Sometimes real life is too good to be true. Weeks before Halloween, a clown attack is sweeping the country, causing people from all walks of life to weigh in on the origins of those grease-painted jesters we love to fear. Hearing about clowns, though — and maybe weirdly — reminds me of poets. And, believe it or not, some scary poems can be really frightening.
I'm not just talking about Edgar Allen Poe, though of course he's capable of being straight-up eerie AF. No, I'm talking about poets of yesterday, today, and the future (Melissa Broder, horoscope-tress for Lenny Letter, this is you). Poets are a little like clowns, confusing and beguiling and terrifying audiences with a sight-gag or a honk. I mean, c'mon: what is a water-spraying flower if not an image? A pie in the face: straight-up objective correlative.
Because they needn't bow down to sense-making structures like narratives, poems are often jam-packed with utterly haunting moments. That's what happens when you "make it new," after all. The most adept poets turn the most banal language on its tidy little head and show you why that head is capable of rotating, Exorcist style, a full 360.
Halloween is a prime occasion to be terrified by verse, and these eight poems will goosebump you all day and all night.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Night and day it gapes in at us
through the kitchen window, going soft
in the head. Sleepwalker-slow, a black rash of ants
harrows this hollow globe, munching
the pale peach flesh, sucking its seasoned
last juices dry.
Quite possibly the most stomach-turning description ever of a decaying pumpkin.
or treat, smell my feet, give me something good
to eat,” sings a girl dressed as a Disney princess.
Let us praise the souls of brown girls who sew
our clothes as fire unthreads sweatshops into
smoke and ash.
Because the scariest lines are often those closest to our realities.
This first line is a spine-tingler.
Even now this landscape is assembling.
5. "Dream-Land" by Edgar Allen Poe
Forget haunted houses. This poem by Poe depicts a haunted, uncharted landscape. (The psyche? Just saying.)
By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule—
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE—Out of TIME.
Present-day history suffused with o.g. fairy-tale gruesomeness.
A butcher sweeps blood
from an empty street. Death
is my godmother, he repeats.
Death is a burnt mirror.
This nineteenth-century stand-by is a brief epic.
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy
Pagel's two collections engage with the afterlife in haunting, chic verse. This poem is newer.
What will break
The thrall of the Devil