“Mystery and Suspense in Poetry” (by Jackie Sherbow)

There isnt an author for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine who has not corresponded, at some point, with the magazines associate editor, Jackie Sherbow. For the past six years, she has been an integral part of the Dell mystery magazines team, brightening every day for the rest of the staff with her cheerfulness, energy, and capable handling of all that finds its way to her desk. What most of those who know her are probably unaware of, though, is that these are not the only magazines to which Jackie has a connection. In her free time, she volunteers her talents as associate editor for Newtown Literary Journal. EQMM has had many assistant, associate, and managing editors who were also writers (most famously, novelist and magician Clayton Rawson), but we have never before had someone in the position whose primary field is poetry. What makes this even more remarkable is that Jackies current counterpart with the Dell science fiction magazines, Emily Hockaday, is also a published poet, a fact that highlights a kinship between the short story and the poem. Weve explored before on this site the affinity between poetry and mystery, and in this post Jackie illuminates it with compelling examples. Readers whod like to sample Jackies own poetry should go to: Go Places (Issues 5 and 6), Bluestockings Magazine, and The Opiate.—Janet Hutchings

“Thanks for the tree between me and a sniper’s bullet.”

These are the two opening lines of the poem “Thanks” by American poet Yusef Komunyakaa—but I think they’d make an enticing hook for a mystery story. As a poet, a mystery-fiction editor, and a reader of both genres and forms, I’ve often been struck by the relationship between poetry and mystery fiction, particularly when it comes to a poem’s language and structure.

Poetry has an important connection to the American mystery genre—and particularly the short-story side of it, as Edgar Allan Poe is considered by many to have written the first mystery short story. EQMM specifically has a noteworthy history with poetry. Frederic Dannay had a bond with the form, which you can read more about in Janet Hutchings’ post from June 2015. Furthermore, the magazine publishes poetry; many readers will remember the “Detectiverses” and “Criminalimericks” that were at a time found often in EQMM’s pages: short, rhyming verses, usually including a puzzle or a punch-line. And verse by EQMM authors such as William Bankier, John Dobbyn, and Donald Yates has appeared over the years.

Last year, in the March/April 2016 issue, we published a handful of Clerihews by Richard Stout, along with a bit of history by him about “the only poetic form created by a writer of detective fiction.” Along similar lines, in 1955 Frederick Dannay included a prose poem by Norman MacLeod titled “Twelve Knives” accompanied by an explanation by the author analyzing and annotating the poem. Poetry was even included in the Department of First Stories in 1969: “Acrostecs” by Laurel Anne McVicker. In his introduction, editor Dannay said, “Yes, it is stretching the form to call these three sonnets a ‘first story’—but as the first-published work of a new writer they are much too good to be passed by because of a technicality of definition . . .” So it seems that the magazine’s goal of providing a diverse collection of writing in each issue spreads across form. The magazine has a history of providing a dynamic reading experience by giving space to the criticism, history, and analysis of poetry as well as the lines of poetry themselves.

The characters that inhabit mystery stories inhabit poems, too; in poetry contemporary to classical, we find gamblers, drug dealers, money, violence, jilted lovers, and plenty of weaponry. Thematically, the heart of a poem often resides where the heart of a mystery story does. How do we handle tense situations, relationships gone wrong, frustrated hopes, and genuine or perceived injustice? What do we do with strong emotion, external pressures, and struggles with physical and mental health? Mystery writers are testing the boundaries of the self, digging for the darkness and the truth about what resides inside all of us. Poets are excavating the same thing.

But the connection that interests me most is that of the language itself. While many stories include poetic language, plenty of contemporary poetry rings with the tense and the mysterious. Many poems are full of suspense, and poets achieve this in many ways:

Pacing and Repetition

Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is one of my favorites, largely because of the turn in the final stanza and the slowly paced build to it. The first three stanzas are carefully constructed description and consideration, unfolding as measuredly and quietly as the scene described. The tone in the final stanza is a shift, and the repetition of the final line—and the fact that it’s the first instance of repetition in the poem—gives those lines and the “promises” the poet references a deep sense of gravity. The quiet deepens and, somehow, the dark becomes darker. It’s so simple, but chill inducing.

Anne Carson’s “Thunderstorm Stack” uses short lines and tight sentences pushed through by repetition to create a quick pace in another evocation of a dark and stormy night. Her piece opens:

A bird flashed by as if mistaken then it
starts. . . .

Meter and Rhythm

Meter specifically is something that most fiction writers aren’t privy to in their prose toolbox (although I’m sure there’s someone out there who can prove that wrong). Some meters, the ones beginning with trochaic feet, are designed to start with a stressed syllable—a punch. Since most traditional English verse is iambic (and begins with an unstressed syllable), it can throw the reader off kilter from the outset, a goal achieved by many mystery writers too. Shakespeare utilized this: In Macbeth, the witches speak in an altered form of trochaic tetrameter, and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies. Poe, too, often started lines with trochees.

And what can be more jarring than interrupted meter? In “In a Station of the Metro,” a short poem by Ezra Pound, the title and first line establish an imprecise, rhythmic meter that carries onto the third line, just for the final three words to branch from it in three subsequent stresses. To me, it has a nice disruptive effect.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Line Breaks and Page Structure

Another power that prose doesn’t exactly share is the line break—something that can work as a built-in cliffhanger. The end of a line or stanza and a phrase’s enjambment onto the next creates an immediate moment of tension, often emphasizing the relationship between the connecting words, or giving multiple meanings to them. Kimiko Hahn’s poem “Alarm” is a good example of this. In the first stanza, “vanity” takes on several meanings:

In her dark she surveys empty: the vanity
from the in-law’s Bronx apartment,

And between the third and fourth stanza, a break creates suspense after the world “alarm”:

the husband’s profile, an alarm

for news and forecast. . . .

Poets can also play with how and where words appear on their pages. The end of Victor Hernández Cruz’s poem “Latin & Soul” reads:



It’s interesting to think about how a short-story writer would describe a similar scene, and create similar geography, tension, and emotion through entirely different techniques.

I’ll leave you with the final stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “Love, Part 4: Suspense”, which reads:

What fortitude the soul contains,
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming foot,
The opening of a door!

Once you’re looking for them, the connections don’t stop. Poet Stephen Dobyns has a poem dedicated to Stephen King (see “Lullaby”). “Feeling frightened? / Are you scared?” he asks. Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire is a mysterious, haunting approach to both poetry and fiction.

What are your favorites? I’d love to hear.

Many writers are quick to point out there’s “no market” for short stories or for poetry—and many readers are quick to casually stuff mystery writers and poets in their own boxes (artistically, socially, historically, and otherwise). It is hard to ignore the shuttering of small-fiction presses and literary journals, and the proliferation of nonpaying markets for poetry. I’m optimistic enough to think, though, that neither form is in danger—as I’m lucky enough to be connected to both communities, and fond enough of both to seek them out whenever I can. Whether I’m reading poetry or mystery fiction, I’m always searching for the tension between the light of day and whatever element is lurking below the surface.

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2 Responses to “Mystery and Suspense in Poetry” (by Jackie Sherbow)

  1. Lou manfredo says:

    A fascinating piece, thank you for posting it. Interesting you cited Frosts Stopping By Woods. As a young boy growing up in Brooklyn, that was the first poem capable of generating interest in poetry for me, and it remains a favorite. FYI, when Joyce Carol Oates served as editor for the crime anthology New Jersey Noir, she included a poem by Paul Muldoon. That was a first for the Noir series of books. Best of luck with your own work, I look forward to reading you.

  2. Art Taylor says:

    Love this post! Entertaining and educational in equal measure. I’ll admit I’m more of an occasional than regular reader of poetry, but fascinated by the examples you include here and the points you make about them. Thanks for sharing!

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