Monday, May 4, 2009

Edgar Allan . . .


Edgar Allan Poe Stamp
United States Postal Service
(Date of Issue: January, 2009)

The bicentennial year of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth (January 19, 1809) rolls on. There have been or are celebrations scheduled in Boston (his birthplace), Maryland (Poe from 1829 to 1836 mostly lived and wrote a number of stories in Baltimore, and in 1849 died and was buried there), Virginia (where he lived, principally in Richmond, for some of his later years), and elsewhere. Later this year, there’s a big conference in Philadelphia (where Poe also lived and worked for a bit as an adult) (click here for info). There’s even a Poe bicentennial blog (though it’s frighteningly sparse). And maybe best of all – just because it’s a mark of some recognition in the culture at large – there’s a postage stamp, a stunningly gorgeous one at that.

But picky me, I ain’t satisfied, not nearly so. I want to see stanzas from Poe’s poems printed on grocery bags and plastered on the sides of buses. Heck, I want to see our President late at night, in an underlit Oval Office, read a poem or two live to the nation. Given the USA economic condition, perhaps Obama should recite Poe’s “Eldorado,” since its exhortation to:
Ride, boldly ride
even after years of fruitless searching for the sought-after Eldorado might work as a catch-phrase signalling that we should all persevere no matter what the difficulties. Not quite Roosevelt’s “nothing to fear but fear itself,” maybe, but still: wouldn’t it be a trip if America’s poetic tradition could pervade national life at that level, not just as decoration for post office snail-mail? Yep, it would be great, and well, we’ll see what happens (but don’t hold your nevermore, if you know what I mean).

Anyway, all I can do for now is throw a bit of this here glade behind the Poe Bicentennial celebration. Here are a few reasons to keep the bicentennial party (or is that “poerty”?) for Edgar Allan rolling, not even counting the stories for which he’s probably best known:

1. The lineated verse

Poe wrote with lots of regular rhyme schemes and often (though not entirely) rigid meter. In the longer poems, those well-used poetic devices can become tiring. But in the shorter poems, coupled with Poe’s imagination, it all works fine. Everybody has – or should have – their favorite Poe-poems. Here are mine:

“Dream-Land”, as the title suggests, is an account of dreams. The concluding line of the first stanza:
Out of SPACE – out of TIME
is as apt and concise a summary of the other-worldliness of night-dreams as ever has been written. That line was directly adapted by Clark Ashton Smith for his first large collection of weird tales, published by Arkham House in 1942.

Some – much, in fact – of the poem’s imagery strikes the same chords as the “caverns measureless to man” and “sunny pleasure domes with caves of ice” found in Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn.” Here are lines from “Dream-Land” that concern matters beyond human comprehension grasp, and/or which bring opposites together:
Bottomless vales and boundless floods,
And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods,
With forms that no man can discover
For the tears that drip all over;
Mountains toppling evermore
Into seas without a shore;
Seas that restlessly aspire,
Surging, unto skies of fire . . .

I also love “Ulalume.” That poem includes at least two Poe-words (scholars say he coined about one thousand new words in his published writings). The first is the adjective “scoriac,” a shortening of the clunkier “scoriaceous.” The word’s derived from the noun “scoria,” the dross or slag that remains after the smelting of ore, or, alternatively, a cinder-like lava, and it works beautifully in the poem:
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll -
As the lavas that restlessly roll
But the really great Poe-word is the title-word, “Ullalume.” It’s a word of great alliterative and rhythmic power, particularly as used in the last lines of the poem’s third-to-last stanza, where it’s repeated three times and used as the tail-end of a nice rhyme:
And I said: “What is written, sweet sister,
On the door of this legended tomb?”
She replied: “Ulalume - Ulalume -
'Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!”
Thomas Ollive Mabbott, editor of the standard edition of Poe’s Collected Works (published in 1969) suggests that “Ullalume” probably combines the Latin root for “ululate” (to howl or wail) and the word “lumen.” But Mabbott also writes, “no complete satisfactory explanation of the etymology of Poe’s word has been found . . . .” That strikes me as a mark of a great made-up word: it still has people guessing well over a hundred years after it first saw print.


Finally among the lineated poems – and limiting myself to three is difficult – there’s “Alone.” It may be the all-time poem for isolatos everywhere, and for the isolato that all of us have somewhere within:
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were – I have not seen
As other saw . . .
[. . .]
And all I lov’d – I lov’d alone – .
Those are the poem’s first two and one-half lines, plus (after the ellipsis) one other. Note the italicized “I” in the final quoted line, emphasizing the solitary ardor, apart-ness, and oddness of the poet-speaker.


2. “Between Wakefulness and Sleep”

brain waves: wakefulness to - and within - sleep

“Between Wakefulness and Sleep” is a short essay from Poe’s Marginalia, and was also published in the out-of-print but findable The Unknown Poe (City Lights Books, 1980). This essay is one of probably five thousand eight hundred and fifteen things I learned about from Philip Lamantia.

Philip was known to read the essay aloud to those who visited him in his small one-bedroom North Beach third-floor walk-up apartment (that could also be called a kind of research library given that there were shelves and stacks of books everywhere). Lamantia believed, rightly I think, that Poe’s essay about what is perceived or apprehended when falling asleep prefigured the surrealist interest in those points in the mind that combine rational and more instinctive (pre-conscious) thinking, those places sometimes accessed via automatistic writing.

Poe of course wrote decades before the surrealists, but the correspondences are strong. In the essay, Poe calls what he experienced in the mind on the brink of sleep “fancies,” and is convinced they were a source of particularly fresh imaginative inventions. With regard to such “fancies” Poe stresses (the italics here, and in all quotations below, are his):
the delight experienced, has as its element . . . the absoluteness of novelty. I say the absoluteness – for in these fancies – let me now term them psychal impressions – there is really nothing even approximate in character to impressions ordinarily received. It is as if the five senses were supplanted by five myriad others alien to mortality.
The potential for extraordinary, otherworldly “fancies” or “psychal impressions” to make powerful poetry, or to serve as an incubator for such writing, needs no elaboration. All praise poets who can bring back such things from the brink of sleep, and most important, get ‘em down on a page.

In the hit-and-miss world of Wikipedia entries, the entry on hypnagogia – the formal term for the state Poe described in his essay – is a grand slam. Well written, comprehensive (yes, it mentions Poe’s essay) and richly annotated (almost 80 footnotes!): it’s definitely worth a read (click here to go, if you please).


3. Eureka: A Prose Poem

At 40,000 words (150 to almost 200 pages, depending on the edition), Poe’s Eureka is one huge speculative sprawling scientific philosophic treatise on the universe. It’s said he termed the work an essay, an art-product, a romance, and other things before settling on “prose poem.” The latter fits. The imaginative specific gravity of the thing generally is no less than mercuric and often platinum-ish.

For example, try to float this – a thoroughly typical paragraph except that it is a bit shorter than many in the poem – on the lake of your mind:
We have now reached a point from which we behold the Universe as a spherical space, interspersed, unequably, with clusters. It will be noticed that I here prefer the adverb “unequably” to the phrase “with a merely general equability,” employed before. It is evident, in fact, that the equability of distribution will diminish in the ration of the agglomerative processes – that is to say, as the things distributed diminish in number. Thus the increase of inequability – an increase which must continue until, sooner or later, an epoch will arrive at which the largest agglomeration will absorb all the others – should be viewed as, simply, a corroborative indication of the tendency to One.
You just can’t help sinking deep into the prose here – drowning in it, actually. But that’s not a bad thing, not at all.

The bottom of the lake – the bottom of the lake of your mind – is a fine place to be: it’s dark and usually murky, true enough, but rich in nutrients with plenty of hardy vegetation and wondrous odd creatures to nourish and inspire thought. Poe takes the reader here on a journey deep into thought, where possibilities are abundant.

Picking a single nugget from Eureka is more than a little reductive, but still I’m going to do it. The two sentences I’ve chosen to end this particular Poe bicentennial celebration set forth an observation I unstintingly endorse – as you might guess from the photo at the top of this particular section, and the one that follows immediately below. The sentences come near the prose poem’s end, and again, the italics are Poe’s:
[I]n fact, the sense of the symmetrical is an instinct which may be depended upon with an almost blindfolded reliance. It is the poetical essence of the Universe – of the Universe which, in the supremeness of its symmetry, is but the most sublime of poems.

Happy Bicentennial, Edgar Allan Poe!


United States Postal Service
Edgar Allan Poe
20-Stamp Sheet



Anonymous said...

An excellent post about Poe!! You covered a lot of territory in a short amount of space.

I dare say that your words are far superior to that New Yorker piece of crap that appeared recently.

Jeff Jerome
Curator, Poe House

Custom Embroidered Patches said...

I agree. This was a very informative eye opening article on Poe. Thank you for sharing so much info.

John Olson said...

Yes, thank you Steve. Particularly for all the enthusiasm directed toward Eureka, which, by sheer coincidence, I happened to be reading tonight, prompted by unpacking boxes of books upon the occasion of our new bookcase, Ponderosa pine with a hemlock crown, which Poe would have greatly appreciated. He also has an essay about the Philosophy of Furniture. "A mild, or what artists term a cool light, with its consequent warm shadows, will do wonders for even an ill-furnished apartment."

florida webdesign said...

That was alot of information to digest in one reading. Perhaps not so lengthy but the understanding of his unique words. My brain feels rather "scoriaceous" after taking all this in and I maybe in need of a quick REM. ;-)

Heller Levinson said...

Thanks, Steve, for the Poe Trot-Out, newly invigorated, it's returned me to my "unabridged." Never been soggy with bloggy, but you've converted me to "the glade."

Rob Velella said...

Sorry I didn't get here sooner. There is a much more active Poe bicentennial blog - it happens to be mine! With any luck, it will satiate some of your need for more Poe in 2009.

By the way, Fordham is not in Virginia but in The Bronx, New York. His Fordham cottage is still standing and open to the public.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Rob, for stopping by, for pointing out my mistake in listing Fordham in Virginia instead of the Bronx (I've just deleted that statement), for the info that Poe's cottage there is still standing (gotta check that out next time in (if I ever get back to) NYC, and especially for the tip to your blog, which is as you say active, and also, I will add -- interesting.

Anonymous said...

I utterly agree. I believe that everyone should give Poe the respect he diserves.

Anonymous said...

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