May 3, 2017KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsLiteratureReadingWriting

Margaret Atwood and The Speculative in Poetry

Online and in person, it feels like everyone’s talking about The Handmaid’s Tale, the ten-episode television series based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel of the same name, first published in 1985. As I don’t have access to the streaming service Hulu, I can’t yet weigh in on the series itself, but it still has me thinking about Atwood’s writing. Atwood has described The Handmaid’s Tale and her other dystopian works as “speculative fiction,” a genre descriptor that can certainly encompass “science fiction” proper, but also more broadly encompasses horror, fantasy, alternate histories (like Philip K. Dick’s 1962 The Man in the High Castle, also recently adapted for television), and so on.

Versed in movie trailers, we might call speculative fiction the “In a world” genre, after the movie trailer trope in which the (deep, male) voiceover (popularized by voiceover actor Don LaFontaine and gently parodied in Lake Bell’s 2013 movie In a World . . .) begins “In a world—[insert scenario here].” Not all of these “In a world” movie trailers represent speculative fiction (consider the 1990 Goodfellas trailer that’s “In a world that’s powered by violence”—not literally an alternate world to our own, but a world within our own), but many of them do. Part of the draw of the genre is, of course, its proximity to our own world—the thrill, or horror, or warning that the “butterfly effect” of change, whether fantastical imaginings or just small actions (or inactions) could catapult life as we know it into this alternate version of reality.

The power of speculation hinges on our ability to explore and inhabit the counterfactual, to ask “what if?” and then imagine the “then” that follows. This speculative capacity, while not always as dramatically represented in a poem as in, say, a Mad Max movie, is still a great source of power in many poems, particularly in its imagining (for better or for worse) of different worlds, or in its giving voice to the voiceless through the “what if” of persona and personification.

Atwood’s own poetry is often speculative in these senses, as in her poem “This is a Photograph of Me,” in which plain, almost “flat” description in the first three stanzas is irrevocably altered by the new information introduced at the beginning of the fourth stanza, in a parenthetical that only ends when the poem itself ends:

(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.

The poem asks for the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief and listen to the dead, as Atwood’s “Song” poems, which feel even more overtly socio-political, also ask us to suspend disbelief, often through listening to the voices of animals, drawing attention to questions of power and agency. “Pig Song,” for example, begins with an accusation (“This is what you changed me to:”) and ends:

I am yours. If you feed me garbage,
I will sing a song of garbage.
This is a hymn.

While those who call their poetry “speculative poetry” are often referring specifically to elements of science fiction or fantasy in their work, it may be worth noting how pervasive the speculative is as a poetic move or device, tapping into our capacity to recognize that, in the words of Jane Kenyon, “It might have been otherwise”—and still could be otherwise.