Horror, I think what it does is it really incisively takes away everything extraneous about people and then says “Okay, this is your core. You don’t have your job. You don’t have your money. You don’t have even your relationships,” because horror always isolates people. It takes away everything but you and then says, “Now you’re going to live or die based on your own merit and perhaps a touch of grace.”
— Michaelbrent Collings on Joanna Penn’s podcast, The Creative Penn, May 25, 2015
I love this definition of the horror genre which I heard Michaelbrent Collings give on The Creative Penn the other day. It defines so precisely what horror does instead of giving a description of what horror consists of. But I also really love this definition because it reminds me of what I think the best poetry does.
Which is not to say that good poetry is exactly like a horror novel. Though maybe they have more in common that one might think at first glance.
Some people define poetry by what it contains that prose does not: the line break (and by extension of the line break, control of spacing and placement on the page). It is true that all the other tools employed in poetry can be employed in prose. But this is a limited and insufficient definition.
Defining poetry as prose with line breaks is akin to defining each line as a building block. Which makes a poem analogous to a construct of LEGO® blocks. It’s true that amazing sculptures have been made out of interlocking blocks. Yet it is not the blocks themselves, the material of construction alone, that defines the art but the end result of that art–what it does.
Michaelbrent Collings said that horror “incisively takes away everything extraneous” and for me that is also what good poetry does. Poetry needn’t be spare or sparse, and poetry is often lush with language and metaphor. But everything in a poem needs to be there, needs to be essential. Every word, image, phrase, line break is required. Not optional. Anything not essential to the poem is decoration or distraction.
If horror isolates the individual, poetry isolates the essence of what the poem is expressing. By using language, detail, image, rhythm — and all the other tools of poetry — the poet acts like a jeweler cutting the facets of a gemstone. A crystal refracts light as a poem refracts meaning. What was once felt, thought or experienced is shaped into the poem’s full expression. Thus the reader/listener is able to experience life refracted through the lens of the poem.
In order for the raw stone to be faceted into a jewel, the extraneous matter must be removed. The planes of the crystal must be isolated.
This is similar to the idea of sculpture being created by the sculptor removing what is not part of the art.
Similarly, we can think about the poet subtracting anything unnecessary from the draft until the final poem is revealed. (Of course, unlike the sculptor, the poet has the opportunity to also add what is necessary or replace what should not have been removed.)
In revision, subtraction may be the poet’s best friend.
To connect this back to horror, the isolation of anything extraneous to the self enables the story to shine a light in the darkness (or show darkness spreading into the light) so there is no hiding from good, evil, consequences, choices. The spread of light or dark can be experienced as it is refracted through the prism of the self imagined when that which is extraneous is chipped away.
Thank you Michaelbrent Collings for your incisive thoughts on horror, and thanks Joanna Penn for the podcast!