It’s been difficult, probably because, as Nadezhda Mandelstam writes, “The fear that goes with the writing of verse is about … our mysterious awe in the face of existence.”

Frightening poems don’t typically narrate frightening things. That’s Stephen King’s job. They’re more about evoking one human being’s basic awe/terror at being itself.

And while this is scarier than a prom queen with telekinetic powers, it’s also harder to convey.

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Here’s the winner of UD‘s Scariest Poem contest. It’s by Weldon Kees.

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Homage to Arthur Waley

Seattle weather: it has rained for weeks in this town
The dampness breeding moths and a gray summer.
I sit in the smoky room reading your book again,
My eyes raw, hearing the trains steaming below me
In the wet yard, and I wonder if you are still alive.
Turning the worn pages, reading once more:
“By misty waters and rainy sands, while the yellow dusk thickens.”

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It’s a moment. A passing moment only, but one profoundly under construction for awhile, during those weeks of Seattle rain. You move through a gray mothy setting like that for weeks without responding much, but it’s working on you latently; within you the Seattle rain has been guttering and muttering, until a random moment comes when you’re sitting around reading a book and the morbid stream suddenly finds an outlet.

Since you’re recording a brief moment, a flash of fear, your poem will be brief. Since you’re conveying your flinty emotionally suppressed modern consciousness, you’re going to write casually and neutrally, as if sketching a few notes: Seattle weather: — That colon after the phrase tells the reader You’re not getting expansive descriptive lyrics out of me. If you want Romantic brooding upon damp weather, read Wordsworth.

Indeed, breeding moths and gray summer echoes T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land: breeding lilacs out of the dead land. But Kees’ later modernism will dispense even with the ironically recycled motifs of Romanticism (lilacs) that you find in Eliot.

On the poem’s title, by the way: You and I probably have no idea who Arthur Waley might be; he could be a fiction, like the fictive personality “Robinson” who appears in many Kees poems… But the poet will conclude the poem with a line apparently taken from the work of Waley, so maybe he’s real. Don’t know yet.

This poem is an homage, and on top of that, it’s a direct address to this Arthur Waley: reading your book. And reading it again. Like the Seattle rain, that book has been working on the poet. He reads its “worn pages” repeatedly.

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This is also a claustrophobic poem. Driven in by incessant rain, the poet exhibits a double interiority – he’s inside a room, and he’s inside a book. His dialogue is with a fellow writer, a specter – “I wonder if you are still alive.” He is talking to words on a page, or to a ghostly projection of whoever wrote those words. The larger nimbus of obscurity he’s evoking throughout the poem (“smoky room”) deepens yet more the sense that we’re in a mysterious and somehow malign world in which people are driven in on themselves.

“My eyes raw” – The only dry things in this poem are the poet’s eyes as he reads and reads the worn pages. The world storms without; within, the poet, in a protective, banked-in mode, reduced to mere debilitated sight, seeks repeatedly to focus on poetic fragments that seem to convey something of great value to him.

The “trains steaming” in the “wet yard” are let’s say the poet’s fevered – angry? – consciousness rolling through a hopelessly mysterious outer world.

I wonder if you are still alive. In the pulled-back, depressive, barely-there atmosphere of this poem, that line can be read not merely as a direct address to Waley’s ghost, but as self-inquiry. Am I still alive? (For readers who know about Kees’ mysterious last days – or were they his last? did he commit suicide? his body was never found – this line will be especially eerie.)

Now, with his last line, Kees quotes directly from the text he keeps rereading:

By misty waters and rainy sands, while the yellow dusk thickens.

Let’s look that up, shall we?

Waley was indeed a real person, an important translator of Asian poetry, and part of the Bloomsbury set. Ezra Pound was among the first to publish his translations. He was also a close friend, as it happens, of T.S. Eliot. (The woman with whom Waley spent his life is described, wonderfully, as “the veteran of three failed Platonic and vegetarian liaisons.”) Kees’ final line, the line that gathers up the symbolic hints of his poem and takes them to a conclusion, is taken from one of the poems Waley translated.

Doubly interiorized, intersubjective, interpoetic on three different levels (Waley is himself translating the work of yet another poet), intercultural (west and east), intertextual… Homage to Arthur Waley‘s got it all if you’re looking for ontological creepiness, for a fully evoked sense of the frightening convolution of the world, the self, and other selves. (Want more? Don’t even go there…) With great recurrent effort, the poet begins to sense and admire (“homage”) the capacity of Waley’s rendering of his own ghostly poetic precursor’s effort to articulate the horrible ominous fact of the curtain of the world becoming more, not less, occluded (“My eyes raw” – those rainy sands making the yellow dusk are throwing sand in the poet’s eyes) as we mature toward the end of our existence. The yellow dusk thickens. Life narrows. The veil of rain darkens.

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2 Responses to “For the last few spooky days, I’ve been looking for a really scary poem.”

  1. Van L. Hayhow Says:

    Donald Keene put together the first anthology of Japanese literature in English back in the 1950s. To my taste, the Arthur Waley translations were easily the best (taking in to account that I do not read any language other then English so cannot do a direct comparison).

  2. Jack/OH Says:

    Back in the late 1980s, maybe around 3:00 A. M in winter, I saw a shimmering, ghostly figure in the trees at a campground between Cleveland and Youngstown.

    I was a’skeered (scared/afraid) (I hope that does justice to the Anglo-Scottish variant of English you sometimes rarely hear around here.)

    I went closer. The ghostly figure was a large trash bag that had been caught by the wind. Yeah, I was a fool.

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