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The Making of the Oxford Canon: Scary Poetry

Waking up everday this week to David Lehman’s thoughts on American poetry might actually turn me into a morning person. Today, Lehman, editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and Poetry Coordinator of the New School Writing Program in New York City, looks at scary poetry. Check out part one and two of this series.

LehmanWhat is the scariest poem in American poetry? I wager that many would select Poe’s “The Raven,” and it is unquestionable that Poe has the ability, in his verse as in his stories, to terrify. It is possible, however, that Robert Frost — Frost, who was once habitually misread as a genial Yankee sage — has written the darkest and most frightening poems in our literature. The French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal confessed himself terrified by the “eternal silence of those infinite spaces.” It is Frost who captures that silence.

The brilliant sonnet “Design” – in which a spider makes a meal of a moth — exemplifies the view of nature that informs Frost’s poetry. Nature at work is aesthetically satisfying; it has order, pattern, design; but there is nothing moral or ethical about it. Nature, as opposed to human nature, is indifferent to individual life. Put another way, nature feeds on itself, and life requires death, as the life of the spider requires the death of the moth.

Humanity is stupid or destructive in Robinson Jeffers’s poems, which take the side of nature against human life. Frost doesn’t go that far, but in his poems the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Man is frail, and the loss of a man may be mourned, but the mourning lasts a mere moment. In Frost’s “Out, Out – “ a boy working with a buzz saw loses his hand in an accident. The results are surprisingly fatal: “No one believed. They listened at his heart. / Little – less – nothing! – and that ended it.” But what truly shocks the reader is not the death but the moment when the boy, a “big boy / Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart,” pleads, “Don’t let him cut my hand off — / The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!” We infer that brother and sister lack parents, and this knowledge deepens the pathos.

The ending of “Out, Out –“ seems at first to indict humanity for its essential callousness. They – the same “they” that had listened at the boy’s heart – go right on living: “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” Callousness or realism? The ending is similar to the ending of Auden’s great “Musee des Beaux Arts,” in which Icarus, in Brueghel’s painting, falls from the sky to his death in the sea, “and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” Both poems are superb, but Frost’s will give you the chills while Auden’s more analytical approach will make you ponder the thesis that humanity is necessarily indifferent to human suffering.

Among the scariest of Frost’s poems is “Desert Places.” Compare it to Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man.” Both poems are about “nothing.” I would argue that Stevens’s poem is the stronger of the two; it certainly requires enormous attention and rewards numerous re-readings. But “Desert Places” has something that “The Snow Man” with its “distant glitter of the January sun” lacks. “Desert Places” has terror. Here is the final stanza:

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces/
Between stars – on stars where no human race is./
I have it in me so much nearer home/ To scare myself with my own desert places.

Take that, Pascal.


David Lehman is Poetry Coordinator of the New School Writing Program in New York City. His most recent books of poetry are The Evening Sun and When a Woman Loves a Man. He is the author of five books of critical prose, including The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets and The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection. He founded The Best American Poetry series in 1988 and continues to serve as general editor of this prestigious anthology. He also edited Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present and co-edited The KGB Bar Book of Poems, based on the reading series he and Star Black directed in New York’s East Village

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