All right. Enough seriousness. It’s time for a bit of the dark side’s subtle chuckle.
Halloween may be the one yearly celebration I support whole-heartedly, give or take a battery-operated glow-in-the-dark screaming skeleton or two. It doesn’t have much in the way of a questionable historical background and isn’t drenched in either patriotism or Christianity—which is why we don’t get a day off for it. Although I’m typically working myself to the point of zombie idiocy in October, the month also comes with various pleasures: baseball playoffs, Pumpkin Ale (Buffalo Bill’s original only please, no knockoffs), weekend trips to the mountains for the changing leaves (not in San Diego, but that’s another story), parties where people feel more free than usual to act like sexually depraved Puritans on the rampage, and finally my favorite: horror movies.
Once, half-jokingly, A.L. Nielsen called me a “goth poet.” I don’t look the part, but it’s not entirely untrue. Longer poems like The Haunted Baronet (essentially impossible to get at this point, although I'd be glad to send you the text) and “The Monstrious Failure of Contemplation” (in Haze) certainly use the history of horror literature as a taking off point for their explorations. My two books of fiction, Dead Carnival and Walking Dreams, are clearly related to horror literature as well, with many avant twists of course. But as I’ve been watching horror movies over the last few weeks, I’ve been wondering why there’s not that much use of the tropes of the horror genre in contemporary poetry.
There are exceptions. Kevin Killian’s Argento Series is a very strong work. Daphne Gottlieb’s 203 book Final Girlgot quite a bit of attention, although its poems finally didn’t hold my attention. A little too flatly narrative, a little too gaudy in the packaging, which is like a horror movie, sure, but still. Alice Notley and C.A. Conrad are interested in tarot, but even though they both have something of a warrior mentality (of a very anti-war sort), they see their uses of magic as on some fundamental level healing, or at least as a kind of revolutionary freedom. But I’m talking horror here, the kind that may not have any redeeming qualities beyond exploring all the strange places that the human creature can imagine itself going. Fear, paranoia, dissociation, degeneracy, disintegration, that sort of thing. The moment when you go one way and your body another.
There are probably many reasons for the rather limited connections between contemporary poetry and horror literature. A politicized poet might rightly complain that the stylization of horror in a world of so much real violence remains a distraction from more profoundly important matters. And of course there’s the difficulty of lifting such work out of cliche. At least several of my musician friends from Philadelphia, for instance, (I won’t name them but they’re welcome to name themselves) think that horror images are just too cartoonish to lead to first rate music. Besides, genres like horror, sci fi, detective literature and others are often associated with the most naive, manipulative uses of narrative. To the extent that poetry (at least some of it) remains a kind of writing that can go beyond or question narrative, genre literature especially might seem that which poetry exists in opposition to, at least on the level of structure and development.
I can’t really say that horror is underused in contemporary poetry compared to other genre literatures. Poetry has taken up the concept of the detective perhaps more readily (especially French poets: I’m thinking of Oliver Cadiot and, if I’m recalling correctly, Emmanuel Hocquard), but uses of science fiction and speculative literature may be more rare. Frederick Turner’s The New World, a new formalist book from the mid 80s, is a book length science fiction epic that almost could be interesting, although it may very well be ruined by its pseudo-epic language. But I can’t think of much other science fiction poetry. And once we consider older literature like the graveyard poetry of the 18th century, as well as Coleridge, Poe, and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” there may very well be more than enough poetry linked to the gothic tradition.
So, what about it? Is the idea of poetry and horror a contemporary dead end? Is there just as much of it as there needs to be? Is there more than I’m aware of? What am I missing? Is the very idea an irresponsible stylization of violence?
I welcome your responses as I head back to my very own 13 Days of Halloween. Up right now on my reading list is Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which I’ll be teaching in my speculative literature course tomorrow.