Essay

The Dead Zone

Stephen King is one of the world’s most popular writers. Why isn’t his poetry more widely read?
Photo of the writer and poet Stephen King sitting in a hotel room.

In a 2011 interview with the Atlantic, Stephen King shared his thoughts about poetry. “[Poetry] takes ordinary life,” he said, “it takes things that we all see, and concentrates them in this beautiful gem. When the good ones do that, that’s what you get.” He singled out Philip Larkin and James Dickey as poets who express life’s sometimes inexpressible beauty and mysteriousness and concluded, “poets … do speak God’s language—it’s better, it’s finer, it’s language on a higher plane than ordinary people speak in their daily lives.”

King might seem an unlikely arbiter of poetic language. His best-selling novels, short stories, and film adaptations—mostly but not exclusively in the horror genre—have earned him sobriquets ranging from “America’s Storyteller” to the “populist poet of American doom.” But King is also a committed poet, albeit not a prolific one. He’s published barely more than a dozen poems over the past five decades, most in small literary journals, although hundreds more exist on scraps of paper or in half-used notebooks, and several others appear in his novels as the work of his characters.

In typical New England fashion, King downplays his achievements. “I’m not much of a poet,” he writes in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, his 2015 short story collection. “That’s not lowballing, just the truth. When I do manage something I like, it’s mostly by accident.” Elsewhere, he calls most of his poetry “abysmal,” and in a 2000 AOL chat, he said, “I have written a lot of poetry, but I show very little of it. Most of it just doesn’t work.”

Scholar Michael Collings writes that King’s poems “concentrate on the small, the minute. They are not themselves trivial, but they carry an implicit sense of triviality when considered next to the bulk of The Stand or IT … or even the lesser weight of Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and the other novels.” Given such criticism, why read King’s poetry at all?

Poetry was a formative influence on King. He studied and wrote it extensively in college, which helped him develop the keen ear that still confounds some critics. As part of a generation of writers weaned on TV and Hollywood films, King also describes himself as “an imagist” who uses vivid language in his prose the same way poets convey ideas visually or metaphorically. Just as some of his early short stories tinker with concepts he explores at greater length in the novels, some of King’s early poems introduce ideas and images that reemerge in later works.

In 2004, when several of King’s college poems were reprinted in The Devil’s Wine, an anthology of horror writers’ poetry, Publishers Weekly declared them “good enough to make readers hope the Master Spellbinder revisits his muse more frequently.” Ardent King fans are particularly interested in his poetry because much of it is hard to find and yet well worth seeking out. These early works have enough raw energy and memorable lines to be compelling literature in their own right. Besides, as King writes in Danse Macabre, his 1981 nonfiction study of the horror genre, poetry doesn’t require justification: “to simply delight the reader is enough, isn’t it?”

***

As an undergraduate at the University of Maine in the late 1960s, King took classes in contemporary British and American literature taught by Carroll Terrell, a renowned Ezra Pound scholar. King also enrolled in a special seminar called Contemporary Poetry in the fall of 1968. Limited to just 12 students, the workshop was taught by Burton Hatlen, cofounder of the National Poetry Foundation (no relation to the Poetry Foundation), and Jim Bishop, who has taught poetry in schools, prisons, and mental health centers. The group met frequently, sometimes in Bishop’s living room.

King later recalled the workshop as like “being on a long drunk,” an exciting period that produced nothing notable from him. “But, on the other hand, I wasn’t typical,” he writes. “For a lot of people, good did come of it.” He identifies the semester as one of his rare “dry periods” from writing fiction, which he attributes to spending too much time analyzing the work he produced. He worried about how his classmates would dissect his writing—a process foreign to King’s approach. “I’m the kind of writer that doesn’t know jack shit about anything,” he says in a 2016 interview. “I’m totally intuitive about this. I don’t plot ahead, I don’t outline.”

Still, he wrote 40 or 50 poems for the seminar, few of which still exist. His first published poem, “Harrison State Park ’68,” appeared in the fall 1968 edition of Ubris, the University of Maine literary journal. As a child, King lived for a while in Fort Wayne, Indiana, so presumably the poem’s title refers to Fort Harrison State Park in Indianapolis.

The poem pairs an epigraph attributed to psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Thomas Szasz (“All mental disorders are simply defective strategies for handling difficult life situations”) with the lyric “And I feel like homemade shit” from a song by Ed Sanders of the Fugs. King goes on to mention a number of celebrities—Jimmy Dean, Robert Mitchum, Sonny and Cher—and brand names—Sony, Westinghouse, Playtex—which has since become a hallmark of his style.

In Danse Macabre, King quotes poet Louis Zukofsky, who reportedly said that “the look of words on the page—indents, punctuation, the place on the line where paragraphs end—has its own story to tell.” In “Harrison State Park ’68,” King dramatizes this idea across the poem’s 100 free verse lines.

I remember Mickey Rooney
and Pretty Boy Floyd
and he was the shortest Pretty Boy Floyd
on record
coughing his enthusiastic

guts out in the last                   We have not spilt the blood.

reel.                                         They have spilt the blood.

A little girl lies dead
On a hopscotch grid
No matter
— Can you do it?

As a hodgepodge of images and lame jokes (“if you can’t be an athlete, / be an athletic supporter”), the poem is cryptic, although the imagery anticipates death and perhaps a nuclear holocaust (“Someday there will be skeletons / on the median strip of the Hollywood Freeway”). At the end, the narrator reaches for his lover’s hand but touches “only the radiating live pencils / of your bones.”

As Collings writes, “The more formal distancing and verbal texture of poetry often comes between King as poet and his audience,” and “Harrison State Park ’68” is a prime example. Unlike King’s more mature works, which are colloquial, linear, and cinematic, the poem is more a literary object than a story.  

The most widely republished of King’s university poems is “The Dark Man,” which first appeared in Ubris in 1969. King wrote the poem on the back of a placemat in the Memorial Union building on campus while nursing a massive hangover. It catalogs the observations of a vagabond:

 
i have ridden rails
and passed the smuggery
of desperate houses with counterfeit chimneys
            and heard from the outside
and heard clink of cocktail ice
while closed doors broke the world—

Revisiting the poem in a 2016 essay, King identifies such diverse influences as Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ray Bradbury, LSD, and the Doors—an archetypal literary time capsule of the 1960s. The poem also marks the genesis of Randall Flagg, a central character in King’s cosmology and the supervillain in his novel The Stand (1978) and in the epic Dark Tower series. Inspired in part by Donald DeFreeze, one of Patty Hearst’s kidnappers, Flagg assumes a variety of aliases throughout King’s work. “He’s sort of the way that I sum up all the things that I think about evil: somebody who’s very charismatic, laughs a lot, tremendously attractive to men and women both, and somebody who just appeals to the worst in all of us,” King has said.

Moth, a 1970 digest that arose from the Contemporary Poetry seminar, includes two other King poems: “Donovan’s Brain,” inspired by the eponymous 1942 science-fiction novel by Curt Siodmak, and “Silence,” a brief dispatch whose narrator is angry about his lack of basic human comfort:

            i stand with books in hand
                          the feary silence of fury
                        waiting
   for the furnace to kick on

The poem echoes King’s meager circumstances at the time. He was “literally the poorest college student I ever met in my life,” his wife, Tabitha, later recalled. “He wore cut-off gum rubbers because he couldn’t afford shoes.”

King fell in love with Tabitha Spruce, a fellow student, during the poetry seminar partly because he understood what she was doing with her work. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she didn’t wait for inspiration but took a workmanlike approach to literature. Writing poems, King argues in his 2000 literary memoir, On Writing, has as much in common with sweeping a floor as it does with “mythy moments of revelation.” He notes that as a college student, he had little use for writers—poets in particular—who believed that good writing “came spontaneously, in an uprush of feeling that had to be caught at once. … Would-be poets were living in a dewy Tolkien-tinged world, catching poems out of the ether. It was pretty much unanimous: serious art came from … out there! Writers were blessed stenographers taking divine dictation.”

The 1970s saw another batch of poems that anticipate leitmotifs in King’s later fiction. “Brooklyn August” is King’s tribute to the Dodgers’ last season in New York. It’s also one of the earliest entries in his baseball oeuvre, which currently includes two novellas, a nonfiction book, and “Head Down,” an essay about his son’s Little League team that first ran in the New Yorker. Baseball is one of King’s abiding passions, and it’s a rare King novel in which characters don’t mention the Red Sox at some point.

The poem’s opening lines echo “In Flanders Fields,” John McCrae’s 1915 war poem, which begins, “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row.” King’s version begins, “In Ebbets Field the crab-grass grows / (where Alston managed) / row on row,” and the remaining stanzas are rife with the nostalgia of attending a ball game:           

time’s called in the dimness of the 5th
someone chucked a beer at Sandy Amoros in right
he spears the empty cup without a word
and hands it to a groundkeeper chewing Mail Pouch
while the faceless fans cry down juicy Brooklyn vowels,
a plague on both their houses.

In his endnotes to Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993), the short story collection that includes “Brooklyn August,” King writes that the poem “has been reprinted several times in various anthologies of baseball curiosa, and appears to have been selected upon each occasion by editors who seem not to have the slightest idea of who I’m supposed to be or what it is I’m supposed to do. And I really like that.”

Also in the 1970s, King published three poems in Contraband, a journal co-founded by his former classmate Bruce Holsapple. Two have never been reprinted and are among King’s rarest works. The first is an untitled 28-line piece (attributed to “Stephan” King) written from the perspective of a man driving a vehicle (“this huge, alien tin”) while a woman sleeps in the passenger seat. He muses about how he is rushing “pell-mell to wrinkles” and concludes that he is driving “through the lens of darkness / and the eye of time.” The 17-line “Woman with Child,” printed sideways in the journal, is about a pregnant woman who emerges from a bath and assesses her body in the steamed mirror. Although most of the poem is dreamlike and languid (she calmly scratches her buttock as she steps out of the tub), the closing lines have sinister undertones:

In the dark depths of her the creature turns silently,
as if toward the surface,
or the sun.

This maternal uneasiness anticipates King’s novella “The Breathing Method,” in which a decapitated woman manages to give birth, or his 1989 novel The Dark Half, whose protagonist absorbs his malignant twin in utero.

The third poem from the Contraband series is “The Hardcase Speaks,” a 66-line stream-of-consciousness work that vividly depicts a victim of the Cleveland Torso Murderer. The poem also references Charles Starkweather, a teenager who, along with his girlfriend, killed 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming in 1957–58. In an interview with 60 Minutes, King said that as a child he kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about Starkweather’s crimes.

bore a little hole in your head sez I insert a candle
light a light for Charlie Starkweather and let
your little light shine shine shine.

It’s hard to read that final line without thinking of The Shining, King’s seminal 1977 novel (originally titled The Shine) in which young Danny Torrance possesses a psychic talent called “the shining.” Longer and less focused than “The Dark Man,” “The Hardcase Speaks” nonetheless contains similarly violent declarations: “I could gun you down with magic nose bullets” and “if the stars are right I can witch you I can make your / hair fall out.”

King published no more poems until he included two in his 1985 story collection Skeleton Crew. (He had offered poems for his 1978 collection Night Shift, but his editor, Bill Thompson, vetoed them as being misplaced alongside fiction.) “For Owen” is King’s 34-line meditation on walking his youngest son to school. It’s a poignant piece in which the innocence of youth runs up against the darker knowledge of adulthood. “I could tell you things but better not,” the eighth stanza begins. “Paranoid: A Chant,” the only King poem made into a short film, is a first-person narrative by someone suffering from persecutory delusions:

I have seen strange lights in the sky.
Last night a dark man with no face crawled through nine miles
of sewer to surface in my toilet, listening
for phone calls through the cheap wood with
chrome ears.
I tell you, man, I hear.

King’s poetic output has been sparse since the 1980s. “Dino,” published in the 1994 inaugural issue of the Salt Hill Journal, is a 12-stanza tribute to actor and singer Dean Martin, whom King dubs “a solider of booze / the point-man of the highball generation.” It’s dedicated to Stephen Dobyns, a poet King has namechecked often. In Insomnia, a novel published the same year as “Dino,” the character Dorrance Marstellar says of Dobyns’s work: “He reminds me of Hart Crane without the pretensions. … Of course he doesn’t have the music of Dylan Thomas, but is that so bad? Probably not. Modern poetry is not about music. It’s about nerve—who has it and who doesn’t.”

King’s melancholy “Mostly Old Men,” which appeared in the literary magazine Tin House in 2009, describes a loose network of elderly men who walk their family dogs at turnpike rest stops during long car rides. That same year, King published “The Bone Church,” a lost poem from his Contemporary Poetry workshop in college that he rewrote from memory. The poem is influenced by Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, most notably “My Last Duchess,” in which the narrator presents a painting of his late wife to an observer and implies that he had her killed. In King’s long narrative iteration, an irascible man in a bar recounts an expedition through a jungle to an elephant graveyard during which almost everyone is killed, with each death described in brutal but almost folksy language:

The green did em down day by day. Carson died of a stick
in his boot. His foot swole up and when we cut away
the boot leather, his toesies were as black
as the squid’s ink that drove Manning’s heart.
Reston and Polgoy, they were stung by spiders
big as your fist; Ackerman bit by a snake what dropped
out of a tree where it hung like a lady’s fur stole
draped on a branch.

“Tommy,” which first appeared in Playboy in 2010, is King’s tribute to a hippie friend who died of leukemia in 1969, “back when we all thought we were going to live forever and change the world.” It captures a moment in which the narrator, 40 years hence, reflects on all the “hippies asleep in the earth,” dead from various ailments. The 1960s were a seminal period for King, and “Tommy” captures the catchphrases and fashion of that decade and also shows King reckoning with his generation’s mortality. Studying his dead friend’s shirt, King writes,

                        (Melissa Big Girl Freek made that shirt.
                        I don’t know what happened to her.
                        She was there one day, then gone down that lost
highway.                         I associate her with melting snow.
                        Main Street in Orono would gleam so wet and bright it hurt your
                                     eyes.
                        That was the winter the Lemon Pipers sang “Green
Tambourine.”)

* * *

Although King has published only a handful of poems, he regularly demonstrates a deep and eclectic interest in the form. He often quotes poems during interviews, as when he told Playboy in 1983 that his job allows him to “‘write myself sane,’ as that fine poet Anne Sexton put it.” When describing his relationship to horror fiction, he told Twilight Zone magazine, “Suddenly I discover that I’m like the guy in the poem by Auden who runs and runs and finally ends up in a cheap, one-night hotel. He goes down a hallway and opens a door, and there he meets himself sitting under a naked light bulb, writing.” (This scene, allegedly from an Auden poem, also comes up in The Tommyknockers and Doctor Sleep.)

King’s work is littered with references to heavyweights such as Keats and Shelley, but his epigraphs are equally likely to quote Dickey, Dobyns, and George Seferis. Some of his novels’ titles also reference poems: The Waste Lands, most obviously, but also Bag of Bones, a phrase protagonist Mike Noonan attributes—perhaps apocryphally—to Thomas Hardy, who turned from writing novels to poetry. King’s working title for his sophomore novel, ’Salem’s Lot, was The Second Coming, an allusion to William Butler Yeats’s poem  of the same name, which King quotes in The Stand.

Though King has said, without elaboration, that he wrote ’Salem’s Lot under the influence of Dickey’s poetry, Part II of the novel is titled “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” and the namesake Wallace Stevens poem, about preparing for a funeral or wake, is quoted in full as an epigraph. “I always liked Wallace Stevens, although I didn’t have a fucking clue what that man was talking about,” King said in a 2006 interview.

King has often expressed fondness for narrative poets. “People are captivated by a good story, whether it’s in verse or paragraphs,” he writes in Bazaar. The poem that has influenced King’s work most profoundly is Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” which King first read in a university course covering the earlier Romantic poets. The epic narrative poem, written in 1855, relates the surreal experiences of a man on a grail-like quest to find a Dark Tower. While trekking through a wasteland, he confronts adversaries who intend to mislead him as well as physical and emotional obstacles—he’s forced to step on the cheek of a drowned man in a river he must ford, for example—all of which he ultimately overcomes. The poem came to Browning in a dreamlike state, and he later claimed he didn’t know what it meant, much as King frequently resists analyzing or explaining the wellspring of his own creativity.

The poem inspired King’s vast Dark Tower series, which now includes eight volumes. In his afterword to the first, The Gunslinger (1982), King writes that he found Browning’s poem “gorgeous and rich and inexplicable,” and wanted to write a long, romantic novel that embodied its spirit. King’s series is about the last of a long line of gunslingers from an alternate world who has sworn to protect the semi-mythical tower that stands at the nexus of existence. This man, Roland Deschain, draws followers from Earth to assist him on his quest to locate the Dark Tower and defeat the enemies who would destroy it.

Several of King’s characters also write or study poetry. In his novel Christine (1983), for example, Arnie Cunningham’s mother wrote a thesis on the 17th-century lyric poet Robert Herrick. Holly Gibney, from King’s crime novel Mr. Mercedes writes poetry, as does the beleaguered Carrie White, from Carrie, whose seventh-grade poem is reproduced in the novel:

Jesus watches from the wall,
But his face is cold as stone,
And if he loves me
As she tells me
Why do I feel so all alone?

The poem succinctly captures Carrie’s existence—lonely, raised by a puritanical mother, and surrounded by religious iconography.

One of the best-known poems in King’s novels is the haiku attributed to 11-year-old Ben Hanscom in IT.

Your hair is winter fire
January embers.
My heart burns there, too.

Ben appreciates the haiku form. “It was clean, it was utilitarian, it was entirely contained within and dependent upon its own rules,” he thinks as he spends 20 minutes striking out words until he has something he’s happy with. This scene reflects King’s own aforementioned workmanlike approach to writing poetry. Interestingly, King has said that he started writing poetry when he first fell in love at age 12.

King’s fictional poets demonstrate a self-consciously literary style that contrasts with his own loose, vernacular prose. While preparing for a showdown with a supernatural creature, Mary Jackson, from King’s novel Desperation, marvels at how unrecognizable she would be to those who listened to her read her poem “My Vase” just a year earlier:

smooth
sided
fragrance of stems
 
brimmed with shadows
curved          like         the
           line of a shoulder
  the line of a thigh

Two septuagenarian poets figure prominently in King’s 2011 short story “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive.” Phil Henreid and Pauline Enslin are picnicking at a rest stop en route to a poetry festival at the University of Maine. They’ve both had long, successful careers (he won the National Book Award; the New York Times once called her America’s greatest living female poet). After they eat, they take turns reading each other’s work aloud. Pauline’s poem is brief:

Shadows print the road
with black lipstick kisses.
Decaying snow in farmhouse fields
shines like cast-off bridal dresses.
The rising mist turns to gold dust.
The clouds boil apart and a phantom disc
seems to race behind them.
It bursts through!
For five seconds it could be summer
and I seventeen with flowers
in the lap of my dress.

Pauline is about to recite Phil’s poem when they witness a horrible accident on the interstate. When someone else arrives on the scene and asks what happened, poetic language abandons her. “Pauline is also a poet, and as such feels capable of answering the man in the language God speaks. ‘What the fuck does it look like?’” she says in the story’s closing line. In his accompanying story note, King writes, “There’s no language that describes how terrible this is… it’s beyond poetry. It almost negates poetry.” Perhaps this is why King favors prose—many of his novels and stories confront terror so enormous it transcends poetic language.

The Tommyknockers (1987), King’s novel about a buried spaceship that contaminates an idyllic Maine town, includes several scenes depicting Jim Gardener’s turbulent life as a poet. As an alcoholic prone to blackouts, Gardener barely subsists by giving readings and seminars, running a tab as part of the New England Poetry Caravan, trading poems for food, and accepting half a cord of wood as an advance on his last book. (The poets in “Herman Wouk” bemoan the circuit of poetry readings where they’re served “beige food” and “cheap yellowish-white wine.”)

At Gardener’s final reading, he performs a poem called “Leighton Street,” written the year he met Bobbi Anderson, the woman who discovered the spaceship and who herself used to write poetry before turning to more lucrative Westerns. The poem’s title references the street in Utica where Bobbi grew up:

These streets begin where the cobbles
surface through tar like the heads
of children buried badly in their textures.
‘What myth is this?’ we ask, but
the children who play stickball and
Johnny-Jump-My-Pony round here just laugh.

It takes Gardener 20 minutes to read the entire piece, which contains numerous instances of a 12-letter word that will never appear on primetime television, and at the end he receives a standing ovation. In the faces of his audience members, he sees “what every poet or would-be poet hopes to see when he or she finishes reading: the faces of people suddenly awakened from a dream brighter than any reality.”      

“A dream brighter than reality” could well describe King’s own fiction. His novels have sold more than 300 million copies, and he’s one of the most adapted writers in cinema history. His poem “The Bone Church” was recently optioned to become a TV series, making him one of the few living writers whose poetry can seduce Hollywood. Clearly, his work touches a nerve. Fifty or 100 years from now, it’s likely that his fiction will still be read and imitated. But what of his poems? It’s impossible to predict their fate, but this small subset of his vast bibliography deserves wider readership and critical scrutiny. His poems may not always be “beautiful gems” that “speak God’s language,” but they’re nonetheless testaments to America’s master storyteller discovering his inimitable voice.

Originally Published: May 21st, 2018

Bev Vincent is a contributing editor at Cemetery Dance magazine and the author of The Stephen King Illustrated Companion, which was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award and the Edgar Award. He has also published more than 80 short stories.