Poetry and Costume Pairings: Five Frightful Halloween Poems
When it comes to crafting the perfect Halloween costume, it’s all about imagery and details, much like poetry. Another similarity lies in poetry’s ability to revisit classic themes in new, interesting ways, the same way trick-or-treaters and party-goers alike continually reinvent and emulate iconic looks. These five poems correspond to some of Halloween’s spookiest—and most beloved—figures.
1. Ghost costume and “Lenore” by Edgar Allen Poe.
Edgar Allen Poe continues to be known as one of the most influential writers of gothic literature, a reputation that shines through in “Lenore,” one of his most significant works. Though the poem begins mournfully, with Poe wistfully recalling his lost love, he soon begins to imagine and find comfort in her powerful, otherworldly spirit.
Fans of the ever-popular ghost costume may find inspiration in this vision of Lenore: “The life still there, upon her hair–the death upon her eyes. / Avaunt! to-night my heart is light. No dirge will I upraise, / But waft the angel on her flight with a Paean of old days! / Let no bell toll!—lest her sweet soul, amid its hallowed mirth, / Should catch the note, as it doth float up from the damnéd Earth. / To friends above, from friends below, the indignant ghost is riven.”
2. Vampire costume and “The Vampire” by Conrad Aiken.
Long before Twilight and Vampire Diaries, vampires appeared in poetry, including within the work of National Book Award winner Conrad Aiken. In “The Vampire,” Aiken illustrates a chilling, immersive landscape, one complete with a “blood-red moon” and “dead winds above.” At the center of this scene, Aiken pays tribute to his titular character.
“What shape was this who came to us, / With basilisk eyes so ominous, / With mouth so sweet, so poisonous, / And tortured hands so pale? / We saw her wavering to and fro, / Through dark and wind we saw her go.”
3. Zombie costume and “Zombie” by Hadara Bar-Nadav.
“Zombie” is from Hadara Bar-Nadav’s book The New Nudity, a collection of riveting and deeply revealing persona poems. In this poem, Bar-Nadav adopts the unexpected voice of a zombie, using this storied creature to reveal stunningly human themes.
“You come to me / ripped / in linens and reds, / eternal, autumnal / with rust and wonder,” Bar-Nadav writes. “My servant, sublimate / and I am yours / (the hot death / we would give each other). / . . . Love to the very open-/ mouthed end. / We are made of / so much hunger.”
4. Cat costume and “Black Cat” by Rainer Maria Rilke.
If you’re a fan of quick and simple Halloween costumes, you’ve likely thrown on a pair of cat ears to get into the Halloween spirit. However, in his poem “Black Cat,” award-winning German poet Rainer Maria Rilke illuminates the hidden complexity of this figure.
“She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen / into her, so that, like an audience, / she can look them over, / menacing and sullen, / and curl to sleep with them. / But all at once / as if awakened, she turns her face to yours; / and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny, / inside the golden amber of her eyeballs / suspended, like a prehistoric fly.”
5. Witch costume and “Witch Burning” by Sylvia Plath.
Witches have frequently been a feminist symbol in poetry, both in older works and in some of today’s bestselling releases, like Amanda Lovelace’s the witch doesn’t burn in this one. Sylvia Plath claims her place in this legacy with “Witches Burning,” a poem that pushes past the social stigma and retaliation that often accompanies witchcraft, instead revelling in power and agency.
“Mother of beetles, only unclench your hand: / I’ll fly through the candle’s mouth like a singeless moth,” Plath declares. “Give me back my shape. I am ready to construe the days / I coupled with dust in the shadow of a stone. / My ankles brighten. Brightness ascends my thighs. / I am lost, I am lost, in the robes of all this light.”