasurable benefit.
Many writers will tell you they go through their drafts at the end of the writing process and cut out all the flab – the adverbs and adjectives, the extraneous descriptions, the asides.
But that’s remedial, fighting against your own tendency to waffle. Once you’ve learned logic and economy, you’ll never tolerate woolly thinking again. Why pile on all the fat if you’re only going to have to cut it out later?
Which is probably good advice for a diet.
I’ve written everything from manuals telling workshop engineers how to strip down a car engine to doctor’s abstracts for new pharmaceutical drugs. There’s a poetry merely in trying to make this infuriating language express facts without ambiguity.
It’s always funny when a Japanese CEO tells me, as one did just the other day, that he decided he wanted his product description written in English because “Japanese is too vague and poetic a language.”
Oh boy. Japanese is absolutely precise as a language. It’s almost mathematical. You should try writing a single English sentence that isn’t open to interpretation.
Giving up poetry as an ambition also meant giving up the poets I’d read and admired. Of the volumes that had seemed deeply significant in my youth, I only kept one book: Ted Hughes’s Gaudete. And you may argue that’s not poetry at all.
But Gaudete fed neatly into the things I myself was obsessed with, such as the dark corners of British paganism, the harsh recovery from a shattering psychological experience, the pitilessness of nature, and a warped and destructive spirituality. Its horror has informed much of my own writing.
Poetry nevertheless snuck itself into some of the things I did write. For example, one of the pieces in my collection of short stories Born From Ash is a poem called “Recharge Station” — a teasing reference to Christ’s stations of the cross merged with a vaguely sacrilegious science fiction vibe.
Approaching the climactic scenes in Biome, one of my characters breaks off to recite a poem he’s just written — or rather that I had just written in that character’s voice, deciding that this was how he would react and how he would express himself.
But it wasn’t until last month (January 2016) that I suddenly thought I might be able to tell an entire story in verse form. The result was my new book, Poems Found In The Wreckage Of A Multi-Generational Spaceship.
There’s nothing new or even notable about science fiction poetry. Not only has SF always had a stream of poetry running through it, some of it undoubtedly very good, the genre also boasts epic-length poems such as Harry Martinson’s 1956 Aniara.
But here’s a second shameful admission: I’ve never read a single poem in an SF magazine, and I’ve never felt compelled to track down a copy of Aniara, let alone read it.
I know nothing about SF poetry, and so whatever the genre had achieved in the form was not at all an inspiration or influence on me. My suspicion was that SF poetry consists of people trying to find new things to rhyme with “moon.” “Protozoon,” maybe.
The reason for writing a novel in verse form came down to expediency. My family decided to go down to our favorite vacation spot on the Indonesian island of Bintan for January 2016, and I needed something to do with my time in between sipping my Mai Tai on the beach or trying to drown my son in the waves.
I also needed something to occupy me during the long tedious flights and equally tedious times waiting for my wife to finish shopping in Singapore.
So I bought a notebook and a pen, and started writing verse.
I mapped out a structure before we left. I knew the title, the plot, and the ambiguities I would try to introduce along the way. I knew that a multi-generational spaceship, which in my case would cover 450 years and 16 generations, would give me huge scope for events and emotions that my poetry could explore. Those 16 generations might equate to 30 or more different voices, male and female. The possibilities were endless.
I knew also that this would be a kind of meta-text, in that it would reference quite a few of the novels and stories I’d already published. For example, the structure bears a lot in common with my novella A Thousand Years Of Nanking, though it is resolutely not set in the same world as that story.
Bintan itself, the place on which I wrote the bulk of the poems, entered the plot as the island from which Earth elected to send its heavy cargo lifters into orbit. This is something I’d already explored in Biome, which was written shortly after another family trip to Bintan and Singapore in 2008.
The result was 116 poems in various styles which, placed together in chronological order, told the story of the spaceship as a series of eyewitness reports and internal monologues: at first buoyant and optimistic, but increasingly dark and haunted as the flight progresses and conditions on board the vessel deteriorate, and finally wild and chaotic as the ship approaches a denouement that is never in doubt, since it’s there in the title.
Throughout, my point was not to write poetry as such. It was to tell these vignettes in simple language, within the conceit of the novel as a salvaged collection of poems found in a notebook floating in space, so that readers can understand them and follow the story.
It was, in effect, an alternative way of presenting a narrative — and one that suited that narrative — rather than anything as prissy as a volume of poetry.
Ted Hughes’s Gaudete isn’t really poetry, except in its closing pages. It’s a lens through which you view an unfilmed and probably unfilmable movie.
Poems Found In The Wreckage Of A Multi-Generational Spaceship is only poetry because that’s the lens through which you view the story. But the lens itself, I think, is what gives the work its power. It counts as probably the most emotionally immediate and devastating thing I’ve ever written.