“Queerly Examining Classic Horror Film Posters” Essay by Shannon Kralovic

Publisher’s note:

The views and opinions expressed in this essay are solely those of its author. Publication here does not necessarily imply endorsement of or disagreement with these views by The Chamber. This essay is published here to promote healthy intellectual discourse on one of the many aspects of dark literature. Other views on this or any other topic relating to dark fiction and poetry are welcome.

Ever since its inception, the cinematic horror genre has functioned to address the fear of those deemed different or incomprehensible by socially ideological standards. The genre has time and again underscored this matter due in no small part to its flawless marriage of aesthetics, tone, atmosphere, and directorial style and method. However, it is the fundamental heart and soul of the films, the assorted creatures, psychopaths, and outcasts themselves, who most aptly convey just how so many have view those who exist outside of stereotypically normal or acceptable categories. Iconic mainstays like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Gill-Man stalk and slash their way into the very depths of the normative subconscious, conjunctively revealing and forcing the viewer to confront every one of the prejudiced attitudes that society exercises to systematically marginalize individuals who do not faultlessly adhere to white patriarchal ideals.

With their penchant for ingesting blood, composite reanimated flesh, and scale-laden bodies, these legends incontestably symbolize everything queer. They do so across a range of realistic themes, including race, nationality, class, religion, age, and dis/ability. It is undeniable, however, that one of their most prevalent purposes is to dually reflect and subvert archaic views concerning queer gender and sexual identities. Due to their unsettling yet captivating traits, these characters speak to enduring perspectives held by the “normal” social collective: that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer, intersex, asexual+ (LGBTQIA+) individuals are deviant and immoral; the malevolent Other whose sole objective is to corrupt innocent souls and tear asunder the moral fabric of society itself.

Considering the responsibility of depicting the varying treatment and notions of queer individuals prominently rests with these horror icons, it stands to reason that the archival representation of this dynamic would be structured around them as well. Because the characters’ queer functioning presented in a decidedly connotative manner when exercised during the height of their initial popularity, it also makes sense that the visual documentation of their role be in as equally implicit a fashion. This certainly holds true with the Academy Film Archive-associated Margaret Herrick Library.

Established in 1991, the Academy Film Archive’s primary mission is focused within preserving, documenting, restoring, studying, and exhibiting motion pictures.[i] It contains more than 190,000 records, encompassing every one of the Academy Award-winning Best Picture and documentary films as well as numerous nominated works.[ii] The Archive further holds director-specific collections, including legends Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, and Sam Peckinpah.[iii]

Although the Academy Film Archive possesses an enviable collection in conjunction with an admirable objective, the related Margaret Herrick Library inarguably surpasses the Archive in its preservationist intentions. Founded in 1928, the Library is a “non-circulating reference and research collection devoted to the history and development of the motion picture as an art form and as an industry.”[iv] It takes its name from Margaret Herrick (d. 1976), who served as the Academy librarian from 1936 to 1943, and as the institution’s executive director from 1945-1971.[v] As a result of her tireless contributions, Herrick not only diversified Academy activities and initiated the televised presentation of the Awards ceremonies, but acted to render the Library the illustrious establishment it is today.[vi]

Undoubtedly, it is because of Margaret Herrick’s unwavering dedication that the Library currently possesses such a versatile collection. A vast array of cinematic materials comprise the archival inventory, including posters, published and unpublished scripts, papers, drawings, periodicals, and books. However, only (most) of the posters are available for online viewing. It should also be noted that although this discourse entails strictly classic horror films, not every one of the posters discussed are the originals employed at the time of the films’ initial releases. Some are Mondo posters—highly stylized, striking works created in the celebration of important and influential films that often touch upon aspects of a film that were dismissed in the original promotional materials. Therefore, they are perfect for inclusion in a conversation about the implication of queer themes in classic horror characters.

This quality is most definitely evinced by the Library’s collection regarding Dracula (1931). As it utilizes a scene straight from the film for its image, one of the featured posters aptly speaks to the connotative queer nature of the eponymous blood drinker. The scene in question consists of Dracula’s (Bela Lugosi) three Wives timidly retreating from an unconscious Renfield (Dwight Frye) as their master casts them away so that he may be alone with the man. For anyone who possesses even remote knowledge of the Dracula mythology, they know that Renfield is the character who becomes Dracula’s psychotic, unfalteringly-devoted, zoophagus lickspittle upon being hypnotized by the former. Consequently, this scene both foreshadows and initiates the same-sex relationship between the two men. Having banished his wives from the situation, Dracula has effectively removed the feminine element and opened up a homosocial and homoerotic space to engage Renfield. Per stereotypically social and cinematic notions of gay men, this homosexual quality is subsequently conveyed with aplomb—in a veiled manner, naturally—once Renfield has fully surrendered himself to his superior. Due to the dominant/submissive dynamic that characterizes their interactions, the vampire and his servant contribute to the trope of the sadomasochistic gay relationship.[vii] Moreover, because of Dracula’s undead status, his attraction for Renfield goes a step further to conflate homosexuality with necrophilia.[viii] Enhancing the interpretive value of the artwork, the varying aesthetic of the poster (it is the same image, but displayed on two posters of differing schemes) compliments the dichotomy of horrifically queer desire. Whereas a wash of deep, feral crimson on the Wives’ gowns in the first underscores an obviously violent aspect, its absence in the other—the color having been relocated in a simultaneously brighter and contained fashion to Dracula’s cape and the film’s title presented in Old English Text—allows for a frosty silvery-gray color that speaks to an undeniable sensuous passion.

While Dracula’s Wives prove an inconsequential foil to his desires, a more prominent complication presents in the form of Mina Seward (Helen Chandler). As Harry M. Benshoff astutely declares in Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, the classic horror genre employed the obligatory heroine figure as the villain’s object of lust; nevertheless, the antagonist’s true desires are always revealed through a sadomasochistic relationship with a submissive counterpart of the same sex.[ix] Such an ineffective deflection of homosexuality is conveyed via the Library’s posters showcasing Dracula with Mina.

One of the works, another variation in a cadet blue and vermillion scheme, respectively, attempts to maintain an air of heterosexual attraction. It shows Dracula casting a sinister gaze off in the distance, a slight smirk playing across his lips, as he sensually places his hand over Mina’s throat while she swoons in his embrace. Conversely, the other poster shatters the illusion of the whole disingenuous affair. While Dracula cradles Mina in his arms, a look of utter wide-eyed, hypnotized petrifaction plagues her countenance. Hers is the expression affected by someone confronted with whom they do not understand. It is the frightened stare exercised by the normal individual being subjected to the disgusting, deviant monstrous queer, and it sublimely exposes an empty heterosexuality.

Nonetheless, the work that most aptly emphasizes the vampire’s queer nature, in a variety of respects, is a portrait solely showcasing Dracula. With the majority of the image steeped in shadow a band of light accentuates Dracula’s penetrating gaze, evincing his aptitude for bending others to his will via hypnosis. Blazing red comprising the highlights in his raven, widow-peaked hair adds an enraged edge to the already sinister sensibility afforded by his dark features. All of these qualities, combined with his affinity for drinking blood as indicated by the subtle red splattering on his white bow tie, serve to metaphorically underscore and constitute Dracula’s queer sexuality.

Another collection in the Margaret Herrick Library that provides a wealth of interpretive information pertaining to both the unique facets and archaic concepts of queer identities in classic horror films is that of Frankenstein (1931). This dynamic is alluded to in a poster depicting Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) looming over and inspecting the shrouded body of his Monster (Boris Karloff), laid out on a slab in his laboratory.[x] On one level, the scene works to establish yet another horror character trope: the queer mad scientist, for Dr. Frankenstein conducts his experiments in a privileged space with the assistance of a hunchbacked man named Fritz (Dwight Frye).[xi] It further posits the specific nature of their queer relationship courtesy of the exhibition of the Monster’s body. Dr. Frankenstein and Fritz strive to achieve homosexual procreation, an objective addressed as well between the titular scientist and Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).[xii] As Benshoff notes, the very condition of queer theoretically favors “death over life by focusing on non-procreative sexual behaviors,” thus rendering it apropos of a genre so heavily concentrated within themes of sex and death.[xiii] Frankenstein queerly subverts this concept by harnessing the theme of procreation, so replete with life, in the service of de-heterosexualizing it via the assemblage of necrotic, composite anatomical parts at the hands of a power-hungry male duo.

Like those for Dracula, some of the promotional materials aim to assert the Monster himself as queer threat. A poster in a green scheme portrays him running towards the spectator in a ghoulish manner, accompanied by the sensational tagline, “The MONSTER that terrorized the world!”[xiv] The cliché is then made even more manifestly obvious in an insert for Frankenstein 1970. Three clean-cut normals flee as the Monster, depicted posteriorly, closes in on them. So as to effectively convey the theme of heterosexual aversion, the individual in closest proximity to him is a beautiful fair-skinned woman who, of course, has fallen in her attempted escape and is staring at the approaching threat in stereotypically swooning terror.

A portrait further affirms the Monster’s off-putting Otherness with a grand, vibrant detailing of his putrid lime green, scarred flesh and bolted neck. Yet, his heavy-lidded, downcast eyes, and mouth sorrowfully slumping at the corners, simultaneously connotes another trite heteronormative concept: that of the sad queer man. This trope is reinforced in images of the Monster sweetly watching a ripple in a lake whilst standing at its edge under a weeping willow, and forlornly gazing down at a daisy gently clasped in his hand. He is an innocent being, too hideous to ever be appreciated, too different and misunderstood to ever be truly loved by anyone, and therefore must relegate himself to the hinterlands of society.

A very distinct and legendary form of the classic horror film, the creature feature, is also represented in the Library’s archives. With their scales, fins, fangs, and perpetually seeping substances, the weird and wonderful characters of the genre are steadfastly cemented as more monstrously queer Other than the most monstrously queer Other conceivable. Such a notion is no more aptly expressed than in the unparalleled Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954).

In a three-quarter profile portrait, the eponymous Creature’s, or Gill-Man’s, unique type of Otherness is rendered in exquisite detail. Large, staggered plates of pebble-like scales; a triple layering of feathery gills; and a mask of rippled, undulating flesh comprise his lime green exterior, complicating the animal/human dichotomy. There is a human sense in his general form, but he is undisputedly more prehistorically amphibian than anything. Furthermore, the Gill- Man’s singular features exude a gender-bending quality—his exaggeratedly voluptuous vermillion lips and protruding, golden, almond-shaped eyes evoking the sensibility of a horror-themed drag queen.

Apart from the fantastical nature of the ostensible antagonists themselves, an aspect of creature features—especially those concerning sea creatures—that has always captivated me is the particular condition of their habitats. The thought of being drawn into a dark, watery abyss with no other recourse but to drown while being ravaged by a sinister beast instills one with the utmost dread. Certainly, such fear can be easily applied to the phobic cliché of queer as threat, this conceptual marriage inferred in a classically-designed poster that alternately displays in a striking Technicolor-like palette and a black-and-white scheme. While three scaled-down people swim and dive behind him, the fully submerged Gill-Man, taking prominence in the foreground, menacingly reaches his clawed, webbed hand out to the spectator. He is the queer monstrosity grasping for his vulnerable heterosexual prey. Once he has secured them, he will drag them to the very depths where only he can survive, and where he will obliterate the virtue, innocence, and purity embodied by the straight victim.

This generalized concept is quite obviously conveyed in the film via the extraordinarily gorgeous Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams). Kay is terrified of the Gill-Man, as any heteronormative symbol naturally should be. In what is unequivocally Creature From the Black Lagoon’s most famous promotional image, she screams in abject horror as her amphibious captor carries her underwater to his lair. Such disgust is also depicted in a more aggressive fashion in a poster wherein a woman (most likely not Kay, because the figure is in a bikini and not Adams’ iconic one-piece) donning scuba gear uses her hand to ward off the approaching Gill-Man, who peers up from below the water’s surface.

For all of her glaringly apparent revulsion, though, the film still insists on superficially positing Kay as the Gill-Man’s object of desire. As an original half-sheet proclaims, there are “centuries of passion pent up in his savage heart!”[xv] What makes the tagline particularly fascinating, however, is the potential of whose passion, and of the type so frustratingly harbored within them, it is actually alluding to. By the 1950s—the decade in which Creature From the Black Lagoon was released—there was an increasing realization that not all gay men and lesbians conformed to the respective effeminate and butch stereotypes that they were traditionally categorized as.[xvi] Instead, an even more painful ideological standard prevailed. In alignment with the Cold War paranoia that pervaded the era, it was understood that not only could homosexuals pass as “normal” individuals, but this ability coupled with their alliance with communism, situated them as an insidious threat to the values and virtues upheld by America.[xvii] 

This construct of the concealed homosexual is intimated in Creature From the Black Lagoon through its male characters. Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) are forthrightly presented as hyper-heterosexualized scientists, however, their actions and circumstances often betray their true desires. An inset image at the bottom right-hand corner of the aforementioned classic poster shows Kay desperately grasping Mark’s shoulder as the duo gaze bewilderingly into the distance, with Mark holding his rifle at an erect angle in preparation for the impending danger. The phallic motif is also carried out in the poster’s main body, wherein a pair of male divers pursue the Gill-Man with a knife and spear, and further still in the center inset image displaying a male diver clutching a knife in his raised fist while being attacked by the amphibious Creature. In fact, over the course of the trilogy (completed by Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)), the male protagonists hunt the Gill-Man with a myriad of phallic devices, including knives, spears, air tanks and hoses, hypodermic needles and, most blissfully obvious of them all, a squirt-gun that extrudes a cream-based sedative referred to as rotenone.[xviii] Even the Gill-Man himself is asserted as a phallic signifier, for he, too, possesses the desire that Mark and David do for Kay, who, in turn, acts to triangulate the men’s lust for one another.[xix] Ultimately, the film hits the trifecta of classic horror conventions: misogyny by way of a woman’s presence as a mere foil for the deflection of male homosexuality;[xx] barely contained homoeroticism in the form of overdetermined heteromasculine male protagonists; and a being so fantastically queer that he will never be accepted and loved by anyone.

Horror, especially in its classic form, has never really treated LGBTQIA+ individuals in the kindest of ways. By and large it acts to cement them as deviant, immoral, nefarious, vile creatures that desire nothing more than to pervert the moral superiority of the heteronormative hegemony. Though such a concept is pathetically archaic, examining its archival representation is nevertheless imperative because doing so affords us greater insight into how cinema pointedly reflects a variety of queerphobic ideologies that sadly persist to this day.


[i] “Academy Film Archive: About the Archive: General Info,” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, accessed February 5, 2018, http://www.oscars.org/academy-film-archive/about-archive.   

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.  

 [iv] “Margaret Herrick Library: About: Margaret Herrick,” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, accessed February 12, 2018, http://www.oscars.org/library/about.  

 [v] Ibid.  

[vi] Ibid.   

[vii] Harry M. Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997), 61. 

 [viii] Ibid., 56.    

 [ix] Ibid., 61.

 [x] It, too, is a variant work, with that which is cast in deep, jewel-tone red smacking of Dr. Frankenstein’s all-consuming passion for his creation, and the other in a silvery-blue that underlines the apparent intimacy of the scene. Surely, his homoerotic affinity for the Monster is suggested by a split image of Karloff and Clive that rather forthrightly expresses the parties as dichotomous halves of a complimentary whole. 

[xi] Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet, 41; 49.

[xii] Ibid., 11; 49-50. 

[xiii] Ibid., 5.

 [xiv] Frankenstein/[poster]; James Whale; 1931, screenprint; one-sheet poster, n.d., Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, accessed February 7, 2018, http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=74&bibId=98152.


[xv] Reynold Brown, Creature From the Black Lagoon/[poster]; Jack Arnold; 1954, offset lithograph; half-sheet poster, 1954, Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, accessed February 10, 2018, http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=13&bibId=29554.

[xvi] Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet, 122.

[xvii] Ibid., 122; 127.

[xviii] Ibid., 133-134.

[xix] Ibid., 133; 135.

[xx] Ibid., 135.


“Academy Film Archive: About the Archive: General Info.” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, accessed February 5, 2018. http://www.oscars.org/academy-film- archive/about-archive.

Ansin, Martin. Dracula/[poster]; Tod Browning; 1931. Screenprint; American poster, 2011.  Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.             http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=68 &bibId=84226.            

Ansin, Martin. Dracula – Variant. Screenprint; American poster, 2011. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.      http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=67   &bibId=84225.

Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester      and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Brown, Reynold. Creature From the Black Lagoon/[poster]; Jack Arnold; 1954. Offset   lithograph; half-sheet poster, 1954. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 10, 2018.  http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=13    &bibId=29554.

Brown, Reynold. Creature From the Black Lagoon/[poster]; Jack Arnold; 1954. Offset   lithograph; one-sheet poster, 1954. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 10, 2018.  http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=39&recCount=50&recPointer=12  &bibId=54660.

Burton, Jonathan. Dracula. Screenprint; American poster, 2015. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.  http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=65   &bibId=109421.

Burton, Jonathan. Dracula (Variant). Screenprint; American poster, 2015. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.    http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=64   &bibId=109420.

Burton, Jonathan. Frankenstein. Screenprint; American poster, 2015. Margaret Herrick  Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.      http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=71   &bibId=109212.     

Burton, Jonathan. Frankenstein (Variant). Screenprint; American poster, 2015. Margaret Herrick  Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018. http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=70   &bibId=109211.

Dracula. Directed by Tod Browning. Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures, 1931. In Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection. Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures Home   Entertainment, 2017. BD.

Durieux, Laurent. Dracula/[poster]; Tod Browning; 1931. Screenprint; American poster, 2012.   Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018. http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=69            &bibId=88355.

Durieux, Laurent. Frankenstein/[poster]; James Whale; 1931. Screenprint; American poster, 2012. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018. http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=78            &bibId=88347.  

Edmiston, Jason. Bela Lugosi. Screenprint; American poster, 2013. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.      http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=66   &bibId=96344.

Edmiston, Jason. Creature From the Black Lagoon/[poster]; Jack Arnold; 1954. Screenprint; American poster, 2013. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 10, 2018. http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=31&recCount=50&recPointer=5  &bibId=96339.

Edmiston, Jason. Frankenstein/[poster]; James Whale; 1931. Screenprint;         American poster, 2013. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018. http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=73            &bibId=96340.

Francavilla, Francesco. Creature From the Black Lagoon/[poster]; Jack Arnold; 1954. Screenprint; American poster, 2012. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed  February 10, 2018.  http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=33&recCount=50&recPointer=7  &bibId=87295.      

Frankenstein/[poster]; James Whale; 1931. Screenprint; one-sheet poster, n.d. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.    http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=7 4&bibId=98152.

Frankenstein—1970/[poster]; Howard W. Koch; 1958. Offset lithograph; insert poster, 1958. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.             http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?SearchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=55            &bibId=102187.   

“Margaret Herrick Library: About: Margaret Herrick.” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, accessed February 12, 2018. http://www.oscars.org/library/about.

Richard, J.C. Pretty Things Float. Screenprint; American poster, 2013. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.      http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=72   &bibId=95440.

Stan & Vince. Creature From the Black Lagoon. Screenprint; American poster, 2015. Margaret   Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 10, 2018.            http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=28&recCount=50&recPointer=3     &bibId=108856.   

Stan & Vince. Creature From the Black Lagoon – Variant. Screenprint; American poster, 2015.   Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 10, 2018. http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=30&recCount=50&recPointer=4            &bibId=108862.

Struzan, Drew. Frankenstein/[poster]; James Whale; 1931. Screenprint; American poster, 2011. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018. http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=77 &bibId=81985.   

Shannon Kralovic holds both a BA and MA in the History of Western Art and Visual Culture, along with a Certificate in Public History, from Empire State University. She has curated various virtual exhibitions, and written several essays, focused on film and visual art, and serves as the Public Relations Officer for the Wells Historical Society. Her research lies in various fields, from the representation of LGBTQ+ identities in film and visual art to Scandinavian art. She is currently working on an exhibition concerning the dynamics of women and queerness in slasher films as an independent curator.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine

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Monday Night Miscellany: “Sensual vs. Sensuous-How to Remember the Difference” Essay by Phil Slattery

Sensual vs. Sensuous: How to Remember the Difference

No matter how many times I watched the supermarket scene from Animal House, I used to continually confuse the distinction between sensual  and sensuous.   Then one day I stumbled upon an article while double-checking their usage for a story I was writing. After reading it and doing a bit more research, I came upon these points:


  • “If one wants another only for some self-satisfaction, usually in the form of sensual pleasure, that wrong desire takes the form of lust rather than love.” (Mortimer Adler)
  •  Her first book of poems included several sensuous descriptions of flowers.

Usage Notes:

  • “The controversial 1969 bestseller The Sensuous Woman would have been more accurately titled The Sensual Woman because its explicit subject matter concerns the unabashed gratification of sexual desire.”Here’s how you can keep the two words straight. If you mean lovely, pleasurable, or experienced through the senses, use sensuous; if you mean self-gratifying or pertaining to physical desires, use sensual. Sensuous thoughts have a pleasant effect on your senses as well as your mind. Sensual thoughts are erotic, sexually arousing, maybe even lewd.”
    (Charles Harrington Elster, Verbal Advantage: Ten Easy Steps to a Powerful Vocabulary. Random House, 2009)
  • The Origins of Sensuous
    Sensuous is an interesting word. The OED says it was apparently invented by [John] Milton, because he wanted to avoid the sexual connotations of the word sensual (1641).”The OED cannot find any evidence of the use of the word by any other writer for 173 years, not until [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge:Thus, to express in one word what belongs to the senses, or the recipient and more passive faculty of the soul, I have reintroduced the word sensuous, used, among many others of our elder writers, by Milton. (Coleridge, “Principles of General Criticism,” in Farley’s Bristol Journal, August 1814)“Coleridge put the word into ordinary circulation–and almost immediately it began to pick up those old sexual connotations that Milton and Coleridge wanted to avoid.”
    (Jim Quinn, American Tongue and Cheek, Pantheon Books, 1980)
  •  Overlapping Meanings “The consensus of the commentators, from Vizetelly 1906 to the present, is that sensuous emphasizes aesthetic pleasure while sensual emphasizes gratification or indulgence of the physical appetites.”The distinction is true enough within one range of meanings, and it is worth remembering. The difficulty is that both words have more than one sense, and they tend often to occur in contexts where the distinction between them is not as clear cut as the commentators would like it to be.” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, 1994)

Therefore, the adjective sensual means affecting or gratifying the physical senses, especially in a sexual way. Sensuous means pleasing to the senses, especially those involved in aesthetic pleasure, as of art or music. However, a mnemonic would be even better.

After studying a bit more it occurred to me that a good mnemonic for the difference would be to remember that sensual and sexual both end in -ual.  Boiling the meaning down a tad more, I realized that the only difference in pronunciation between the two is that one has a ks sound while the other has ns. Boil that down even more and you realize that the only difference is a  sound in the middle of one and an n sound in the middle of the other. After understanding that, it is easy to remember that sensual has a sexual connotation while sensuous means the senses in every way but a sexual one.

This is an updated version of an essay I published in The Chamber Magazine in December 2020.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

The Monday Night Miscellany: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition”

Tonight, The Chamber starts an experiment into a new feature called “The Monday Night Miscellany”. I know this is an ugly title, but I am too sleepy to put any significant effort into finding something better at the moment. I will explore other options later this week–maybe.

This article will be somewhat regular, starting out on Monday nights, though this may change later. The focus of it will be the art of writing, particularly the writing of dark literature.  I will author probably most of it and a lot will be reprints of classic essays such as this one.

I hope to have a guest blogger now and then, so if you feel up to the task, please let me know.  Initially, I would like to have guest posts in the form of essays from roughly 1,000 to 5,000 words.  I do not have a preferred type of essay, the author is free to use whatever type/style/form he/she thinks is most suitable for the topic. As with stories and poems, there is no pay except a publication credit.

Tonight, we start with one of the most famous essays on writing by the master of dark literature himself: Edgar Allan Poe.

AI-generated image of Edgar Allan Poe as illustration for Thomas White's essay "The Otherness of Poetry"

Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of “Barnaby Rudge,” says— “By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”

I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin—and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’ idea—but the author of “Caleb Williams” was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would—that is to say, who could—detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say—but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-shifting—the step-ladders, and demon-traps—the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.

I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.

For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions, and, since the interest of an analysis or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analysed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select “The Raven” as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.

Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance—or say the necessity—which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.

We commence, then, with this intention.

The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones—that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the Paradise Lost is essentially prose—a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions—the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.

It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting—and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as Robinson Crusoe (demanding no unity), this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit—in other words, to the excitement or elevation—again, in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect—this, with one proviso—that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.

Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the critical taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem—a length of about one hundred lines. It is, in fact, a hundred and eight.

My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed: and here I may as well observe that throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the slightest need of demonstration—the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a disposition to misrepresent. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.” Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem, merely because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes—that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment—no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to is most readily attained in the poem. Now the object Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable to a certain extent in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion, a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me), which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement or pleasurable elevation of the soul. It by no means follows, from anything here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poem for they may serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in music, by contrast—but the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and, secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.

Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation—and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.

The length, the province, and the tone, being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the poem—some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn. In carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effects—or more properly points, in the theatrical sense—I did not fail to perceive immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain. The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis. I considered it, however, with regard to its susceptibility of improvement, and soon saw it to be in a primitive condition. As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone—both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity—of repetition. I resolved to diversify, and so heighten the effect, by adhering in general to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain—the refrain itself remaining for the most part, unvaried.

These points being settled, I next bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.

The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was of course a corollary, the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt, and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant.

The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” In fact it was the very first which presented itself.

The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.” In observing the difficulty which I had at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the preassumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a human being—I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech, and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.

I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven, the bird of ill-omen, monotonously repeating the one word “Nevermore” at the conclusion of each stanza in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object—supremeness or perfection at all points, I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death, was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

I had now to combine the two ideas of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word “Nevermore.” I had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying at every turn the application of the word repeated, but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending, that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover—the first query to which the Raven should reply “Nevermore”—that I could make this first query a commonplace one, the second less so, the third still less, and so on, until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself, by its frequent repetition, and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it, is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character—queries whose solution he has passionately at heart—propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture—propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which reason assures him is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrows. Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me, or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction, I first established in my mind the climax or concluding query—that query to which “Nevermore” should be in the last place an answer—that query in reply to which this word “Nevermore” should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.

Here then the poem may be said to have had its beginning—at the end where all works of art should begin—for it was here at this point of my preconsiderations that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name
Quoth the Raven—“Nevermore.”

I composed this stanza, at this point, first that, by establishing the climax, I might the better vary and graduate, as regards seriousness and importance, the preceding queries of the lover, and secondly, that I might definitely settle the rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement of the stanza, as well as graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect. Had I been able in the subsequent composition to construct more vigorous stanzas I should without scruple have purposely enfeebled them so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.

And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected in versification is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite, and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is that originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.

Of course I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaic—the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptametre catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrametre catalectic. Less pedantically the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short, the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet, the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds), the third of eight, the fourth of seven and a half, the fifth the same, the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines taken individually has been employed before, and what originality the “Raven” has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven—and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields—but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident—it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamber—in a chamber rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it. The room is represented as richly furnished—this in mere pursuance of the ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole true poetical thesis.

The locale being thus determined, I had now to introduce the bird—and the thought of introducing him through the window was inevitable. The idea of making the lover suppose, in the first instance, that the flapping of the wings of the bird against the shutter, is a “tapping” at the door, originated in a wish to increase, by prolonging, the reader’s curiosity, and in a desire to admit the incidental effect arising from the lover’s throwing open the door, finding all dark, and thence adopting the half-fancy that it was the spirit of his mistress that knocked.

I made the night tempestuous, first to account for the Raven’s seeking admission, and secondly, for the effect of contrast with the (physical) serenity within the chamber.

I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas, also for the effect of contrast between the marble and the plumage—it being understood that the bust was absolutely suggested by the bird—the bust of Pallas being chosen, first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the lover, and secondly, for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself.

About the middle of the poem, also, I have availed myself of the force of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression. For example, an air of the fantastic—approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible—is given to the Raven’s entrance. He comes in “with many a flirt and flutter.”

Not the least obeisance made he—not a moment stopped or
   stayed he,
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door.

In the two stanzas which follow, the design is more obviously carried out:—

Then this ebony bird, beguiling my sad fancy into smiling
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure
   no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore?”
Quoth the Raven—“Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

The effect of the denouement being thus provided for, I immediately drop the fantastic for a tone of the most profound seriousness—this tone commencing in the stanza directly following the one last quoted, with the line,

But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only,

From this epoch the lover no longer jests—no longer sees anything even of the fantastic in the Raven’s demeanour. He speaks of him as a “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore,” and feels the “fiery eyes” burning into his “bosom’s core.” This revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lover’s part, is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the reader—to bring the mind into a proper frame for the denouement—which is now brought about as rapidly and as directly as possible.


With the denouement proper—with the Raven’s reply, “Nevermore,” to the lover’s final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another world—the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion. So far, everything is within the limits of the accountable—of the real. A raven, having learned by rote the single word “Nevermore,” and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleams—the chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. The casement being thrown open at the fluttering of the bird’s wings, the bird itself perches on the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who amused by the incident and the oddity of the visitor’s demeanour, demands of it, in jest and without looking for a reply, its name. The raven addressed, answers with its customary word, “Nevermore”—a word which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who, giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is again startled by the fowl’s repetition of “Nevermore.” The student now guesses the state of the case, but is impelled, as I have before explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer, “Nevermore.” With the indulgence, to the extreme, of this self-torture, the narration, in what I have termed its first or obvious phase, has a natural termination, and so far there has been no overstepping of the limits of the real.

But in subjects so handled, however skillfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required—first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness—some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term), which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal. It is the excess of the suggested meaning—it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under-current of the theme—which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind), the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.

Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the poem—their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them. The under-current of meaning is rendered first apparent in the line—

“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off
   my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”

It will be observed that the words, “from out my heart,” involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical—but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and never ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore.

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“The Otherness of Poetry” Essay by Thomas White

AI-generated image of Edgar Allan Poe as illustration for Thomas White's essay "The Otherness of Poetry"

Depth and mystery of subject matter, not mere metrical craftsmanship, are the heart of poetry. Take Poe’s “The Raven”: what are we to make of this weird, feathered emissary whose “fiery eyes” and haunting refrain “nevermore” appear in the middle of the poet’s sorrow over his deceased beloved Lenore? Do we gain anything more from analyzing the metrics of this poem than the images suggest?

In my poetry, I want my full dose of mystery, not exact technical mastery. Everyday techno-speak is literal and explicit. Poetry rescues us from the robotic. There is a useful analogy with the visual arts. As one critic said of the unsettling paintings of Edward Hopper: “if he had been more the painter, he would have been less the artist.” Do we really care that his human figures — or a poet’s lines — are not crafted perfectly when they exude powerful mystery? Computers can be programmed to generate metrically precise strings of words; only humans can still dive beyond the digital surface to probe the twilight.

This could be why I firmly believe that science fiction and fantasy’s stock in trade, the Strange and Weird, have a home in poetry, not in mere genre storytelling. From the Homeric epics to Dante’s Inferno, from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the extraordinary verse of Charles Simic, John Ashbery and Sylvia Plath, poetry has always been comfortable with Otherness.

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines poetry somewhat cryptically, as “a form of expression peculiar to the Land beyond the Magazines.” What was really in his mind is unknown to me. But I will surmise this: poetry, belonging to the twilight and the strange, is a messenger from a land beyond the prosaic world recorded in “normal” magazines. Poetry, like the Raven, is that creepy tapping on our bedroom door that disturbs us from the slumber of our waking life.

Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.

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