I once laid hand on a volume of Poe, yellowed and missing the back cover, the front emblazoned the legend that it was the “Selected Tales of Edgar Allan Poe” whereupon a publishing house hack etched out a marginal likeness of the troubled writer using a blood-red crudity of lines hatched and crosshatched so that the looming visage emerged from a tapestry of naked November tree branches. I kept the volume for many years, never really reading it, but was more engaged to the scribbled marginalia peppered throughout. One such comment, “brilliant, seeding intrigue with eeriness” struck me for the relative sophomoric observation the reader had for the line lifted from “The Premature Burial”:
Methought I was immersed in a cataleptic trance of more than usual direction and profundity. Suddenly there came an icy hand upon my forehead, and an impatient, gibbering voice whispered the word “Arise!”within my ear.
Ah, but one day the book began to smell of “old” and I eschewed it with a newer volume, one of those Library of America volumes with the slick black gloss framing the tortured expression of Poe staring as he did from a hundred others of public domain appropriations from such sellers as Barnes & Noble and Borders Books, (remember those?).
Poe is a household name, an irony I guess, because I’d venture that 95% of the population that knows him has ever read anything beyond “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” and even those two but shallow readings, like seeing the flowers but not seeing the flowers for what they are beyond perennial reminders of life and death and rebirth.
These are plebes choosing to believe a myth because it’s more interesting than the truth.
Longfellow thought Poe a plagiarist. Writing after the death of Poe: “My works seemed to give him much trouble, first and last, but Mr. Poe is dead and gone, and I am alive and still writing, and that is the end of the matter.” The great Concord sage Emerson saw little merit in Poe, calling him the “jingle man.” Poe in turn denounced Emerson a mystical fraud. Hawthorne was an admirer, though Poe had trashed his Mosses from an Old Manse: “I confess, however, that I admire you rather as a writer of tales than as a critic upon them. I might often—and often do—dissent from your opinions in the latter capacity, but could never fail to recognize your force and originality, in the former.”
But time is a great forgiver, and to Poe and all we place their works canonical and enduring. The horror and might of Poe and his pen have been bludgeoned by the jaded sensibility of our times. Poe’s wandering fancies and quicksilver mood of darks and dreams endure for the sheer ability to repackage and sensationalize a batch of works that readers of today hardly understand. I have not run into a single person that has fairly read, digested and understood the writer. He is more appreciated as a person, that is the myth of the person, than the scores of stories, essays and poetry he has written. Often anthologized, he is but a curiosity item for fledgling students as an oasis through enormous dry spells of similarly anthologized writers meditating tedium in humdrum English classes across America.
Thus, alas, the sounds of voices heard beneath the wind-caressed eaves of abandoned homes and down the stairwell, are composing poetry upon dusty banisters once stroked by generations of a family driven to annhilation. Blood scores the ink well, the feather tip’t grip of pen in hand scribbles a furious paean to a long lost America, where mystery once held sovereign sway and the earnest scrivener labored at the dictate of his imagination.
This is an essay without purpose. I feel the need to write. Writing can have no purpose. It has no more use on a Sunday morning than sugar sprinkled over a brisket. The inherent need to express and create finds its way across the landscape of the mind like a river wending its path through the topography of a strange new land. At the end there is always an ocean, and there the waters can spread and sink and rise to an eternity of waters greater than the land it sprung from.
Is that not our purpose, if it can be dignified at all?