Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “All Hallows Night,”
by Lizette Woodworth Reese

 

All Hallows Night

Two things I did on Hallows Night:—
Made my house April-clear;
Left open wide my door
To the ghosts of the year.

Then one came in. Across the room
It stood up long and fair—
The ghost that was myself—
And gave me stare for stare.

 

This poem is in the public domain, published in Poem-a-Day on August 22, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.

 

Lizette Woodworth Reese was born in Maryland in 1856 to a Confederate soldier and his German wife. One of four daughters, Reese lived and worked near Baltimore her whole life, attending local public schools then working there for nearly 50 years as an English teacher. Her first book of poetry, A Branch of May (1887), garnered wide recognition in the United States and Europe. Reese published eight more volumes of poetry, two long narrative poems, two memoirs, and an autobiographical novel. Her melding of colloquial speech and formal structures was a welcome tonic to the grandiose Victorian verse prevailing in her time, and it influenced younger poets including Edna St. Vincent Millay and Louise Bogan. In 1931, Reese was named poet laureate of Maryland and granted an honorary doctorate from Goucher College, but her work is now mostly unknown. Reese died in 1935 and was buried at St. John’s in the Village Church in Baltimore; her papers are collected at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. (Sources here and here.

Read more of Lizette Woodworth Reese’s poems here (The Poetry Foundation).

 

Commentary by Amanda Moore, Contributing Editor

As Halloween has evolved from its roots in the Celtic festival Samhain into a modern, commodified celebration with trick-or-treating, store-bought costumes, brightly-colored witch hats, and sparkly decorations, much of its spookiness has become as sickeningly sweet as candy corn. In seeking out a good Halloween poem for class or to mark the holiday, I often stumble across work that features ghosts and ghouls, a witch or two, some eerie sounds, but little gravitas. In truth, writing a holiday poem is difficult. Harnessing the cultural context of a public occasion in a way that reflects the multifaceted experience of the masses while also presenting some significant truth or realization, even just a personal revelation, is a tall order. And then there is poetic craft to consider, which often falls by the wayside in trying to incorporate all the holiday markers.

I love Lizette Woodworth Reese’s “All Hallows Night” because it is not a Halloween poem laden with images and tropes from our modern, secular celebration, nor does it lurk in the violent, overly bloody, macabre, or gothic worlds to provoke some frightful sense of the day. Instead, it recalls a more customary All Hallows Eve, one that bridges religions and cultures as a remembrance of people—family members, community heroes, saints, and martyrs—who have died. This more traditional vision of the holiday invites the speaker of the poem to contemplate her mortality, conjuring her own ghost as part of the haunting she invites into her home. I, for one, find Reese’s stark interrogation of what haunts her speaker even spookier than things that go bump in the night.

Although I associate Halloween with autumn and its bare trees, fallen leaves, and the coming dormancy of winter, Reese’s poem opens with an inversion of the seasons, declaring that one thing she does to mark the holiday is make her “house April-clear.” This mention evokes another seasonal tradition, one less codified than trick-or-treating but widely known in our age of tidying up and sparking joy. Spring cleaning is usually undertaken at the end of winter, a way to usher out what has died or accumulated to make way for what is alive and new. To make her house “April-clear” is for the speaker to anticipate and be ready to embrace a fresh start as much as to declare the end of something, a sweeping away of the old.

Rather than securing her clean house against the coming cold or intrepid evil Halloween spirits, the speaker leaves “open wide [her] door / To the ghosts of the year.” Instead of self-protection, she opens her house—and herself—to welcome what will come. Moreover, she does it with confidence—the door isn’t cracked open in mild curiosity but rather thrown open wide, the speaker hoping to entice the year’s ghosts. And one, “long and fair,” is quick to appear.

No ghoul or specter, the ghost who enters is the speaker herself. Implication of the speaker—and us—raises the stakes of this seemingly straightforward Halloween poem. Is this an apparition from the future coming to warn or chide her former self? Is the speaker the haunted or the haunter? Who, as Yeats once asked in a poem, can tell the dancer from the dance?

It’s not clear what the speaker makes of the apparition. The two figures don’t interact beyond going “stare for stare,” an equality that suggests both are surprised at the appearance of the other, and neither has the upper hand. I don’t register fear in this moment as much as startle and curiosity; what has this ghost come to do or say? Reese is content to leave us in this suspended confrontation, not offering up an easy answer or resolution to soothe us back into the mortal world.

The structure of the poem is simple and exact: two stanzas of four lines of iambic meter, a pattern of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables that follows the rising cadence of conversational English and is the foundation of most metrical verse written in that language. The initial line of each stanza is iambic tetrameter, meaning it has eight syllables or four units (called “feet”) of iambs. The following three lines in each stanza are iambic trimeter, or six syllables comprised of three feet of iambs.

I find when I teach meter, the discussion of metrical feet can be frustrating for students new to prosody, and we often have to spend time simply finding the stress patterns of our own names before we can talk about stresses we hear in words and then in the metrical patterns in poems, which is called scanning. Even when we hear an individual word’s stresses or look up the stress marks in the dictionary, scanning a line of poetry is complicated by the way speech and context can shift emphasis, especially with prepositions and articles. The word “the” doesn’t carry much stress on its own, for example, so how we scan it depends on the meter moving the line around it. Likewise, multisyllabic words can have both primary and secondary stressed syllables, which gives them some play in a longer line with a set meter. The fungibility of these short and long words provides valuable wiggle room to poets trying to write in a fixed meter, but it can be maddening for someone trying to scan the line. I tell my students in these instances to look for some solid metrical lines in the poem to guide interpretation of the more confusing ones.

For instance, in the opening of Reese’s poem, it’s not difficult to hear the iambs—I’ll use bold to highlight the stressed syllables—in  “Two things I did on Hallows Night.” Because I can hear the iambs so clearly here, I want to carry them into my reading of the second line: “Made my house April-clear.” Others, though, might read this line as less in thrall to the iambic pulse of the first line, “Made my house April-clear,” with the metrical substitutions giving an unsettling feeling to the line. The final line of the stanza shows another instance of unsettled meter. I hear two anapestic feet (two unstressed syllables followed by a stress): “To the ghosts of the year.” But other readings might stress the opening preposition, “To the ghosts of the year.” It’s possible, too, that Reese means to maintain the singsong iambs, “To the ghosts of the year,” though that is hardly how I would read the line in conversational speech.

In addition to the meter that moves this poem forward at a steady, melodic clip, each stanza is anchored by end rhyme in the second and fourth lines: “clear” and “year” in the first stanza, “fair” and “stare” in the second. Because the language of the poem overall is simple (the only word with more than one syllable is “Hallows”), this end rhyme emphasizes the singsong quality, making the narrative feel predictable, like a nursery rhyme that telegraphs where it is heading. This expectation is one reason the appearance of the self as a ghost is so resonant—we don’t see it coming. The meter and rhyme are terrestrial, earthbound, and we trip along through the poem expecting whatever visitation the day offers to be so as well. Instead, the poem pivots to something surprising and more ethereal: a mysterious, eerily familiar presence from the spirit world. This ghost is neither a stock ghoul nor some benign apparition that carries the poem to a satisfying conclusion. Instead, we must reckon with the ghost’s reality and embrace the dissonance between what the meter and rhyme predict and the supernatural revelation that heightens the spookiness of the poem.

When I first encountered “All Hallows Night,” I couldn’t help but think of Emily Dickinson and the eeriness of some of her best poems, which also often leave me with one foot in the imaginative realm and the other in a strange reality. The brevity of Reese’s poem, her use of dashes, the supernatural-yet-familiar element, and the ambiguous ending that moves from the mundane details of the known domestic world into a spiritual space all hearken back to Dickinson. I was particularly thinking of these lines from “69”:

One need not be a chamber to be haunted
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

Both Reese’s and Dickinson’s poems court a certain element of surprise, pushing beyond the material plane to something otherworldly, though Dickinson underscores this move by breaking up the rhythm and landing the last line like a lead balloon of contemplation, while Reese maintains buoyancy through the poem’s end. Both ask us to consider the significance of haunting, though Reese goes on to insinuate that we may not be prepared to reckon with our ghosts. As we face what her “All Hallows Night” presents, we find no cobwebs or skeletons, no witches cackling beneath green warty noses, not even Death riding in his carriage, but a version of self that, for me anyway, feels far more terrifying.

 

Amanda Moore, the author of this column, is a contributing editor to Poetry Sunday. Her poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies including Zyzzyva, Cream City Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. She received her MFA from Cornell University, where she served as Managing Editor for EPOCH magazine and was a lecturer in the John S. Knight Writing Institute. Currently a 2019 Fellow at The Writers Grotto, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member. She lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: K.C. Ipjian.

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