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Marissa Lingen

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The Vogon poetry problem [Jun. 11th, 2016|12:36 pm]
Marissa Lingen

I think we all know the Dragonsinger problem of poetry in fiction (I will describe it in case someone doesn’t), and this week I found its opposite.

The Dragonsinger problem: all the other characters go on and on about how brilliant Our Protagonist’s poetry is. “You are the best poet of your generation!” they cry. “Possibly the best ever! Our country/language/planet has never seen such a wondrous poet as you!” Problem: very few authors are the best poet of their generation. Very few best poets of their generation decide to write speculative novels. So if you do show even a few lines of such a poem, rather than only the reactions to the poems, it jolts the reader right on out of there. Or immerses them in pity for the country/language/planet that is stuck with no better poetry than that. One of the worst examples is Menolly of Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. Everyone falls all over themselves to praise her. Her peers are sooooo jealous. And Anne McCaffrey shows quite a lot of Menolly’s lyrics in the books, and they are…not, shall we say, in stiff competition for the best of her generation. I first read them right before I turned twelve, and I am not convinced that they were better than I could have done at that age. I believe they rhymed die and cry, among other things. And I was reading T.H. White at around the same time, so I had the ants to help me make fun of them with the moon/June/soon, love/dove/above, and thanks to T.H. White whenever pop music is particularly annoying me I think of Al Jolson.


Yesterday I encountered the opposite. The author was quite aware that they were portraying bad poetry. It was supposed to be youthful and exuberant but not at all good. And it went on. And on. AND ON.

This is just what Douglas Adams did not do with the Vogon poetry. Vogon poetry, as Adams described it in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, was notoriously bad throughout the galaxy, weapons-grade bad poetry. But he described it. He had a line or two. Enough for people to chuckle at how bad.

And then he was done.

Because people believe you that your bad poetry is bad. Oh, they believe you. They just don’t need to sit through it. You only need to hear the clarinets honk once to believe that a grade school band concert is bad. Too much longer and people look away. There is a very narrow land between two swamps, and those two swamps are Embarrassment Squick and Boredom. Being bad at things is rarely interesting. Dart in. Move on. Even if you’re setting a baseline for later improvement, the reader will believe you: yep, they’re bad, they can get better. Golly, we hope they get better. Soon. Now, even. Time for the training montage. Or the cut-scene to exhausted-but-better. Or something else.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


[User Picture]From: sartorias
2016-06-11 08:01 pm (UTC)
Die and cry don't rhyme?

I learned early to skip reading poems if the first example seemed to be a stinkeroo. Kinda like skipping reading long descriptions of fictional dreams.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-11 08:29 pm (UTC)
They do rhyme. They're just the really obvious thing to have rhyme.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2016-06-11 08:33 pm (UTC)
Yeah. There are certain word pairs that show up as rhymes that are kind of predictive.

It amuses me greatly when I'm reading eighteenth century letters, for example, when both men and women were encouraged toward poetic afflatus as part of social style. Some of the worst offenders are the fulsome rhymes in commemoration of some even or other, well larded with 'eternal praise' of some politician or war leader or other, whose name will be writ in the annals of . . . (etc etc). Second best; love poems whose recipients, one strongly suspects, had an "Um . . ." reaction.
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[User Picture]From: therck
2016-06-11 08:15 pm (UTC)
It's been years since I read the Pern books, but I always thought that it wasn't that Menolly was a great poet. I took her as good at earwormy tunes with simple lyrics that also tended to earwormy, more the equivalent of enduring Christmas carols than of, say, Mozart.

I never had the impression that the Harpers as an organization cared much about art. If it happened, it was gravy, but the real point was teaching songs and propaganda, controlling the flow of information. Someone who could write nursery rhymes would be more valuable than someone who could write an opera. Sure, operas are still helpful for big occasions and important/powerful audiences, but those performances aren't likely to be repeated because they're too resource intensive.

I don't think Robinton, for example, was Masterharper because of musical brilliance. The job needs political and management skills more. He had to be a top notch musician, too, but there was a lot more to it.

At any rate, the poetry excerpts make more sense if they're assumed to be valuable for communicating current events with a particular propaganda slant.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-11 08:30 pm (UTC)
Even as propaganda, I had a hard time believing that they were catchy.
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[User Picture]From: oursin
2016-06-11 09:34 pm (UTC)
Many decades ago, when I was at uni, Angus Wilson came to give a lecture. In the course of which he remarked that the works of Great Artists in Novels always sound a bit dire - I think he was speaking particularly of painting and sculpture, but I think this generalises to other forms.

However, there are descriptions of novels by characters in certain novels (those of the novelist sister in Wilson's No Laughing Matter, e.g.) that at least sound intriguing.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-12 02:53 am (UTC)
I think that novelists are probably better at coming up with novels than at anything else, for some strange reason.
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[User Picture]From: timprov
2016-06-12 06:15 am (UTC)
I always assumed Menolly was the best songwriter because there were, like, four of them. So it wasn't hard.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-12 01:33 pm (UTC)
Those poor people. /Thermian voice
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-12 11:14 pm (UTC)
Lois Tilton and I have very different priorities.
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[User Picture]From: thanate
2016-06-14 07:07 pm (UTC)
That's definitely another one for the "tell, don't show" list.
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