L. E. Modesitt, Jr. is a force within the science fiction and fantasy community, but did you know his first dream was poetry? Check him out as he discusses his journey below!
As I’ve said before, although I’m known by most as a fantasy author, I never set out to be a fiction author at all. From my early teens I wanted to be a poet. In college, I was even fortunate enough to study with the late William J. Smith, who went on to become the U.S. Poet Laureate. But I never got beyond publication in small literary magazines, at least partly because I believe that rhyme and meter are an integral part of poetry, a belief not particularly fashionable in poetry venues, especially back then.
In my late twenties, after finishing my tour as a Navy pilot, failing as an industrial economist and as a real estate agent, I decided to try to write science fiction, not fantasy, and “hard” science fiction at that. I was moderately successful, if selling eight short stories, out of close to sixty submissions, over six years can be called “success.” Ben Bova changed that, by rejecting yet another story for ANALOG and refusing to look at any future stories until I wrote a novel. With that semi-dismal beginning, I wrote The Fires of Paratime, and so far, I’ve sold every novel I’ve written, thanks to Ben’s sage advice, but I didn’t give up on poetry.
For a fiction author, even a science fiction and fantasy writer, I have a lot of poetry in my work. My latest book – Quantum Shadows – even has the subtitle “Forty-Five Ways of Looking at a Raven.” That’s a double reference, both to the number of chapters in the book, and to the forty-five couplets or quatrains about a raven which precede each chapter. It’s also an oblique reference and metaphorical tip of Corvyn’s stedora to the poet Wallace Stevens, and his famed “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
Quantum Shadows may be my most obvious use of poetry, but it’s far from the only one. My very first novel, later reprinted in its original version by Tor as The Timegod, contains a drinking song that the protagonist declares is terrible doggerel. And he’s right, not because I wrote it, but because it was written as such. Most drinking songs are in fact awful rhymed doggerel. Song and music are integral parts of human culture, and some of the oldest human artifacts are bone flutes, yet very few F&SF novels contain songs or musical references, particularly those written until recently, but songs can tell the reader about a culture as well as about the singer.
As a side note, one of my pet peeves about the portrayal of songs by (some) writers is when they offer lyrics or partial lyrics and there’s no rhyme or meter. Anything with an oral and/or aural tradition requires both. When I pointed this out to one writer, who shall remain nameless, that writer said, “Well, I’m translating from their language. It doesn’t have to rhyme.” To me, that’s a lame excuse. If a writer can’t even come up with a couplet to get the message across… they shouldn’t even try. Write around it, but don’t pretend that clunky words are a song.
Until the last century or so in human history there has been a close linkage between poetry and music. While this tradition continues in classical art song literature, “modern” poetry has become much more the use of words to create striking effects, unrelated or only marginally related to rhyme and meter, while the only “popular” linkage of rhymed and metered words and music, particularly in western culture, appears to be rap.
Because I believe that most cultures, particularly lower-tech cultures, will link words and music, readers will find original song lyrics throughout my books, in those places where the songs further the story. Overall, the majority of songs appear in the Saga of Recluce, invariably in ordered cultures (those dominated by ordermages, also termed “black” mages), which shouldn’t be surprising, because music is ordered and highly structured, both of which are hard on chaos-mages (also known as “whites”).
But there’s also free-standing poetry. Magi’i of Cyador and Scion of Cyador are linked to each other and to the past of the Cyadoran empire by an imbedded book of poetry passed down to one of the protagonists, and the main character – Lorn – often reads sections of those poems and reflects on them and how they relate to his situation and to the past. The book is also a plot point. For those interested, the origin of the book is revealed in “The Vice-Marshal’s Trial,” which is the first story in Recluce Tales, and the role the book plays in Cyadoran history is revealed in another story – “The Choice.” Another story in Recluce Tales – “Songs Past, Songs of Those to Come” – portrays the role of song in leading to the fall of Westwind and the rise of the isle of Recluce.
The continuity of culture and the role of song in that continuity, particularly in lower tech societies, is often overlooked by writers, with the notable exception of Anne McCaffrey and her harpers and crystal singers. That continuity is something I’ve tried to portray in the Recluce Saga where the songs crafted by Nylan and Ayrlyn in Fall of Angels show up in later time periods.
In Endgames, the last book of The Imager Portfolio, because the two main characters are limited in their conduct and behavior around each other, they write to each other, commenting on poems from a book of verse, each in order to learn more about the other. The poems which they choose aren’t “generic.” They use phrases and references to the history of Solidar, its beliefs and myths, and its cultures, present and past, which, to me, adds a depth to that society.
And, because I believe poetry is indeed universal, songs soothe the widowed Ecktor deJanes in the far future Earth of Adiamante, and Archform:Beauty, although a future high-tech mystery thriller, ends with a poem… and flowers.
L. E. Modesitt, Jr. is the author of Quantum Shadows, on sale from Tor Books now.
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