This summer, I worked as a research assistant for Professor Lesley Wheeler, helping her compile sources for her scholarly book about speculative poetry titled Poetry’s Possible Worlds. “Speculative” poetry is a genre encompassing science fiction, fantasy, horror, and related “weird” subgenres. My research this summer taught me that speculative elements hide where you would least expect them.
In my twentieth-century American poetry class, we recently read a selection of Robert Frost poems. Frost maintains a reputation as of the most well known American poets of the past century. His poems abound with natural and bucolic imagery; his work seems to deal exclusively with the fundamental themes of marital love, manual labor, and home. However, this summer taught me to see Frost in a new light. Rather, my new speculative lenses illuminate Frost’s darkness. “Mending Wall,” one of his most famous poems, concerns an ambiguity about walls and boundaries. The speaker associates tradition with darkness, and even a weird sense of magic:
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. (35-38)
If elves aren’t speculative, I don’t know what is. Here, Frost utilizes magic’s weird sense of possibility to highlight his uncertainty. The speaker wants his neighbor to recognize the magic force that seeks to destroy the boundary between them, but he can’t pinpoint a name for this magic either.
Frost isn’t the only traditional poet I have noticed employing speculative elements. It seems as though the more I think about it, the more I notice authors toying with notions of uncertainty and possibility that come with magic. It makes sense—a poem is a perfect environment for magic, as part of the poem’s job is to lure the reader into its structural and semantic world. One vein of Poetry’s Possible Worlds discusses how speculative poems demonstrate a marked ability to ensnare readers; poetic rhythm works together with imagery to draw us into the poem’s world through a process called entrainment. I researched the cognitive side of this process, but also dwelled on the concept of how creating an alternate space in a literary work provides the reader not just with a sense of escape, but also with a heightened sense of communion with the author-creator of the alternative world.
This communion has power. By engaging in the immersive process of reading speculative poetry, the reader engages with the mind of the poet, often reemerging changed in some way. Poetry’s ability to change the way I see things and provide momentary escape from the chaos of reality is why I love it. Poetry, especially speculative poetry, changes the way I see my own world. Even if you are skeptical of speculative genres, I encourage you to look for the magic hiding in unexpected places, not just in poetry, but also in your own life. Look for walls. Notice elves.
– Annie Persons