Do I Dare Disturb the Reader?: Some Thoughts on Horror, Plus Two Brief Readings of Poems I Like
Poetry, we’re assured, is a full-service operation. It makes nothing happen, provides momentary stays against confusion, gives language a good Swiffering, fills time at weddings, kills Time at funerals – it has a full itinerary. But one thing it sometimes seems ill-equipped to do is scare us. I mean really scare the shit out of us, and not just because a particular instance of it is so awful it’s scary. No, I mean scare us or disturb us the way a horror movie scares or disturbs.
Of course, there’s the poetry that’s poorly lit, the gloomy lines the Goths on South Park compose. We often call this poetry “dark,” and if it scares us it’s because we didn’t realize our kids were composing such maudlin stuff in their bedrooms, with the Morrissey on the iTunes. There’s also the gory poetry that’s slick with viscera, both real (“the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs”) and symbolic (the “pretty red” hearts “[b]it...in two”). There’s also the poetry that haunts us - literally: those words that weigh about as much as ghosts and take up rattling residence in our minds: epigrams, lone lines, and odd quatrains, like the following, which lives between my ears and was written by Samuel Menashe:
Ghost I house
In this old flat-
There’s also the poetry that spooks us because of what’s befallen the authors: in other words, the words of dead people, which Poetry magazine, providing an obituary service, sometimes prints on the inside covers of its issues.
Maybe some of us are disturbed by these examples. Maybe some are even scared by them. But most of us, I’m betting, are apt to judge the aforementioned images and lines to be, if anything, merely powerful. They grip us, but they don’t keep us up late or move us to leave a light on. If a poem does want to scare an audience (and, of course, there's no reason why a poem needs to compete with the horror movie or novel) it probably needs to obey certain laws. At the very least, it probably needs to be long – or long enough to establish a setting, lure the reader into the setting, and then startle the sucker. It probably needs to be an epic or some kind of verse narrative. (An audience, huddled around a flickering fire circa 1300AD, might’ve felt something like fear when the bard recalling Beowulf finally got to the bit with Grendel – but only because the audience was lured in, set up.)
The shorter lyric is surely more limited in what it can do in terms of scaring the reader. It may only be able to unsettle the reader, though this, in and of itself, is no easy feat. Christian Wiman’s poem “Sweet Dreams” – about a child who has stumbled on a dinner party – was probably never meant to be scary and maybe wasn’t even meant to unsettle. But its familiar images, warped and defamiliarized by the child’s worm's-eye view, have always seemed nightmarish to me:
Voices fade as he walks
into them. He hears his name
in the air above him, passed
from parents to guests
and back to him like a ball.
The plates have faces. In his
father’s he sees his own.
The candle’s shadow is talking
and laughing with the wall.
There are kind questions
for him, shared silences he hears
himself speak into: he blinks,
whispers to the floor,
a small fist blooms with years
he’s stored in fingers. Somewhere
in their watches are the hours
he can’t enter. In awkward
pauses some stare into his sleep.
A red-nailed finger slowly circles
the rim of a glass, but the red
bell of wine won’t sing.
They look at him and smile.
His mother stands, her hand enclosing
his. His father’s cheek cuts
into his kiss. The hardwood floor
shines eyes of light. The dark
doorway is the wall’s yawn.
He walks into their wishes.
Pretty as this poem's images can be – “a small fist blooms with years / he’s stored in fingers” – the fading voices at the very start establish a chill. And the buoyant pronunciation of the adults as they repeat the child's name in a game of verbal catch – how accurate an image of adults this is, and how it suggests a scene in slow, underwater motion, the pace of the nightmare. Further, the “candle’s shadow” and its “wall” figure as almost mocking characters, the braying, jostling chorus in bad dreams. Plus, the plates and floor have faces and eyes. Warm gestures like a father’s proffered cheek are jarring, cutting. Even that pretty image – the child’s “small fist” abloom – is snipped and replaced with a slightly more ominous though not exactly severed “red-nailed finger” circling its rim. The child is finally swallowed by a metaphor - “the wall’s yawn” - a funhouse door of a door.
But despite their brevity, some poems seem to have the ability to do more than establish a creepy atmosphere; they seem to have the ability to shock. Weldon Kees’ “For My Daughter" compresses a horror movie’s worth of action and gore into an economical fourteen lines:
Looking into my daughter’s eyes I read
Beneath the innocence of morning flesh
Concealed, hintings of death she does not heed.
Coldest of winds have blown this hair, and mesh
Of seaweed snarled these miniatures of hands;
The night’s slow poison, tolerant and bland,
Has moved her blood. Parched years that I have seen
That may be hers appear: foul, lingering
Death in certain war, the slim legs green.
Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting
Of others’ agony; perhaps the cruel
Bride of a syphilitic or a fool.
These speculations sour in the sun.
I have no daughter. I desire none.
The rhyming couplet’s revelation – the speaker’s daughter doesn’t exist! – anticipates the sort of horror movie moment in which the perfectly rational heroine realizes that she is, dear God, a ghost (or something) and has been for decades. If Wiman’s poem is atmospheric, Kees’ is atmospheric with a twist. But, according to the accounts, this describes Kees’ life, too; the poet disappeared in 1955, and no one ever found a body: knowledge enough to lend any of his poems an ominous hum.
A question, then: which poems, if any, spook or disturb or unsettle or haunt or even scare you?
(Oh, and a disclaimer: Wiman edits the print mag, in which I’ve been published.)
Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...