Happy Birthday, Edgar Allen

February 6, 2009

(So I’m a few weeks late; he turned 200 on January 19, but that I remember to give birthday wishes to someone within a year of it is impressive, actually.  For the source of the quotation below, and a more timely and longer response to Poe at 200, see this essay.)

Joyce Carol Oates defines the Gothic in literature (and explains my attraction it):

There is a profound difference between what appears to be and what is; and if you believe otherwise, the Gothicist has a surprise for you. The strained, sunny smile of the Enlightenment – “All that is, is holy;” “Man is a rational being” – is confronted by the Gothicist, who, quite frankly, considering the history and prehistory of our species, knows better.

That’s probably about as good an explanation of the overlap between Poe and Faulkner one could give, and, unless you’re one of those who are simultaneously fascinated and amused by Poe’s insane poetics, his elaboration of the Gothic — and little, if anything other than the Gothic — is what most recommends him.  (Though, just as the rigidness of his poetics ultimately undermines his poetry, this adherence to the Gothic also acts to undermine his prose.  For example: in “The Fall of the House of Usher” we have a several-centuries old castle set in the United States; see the essay that got me started on this track for a better elaboration of the non-placement of his writing.)

My relation to Poe is similar to Nabokov’s: “When I was young I liked Poe, and I still love Melville.”*  But it’s worth noting that Poe, not Melville, “broke the new wood” (in Pound’s phrasing) which Nabokov set to carving.  Lolita, in many ways, is to “Annabel Lee” as Ulysses is to the Odyssey.

But it was while reading “The Bells” in sixth grade that I got my first sense of what this mysterious thing called “poetry” was, and that pallid bust of Athena in “The Raven” has stayed in my mind since I first read it.  I was too young to truly get anything from “Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” when I first read them, but they stayed with me, and I don’t think I would have understood as much of Absalom, Absalom! without having returned to “Usher” and really read it the year before. (Hmm… I wonder: Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” as anticipating and influencing Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!…)

We remember Poe because, like Whitman, he was a breaker of new wood; we denigrate him more than Whitman ever is because his madness limited his talent.  But at the risk of sounding too Bloomian, American literature exists at least as much in his shadow as in Uncle Greybeard’s, even if that shadow is misread and poorly taught.  But I wonder: is there any other way to be taught Poe than to do it on one’s own in the company of others, noticing that there’s something moving under the the smooth carpet your teacher and classmates have thrown down?

*Full disclosure: Unlike Nabokov, I’ve never read Melville.

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