Introduction by Boyd White
“So it is in poetry that we first encounter permanent entry of the weird into standard literature.” --H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Natural Horror in Literature
Readers, collectors, and scholars of fantastic literature have little interest in fantastic poetry. While they routinely seek out first editions of Robert E. Howard’s Skull-Face and Other Stories (1946) or Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), rarely do they feel compelled to read, much less purchase, first editions of poetry collections by these same authors, such as Howard’s Always Comes Evening (1957) or Le Guin’s Wild Angels (1975). It’s equally difficult to imagine readers, collectors, and scholars of modern literature wishing they had first editions of Leah Bodine Drake’s A Hornbook for Witches (1950) or John Brunner’s A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork (1974) sitting on their shelves alongside Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues (1926) or Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in An Emergency (1967). Lovers of fantastic literature certainly know that William Hope Hodgson, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith all wrote poetry, but how many of them have actually bothered to read any of it, much less consider its place in relation to these authors’ fiction? Marion Fox, who wrote several rare weird novels, including Ape’s Face (1914) and The Mystery Keepers (1919), also wrote Vocation (1911), a volume of poetry issued by David Nutt, the publisher of Count Stenbock’s legendary story collection Studies of Death (1894). Plenty of collectors search for Fox’s novels, but who even cares about her book of poetry? Similarly, collectors pounce on first editions of Studies of Death when they manage to turn up in the market, but would they display the same enthusiasm for any of Stenbock’s poetry collections—Love, Sleep, and Dreams (1881), Rue, Myrtle, and Cypress (1883), or The Shadow of Death (1894)—rare books that are virtually unobtainable? A serious aficionado of 19th-century poetry would have an easier time acquiring a first edition of Keats’ Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820) than any of Stenbock’s poetry collections and would probably show very little interest even if offered one of them.
In his essay on Robert Aickman in the revised edition of Supernatural Fiction Writers, John Clute emphasizes “the literary world’s displacement of the twentieth century’s most significant form of literature, the literature of the fantastic, to the periphery of ‘high culture.’” As Clute’s remarks indicate, academic elites and literary snobs view landmark works of fantasy, horror, and science fiction as second rate when measured against the accepted canon of great literature. Genre writers supposedly lack the thematic seriousness and stylistic achievements of literary authors whose work can loosely be categorized as “realism” with its attendant emphasis on contemporary social and political concerns, the relationship between the self and society, and examinations of institutionalized structures of power, such as marriage and religion. As a result, William Faulkner’s complex novels of race and class inherently merit more attention than David Lindsay’s equally complex examinations of myth and personal identity. Similarly, John Cheever or Flannery O’Connor can be considered a master of the short story, but Avram Davidson or Margaret St. Clair cannot. Such hierarchies and divisions also occur within the literature of the fantastic. Authors who excel at short stories but who produce few noteworthy novels, such as C. L. Moore or Robert Sheckley, don’t achieve the same status as Fritz Leiber or Octavia Butler. Within such a framework, not surprisingly, fantastic poetry ends up being valued far less than fantastic fiction.
Prior to the 20thcentury, however, distinctions between high and low art, between literature and popular fiction or poetry, were not so firmly set or finely drawn, nor was realism more highly valued in literature and art than the fantastic or supernatural. Numerous foundational works in the current canon of great literature consist of fantastic poetry and contain the earliest inklings of what would become modern fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Originally composed orally, Gilgamesh (ca. 2000 BC) includes the eponymous hero’s battle with Humbaba the Terrible, a fire-breathing monster, as Gilgamesh attempts to cut down the Sacred Cedar. Homer’s The Odyssey(ca. 750 BC) follows Odysseus, master strategist and tactician, as he sleeps his way through a bevy of immortal females, outwits the Cyclops, and avoids being turned into a pig by a sorceress. Not to be outdone, the 24,000-verse-long Ramayana (ca. 500 BC) recounts the colorful life of Rama, the prince of Kosala, who wages war against Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, who has kidnapped Sita, the prince’s wife.
As oral traditions gave way to written forms, fantastic poetry continued to thrive and develop as evidenced by the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf (ca. 1000), a distinct influence on Tolkien, and the Norse Poetic Edda (ca. 900 to 1100), each replete with tales of gods and monsters and of doomed warriors at the edge of the world locked in struggle against dragons and darkness. During the Renaissance, fantastic poetry ascended great heights with works such as Dante’s The Divine Comedy (1308-1320) and its depiction of the tortures suffered by condemned souls in Hell, such as the Forest of Suicides whose leaves are eternally eaten by harpies, a fate as horrific as any imagined by Clive Barker. Likewise, William Shakespeare’s finest plays are not just masterpieces of world literature—they are masterpieces of fantastic poetry. From the avenging ghost in Hamlet (ca. 1602) to Prospero’s manipulative magic in The Tempest (ca. 1611), Shakespeare’s artistry is suffused with his deep love and appreciation of the supernatural. Any reader or critic would be hard pressed to think of a more memorable line in horror literature than the Wayward Sisters’ invocation in Macbeth (ca. 1607), “By the pricking of my thumbs, /Something wicked this way comes.”
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fantastic poetry was inextricably linked to the development of the Gothic and the search for the sublime, a defining characteristic of the Romantics that stresses beauty can be terrifying and the terrifying can be beautiful. Graveyard poetry, such as David Mallet’s “The Excursion” (1726) and Edward Young’s “Night-Thoughts” (1743-1745), meditations on mortality characterized by funereal settings and images of death and decay, set the stage for the generous public reception of Germanic ballads, such Gottfried August Bürger’s “Lenore” (1773) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “The Bride of Corinth” (1798), when they were first translated into English. These ballads, among the earliest narratives to feature spectral lovers and sexual unions between the living and the dead, are considered not only foundational texts in vampire literature but also an important bridge to Edgar Allan Poe, whose macabre poems “The Haunted Palace” (1839), “The Raven, ” (1845), and “Annabel Lee” (1849) remain as well known today as his short fiction. Classics of Romantic and Victorian literature that are high spots of fantastic poetry could easily fill several volumes, and include Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), a fever dream narrated by a sailor doomed to wander the Earth for eternity, relating his horrific encounter with a ghost ship on which Death and Life-in-Death roll dice for the lives of his companions; William Wordsworth’s “The Thorn” (1798), an unwed mother’s lament over killing her newborn baby on an isolated hilltop only to periodically suffer reminders of her crime because the very landscape has been transformed by her baby’s death; and John Keats’ “Lamia” (1820), a tale of ancient Greece in which a young man engages in a doomed love affair with a serpent in the form of a woman. The dramatic monologue, poems narrated by fictional or historical personas, is often considered the most accomplished poetic form practiced by Victorian poets, and among the finest examples are Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” (1842) and “My Last Duchess” (1842), poems narrated by psychopathic murderers that represent a watershed moment in the use of Gothic elements to critique the relationship between gender and power. In a similar vein, Christina Rossetti’s wonderful narrative poem “Goblin Market” (1862), the story of two sisters struggling to resist the temptation of cursed fruit offered to them by male goblin merchants, employs the supernatural in one of the defining feminist texts of the era, engaging issues of public and private space, traditional genders roles, and social mores regarding female sexuality. An American writer who lived during the Victorian era, Emily Dickinson produced remarkable poetry that is considered by critics to be the birth of a truly modern poetics. Her famous carriage ride with Death (“Because I could not stop for Death,” 1896) and her painful accounts of her consciousness experiencing extinction (“I heard a Fly Buzz—when I died—” and “My life closed twice before its close,” 1896) are also logical extensions of not only the macabre preoccupations of Poe and the Romantics but also the Victorian’s concerns with gender roles.
As we eased into the 20thcentury, the status accorded to fantastic poetry as literature waned rapidly. In his essay “Fantasy and Horror Poetry,” Steve Eng notes, “Supernatural poetry thrived on rhyme and meter for its hypnotic, musical, incantatory force. But the general worthlessness of sentimental magazine verse caused the ‘modern’ or free verse revolution, led initially by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.” In addition to the shift to free verse and non-narrative poetry in the 1910s, critics and scholars also tended to lavish their attention on poetry not just firmly grounded in more realistic subject matter, but also that demonstrated a more modernist sensibility in approach and technique. The Second Industrial Revolution and the rise of Social Darwinism fueled a steady erosion in traditional values, particularly those associated with formal religious institutions. Growing political and social unrest on a global scale, which would eventually result in World War I, furthered a sense of uncertainty among the general populace and an increased sense of fragmentation and alienation, all of which played a role in changing literary tastes and critical opinions. Like the great poets of the centuries preceding them, writers such as Thomas Hardy and William Butler Yeats, who straddled the end of the 19thcentury and the beginning of the 20thcentury, wrote both realistic and fantastic verse, but critics and scholars often dismissed their more macabre or fantastic poetry as merely sensationalist or sentimental and, therefore, inferior to their more supposedly “serious” work. From this perspective, only a naïve reader would consider Yeats’ “The Black Tower” (1939), written a week prior to his death, with its depiction of the dead buried upright in a mass tomb on an Irish hillside, as even being in the same league with “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (1937-38), famous for Yeats’ use of “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart” as an expression of his despair over his declining poetic imagination due to old age. While magazines and journals throughout the nineteenth century had always published a wide range of fiction and poetry, both literary and fantastic, as the 20thcentury progressed fantastic poetry, like fantastic fiction, was soon relegated to pulp magazines, most notably Weird Tales, and disappeared entirely from mainstream literary publications.
That fantastic poetry in the 20thcentury only survived in the pulps and later via specialty publishers like Arkham House and small press magazines such as Nyctalops and Weirdbook is a claim typical of surveys of supernatural and macabre poetry. Like the assertion that fantastic fiction and poetry cannot be considered serious literature, such a perspective is skewed and further diminishes fantastic poetry by making it the sole province of supernatural and speculative fiction writers, such as Lord Dunsany, Frank Belknap Long, Walter de la Mare, and Mary Elizabeth Counselman. Ignoring the numerous fantastic and macabre poems written by prominent 20th-century literary giants suggests that the Gothic and Romantic impulses nurtured by the most highly regarded British and American poets of the 19thcentury ceased to be a worthy pursuit for poets with serious literary ambitions. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Some of the most important poets in 20th-century mainstream literature incorporate elements of the fantastic into their work. While their subject matter may not be overtly supernatural or speculative in nature, their language and imagery absolutely are. An astute chronicler of the relationship between rural isolation and mental illness, Robert Frost’s “A Servant to Servants” (1915) is narrated by woman whose life is completely circumscribed by the daily domestic chores she must do for the hired men who work for her husband on his property. Her account of her uncle who took to “carrying his pillow in his teeth” and was kept in “a sort of cage, / Or room within a room, of hickory poles, / Like stanchions in the barn, from floor to ceiling” and who gives way to violent fits throughout the night is a superb example of a modern Gothic in verse. Even more disturbing, and as grotesque and bizarre as anything in Lovecraft’s poetry, is James Dickey’s “The Sheep Child” (1967), a harrowing account of a Southern legend that functions as a prohibition against bestiality—the supposed existence of a museum of oddities in Atlanta that contains “this thing that’s only half / Sheep like a woolly baby / Pickled in alcohol because / Those things can’t live.” The opulent, baroque decadence of Clark Ashton Smith’s prose poetry is rivaled by the surreal mental landscapes of Wallace Stevens’ great modernist poems whose strange, idiosyncratic nature and sense of awe are evidenced even in their titles, such as “Tea and the Palaz of Hoon” (1921) “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (1923), and “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts” (1942). Fairytales and biblical myths get turned on their heads in many modern feminist poems, including Anne Sexton’s “Cinderella” (1971) and Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” (1966) who warns both God and Lucifer to “[b]eware” because she rises “[o]ut of the ash” and “eat[s] men like air.” Dramatic monologues reach new extremes via the richly absurd first-person personas who speak John Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” (1977) and William Matthews’ “Homer’s Seeing-Eye Dog” (1988). What work of supernatural or macabre poetry is more terrifying than Carolyn Forche’s prose poem “The Colonel” (1978), based on her firsthand volunteer experiences in El Salvador, in which a colonel dumps a grocery sack of severed human ears onto a table in front of her, or Frank Bidart’s “Herbert White” (1977) with its matter-of-fact account of a little girl’s rape and murder, which begins, “’When I hit her on the head, it was good, // and then I did it to her a couple of times,—// but it was funny,—afterwards, // it was as if somebody else did it.’”
As these examples illustrate, fantastic poetry is not just the purview of writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, nor does it require subject matter that is strictly supernatural or fantastical in order to terrify or elicit awe. Just as critics, scholars, and collectors of literature often have a ridiculously narrow conception of what constitutes actual literature, readers, collectors, and scholars of fantastic literature have an equally limited view of the value of fantastic poetry and the significant role it has played in the careers and lives of writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, as well in mainstream literature. If supernatural and macabre elements can be used with such success in so-called “high” or “serious” literature, isn’t possible that genre writers whose poetry has been dismissed as mere doggerel hack work might also exhibit the same levels of fine craftsmanship and intellectual rigor demonstrated by their more lofty literary cousins?
Lloyd Currey’s Fantastic Poetry invites you to reconsider the most neglected form of supernatural and speculative literature. This curated collection challenges readers, collectors, and scholars to stretch their imaginations and move beyond their comfort zones into what is still relatively uncharted territory, an infinite world of words and possibilities.
Not surprisingly, many of the most unique, interesting volumes included in Fantastic Poetry predate the twentieth century. One of the earliest is Joel Barlow’s The Vision of America; A Poem in Nine Books (1797), a 5,000+ line epic consisting of a dialogue between Christopher Columbus and an angel that covers the entire history of North and South America. A direct result of the popularity of Bürger’s “Lenore,” Matthew Gregory Lewis’ Tales of Wonder (1801), the first anthology of supernatural and macabre verse in English, contains 60 poems by a diverse group of writers working the early Gothic and ballad modes, including Sir Walter Scott, Ben Johnson, John Dryden, Robert Burns, and Thomas Gray. A six-canto chivalric romance in the tradition of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590), John Milton Harney’s Crystalina: A Fairy Tale (1816) describes the adventures of Rinaldo, a young knight who must rescue his beloved Princess Crystalina after she is kidnapped by Oberon, the fairy king. A great rarity, John Greenleaf Whittier’s much neglected Legends of New-England (1831), a foundational contribution to the development of supernatural literature, consists of eighteen tales in prose and verse, a veritable catalog of horrors, natural and supernatural, which confronted early American settlers, including man-eating wolves, frontier massacres, pacts with diabolic forces, and spectral warriors, all told with a gruesome and grim gusto. Mark Drinkwater’s The United Worlds, A Poem, in Fifty Seven Books (1843) is an early utopian work of American science fiction in the form of a narrative poem concerning the discovery of a subterranean world whose inhabitants have devoted themselves to philosophy and engineering. Equally enticing is a complete thirteen-volume set of The Yellow Book (1894-1897), Henry Harlan and Aubrey Beardsley’s influential Victorian literary quarterly, a treasure trove of fiction and poetry, much still waiting to be properly assessed, whose contributors include numerous authors of the weird and fantastic, such as R. Murray Gilchrist, H. G. Wells, Baron Corvo, and Netta Syrett. Written for young readers, Solon L. Goode’s The Winged Ship (1897) recounts in verse a tour that four “Sprites” from “Elfin Land” take of our solar system in a spaceship. Such works from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries illustrate the richness of fantastic poetry, which like fantastic fiction from the same time span, encompasses everything from fairy tales to folklore, interplanetary travel to utopian discovery, and Gothic horror to psychological terror.
While the poetic achievements of the Weird Tales authors have received some recognition due to August Derleth’s efforts with Arkham House, other writers of fantastic fiction have barely been acknowledged for their poetry, as Lloyd’s listings clearly indicate. While Ambrose Bierce is justly revered for stories such as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” the poems collected in Black Beetles in Amber (1892) and Shapes of Clay (1903) have been all but forgotten. The same is even truer of Fitz-James O’Brien whose sole book, The Poems and Stories of Fitz-James O’Brien (1881), would be completely ignored if it did not contain such classic stories as “The Diamond Lens” and “What Was It?” Aleister Crowley’s reputation as “the Beast 666,” as well as his sexual exploits and drug use, has always overshadowed his fiction, which includes The Stratagem and Other Stories (1929) and Moonchild: A Prologue (1929), so it’s no wonder barely anyone recalls that Crowley, according to Montague Summers, wrote “some fine poetry.” Readers, scholars, and collectors willing to investigate Summers’ claim can delve into Olla: An Anthology of Sixty Years of Song (1946), Crowley’s own selection of his best poetry, the last of his books published in his lifetime. Lagging behind her male counterparts from Weird Tales, the less prolific Mary Elizabeth Counselman produced a number of fine poems, some for mainstream magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, which were not collected until the publication of The Face of Fear and Other Poems (1984) when she was in her seventies. Even the most jaded reader of fantasy will attest to Mervyn Peake’s brilliance with language in his landmark Gormenghast Sequence (1946-1949). Why doubt that Peake would achieve less heart-wrenching magic in his poems, particularly those based on his experiences as a documentary artist who visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, all of which are collected in The Glassblowers (1950)?
Most importantly, Lloyd’s catalog highlights a Who’s Who of contemporary horror, fantasy, and science fiction writers most of us aren’t even aware have written poetry. Thomas Tessier’s first published book was not a novel but the poetry collection How We Died (1970). Joe Haldeman’s Vietnam and Other Alien Worlds (1993) contains not only fiction but also poems as do Tanith Lee’s Unsilent Night (1981), Gene Wolfe’s Plan[e]t Engineering (1984), and Neil Gaiman’s Adventures in the Dream Trade (2000). Fritz Leiber’s The Demons of the Upper Air (1969) and L. Sprague de Camp’s Heroes and Hobgoblins (1981) may sound like collections of sword and sorcery stories, but they’re actually poetry. Titles such as Roger Zelazny’s Poems (1974) and Peter Straub’s Leeson Park and Belsize Square: Poems 1970-1975 (1983), of course, speak for themselves. Then there’s Ursula K. LeGuin’s tour de force Always Coming Home (1985), the story of the Kesh, a future people living in the Valley, as told through a stunning combination of folktales, artwork, maps, poems, and stories. Lest anyone think poetry is not a crucial component of LeGuin’s artistry, the first edition of Always Coming Home was issued with a cassette called The Music & Poetry of the Kesh long before the Internet facilitated the simultaneous posting of words, images, and music. How’s that for old school?
No one’s ever heard of, much less read, W. Theodore Parke’s The Spook Ballads (1895) or L. H. Allen’s Gods and Wood-Things (1913) despite such very promising titles. Likewise, begun over 100 years ago, Lafcadio Hearn’s important work on Japanese goblin poetry in The Romance of the Milky Way and Other Studies and Stories (1905) remains sadly unfinished.
Dive into Lloyd Currey’s Fantastic Poetry, and see what else you can discover.Read More