Friday, February 6, 2009
Thanks to the incalcuable effort, energy, and imagination of some colleagues, the college at which I teach is about to host "SymPOEsyium," celebrating Edgar's 200th birthday, which actually occurred about a month ago, but after 200 years, well--close enough. The celebration will feature lectures, informal discussions, a parody-contest, performances, screenings of films, the serious, the campy, and the in-between. And Lord knows Edgar was in between--serious writer; writer for pay; "Southern Gentleman"; impoverished, feckless roustabout; considered by some to be an indelibly influential writer and critic; considered by others to be juvenile and excessive. Poe was most American, perhaps, in his desperate need for acceptance, in his attempt to try on different identities, in is manic drive, and in his raging inventiveness.
The poetry captivated me for a brief "moment" when I was in my early teens, and "The Raven" is still quite a performance, a grand entertainment. Poe also had a way with lyricism. Like Auden, he liked to play with words.
Many of the stories still work for me. They aren't especially subtle (ya think?), but that trait mostly springs from Poe's idea of what a story (and, indeed, a poem) should do: go for that one effect. In many instances, the stories achieve multiple effects, and the personae that narrate many of the tales fascinate, are more complex than one might first realize.
It's great to watch a writer essentially invent sub-genres that we now call "horror," "thriller," and "detective story." It's fun to watch a writer have fun. Poe's pleasure in entertaining comes through especially, I think, in "The Cask of Amontillado." (Unfortunately, my having worked as a stone-mason's assistant almost ruins the story for me because I know how long it takes to mix mortar, build a wall, etc. Poe glides over the details; more power to him.) "The Fall of the House of Usher" still holds great appeal, and Poe achieved so much in such a small space (so to speak) in "Murders in the Rue Morgue": genius-detective (half-amateur, half-pro); wacky crime; grisly crime-scene; the "locked-room" puzzle; the flummoxed police; the surprise ending.
Writers and readers should probably not underestimate how well Poe tended to start his stories. Some great openers.
In college I read and studied The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. A wild book, and not a bad novel, really.
For SymPOEsium, I'm going to get off my duff and, with a colleague, talk about "The Philosophy of Composition" and the famous review of Hawthorne's tales. I'll be giving Edgar an imaginary fist-bump. I hope his spirit takes it in the right spirit and doesn't try to brick me up in the catacombs. Yo, Poe: Happy Birthday.