happy birthday (in a few days), Edgar Allan Poe

There is an essay in the January 15 Wall Street Journal by John J. Miller (a National Review writer) that reviews Poe’s life and legacy. The bicentennial of his birth is on January 19, and the tributes include a stamp to be issued on January 16.

I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Poe, but he has definitely been a presence and an influence in numerous ways. It strikes me that he is one of the rare writers whose prose and poetry enjoy strong reputations as classics. My favorite short story of his is “The Cask of Amontillado,” which was in my freshman high school English textbook, but my first or second encounter with Poe probably took place when I was eight — my family spent that summer in Taiwan, and one of the books in English in the ancient family apothecary (where my oldest then-living uncle and his family dwelled) included a version (probably abridged) of “The Purloined Letter.”

The other possible first encounter is an excerpt from “The Bells” that was in a slim pink-and-gray hardcover Hallmark anthology given to my parents upon their marriage. (That book was definitely my first exposure to Byron and probably Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 as well, but I digress.) Poetry-wise, the poems that really spoke to me were not the textbook standards about weird birds and drowned beauties, but “Alone” and “A Dream Within a Dream.” If memory serves, I was introduced to both poems via classmates at the Kentucky Humanities Institute (a short-lived but phenomenal summer program for gifted juniors-to-be), one via correspondence and the other as a powerful talent show monologue.

I visited his residence in Richmond, Virginia, during a solo road trip in 2000, but it didn’t leave any lasting impressions on my memory (it just happened to be along the way, and that journey also included the sun glittering on the blue waters of Virginia Beach, contra dancing at the Grey Eagle, and floppy-eared goats at Flat Rock). I am charmed and touched, however, by this bit from Miller’s essay:

…his tombstone is now the site of a strange annual ritual. On Poe’s birthday, scores of devotees gather in the cold night to watch a shadowy figure known as the “Poe Toaster” leave three red roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac at the author’s final resting place. This performance has survived for more than half a century, appears to have been passed on from one generation of visitant to the next, and shows no sign of letting up.

Today’s WSJ also included (on the same page) a fascinating anecdote from Thomas Baptiste about how he learned from Harold Pinter that one doesn’t have to understand the words one must say to make them true: “I learned that if you said the lines exactly as he wrote them — observing the pauses, the commas and semi-colons — the rhythm would speak for itself.”

My two thoughts on this at the moment: (1) Auden would be aghast, but I sometimes feel that way about his verses. (2) It reminds me of a feature in the New Yorker about a group of established, professional actors studying how to speak Shakespeare with John Barton, and how the text provides so much when one really slows down and says what’s there, giving every phrase its due (one image that has stayed with me all these years is that of one actor working through a scene from Othello and becoming overcome by the realization at how the text is telling him that Othello has been weeping).

I actually had some difficulty tracking down the article just now, but eventually remembered that Barton had ended the class by having one of the actors read a speech by Bartolomeo Vanzetti — that is, an innocent man who knew he was about to die. I had forgotten Barton’s summing up: ““Something poetic happens in him…It’s natural in human beings.”

This echoes what I have been thinking each time I reread Lasantha Wickramatunga’s final editorial. No, it is not “poetry” as I would normally define it, in terms of a deliberately stylized arrangement of words and pauses for heightened effect. It would not belong in an Norton Anthology of poetry. But in my mind, it is nonetheless unquestionably poetic — perhaps because its stylistic choices and intended effect are no less deliberate than what Milton invested into Paradise Lost or — from yet another man on the brink of execution — Ralegh’s “The Lie.”

And this highlights how form does matter, in one sense, because “The Lie” is a poem, whereas Vanzetti’s speech and Wickramatunga’s piece are not, nor are Abraham Lincoln’s addresses nor Emily Dickinson’s letters — and it’s not a wholly pointless exercise to try to analyze the distinction(s) among these, because for us wordsmiths, comprehending the different weights that words carry in different formats and contexts can ultimately help us wield them more effectively and assess them more knowledgeably. (And, lest this sound impossibly lofty and noble, I will also admit that micro-analysis is also at another level just sheer, self-indulgent fun.) That said, I don’t think there’s a satisfactory cut-and-dried across-the-spectrum definition to be had — among other things, I’m reminded of how frequently excerpts from the Bible and from Shakespeare’s plays seem to show up in poetry anthologies, as well as the countless variations among versions of the Bible in terms of both format and fluency — some interpretations are more poetic than others (or, put another way, there’s a reason there’s still a King James Version in my house).

And yet, at a basic, visceral level, the distinctions do not matter at all. I have been haunted since college by the cadences of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” — a poem that Eugene O’Neill liked to recite while drunk and that Robert Frost also admired — and by other poems that do not resonate with me in any way on a personal level, but nevertheless contain a level of gut-wrenching beauty and/or honesty that knocks me off-balance every time I revisit them.

And perhaps this is what defines when something in prose format strikes me as “poetic” — more so than the use of figurative language (which, when deployed badly, strikes me not as “poetic” but merely excruciating): when something is so distinctly, memorably, and urgently phrased that I feel compelled to reread it, or compelled to read it aloud, or driven to urge everyone within my keyboard’s reach to go read it — that’s “poetic,” whether it’s in the shape of a traditional poem or not.

And while all this fiddle about how things are worded has its limits in terms of direct importance or relevance, I cannot help but believe that poetry and poetic speech has a reach further than simple pixels on a screen and specks on a page. Because whenever someone pulls together the wherewithal to be eloquent about injustice and death — when, to be blunt, they succeed in breaking our hearts — while they do not outlive their tragedies, their words do, and such words retain the power to propel those who read and hear them to bear true witness and live larger lives.