Dangerous Territory: Poetry as Murder

Obvious evidence of the human preference to order is laid out in our adages: cleanliness is next to godliness; a well-ordered house; everything in its place. Similarly, many sayings warn against non-productivity, against idleness: idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, a penny saved is a penny earned, never dream more than you do— Social mores and expectations are laid out on a sliding scale of contribution and usefulness, rules and order. The very act of writing this paper in its established order—Introduction, Body, Conclusion— is an acknowledgement and a capitulation to this human will to order. Poetry mirrors life, and thus, follows its same flow. At first utilitarian (classical hexameters used as pneumonic devices to remember a shared history, for example), poetry became high art. Like musical theory, rules and regulations were developed and later exploited. Theory became the tree flowering from the acorn of the human desire for structure. Then came world war and holocaust. Enter Modernism and Postmodernism—the lumberjacks that severed the tree from the root, laying bare all the inner mechanism of our hard work. With this severing of our systems, when the rules of our creative expression began to crumble around us, we felt exposed and vulnerable. But worst of all, we felt afraid. But why?

In her book, Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity, Kathleen Fraser suggests that a breakdown of the “comfortably established systems” of “ ‘right’ music, ‘serious’ subjects, or ‘well-crafted’ metric constraints” sends us into “some dangerous and intimate region of the unsaid.” This dangerous territory is “beyond the outside world of acceptable, over-used, blunted, and bullying language,” and Fraser’s use of the word “danger” insinuates that as we enter this uncharted territory, we feel a certain unavoidable trepidation about what we might encounter once we have crossed over. Even more terrifying is the knowledge that once we have viewed the breakdown, once we have penetrated that wilderness, we are likely not to be able to return to the world as it once was. No one, having experienced a trauma, is ever the same. I believe that at the root of this fear is the fear of Death.

I. Psychotic Break

I was born with the devil in me. I couldn’t help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing.

—Herman Webster Mudgett (Dr. H. H. Holmes, Serial Killer)[1]

On January 15, 1974, church deacon Dennis Rader entered a home at 803 Edgemoor in Wichita, Kansas. According to his testimony, he cut the phone lines, forced the entire family in residence into a bedroom, then strangled them, using the females for sexual pleasure. Known as BTK—Bind, Torture, Kill—Dennis Rader committed ten murders in all over a span of seventeen years. Upon reading his transcripts, I was struck by the similarity of his manner of speech to certain theoretical concerns presented by Kathleen Fraser in her essay on the poetic line.[2] In discussing Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—“, Fraser touched upon the poet’s dismay at her inability to fit thought into any kind of sequence:

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—

As if my Brain had split—

I tried to match it—Seam by Seam—

But could not make them fit.

The thought behind, I strove to join

Unto the thought before—

But Sequence ravelled out of Sound

Like Balls—upon a Floor.

Fraser states the following:

In this seeming disclaimer, the dismayed witness, Dickinson, observes her “inadequacy” in retaining a single wholeness of vision or rational sequence of thought (clearly required of her by the world she is addressing) and, at the same time, intentionally displays it with such an exacting set of images—unraveling them with dashes as she goes—that we are pulled into her fragmenting sense of the world and recognize that knowledge of rupture as our own. It is as if she had legitimized the disturbed otherness of a mind not in sync with the assumptions of polite society. . .”[3]

This can also be said of BTK, who at his allocution spoke of his murders in the same way Dickinson spoke of her inability to make things fall in sequence. Consider the following excerpt from the court transcript of Rader’s allocution (italics mine):

The Court: All right. How did you get into the house, Mr. Rader?

The Defendant: I came through the back door, cut the phone lines, waited at the back door, had reservations about even going or just walking away, but pretty soon the door opened, and I was in.

The Court: All right. So the door opened. Was it opened for you, or did someone –

The Defendant: I think one of the kids – I think the Ju – Junior – or not Junior – yes, the – the young girl – Joseph opened the door. He probably let the dog out ‘cause the dog was in the house at the time.

The Court: All right. When you went into the house what happened then?

The Defendant: Well, I confronted the family, pulled the pistol, confronted Mr. Otero and asked him to – you know, that I was there to — basically I was wanted, wanted to get the car. I was hungry, food, I was wanted, and asked him to lie down in the living room. And at that time I realized that wouldn’t be a really good idea, so I finally – The dog was the real problem, so I – I asked Mr. Otero if he could get the dog out. So he had one of the kids put it out, and then I took them back to the bedroom.

According to his statement, BTK had no clear idea of the sequence of events. He was through the back door, then waiting by the back door, but then had reservations about going in the door. He states that he did not, in fact, open the door, but that the door was opened for him. Rader was even unclear about who opened the door, their gender, or the timeline of when the dog was in the house, versus outside the house. In his mind, the sequence of events was, like Dickinson’s, scattered about “Like Balls—upon a Floor.” The court transcription also includes a placement of dashes indicating Rader’s stuttering confession. His uncertainty mirrors the “new grammar” of uncertainty in Dickinson as it was pointed out by Susan Howe as being “grounded in humility and hesitation. Hesitate from the Latin, meaning to stick. Stammer. To hold back in doubt, have difficulty speaking.” No doubt, for Rader, this difficulty came from an inability to communicate in a structured and eloquent manner the disordered thoughts of the dangerous psyche. For the murderer as much as for the poet, emotion plays a larger role in the resulting actions. Rader remembers distinctly how he felt sexual pleasure at the killings, as was evident in a letter he wrote to the police, but the emotion overrode the structure of the events. For this reason, poetry is akin to murder in which exists an anarchical perception of time as fractured and incomplete. It is no coincidence that among the names Rader thought of giving to himself was the “Poetic Strangler.”[4]

Consider the following poem written by Rader on April 19, 2005, the 54th day of his confinement:

Peas in the Pod poem:
The green color Pods at First were long and hollow.
They had grown from Mother Earth, anti-society, into a wild vine.
The vine with Pods, long and curling upward, had many follows;
How each Pod has a unique Pea, that together walks a fine line.

The poem utilizes the same capitalization techniques as Dickinson, though it makes better attempts to adhere to the established rules of proper punctuation. The rules of grammar expected by what Fraser terms, “the world” and the grammar of the disordered mind is evident in the court transcripts of BTK:

The Court: This particular location, did you know these people?

The Defendant: No. That was part of my—I guess my what you call fantasy.

Rader’s acknowledgment of the “you” to whom his speech is addressed further widens the gap between himself and the court questioning him. Here, The Court represents the power structure, utilizing its grammar of dependent clauses and punctuation, whereas Rader’s statements are less clearly defined by the rules of grammar. The Court is represented as formal and decisive while Rader’s testimony falls into the vernacular:

The Court: Can you tell me what happened in regards to Joseph Otero?

The Defendant: He moved over real quick like and I think tore a hole in the bag, and I could tell that he was having some problems there, but at the time the—whole family just went—they just panicked on me, so I—I—  I worked pretty quick. I got Mrs. O—

Rader’s reversion to the vernacular in the face of the syntactically correct language used by “The Court,” illustrates the linguistic differences between the langue and the parole, the former considered a higher “form” than the latter, and perhaps goes the distance to explain how the gradual destruction of grammatical rules in poetry could be perceived as a mirroring of the gradual destruction of social mores. The poet Ron Silliman notes the following:

“Correct grammar,” which has never existed in spoken daily life save as a template, is itself thus predicated upon a model of “high” discourse. . . “Educated” speech imitates writing: the more “refined” the individual, the more likely their utterances will possess the characteristics of expository prose. The sentence, hypotactic and complete, was and still is an index of class in society. [5]

The emphasis on the importance of langue over parole is also a cause of concern for the cultural anthropologist, Johannes Fabian, who remarked that,

When anthropology became established academically toward the end of the nineteenth century and began to study systematically “peoples without writing,” orality was usually regarded as little more than that which remains when literacy is subtracted from a culture: a sign of a lower stage of evolution. Oral peoples were depicted as intellectually rather dim; their thoughts were said to be short-lved due to the absence of means to preserve them; their capacity to organize major work projects or to govern large populations and keep records on them were deemed limited. In short, they were the kind of people who “cried out” (orally) for the blessings of literacy.

and later,

orality as nonliterateness continued to lead a shadow life; it remained the dark side of what was brought to light about human history.[6]

This idea of the unevolved society, the savage society and its association with spoken versus written language may leave us with clues about the general lack of respect and consideration given to the spoken language which can only in part imitate the structured, patriarchal nature of the written language. It is this kinship with spoken language that so binds the poetry of Emily Dickinson with the verbal testimony of the killer Dennis Rader. What Kathleen Fraser describes as hesitation and doubt in the work of Dickinson presents itself in the speech patterns of the BTK killer. First, consider Fraser’s words on Emily:

How she hesitated, rather than why, is more the subject here: how Dickinson visualized that uncertainty that punctuated her daily life and thought. One sees the starting and stopping movement of doubt within her line, as well as between lines, as we watch each unit lurching forward, both separated by a dash and rushing forward throught the seeming haste of that dash to the next perception or extension. The argument of parts: one Emily hesitant to say, another Emily eagerly rushing in—if stammering—with a further ironic shift of view.

Then, apply these words to the following excerpt from Rader’s statement:

The Defendant: Well, I confronted the family, pulled the pistol, confronted Mr. Otero and asked him to—you know— that I was there to—basically, I was wanted, wanted to get the car. I was hungry, food, I was anted, and asked him to lie down in the living room. And at that time, I realized that wouldn’t be a really good idea, so I finally—the dog was the real problem, so I—I asked Mr. Otero if he could get the dog out.

The parallels could be considered frightening. Like Emily, the hesitation pans out in the things that are said versus the things unsaid. The sentence structure is garbled, at times non-sensical, and the speaker is uncertain about the sequence of events. The breakdown and panic of the first-time killer is evident in the spoken words. It is possible to assume then, that the spoken word or orality has a greater potential for delivering the unharnessed energy of the emotion behind our most subversive of acts. The human desire for structure is evident in our creation of a system for studying linguistics and ethnography within which everything has its proper place, and sense can be made out of the raw emotions inherent in our daily use of language. Consider Fabian’s statement that more modern criticism of the pedagogy utilized by cultural anthropologists proved that:

most of what had for centuries been regarded sound pedagogical method had in fact been invented in order to make knowledge a matter of internalizing signs, graphs, and diagrams (which fitted the printed page), rather than disputing aobut matters that matter in live dialog.

This argument suggests that theorists invented a pedagogy that fit their ideals, creating a facade of structure that crumbled when considerations of orality were included. It was a system that precluded the consideration of anything other than itself. Thus, cultural anthropology and its pedagogy became the patriarchal “oppressor” and anything that did not fit its established model came to be thought of as inferior and subversive.

As a monarch strove to keep the peasantry under the thumb, so the “high art” of poetry struggled against the vernacular, trying its best to impose “right” subjects, “correct” language, and complete lyrical thoughts as its mainstay. According to Fraser, the deterioration of this patriarchally imposed correctness threatens to hurl us into the “dangerous region of the unsaid.”[7] If poetry, like any established system,  is threatened by a dissolution of its preset form, is it off-base to suggest that this dissolution could be perceived as one more threat to the structure of our society as well? For example, the public is frightened by serial killers who seem to have no clearly-defined morals or rules because they represent what cannot be controlled, and that lack of control is dangerous to us by presenting us with the possibility of death. This possibility of death means the possibility of self-oblivion, according to Edmond Jabes:

One doesn’t speak to a dying person the way one speaks to a living being. And the dying person doesn’t answer you either as he or she might have done only a few moments earlier. Their speech is different. It has nearly reached self-oblivion. . .One never leaves death. [8]

The fact that one might transgress into an oblivion one can never leave is terrifying, yet the trend after the Second World War was toward a death of another kind: the death of the Author, our own deaths.

2. Modus Operandi

It [poetry] can make culture aware of itself, unveil hidden structures. It questions, resists. hence it can at least potentially anticipate structures that might lead to social change.

—Rosmarie Waldrop, from “Alarms and Excursions”

Part of what we relinquish when we undo established rules and norms, is our supremacy as artists, authors and craftspeople. We surrender authorship of our art’s expression, give the reins over to the reader, and, in essence, allow ourselves to be murdered. Without ordered rules and theory, we no longer use the hammer and chisel the same way. We might, in fact, come up with an unintelligible rendering, a formless sculpture, or a painting splattered with disordered color.  In short, we will inevitably lose control, suggesting that poetry in its natural form is not always understandable. It comes and goes. It suffers from psychotic breaks, multiple personality disorders and anti-social behavior. It relies on us, the authors, to whip it into shape much like we trust the law to keep crime at bay. But when we cease this enabling relationship, Poetry often goes off on its own in a manic state, possibly returning home with thousands of dollars in unnecessary accessories, or possibly not returning home at all. The next thing you know, it shows up and throttles you in your sleep. The death of the author causes trepidation for some writers, and a kind of release of responsibility for others. In her essay, “Alarms & Excursions,” Rosmarie Waldrop writes:

Edmond Jabes writes throughout his work about the “non-place” of the book and the writer. This non-place (which perhaps rejoins Oppen’s “unacknowledged world”) goes farther than the distance from the exercise of power which is often thought to qualify the intellectuals to speak on matters of politics. It also goes farther than marginality: it goes into otherness.

This concept of otherness, a cause for trepidation and fear, is at the root of our fears; even our fears of death. Death is other than Life, Chaos is other than Control, Anarchy is other than Discipline. Yet, when we come to an agreement about what defines other, we open ourselves up for possible isolation and disposal. Being Jewish, Jabes understood how tenuous is this relationship of consensus and persecution when he said, “We realize to what extent the meaning of a word is, in practice, a matter of complicity; how precarious the unanimous acceptance of the meaning of a word is” (Jabes, 95). Defining words like “Jew” and “Aryan”  allowed the isolation and murder of the Holocaust to happen.  Defining “human” and “inhuman” and “right” and “wrong” gives both murderers and heroes the tools whereby they can go about using killing to foster the creation of an ideal environment, whether for personal pleasure or for the greater good.

Dennis Rader showed a fondness for entering his victims’ houses through a back door, cutting their phone lines and perhaps waiting to be discovered. The killer’s modus operandi is not unlike Jabes’ suggestion to the “good reader” for gaining entry into a text, praising:

his unconscious refusal to enter any house directly through the main door, the one that by its dimensions, characteristics and location, offers itself proudly as the main entrance, the one designated and recognized both outside and inside as the sole threshold.

To take the wrong door means indeed to go against the order that presided over the plan of the house, over the layout of the rooms, over the beauty and rationality of the whole.[9]

In Jabes’ view, the good reader relies on his intuition, a subjective entity that refuses to be controlled by outside systems and forces. But how can an established system trust the subjectivity of each individual? As varied as human beings and readers are, no comfortable norms could be set. One man may find it intuitive and in his best interests (i.e. fantasies) to enter a fellow human being’s house at night and rape and murder her in her sleep. But society disagrees with this rule in general because the violence of this act disrupts another person’s right to peace. We can say then, that as a political weapon, poetry’s purpose is to disrupt that peace, to sneak into the houses of our perceptions while we sleep, murdering them as we go. The strongest ideas and notions will be the ones left standing after our genocide. For Jabes, all of his writing was founded on the idea of death: “Writing, as I began to conceive of it, thus had the death of the hero as its starting point,” he said. He even argued that good writing can only be conceived absent an imposed system of reference: “I try to keep that material as long as possible in a state of chaos at the book’s very threshold” but to him, birth, not death, was the outcome, “so that the reader too may witness the birth of the work.”


[1] Powell, Michael. 101 People You Won’t Meet in Heaven. North America: The Globe Pequot Press, 2007. p. 164.

[2] Fraser, Kathleen. “Line. On the Line” from Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity.

[3] Fraser, Kathleen. “Line. On the Line” from Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity.

[4] Waldron, Frank. “Letters from BTK.” Online Archive: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2005/08/05/1745272.php

[5] Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. (New york: Roof Books, 1987). p. 79.

[6] Fabian, Johannes. The Ethnography of Reading. ed. Boyarin. U. C. Press: 1992. p.81.

[7] Fraser, Kathleen. “Line. On the Line” from Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity.

[8] Jabes, Edmond. From the Desert to the Book. Station Hill Press, Barrytown, New York: 1990.

[9] Jabes, Edmond. From the Desert to the Book. Station Hill Press, Barrytown, New York: 1990.

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~ by ImaginaryCanary on October 11, 2010.

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