I was wrong. Or perhaps I should say, I was looking in the wrong direction.
Reading Clark Ashton Smith, George Sterling, Mervyn Peake, John Keats, and so many others, has made me realize that what I value in strange verse is exactly what I find in the regular verse of these poets: a unique perspective that transforms personal experience into something new and striking; a fantasizing sensibility that sees the unusual in the common; a verbal skill that allows the poet to communicate a glimpse of inner life.
In short, what matters are not the fantastic concepts these poets might use, but the personalities and perspectives communicated through the verse.
This is not to say that I dislike strange verse, or consider it less valid than verse that grapples directly with everyday topics. Instead, I feel that strange verse can succeed or fail by the same standards applied to regular verse.
A few examples:
Clark Ashton Smith
Walled with far azures of the wintering year,
Late autumn on a windless altar burns;
Splendid as rubies from Sabean urns,
A holocaust of hues is gathered here.
The pear-trees lift a Tyrian tinged with blood;
Strange purples brighten in the smouldering plums;
The fire-red gold of peach and cherry comes
To storm the bronzing borders of the wood.
Rich as the pyre of some Hesperian queen,
Feeding the ultimate sunset with sad fires,
Is this, where beauty with her doom conspires
To tell in flame what death and beauty mean.
O, loveliness grown tragical and dear!
My heart has taken from the torchful leaf
A swiftly soaring glory, and the grief
Of love is colored like the dying year.
This is very much a Clark Ashton Smith poem, and one of my favourites. But only one thing, here, is fantastic: the intensity of the writers's perception.
by George Sterling
Blunt as a child, since child he was at heart,
And sun-sincere, my friend to many seemed
Dull, rude, aggressive, tactless. Add to all
His bulk and hairiness and stormy laugh,
And one can find them some excuse for that.
'Twas seeming only. We, who found his soul
Thro friendship's crystal, saw beyond the glass
The elusive seraph. In his mind were met
The faun, the cynic, the philosopher,
But first of all, the poet. Give to such
Apollo's guise, and matters were not well.
Too glad to pose, ofttimes he held his peace
Before the jest that sought his heart; but let
The whim appeal, and all his mind took fire --
The shifted diamond's instant shock of light.
Beauty to him (as wine's ecstatic draught,
Richer than blood, and every drop a dream)
Was like a wind some hidden world put forth
To baffle, madden, lure -- at times, betray,
Then win him back to worship with a breath
Of Edens never trodden. Yet he stood
No dupe to Nature in her harlotry,
Her guile, her blind injustice and the abrupt
Ferocities of chance, but swift to face
The unkempt fact, and swift no less to snatch
Its honey from illusion's stinging hive --
No moth that beat upon Time's enginery.
Yet loved he Nature well, as one might love
A half-tamed leopardess, for beauty's grace
Alone. Within his enigmatic soul
Sorrow and Art made Love their servitor,
For he would have no master but himself.
To what best liken him? Some singer must
Have used the star-souled geode's rind and heart,
Telling of such as he. Let me compare
His rugged aspect and auroral mind
To that wide shell our western ocean grants --
Without, all harsh and hueless, with, perhaps,
A group of barnacles or tattered weed;
Within, such splendor as would make one guess
That once a score of dawnings and a troop
Of royal sunsets had condensed their pomp
To rainbow lacquer which the ocean pow'rs
Had lavished, godlike, on the gorgeous bowl.
This is typical of George Sterling's approach: unexpected comparisons, vivid metaphors, a riot of imagery... but again, at the service of the everyday, to transform the common "into something rich and strange."
by Mervyn Peake.
Half masonry, half pain; her head,
From which the plaster breaks away
Like flesh from the rough bone, is turned
Upon a neck of stones; her eyes
Are lid-less windows of smashed glass,
Each star-shaped pupil
Giving upon a vault so vast
How can the head contain it?
The raw smoke
Is inter-wreathing through the jaggedness
Of her sky-broken panes, and mirror'd
Fires dance like madmen on the splinters.
All else is stillness save the dancing splinters
And the slow inter-wreathing of the smoke.
Her breasts are crumbling brick where the black ivy
Had clung like a fantastic child for succour
And now hangs draggled with long peels of paper
Fire-crisp, fire-faded awnings of limp paper
Repeating still their ghosted leaf and lily.
Grass for her cold skin's hair, the grass of cities
Wilted and swaying on her plaster brow
From winds that stream along the streets of cities:
Across a world of sudden fear and firelight
She towers erect, the great stones at her throat,
Her rusted ribs like railings round her heart;
A figure of dry wounds -- of winter wounds --
O mother of wounds; half masonry, half pain.
Again, this is a matter of perception, one that allows Peake to transform a modern city into a realm as alien and grotesque as Gormenghast. There is no fantasy, here, but there is a fantasizing mind.
This importance of personality and perspective can be seen in prose, too, which is why J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun can be as unsettling as anything in science fiction, why L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between communicates the same dread that we find in his ghost stories, why an everyday story like "The Almond Tree" brings up the same unanswered questions that we find in Walter de la Mare's supernatural tales.
What this implies, for me, is that labels are useless. What matters is perception and skill, and these, more than topics, more than concepts, are what create the fantastic and the strange.