From the X-Men to the Greeks of Antiquity: Genre in Contemporary Poetry

Nora E. Derrington -- April 1st, 2013

Happy National Poetry Month!

You may not have been expecting an exclamation like that in a blog post with the “Genreville” tag, but the truth is that there’s a lot of poetry out there that plays with genre tropes, or fits into the category of genre entirely (and I’m using genre here as an umbrella term that includes fantasy, horror, mystery, romance, or science fiction). People often still seem to have the idea that poetry is inaccessible, suited only for those in ivory towers, but poetry that includes elements of the supernatural, mythological, or romantic (just to cite a few possibilities) can give readers points of connection, of entry. I know I can’t be the only person around here who was first drawn into both poetry and horror by the darkly creepy atmosphere of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”! In that spirit, then, here are a handful of recommendations for poetry that incorporate genre.

Lucille Clifton: The Book of Light

Clifton is perhaps best known for her poems that explore feminist ideas and celebrate her African-American heritage, but her work explores mythological and speculative themes as well. Perhaps most notable, at least for our purposes here, is her series of poems addressed to Superman, published in her 1993 collection The Book of Light: “if I should,” “further note to clark,” “final note to clark,” and “note, passed to superman.” If you could write a note to Superman–or another fictional or mythological character–what might you say? What Clifton chose to say might surprise you, but it makes for compelling reading.

Gary Jackson: Missing You, Metropolis

Jackson takes the idea of including comic book characters in poetry several steps further in his debut collection, Missing You, Metropolis. Poems that describe the realities of growing up African-American in Kansas rub shoulders with monologues from characters as well known as  Lois Lane and Magneto, or as obscure as Dazzler. Jackson’s love for the comic genre shines through in this collection, making it a must-read for anyone who appreciates the form.

Catherynne M. Valente: Apocrypha

Valente’s first full-length collection of poetry, Apocrypha, follows the tradition of exploring the stories and characters of myth in verse, and does so to an impressive degree, incorporating tales from lands as distant as Japan. Valente’s familiarity with Classical literature serves her well in this collection, allowing her to take familiar stories and characters and spin poetry out of them that shimmers with her own unique light.

Israel Wasserstein: This Ecstasy They Call Damnation

In another debut collection, This Ecstasy They Call Damnation, Wasserstein delves into a variety of mythological and literary ideas. These range from the Garden of Eden—the collection’s title is a line from Lilith’s monologue—to pondering the point of view of the newly-risen undead in “What the Dead Want.” (Full disclosure: I should note, for the record, that Israel Wasserstein is my partner.) Wasserstein connects lofty ideas to earthy sensibilities in a way contemporary readers will appreciate.

Readers who appreciate the fantastical and mythological in poetry will also enjoy the various online venues for speculative poetry, where emerging and established poets can be read for free, such as Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, and Fickle Muses (which includes fiction as well, and which just came back from hiatus).

Pablo Neruda: 100 Love Sonnets/Cien sonetos de amor

Finally, no discussion of genre and poetry would be complete without a mention of Pablo Neruda’s romantic verse, best showcased in 100 Love Sonnets. Imagine a husband writing to his wife—then imagine that the husband is capable of such exceptional turns of phrase as “Kiss by kiss I travel your little infinity” or “I love you as one loves certain obscure things, / secretly, between the shadow and the soul.” Neruda is a master of the form, and if you’re looking for romance, then I guarantee that the poems in this collection, translated by Stephen Tapscott, will make your toes curl!

Enjoy, and happy reading!

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