The Poems I Can’t Un-read by Evan J. Peterson

Editor Staff, Poetry, December 9th, 2011

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Intimate Monsters: Examining the Value of Horror in Poetry

“Art is the lie that tells the truth.” — Picasso

Others have paraphrased this, substituted “fiction” for “art,” and so on. I’ll paraphrase it further: art is an imagined or recreated experience, crafted and manifested in a way that it becomes relative to many. Perhaps we could even substitute “entertainment” for “art,” though the idea that Celebrity Rehab could be a lie that tells the truth is, admittedly, a hard swallow.

Unfortunately, the horror genre is treated most often as entertainment, something titillating and disposable, rather than as a culturally valuable art form. We can see this with the miserable failure of much “horror” “poetry” (double the ironic quote marks for double the sarcasm — indulge me.) A major reason for this failure is due to a sort of Tales from the Crypt approach to the horror poem. That is, the intent is in the lurid subject matter, not in the craft of the writing. Horror in any medium can easily become pure camp, and it’s the poet’s job not to settle for such things.

Camp is certainly a useful factor in creepy atmospheres; the aw-shucks laughs provide relief in suspense films, even helping to catch the audience off guard when the chainsaw comes grinding up from the basement. Humor, particularly cheesy humor, breaks up the tension and keeps the suspense ebbing and flowing. For examples of camp used to as a tool to increase eeriness rather than undermine it, check out D. A. Powell’s “[When you touch down upon this earth. little reindeers]” or Susan Slaviero’s “Bluebeard’s Clockwork Bride.” I also suggest snagging a copy of Aim for the Head: An Anthology of Zombie Poetry, just out from Write Bloody Press.

The problem is that camp often dominates. The unremarkable anthology Now We Are Sick disappoints in this way, possibly because prose authors wrote the poems, and probably because they’re intentionally in nursery rhyme form. Even the title is a pun on A. A. Milne’s children’s poetry book, Now We Are Six. This knee-slap play on words captures the goal of the collection: to make fun of itself. The only compelling poem I found in the collection is Alan Moore’s “The Children’s Hour.” It helps that Moore is a diligent poet and songwriter in addition to his better known work as a comic book author. To be a bit kinder and recognize context, the anthology was never intended to contain well-crafted poetry. Gory nursery rhymes written by non-poets are offered for exactly what they are.

The greater problem is that the entire sub-genre of horror poetry is mistaken for a bunch of gory nursery rhymes, which horrifies me considerably. Tim Pratt, a senior editor for Locus magazine, had this to say in his essay “Fresh Graves“: “[F]orget the established props and stage dressings of horror… [that] work’s been done for you; it’s filling your poems with used furniture. I’m much more interested in personal horrors. Writing horror poetry should be something of an ordeal, not undertaken lightly.”

It’s not about the subject (vampires, serial killers, Cthulhu, Pazuzu, what have you). It’s about crafting the image—refining the horror and distilling the disquiet. Because different images horrify different people, it’s inevitable that there will be disagreement as to whether any poem can be considered horror. Must guts splatter or werewolves howl? Tim Pratt and I think not. C. P. Cavafy’s “The Bandaged Shoulder” may be read in several ways (like many excellent poems), one of which is sweet, one of which creeps me the hell out. I don’t know if it will horrify you. I offer it for consideration.

Outside of Poe and Lovecraft, poetry readers often don’t know where to look for the suspenseful, the disturbing, and the unnatural. While many poets capture life’s horror, even supernatural horror, in a poem here and there, few poets make terror and revulsion their raison d’etre unless it’s in the poetry of witness: crimes of war, incest survival, etc. Tara Hardy’s new book Bring Down the Chandeliers (also on Write Bloody, coincidentally) has a few poems that tap this vein, my favorite being “Lizzie Borden”: “Imagine the perfect part/ of the red sea upon their skulls. Feel forty/ red whale eyes opening in the eight-limbed/ creature called your parents.”

That’s what I mean by horror poetry. And as far as a poet other than Poe or Lovecraft making horror their primary mode, how can so many overlook Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil)? For a relentlessly ghastly read, try “Une Charogne (A Carcass/ A Carrion),” but I warn you at the risk of sounding trite: you can’t un-read it.

Until next time, dear reader.

-EJP

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evan peterson poet poetry writing for nailed magazineEvan J. Peterson is the author of Skin Job, (2012 Minor Arcana Press). His zines include Secular Exorcisms, The Ecstatic Tarot, and Hello Kitty Chainsaw. A poet, fiction and nonfiction author, columnist, editor, performer, and teacher, Evan’s recent work can be found excerpted in the New York Times and in Weird Tales, Court Green, Assaracus, Aim For The Head: An Anthology Of Zombie Poetry. He is the newly appointed creative director/editor of Minor Arcana Press.

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