The world’s first literature is speculative poetry.
We told each other stories and encoded them in the form of verse. The earliest written literature is poetry – The Story of Gilgamesh, The Iliad and Odyssey, The Ramayana and Mahabharata, Beowulf and other npoem myths, verse histories and tellings in cultures across and around the world.
I had an epiphany about speculative poetry.
It was there from the start, in my womb and my heart.
Not just as humanity’s primordial verse, our first literature, but as yours and mine, too. If you are “western” and/or “northern” your own personal first experience with literature was most probably through speculative poetry. We heard it in nursery rhymes, nursery songs and if you share my race and ethnicity, in the air.
“Hey diddle the cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon
The little dog laughed to see such a sight
And the dish ran way with the spoon”
And this was centuries before animators made kitchenware sentient and tango in cartoons and then in Beauty and the Beast.
“Three blind mice, three blind mice
See how they run, see how they run
They all run after the Farmer’s wife
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife
Have you ever seen such a sight in your life
as three blind mice”
So early horror filk, imprinted on our child minds.
And for a time on the radio of my youth, Peter Paul & Mary sang:
“Oh, Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee”
Other Epiphanies on Speculative Poetry
My own child culture was full of jump rope songs and hand clap performances
“I asked my mother mother mother
for fifty cents cents cents
to see the elephant elephant elephant
Jump over the fence fence fence
He jumped so high high high
He reached the sky sky sky and didn’t come
back back back
Til the forth of July ly ly”
“Miss Mary mack mack mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back back back
She jumped so high high high
She reached the sky, sky, sky
And didn’t come back back back
Til the 4th of ju ly ly ly
We all began with an unexamined and unconstrained embrace and exercise of speculative verse. And invented language –
“eenymeeny kitchaleeny ooaah bombyleeny
ochykotchy koomalatchy out goes y-o-u.”
“369 the goose drank wine
the monkey chewed tobacco on a street car line
the line broke, the monkey got choked
and they all went to heaven in a little row boat”
Also from my early childhood:
“The owl and the pussycat
went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat
They took some honey and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five pound note
The Owl look up at the stars above
and sang with a small guitar
‘O lovely pussy, o pussy my love
What a beautiful pussy you are, you are, you are,
What a beautiful pussy you are..’
And later in my childhood, was Edgar Allen Poe’s the Raven and Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky – which inspired me so enormously to create poems with my own stretched and recast neologisms.
Disney taught us the speculative in song:
“Salagadoola mechicka boola
Put them together and what have you got
Salagadoola mechicka boola
It’ll do magic, believe it or not
Yes, salagadoola means
But the thing mabob that does the job
which Bobby McFerrin sang, too (!!)
Speculative poetry, the poetry of possibilities, presents the unreal as real. A verse text that forces its reader to imagine possibilities that don’t fit their standard understanding of the world.
Speculative poetry, our primordial verse includes: aliens, alternate history, astropoetry, cryptids, cyberfunk, cyberpunk, dystopia, fairytales, fabulism, fantasy, folklore, futurism, horror, magic, monsters, mythology, occult, paranormal, post-apocalyptic, robots, science fiction, shifters, slipstream, solar punk, space opera, steamfunk, steampunk, superheroes, supernatural, sword and sorcery, sword and soul, time-travel, and weird. It takes all poetic forms and one of its own called scifaiku.
I’ve found speculative poems among the work of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) Witch poems 593, 1158, 1383, 1538, 1708; and the 19th century’s Christina Rossetti 1830-1894 whose Goblin Market is oft cited (The Poor Ghost). If your elementary school education was like mine, we read Edgar Allen Poe, whose Raven we memorized – so speculative poetry was a requisite reading, back in the day.
Black Speculative Poetry
The roots of black speculative poetry can be found in spirituals, verse songs of Africans in bondage in America and in the precursor to Négritude, Africa’s first “modern” poet, Jean Joseph Rabéarivelo of Malagasy (1903-1937) whose precedent-setting Afrosurrealism was acclaimed. Négritude was its flowering.
From Traduit de la Nuit (Translations from the Night) (1935).
Vain, all these anticipations
That claim to give us wings
that one day we’ll seduce some Martian?
Vain too, the dream
that lost Icarus
more than the sun
that drank the marvelous wax?
Yet what certain triumph
announced to me by all these signs
that earth and sky sent out
from the borders of sleep:
within our cities of the living
even the most humble of huts
respond to the calls of fire
bursting from newborn stars.
Before him, among the enslaved in America, there were
survival songs, code songs also known as spirituals :
‘Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home’
And then today, the zinger epiphany came to me…. We, the second generation of our families, born in America, imprinted on not just speculative poetry but Horror filk!!!
Our father sang and so did we:
Back to back and belly to belly
They don’t give a damn
‘cause they done dead already
Back to back and belly to belly
in the jumbie jamboree
The song was born the same year as me. It was changed to
“zombie jamboree” 3 years later.
“Speculative poetry” – we are naming what we already know. We just need to remember that we know.
Akua Lezli Hope is a creator and wisdom seeker who uses sound, words, fiber, glass, metal, and wire to create poems, patterns, stories, music, sculpture, adornments, and peace. Published in numerous literary magazines and national anthologies, she’s been in print every year since 1974. A third-generation New Yorker, her honors include the NEA, two NYFAs, NYSCA, an SFPA award, Rhysling and Pushcart Prize nominations, among others. She has twice won Rattle’s Poets Respond. Her first collection, Embouchure: Poems on Jazz and Other Musics, won the Writer’s Digest book award. A Cave Canem fellow, her collection Them Gonewas published in 2018. She created the Speculative Sundays Poetry Reading Series. She edited NOMBONO, the historic first anthology ofspeculative poems by BIPOC creators. An avid hand papermaker and crochet designer with over 130 patterns published, she exhibits her artwork regularly. Her chapbook, Otherwheres, won the 2021 Elgin Award. She sings songs from her favorite anime in Japanese, practices her soprano saxophone and prays for the cessation of suffering for all sentience
Rhysling Anthology 2017, 2021, 2022