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] 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-
Your outpost-
My aftermath

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.)

Originally Published: April 11th, 2009

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...

  1. April 12, 2009
     Robert Donohue

    Browning gets a rise out of me but in a way he is the last poet to use horror unselfconsciously. There is not a lot of difference between the mode of My Last Duchess and The Cask Of Amontillado by Poe, although Browning is the better writer. I suppose it’s in the 1880s that prose and poetry split, with prose taking horror and poetry personal expression. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote both prose and poetry, but Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is in prose.

  2. April 12, 2009
     thomas brady


    Terrific idea. So many anthologists, going for something popular, try the 'love poems' angle (and I suppose they get some sales that way) but I have a feeling a really good 'Horror Poems' anthology could have blockbuster sales if it were done right.\r

    One could include great poems about death, as well, those heroic old poems like 'Death Be Not Proud,' by Donne, which, if inserted into a book of 'scary' poems, would live again in a new context, as if representing the 'good guys' in a scary film. \r

    A great title is crucial: "Poems of Horror, Death, Blood and Terror" or perhaps the simpler 'Horror Poems," I don't know...would bring in the crowds, and a sonnet by Shakespeare bewailing the fact of death would be unexpected, perhaps, but would fit.\r

    Here's a Poe poem I would definitely include:\r


    AT midnight, in the month of June,\r
    I stand beneath the mystic moon.\r
    An opiate vapour, dewy, dim,\r
    Exhales from out her golden rim,\r
    And, softly dripping, drop by drop,\r
    Upon the quiet mountain top,\r
    Steals drowsily and musically\r
    Into the universal valley.\r
    The rosemary nods upon the grave;\r
    The lily lolls upon the wave;\r
    Wrapping the fog about its breast,\r
    The ruin moulders into rest;\r
    Looking like Lethe, see! the lake\r
    A conscious slumber seems to take,\r
    And would not, for the world, awake.\r
    All Beauty sleeps! – and lo! where lies\r
    Irene, with her Destinies!\r

    Oh, lady bright! can it be right –\r
    This window open to the night?\r
    The wanton airs, from the tree-top,\r
    Laughingly through the lattice drop –\r
    The bodiless airs, a wizard rout,\r
    Flit through thy chamber in and out, \r
    And wave the curtain canopy\r
    So fitfully – so fearfully –\r
    Above the closed and fringéd lid\r
    'Neath which thy slumb'ring soul lies hid,\r
    That, o'er the floor and down the wall,\r
    Like ghosts the shadows rise and fall!\r
    Oh, lady dear, hast thou no fear?\r
    Why and what art thou dreaming here?\r
    Sure thou art come o'er far-off seas,\r
    A wonder to these garden trees!\r
    Strange is thy pallor! strange thy dress!\r
    Strange, above all, thy length of tress,\r
    And this all solemn silentness!\r

    The lady sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,\r
    Which is enduring, so be deep!\r
    Heaven have her in its sacred keep!\r
    This chamber changed for one more holy,\r
    This bed for one more melancholy,\r
    I pray to God that she may lie\r
    Forever with unopened eye,\r
    While the pale sheeted ghosts go by!\r

    My love, she sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,\r
    As it is lasting, so be deep!\r
    Soft may the worms about her creep!\r
    Far in the forest, dim and old,\r
    For her may some tall vault unfold –\r
    Some vault that oft hath flung its black\r
    And wingéd pannels fluttering back,\r
    Triumphant, o'er the crested palls,\r
    Of her grand family funerals –\r
    Some sepulchre, remote, alone, \r
    Against whose portal she hath thrown,\r
    In childhood, many an idle stone –\r
    Some tomb from out whose sounding door\r
    She ne'er shall force an echo more,\r
    Thrilling to think, poor child of sin!\r
    It was the dead who groaned within.\r

    The above poem has many versions, and is sometimes called "Irene." \r

    "The Conquerer Worm" by Poe would also do.\r

    I'm also thinking: "Freedom, Revolt and Love" by Frank Stanford\r

    Coleridge's "Christabel."\r

    Something from Dana Gioia's libretto "Nosferatu"\r

    "La Belle Dame San Merci" by Keats\r

    One would have to mine Gothic Romanticism, of course.\r

    There would be tons of material, actually.\r

    If anyone wants to put this together and pitch it to a publisher, I'm in. \r


  3. April 12, 2009

    The idea of the 'Horror Poem' anthology is intriguing, indeed. What would be most interesting to me, however, would be to witness that editor (or circle of editors) decisions on what constitutes 'horror.' \r

    Like so many 'Love Poem' anthologies seem to only or mainly incorporate romantic or erotic love (filial, spiritual love, etc. get tossed to the side), I'd want to know what poems are determined as 'horror.' Truly, death can't be the only subject? I've read a number of poems where the horror derives from the speaker's living, their struggle. Robert Hayden's Middle Passage comes to mind.\r

    But here below is a poem by Marilyn Nelson which has always horrified me. It is about death or a death or, rather, a lynching. In fact, Nelson's entire heroic crown of sonnet series, from which this poem stems, while amazing, I think is equally horrifying. Jason, like the sonnet you posted, maybe there's something built into the sonnet that produces these effects?\r

    From A Wreath for Emmett Till\r
    by Marilyn Nelson\r

    Emmett Till's name still catches in my throat,\r
    like syllables waylaid in a stutterer's mouth.\r
    A fourteen-year-old stutterer, in the South\r
    to visit relatives and to be taught\r
    the family's ways. His mother had finally bought\r
    that White Sox cap; she'd made him swear an oath\r
    to be careful around white folks. She'd told him the truth\r
    of many a Mississippi anecdote:\r
    Some white folks have blind souls. In his suitcase\r
    she'd packed dungarees, T-shirts, underwear,\r
    and comic books. She'd given him a note\r
    for the conductor, waved to his chubby face,\r
    wondered if he'd remember to brush his hair.\r
    Her only child. A body left to bloat.

  4. April 12, 2009
     Don Share

    I heartily recommend Thomas Lovell Beddoes, who always give a good shudder, esp. with his "Death's Jest Book" - read him here:\r

  5. April 12, 2009
     michael robbins

    There is no more terrifying poet than Fred Seidel. I'm writing a review of his new collected right now & being scared out of my meager wits.

  6. April 12, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    How about a contemporary poem about a contemporary horror?\r

    Detained by a Car Accident\r

    Hearts go cold when learning\r
    of life’s unexpected changes,\r
    but eventually accept\r
    a life that no one chose.\r
    But will never laugh again.\r

    Blood turns black when pooling\r
    on the pavement in the road, then pink\r
    in the froth of a fireman’s hose.\r
    But never red again.\r

    Copyright 2008 - HARDWOOD- 77 Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  7. April 12, 2009
     Dr. Maxi

    At a reading at Harvard Jennifer Knox bit the nose off a Crimson undergrad and never paused her mellifluous reading of "Chicken Bucket":\r

    The guy behind me's wearing a T-shirt\r
    that says, Mustache Rides 10¢.\r
    So I say, All I got's a nickel.\r
    He says, You're cute,\r
    so we go out to his van and have sex.\r
    His dick's OK, but I've seen wider.\r
    We drink most of the tequila and I ask him,\r
    Want a Whip-It?\r
    He says, Fuck no–that shit rots your brain.\r
    And when he says that, I feel kind of stupid\r
    doing another one. But then I remember\r
    what mama always told me:\r
    Baby be your own person.\r
    Well fuck yes.\r
    So I do another Whip-It,\r
    all by myself and it is great.\r

    Everyone was a bit SCARED, but it turned out OK--the kid was on scholarship, so la di da. And what with the economy and all the price of nose is liberal. Later, at Grendel's, Jennifer did the mashed potato on the bar while Jorie Graham played her zither.

  8. April 12, 2009
     thomas brady

    How should Letters define horror?\r

    Good question, R.L.\r

    Horror is one of those "I know it when I see it" sort of things.\r

    But here's my gut definition.\r

    1. Horror should NOT contain an excess of moral indignation; moral outrage detracts from Horror's effect.\r

    2. Horror is NOT simply a tragic or unfortunate or scary event; the aesthetic component should almost hide the fact of the unfortunate event itself.\r

    3. Horror is atmosphere first, circumstance second, cruelty, third, ingenuity, fourth.\r

    4. Anticipation is more important than the deed or the result--even if the result follows from a cruel or clever twist.\r

    5. The horror should seem inevitable.

  9. April 12, 2009
     thomas brady

    "I suppose it’s in the 1880s that prose and poetry split, with prose taking horror and poetry personal expression. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote both prose and poetry, but Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is in prose."\r

    Yes, Robert, you may be right. I believe Bram Stoker's "Dracula" appeared about this time, too. \r

    Poe...? Like RL Stevenson, Poe wrote more horror in prose, though 'The Raven' gave Elizabeth Barrett a thrill; \r

    Did you know Poe dedicated his 1845 Poems to Elizabeth Barrett?\r

    When she was still a single gal?\r

    I suppose Poe's interest in Elizabeth was to Robert Browning's horror; Poe and Elizabeth had been corresponding a bit, and were both far better known than Robert at that time--perhaps Robert eloped with Elizabeth for fear that Poe would snatch her away, who knows?\r

    Of course Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" was much earlier, though I don't know when prose horror really caught on; it was probably more during the time you cite.\r


  10. April 12, 2009
     thomas brady

    Emily Dickinson had a feel for horror, Sylvia Plath, too, perhaps...\r

    I'm sure there are poems such as "Because I Could Not Stop For Death" which we don't normally read as "horror poems," that might seem so simply by being in a Horror Anthology...\r

    "Acquainted With the Night" by Robert Frost might be another example...

  11. April 13, 2009

    I second Don's recommendation of Thomas Lovell Beddoes. His "Selected Poems" and "Death's Jest Book" are both available from Carcanet/Fyfield Books.\r\r

  12. April 13, 2009
     Roberto Planos

    Robinson Jeffers's "The Double Axe" and Frank Bidart's "Stardust". Both pretty scary.

  13. April 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thomas, thanks for your enthusiasm and for the good thoughts and suggestions. Maybe you should take a crack at editing this anthology? It would probably sell to many, not least the Twilight crowd. (There probably IS something out there already, like a vampire poems anthology, but still, I bet it doesn't have Kees in it, etc.) \r

    In terms of defining 'horror,' I do like the idea of including things, like the Shakespeare and the Dickinson, that don't seem like horror. For example, that Wiman poem isn't obviously 'horror,' but it IS nightmarish, to my mind, anyway.\r

    I think the unsettling poems Gary and R.L. have reproduced above, in the context of a horror anthology, would be effective.\r

    Don, Robert, and Roberto, thanks for your suggestions.\r

    Michael, thanks for mentioning Seidel. I think your "Alien Vs. Predator" should make the horror anthology based on title alone. It can be the last poem in the book!

  14. April 13, 2009
     Annie Finch

    Anne Sexton's "Angels of the Love Affair". Here are a few excerpts:\r

    'Angels of the love affair, do you know that other,\r
    the dark one, that other me? '\r


    Angel of fire and genitals, do you know slime,\r
    that green mama who first forced me to sing,\r
    who put me first in the latrine, that pantomime\r
    of brown where I was beggar and she was king?\r
    I said, 'The devil is down that festering hole.'\r
    Then he bit me in the buttocks and took over my soul.\r
    Fire woman, you of the ancient flame, you\r
    of the Bunsen burner, you of the candle,\r
    you of the blast furnace, you of the barbecue,\r
    you of the fierce solar energy, Mademoiselle,\r
    take some ice, take come snow, take a month of rain\r
    and you would gutter in the dark, cracking up your brain.\r

    Mother of fire, let me stand at your devouring gate\r
    as the sun dies in your arms and you loosen it's terrible weight.\r


    Angel of clean sheets, do you know bedbugs?\r
    Once in the madhouse they came like specks of cinnamon\r
    as I lay in a choral cave of drugs,\r
    as old as a dog, as quiet as a skeleton.\r
    Little bits of dried blood. One hundred marks\r
    upon the sheet. One hundred kisses in the dark.\r
    White sheets smelling of soap and Clorox\r
    have nothing to do with this night of soil,\r
    nothing to do with barred windows and multiple locks\r
    and all the webbing in the bed, the ultimate recoil.\r
    I have slept in silk and in red and in black.\r
    I have slept on sand and, on fall night, a haystack.\r

    I have known a crib. I have known the tuck-in of a child\r
    but inside my hair waits the night I was defiled.\r


    Angel of flight and sleigh bells, do you know paralysis,\r
    that ether house where your arms and legs are cement?\r
    You are as still as a yardstick. You have a doll's kiss.\r
    The brain whirls in a fit. The brain is not evident.\r
    I have gone to that same place without a germ or a stroke.\r
    A little solo act-that lady with the brain that broke.\r

    In this fashion I have become a tree.\r
    I have become a vase you can pick up or dropp at will,\r
    inanimate at last. What unusual luck! My body\r
    passively resisting. Part of the leftovers. Part of the kill.\r
    Angels of flight, you soarer, you flapper, you floater,\r
    you gull that grows out of my back in the drreams I prefer,\r

    stay near. But give me the totem. Give me the shut eye\r
    where I stand in stone shoes as the world's bicycle goes by.\r


    In this hole your mother is crying out each day.\r
    Your father is eating cake and digging her grave.\r
    In this hole your baby is strangling. Your mouth is clay.\r
    Your eyes are made of glass. They break. You are not brave.\r
    You are alone like a dog in a kennel. . .

  15. April 13, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Ian, thanks for the links!

  16. April 15, 2009
     thomas brady

    "Totem" by Plath is definitely going in.\r

    Would I get in trouble, if I had a chapter, 'Witches,' with poems by Sexton, Plath, Rich, etc?\r

    I think it would be better to divide up the book this way:\r




    Keep a more objective tone.

  17. April 15, 2009
     thomas brady

    Elizabeth Barrett wrote to Poe, "Your 'Raven' has produced a sensation, a fit o' horror, here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by 'Nevermore'."\r

    This anecdote is sure to be included in my introduction to the 'Poems of Death, Poems of Horror' anthology.\r

    I suppose it would need illustrations, as well...

  18. April 15, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Annie, thanks for posting the poem.\r

    Thomas, how about just "Poems of Horror"? (Perhaps the subject of "Death" is already covered by the word "Horror"?) Just a thought, anyway. But your title IS a bit more showman-like, lurid -- which is a good thing, I think, for this kind of anthology. Get the paying customers in the door, etc.

  19. April 15, 2009
     thomas brady

    Perhaps I could be somewhat tongue-in-cheek:\r

    "The Little Treasury of Horror Poems"\r


    No one thinks of death more than the poets. Love is certainly a rich subject with the poets, but so is horror. No one sings of bloodbath and mayhem, for instance, quite like Homer, and Dante, another major poet, describes the most harrowing things in his Hell. The poet Shakespeare litters his stage with corpses and death rides triumphantly through his sonnets, and the last of the great poets, Milton, made Satan soar and sing. Horror poems come to us from Keats and Poe and Plath. All the best loved poets serve up horror, and horror you shall have, dear readers...