When I was about twelve years old, my mother had the idea of making an anthology of science fiction poetry.
I don’t suppose she knew how such a book could actually be published, but that didn’t stop her (and me) starting to look for worthy poems to go into the book.
And we did find a good number, bit by bit, in unexpected places. Or we found poems we would allow to qualify. At the time, my father read every scrap of science fiction prose from our local library, all the Gollancz series in with shiny yellow covers, among others, so there was a ready influence at hand.
I wrote a poem for this anthology myself. Mum wrote one too. But mainly the poems were by real poets. I wish I could remember what all of them were, because we spent much time talking about and compiling the set. I think we admitted John Smith’s ‘A True Story’, though it is more fantasy than science and begins:
My eldest uncle had an extraordinary habit
Of turning young girls into birds;
He kept them in exquisitely jewelled cages.
How he did it I could not tell,
But only that they were inexplicably beautiful.
I still love this poem and would quote the lot, were I not working towards another contender, namely John Masefield, whose star (apart from Sea Fever, Cargoes and Tewkesbury Road) has sunk somewhat low these days, though not as far as John Smith’s (which just goes to show that being the author of more than seven collections of poetry, one a PBS choice, and at least one other a recommendation, is no guarantee of poetic immortality).
You may not think of Masefield as a science fiction man, but he has at least one poem that qualifies. It calls on the idea of space as a great sea, through which one might sail, and of course sailing was something the poet knew about. To this day, ‘I could not sleep for thinking of the sky’ is, for me, beautiful and haunting, though rarely included in anthologies. The last line, in particular, where the iambic rhythm changes, is a corker.
My mother, at the age of 91, has now departed on her final voyage. I have another close and dearly valued friend about to follow. For them both, here is John Masefield’s science fiction sonnet, which is the twelfth poem in Lollingdon Downs, first published in 1917—the year Edward Thomas died. You can hear Brian Blessed reading it on Youtube, bless him, but I don’t recommend it. The language of the poem is already theatrical. It needs to be read quietly, simply.
Sometimes poetry can perform the function of prayer for non-praying people, and this must be, I think, why it’s so often included in funeral services. But prayers are best when you know them well, and the words have worked their magic over years of repetition, and this is true of poetry too. I have known this Masefield sonnet most of my life, but never learned it by heart. My mother had a far better memory than me before Alzheimer's got in the way and would have recalled most of the lines with a simple prompt, as well as screeds of others. For me, recalling whole poems is more difficult.
I think I will learn it properly now though. It’s a tricky one because the second and third quatrains are all one long rolling sentence, re-enacting a great and glorious journey. But the final couplet is easy, if you can speak it without your voice breaking.
I could not sleep for thinking of the sky,
The unending sky, with all its million suns
Which turn their planets everlastingly
In nothing, where the fire-haired comet runs.
If I could sail that nothing, I should cross
Silence and emptiness with dark stars passing,
Then, in the darkness, see a point of gloss
Burn to a glow, and glare, and keep amassing,
And rage into a sun with wandering planets
And drop behind, and then, as I proceed,
See his last light upon his last moon’s granites
Die to a dark that would be night indeed.
Night where my soul might sail a million years
In nothing, not even Death, not even tears.