Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Peep Behind The Scenes

Edgar Allen Poe strikes a very different attitude from either Kafka or Pessoa, one that Brecht would not approve at all. In place of metaphors for creation, the deliberate illusion of artisanship:

"Most writers – poets in especial – prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy – an ecstatic intuition – and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes… in a word, at the wheels and pinions – the tackle for scene-shifting – the step-ladders and demon-traps – the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio… It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition…(he was working on "The Raven" at the time) … "is referable either to accident or intuition – that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

                                      "The Philosophy of Composition", 1846

Reading about Poe in multiple media celebrations of his birthdate (January 19th 1809), the detail of his life restated the failure of communication between reality and bourgeois culture, the process by which the homogeneously conformist middle classes will eventually absorb and assimilate anything and anyone, provided they can mask its edges and either overlook or simply misrepresent its facts. Poe should really be abhorrent to the middle classes, a totem figure for rejection, the kind of person one's children should not know anything about it, let alone read his work, or study it in school, as every American child does, and must - especially in Baltimore, where I am living at the time of writing this. He is lauded as the great epitome of American authorship, a man indeed to study, to look up to, and admire, with reverence. Ask any American to list the greatest authors in their history and he is guaranteed to make the list: author of some of its finest tales and poems, a figure from the pantheon. Why, here in his native Baltimore, they have even named their football team "The Ravens" in his honour.

Yet who was he really? Let us do as he strongly discouraged in the paragraph quoted above, and let "the public take a peep behind the scenes". An orphan at the age of three, raised by a godfather who earned his wealth in tobacco – which, in the 1810s and 1820s, in Maryland, meant through having slaves who worked his crop for him. Poe was thrown out of university for incurring gambling debts, then thrown out of the army for rule infractions. He married his own cousin, when she was just thirteen. He lost his first job due to heavy drinking (then his wife to tuberculosis, but we can't hold that against him personally!), and his widowhood to promiscuity, drug abuse, and alcoholism. As to his death, at the age of just forty: engaged to remarry, he was found incoherent in a gutter in Baltimore, having started drinking at a party three days earlier, and not stopped since.

Who even knows all this? Do they teach his biography with his poetry at 11th grade (I did, but you're not expected to)? Do they allow biography to inform understanding of his tales? Do they hell! Not even in the crib-guides and the cheat-sheets. Pasteurised Poe (this is Webster's America; I need to spell it pasteurized), smelling sweet, laid out like verse in rows so neat, hair combed back and needles hidden, come to the library when you are bidden; stand to attention, slur your name, in the halls of the Poetry Hall of Fame!

Perhaps, being British, I should add a companion-piece on Dylan Thomas, Lord Byron, Ben Jonson, Roald Dahl, Philip Larkin, John Osborne... no, the list is far too long.

For the text of "The Raven", Poe's best-known poem, or indeed for any of his poetry, go to The Academy of American Poets (, of which he is now a fully-paid up, fully-accredited member, welcome to attend any gathering of its alumni, though presumably they would expect him to turn up sober, on-time, and properly attired, as per the illustration (well, no, not quite, the hair needs cutting, and brushing; and the bags under his eyes, the eyes themselves especially...)

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