Scary Poems

October 26, 2016

There’s a wide range of scary poems, beginning with the ones that register the pleasure of being a little scared, like Dickinson’s responding to “a narrow fellow in the grass…with “a tighter Breathing/ And zero at the bone.”   The ferocity of anger can be both funny and frightening, as it is in Margaret Atwood’s four-line poem:

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye


And in the last stanza of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”:


Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.


Her hallucinatory poem “The Bee Meeting” gives me nightmares.  If you think Louise Gluck’s “Gretel in Darkness” is terrifying, take a look at “All Hallows.”   Many of Frost’s poems disturb the deepest levels, like “Design” and “Out, Out–,” for example.  In the first one, Frost pushes the implications of the argument from design for the existence of god to its logical conclusion: Do you really want to believe in a god who pays attention to every detail of life and death?  When I first read “Out, Out–” I went back again and again, hoping I was wrong about what happens–but I wasn’t.  There’s something far more deeply frightening to me about seeing through the words to the terrifying events beyond them than seeing the events directly.  It’s the delayed realization, the double take, the oh no.   Robert Morgan’s poem “The Mountain Bride” loops back to Dickinson’s narrow fellow in a terrifying scene.

So what are some of your favorite frightening poems?  Post the poems or the links.

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  • Reply eileen cleary October 26, 2016 at 9:31 pm

    Oh! This is a deliciously chilling discussion.

    “My Last Duchess” is ice cold scary at the primordial level. But, at least limited to human evil.

    The poem you mention, Gluck’s “All Hallows” – psychologically alarming on a deeper level-that line , “Even now the landscape is assembling” is terrifying, as if the landscape can take up arms against us. Sheesh.

    I’ll be looking for more…

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet October 26, 2016 at 9:41 pm

      And now I’m reminded of Plath’s “Mushrooms.”

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet October 26, 2016 at 9:46 pm

      Somehow reminded me of another one: Plath’s “Mushrooms.”

  • Reply Robbie Gamble October 26, 2016 at 10:49 pm

    Well, just about anything by Ai. “The Mortician’s Twelve-Year-Old Son,” “The Kid” and “Sleep Like a Hammer” come to mind right away. She digs around fearlessly in dark parts of the human psyche that most of us would rather leave alone.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet October 27, 2016 at 10:26 am

      Yes, she does. Her poems are piercing, cut right to the heart.

  • Reply David Hurst October 27, 2016 at 1:04 am

    There are perhaps many poems, if I stop and think about it, that I find scary so in this response I’m kind of zeroing in. The first one that came to mind when I read your post was Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” Those last two lines raise my hackles every time: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” You’ve already mentioned “Out, Out-,” one of my favorites, and I might add a Roethke or two (“The Storm” or perhaps “Florist’s Root Cellar”). But, finally, I have to say that the poems that have most affected me have been three by my friend and mentor Connie (Corrine Clegg) Hales: “Sunday Morning,” “What Actually Happens,” and “Night” (all of these in the chapbook Out of This Place, but collected elsewhere as well). There is no way to really describe the way she subtly increases the tension of her narratives so that the moment of denouement has such power. The only one I can find online is “Sunday Morning”: There are also two poems about her brother, “Motion” and “Power” in her collection Underground that just grab me. Maybe they aren’t really “scary” in a Halloween sense, but they tear at emotional scars nonetheless.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet October 27, 2016 at 10:24 am

      I’m so glad you mentioned these Connie Hales poems–yes, chilling. And “The Second Coming,” which just stops my heart.

  • Reply eileen cleary October 27, 2016 at 6:23 am
    Not so much chilling as outer worldly and a pinch disturbing.

  • Reply Rich Lyons October 27, 2016 at 10:16 am

    Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” is a great scary poem for me.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet October 27, 2016 at 10:22 am

      It’s so interesting, seeing which poems people think of. This one wouldn’t have occurred to me, but it makes total sense.

  • Reply Robbie Gamble October 27, 2016 at 6:04 pm

    I think the most chilling poem I have ever encountered is Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel”:

    Such a devastatingly intimate view of the totalitarian mind.

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