R.I.P. EDGAR ALLAN POE
January 19, 1809 - March 24, 1882
The darkest poet of his time,
He threw a shadow over rime
And now, beneath this dome of woe,
Erato sleeps with Edgar Poe.
On January 29, 1845, ten days after his thirty-sixth birthday, Edgar Allan Poe published his poem “The Raven” in a newspaper, The New York Evening Mirror, Newspapers in those days were a standard venue for the publication of poetry because everyone read newspapers, and sometimes newspapers needed fillers to take up unused space between stories. Not only that, but people actually read poetry for pleasure in the nineteenth century, as they did in the case of “The Raven.” In very short order the poem was being reprinted everywhere, as is still the case. Ordinary folks just loved it, and so did people who were not so ordinary, like Abraham Lincoln who committed it to memory. Lovers of lyric verse have been memorizing it ever since. It is one of the most popular poems ever written in the English language.
One of the best ways for young people to learn how to write verse is to imitate poems written in verse. That is certainly one of the ways I learned to write it. In an interview published in January 2010 on his blog “Poetry and Popular Culture,” Michael Chasar wanted to know how it happened that one of my early poems was published in what he considered to be a strange place, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in 1962 “while studying under Paul Engle and Donald Justice at Iowa. This struck the P&PC office interns as kind of odd, for when they think of poets trained at the Writers’ Workshop, they don’t at all imagine them wanting to publish in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. So we caught up with Turco and asked him to explain himself.
“Can you explain yourself?”
“Sure,” I replied, “I wasn’t ‘trained’ at the Workshop. I was almost entirely self-taught. I was publishing poems in my home-town paper’s poetry column all through high school….” That poetry column, edited by Lydia B. Atkinson and titled “Pennons of Pegasus,” appeared every Wednesday in the Meriden, Connecticut, Morning Record.
In 1961 while I was a Poetry Fellow at Bread Loaf, the classical scholar and poet Dudley Fitts was assigned to me as the critic of my poetry. At one of our sessions he mentioned that when he was teaching at Cheshire Academy in Connecticut, not far from Meriden, he used to read The Morning Record. I told him that was my home town paper and I’d first published my poems in Lydia’s column while I was a high school student. He guffawed and said, “My wife and I used to read that column aloud to each other every Wednesday morning and begin the day with a hearty laugh.” I told him I had no idea I’d had such a distinguished audience, and I was pleased he’d been familiar with my work for so long.
One of those pieces of my juvenilia that Dudley Fitts must have read was my imitation of Poe’s “The Raven” which is titled —
THE VALE OF YEARNING
On a clifftop overlooking
The abyssal Vale of Yearning
Stands a shape in silhouette
Against the starswept winter sky:
Effigy of imp or mortal,
Clothed in midnight’s sacerdotal
Vestments, listening abstractly
To the wind’s lamenting cry.
Frosted gusts shake leafless branches
As they rear on rooted haunches
In defiance of the serpent
Venting its nocturnal bane.
Sullenly the wind caresses
Trees whose withered autumn tresses,
Long-since torn from senseless digits,
Rustle in each sylvan lane.
“Birth is but an infant madness,”
Coughs the wind.
“Consciousness itself is sadness,”
Weeps the gale.
“Should a being seek to borrow
Joy he finds, upon the morrow,
He owes fealty to Sorrow
Which is blind.
Though he search for his release
Through a lifetime, no surcease
May be granted save the peace
But the shadow, unresponsive,
Stands upon the clifftop, pensive,
Pondering its thoughts, unmindful
Of the nightwind’s monody.
Then at last the figure listens,
Lays aside its dim reflections
As the unrelenting wind
Continues its soliloquy:
“Faith is folly through deceiving,”
Soughs the wind.
“Love is flotsam past retrieving,”
Shrieks the gale.
“Man’s good will is but a rumor
Contradicting his behavior;
Mankind owns no Saint nor Savior —
All have sinned!
Human heritage is hate:
With this tool man carves his fate.
Faithlessness, his strongest trait,
Still the shadow gives no token
It has heard what words were spoken,
And the wind continues seething
Through the valley’s crag-lined core.
Sounds rebound from cliff to boulder;
Then, within some stony cloister,
Lie ensnared till they drift into
“Do you hear me, dreary shadow?”
Asks the gale.
No sound breaks the prating nightwind’s
Suddenly, it quits its rancor
As the shadow gives an answer…,
Sets reverberations churning
Through the sterile Vale of Yearning.
And the shadow’s deft reply,
Puncturing the nightwind’s sigh,
Is but enigmatic laughter
Echoing within the vale.
Poe discussed how he wrote “The Raven” in a treatise, “The Philosophy of Composition,” which appeared in Graham’s Magazine in April of 1846, a bit over a year after the poem was published. Ever since then critics have been casting doubt on the rational system Poe said he used to pen “The Raven.” I have never understood why, because it is certainly very similar to the system I used as a teen-ager in high school to analyze Poe’s most famous poem and to write “The Vale of Yearning.”
Edgar Allan Poe has been given credit in the genre of fiction for the invention of what used to be called “stories of ratiocination” but that we now identify as “crime fiction.” He probably receives the glory for this innovation because no one could find anyone earlier than he who actually wrote a tale of detection, but that doesn’t prevent The New York Times Book Review from marginalizing the type by reviewing it en masse in a column apart from the major reviews each Sunday.
At this point, however, let me propose that Poe also helped to invent, or at least hinted at another fiction genre, what we today call “magic realism,” which can boast some wonderful recent and current authors and books. This is the definition of the term:
In fiction of magic realism the fantastic is treated in an ordinary way, as though it were "normal," part of everyday reality, as in the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Besides Marquez, other names associated with the genre are Mário de Andrade, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Jorge Luis Borges, Salman Rushdie, Günter Grass, Angela Carter and Umberto Eco. One will notice no American names in this list, so once more Poe has his influence, but like his poetry it is again foreign: his work influence the French Symbolists who, in turn, influenced Wallace Stevens, who influence many poets up to and including John Ashbery. A case might be made, however, that Poe's work directly influenced a few of the stories of Ray Bradbury, Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” a larger number of stories by John Cheever, such as “The Swimmer” and “The Enormous Radio,” and several works by Ursula Le Guin and Shirley Jackson.
Poe cannot claim full credit for the invention of this genre, however. Scott Elliott in his essay titled “Warranted Magic: Writing and Discussing Magical Realism,” published in The Writer’s Chronicle, suggests early examples of American stories other than those of Poe’s 1839 “The Fall of the House of Usher” and 1846 “The Telltale Heart” that contain elements of magic realism including Washington Irving’s 1819 “Rip Van Winkle,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 “Young Goodman Brown,” and Henry James’ 1908 “The Jolly Corner”; his 1898 ghost story “The Turn of the Screw” also has many of the elements of magic realism including ambiguity, realistic setting and character.
Although I am not as well known in the genre of fiction as in those of poetry and criticism, I have been writing stories as long as I have written poetry and essays. In fact one of my high school teachers, Mary Flynn, recommended that if I wished to make a living at writing I ought to cast my lot with fiction rather than poetry because it paid better. Poe had his influence on several others of the members of the classes of 1951 and ’52 at Meriden, Connecticut, High School where a dozen or so of us formed the Fantaseers Science-Fiction Reading Club, about which I have written, and gathered a small collection of volumes in our circulating library at my house. A couple of years earlier, in 1949, the summer before my sophomore year, I had won third prize in a senior-high contest and published my very first serious attempt at short fiction, titled “My Father and I,” in a local newspaper, anticipating by about a year my earliest published poems in the same venue.
However, it would take me until 2008 before I brought out my first volume of fiction, The Museum of Ordinary People and Other Stories, which is full of examples of magic realism. One of the reasons I was so late with a collection of prose tales was because I couldn’t stop writing fantasies, not since the very beginning, and I faulted myself for the habit. I wanted to write “normal” stories, “mainstream fiction” in the manner that The NYTBR prescribed, not all this eeriness that Poe had infected me with. But when magic realism became popular I was ready. I could haul out of my secret locker and gather into a volume a couple of dozen stories that I had written and published over the years. In fact, I had long-since integrated that early effort of my sophomore summer into “The Gunner’s Story,” one of the tales in my brief trilogy titled “Shipmates,” included in my first collection of short fiction, The Museum of Ordinary People and Other Stories.
One story in particular from my new book was probably an outgrowth of my memory of reading Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” I wrote it at Yaddo in 1977 where I spent my second visit to that Saratoga Springs artists’ colony writing fiction. I had spent my first visit to Yaddo writing poetry during the summer of 1959, ten years after publishing my first story, graduating from high school, and serving four years in the Navy. I had just received my bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and would that fall begin to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Until I recalled “The Cask of Amontillado” I couldn’t understand why I had written my story titled “Vincent,” because it was set in France, where I had never been, and its protagonist worked in a vineyard, about which I knew nothing. It is, however, my most successful piece of fiction, for it was included in the first P.E.N. / N.E.A. Syndicated Fiction Project; published in seven major newspapers and Sunday supplements from coast to coast, anthologized in the Available Press / P. E. N. Short Story Collection by Ballantine Books in 1985, and broadcast nation-wide in the National Public Radio series The Sound of Writing beginning in 1987:
Vincent's complexion was as chalky as the soil of Champagne, his native province. His skin was the color of whey because of the perpetual dusk in which he worked, the dusk of the caverns hollowed in the chalk cliffs. In these caverns there was wine, miles of bottles, green and brown, stacked seven feet high lying on their sides in their cradles. But there was curiously little dust, for it was Vincent's responsibility each day, from dawn to dusk, to walk down the aisle that extended under the hill into the darkness beyond the flare of his lantern, and give each flagon a quarter turn. A quarter each day, no more and no less.
Vincent carried a lantern. If the flame burned low, began to gutter — which it had never done in ten years, he would know that the air was becoming noxious, and he could return to the entrance before he got into difficulty. He would walk in the center of a pool of yellow light which reflected from the colored glass, stopping each pace or two to turn the bottles with both hands, reaching to both sides and stretching above his head. He could work extremely fast, which he had to do in order to reach the end of the cave by midday.
At noon he would stop to eat his lunch before the great wooden door at the end of the cavern. The door was locked, and it had been so since Vincent, at the age of sixteen, had begun to work for the vintner, who had accompanied him on his first trip down the aisle of the cave. When they had reached the door Vincent had had the temerity to ask what lay beyond, but the vintner had merely shrugged.
"There is no key," he had replied. "It was locked when my father was a boy, and my father's father." Vincent had not asked why the door had never been forced. He had accepted things as they were, which was his nature and his habit. But each day as he stopped, set down his lunch pail and his lantern, and prepared to eat, he would stare at the door and wonder what was behind its dark, rough wood and rusty wrought iron.
When he was through with the bread, cheese, fruit and wine his wife Melie had packed for him that morning in the cottage near the vineyard, Vincent would rise and begin to work his way back up the opposite wall of bottles. When he had reached the entrance again the sun would be low in the sky, and Vincent would step out of gloom into gathering dusk. He would close and lock the gate with the brass key in his pocket, and he would return the key to the vintner before he walked home beneath the poplars. In the kitchen he would find Melie preparing the evening meal. She was a bit younger than her husband about twenty-four, and plump, but not unpleasingly so. She would greet him as he sat down wearily at the table. She would give him a glass of wine. Vincent would drink it slowly until supper was served. At such times he would miss the children they had not yet had.
Vincent would sit and think of a daughter as Melie bent among her kettles and pots, stirring and seasoning, the steam rising from the stove. He would imagine the daughter, each day, running into the room when he returned, climbing into his lap, and saying — as Melie never did, "Tell me about the wine, papa." And he would tell her. The child would never tire of the story, of the descriptions of the cave and the bottles, the saffron lantern, and of the great door at the end of the passage.
But no children ever came. Melie would serve the meal and they would eat. Afterward they would sit before the fire, if it were a cool night, Melie sewing or knitting, Vincent smoking his pipe. After a while they would go to bed, sometimes to see about making a child, but more and more often merely to sleep.
He did not know how it happened — he could not have imagined it during those first ten years, but slowly Vincent, without realizing it at first, began to feel an ache, an ache that eventually solidified around a center of discontentment. Once Vincent had identified the nature of his ache — after many days, even weeks, of giving his bottles a quarter turn each day, of many solitary noon meals before the door that drank up the light of his lantern as though it were wine, he began to think of what he might do.
At first his thoughts were desperate because they were new and unexpected. "I will find a new line." But what new line? He knew nothing else. And more desperate still: "I will abandon my wife, my childless home, and I will become a vagabond!" The word astonished him. He sat and pondered it at noon for several meals, but eventually the astonishment wore off together with the possibility, and he returned to thinking about the ache.
He questioned his lot only at noon in the beginning, never while he walked the aisle, when he never thought at all, but one day as he was giving a green bottle a quarter turn he caught himself thinking, and again he was astonished; again he had something to consider. More and more often he was startled to discover himself walking in a forest of reflection while he worked, like an insomniac who starts awake just at the verge of dropping off into the abyss of dream. A great deal of time went by, until it was clear to Vincent that he was obsessed. Even Melie noticed the change in his demeanor and actions, but she never dared ask what was wrong. What could be wrong? Nothing had changed excepting her husband. Like many women, she simply waited.
But Vincent had reached the point of action. One morning as he was walking down the aisle of the cavern he stopped, and as he stared into the pinpoint reflection of his lantern in the glass of a brown bottle, Vincent experienced a revelation. He considered it for a long while, lost in marvel. At last he reached out to the bottle and gave it a half-turn. Then he continued down the aisle with quarterturns, working faster than usual in order to make up for the lost time, and as he ate his bread and cheese at noon he dwelt, in the immense silence reverberating from behind the locked door, on the thing that he had done.
He was apprehensive and thrilled to the marrow at the same moment, but by the time he had reached the entrance of the cavern and come out into waning daylight, these emotions had given way to great satisfaction. At home Melie immediately sensed the improvement in her husband's disposition, and she heaved a warm sigh into the steam rising from her pots. That evening they went to bed early and tried to make a child — it had been a long while. Afterward Vincent dreamed of a daughter climbing onto his knee and asking him, "Please tell me about the wine, papa."
He replied, "Only if you promise never to tell anyone else what I am about to say to you. It must be a secret between us. You must not tell even your mama."
After suppressed joy, she promised, and Vincent began the story. He watched her eyes widen into wonderment when he reached the part where he twisted the flagon a half-turn — just one half-turn among an eternity of quarter-turns. But Vincent's good humor seeped slowly away in the succeeding days. Gradually the ache returned until he once again found himself compelled to act; his mode improved; he returned to brooding — Melie was disconcerted by the ebbs and floods that appeared in the character of her husband and in their daily lives. She never knew what was going to happen on a particular day when Vincent returned from work, and at last even she was driven to desperation.
"What is wrong, Vincent?" she asked, and what she had feared would happen indeed did so — he shouted at her.
"Nothing is wrong! Why do you ask such question? What could be wrong?" and he was surly in his silence the rest of the evening. But a great deal was wrong. Her husband could no longer be appeased with turning a bottle halfway now and again. In the cave he had begun to turn two bottles a week, then three a week, and at last he gave a bottle a three-quarters turn before he reached the door and ate his lunch. The tunnel was as quiet as a graveyard at midnight.
"What difference does it make how far I turn the bottles?" he asked the darkness. "I turn them so that the lees will not settle out, and so that the cork will stay wet and tight. But what if I turn them a quarter, or a half, or don't turn them at all for a day? Will the world be changed? Will the wine be worse?" He seethed and was morose alternately, for the three-quarter turn had done nothing for him. He was so caught up in his anguish that he almost failed to hear the sound when it occurred — a slight scraping behind him. When he realized that he had, indeed, heard something where he had never heard anything before, he was struck with fear and astonishment again, as on the first occasion of his rebellion.
He sat for a long time staring down through the shadows that gathered in the aisle of the cavern, shadows that seemed to turn into a wall of darkness rising between himself and daylight. It was a long way back. He nearly panicked and ran, but he made himself sit still and consider. Eventually Vincent gained control of himself, and he forced himself to turn and look. He saw nothing. He rose, examined the door, the floor before it, and the hinges. Nothing still. He began to think that perhaps the sound had been a figment of his fancy.
For several days Vincent considered what had happened, or perhaps had not happened, and he reached a point of boldness he could not have conceived of at an earlier time in his life. He decided to experiment. He repeated the three-quarter turn in the morning, but he heard nothing at noon. He turned one bottle a half, and another three-quarters in the morning — again he heard the sound, but so faintly and, despite his vigilance, so unexpectedly, that he continued to doubt.
Vincent began to try combinations and afternoon turns — these latter did nothing more than make his lantern flicker, or perhaps that, too, was a sleight of the eye, or too quick a motion of the hand as he was carrying it. He was so absorbed in what he was doing that both the vintner and Melie thought that things had returned to normal. Vincent had always been a silent man, and they could not know that this latest silence was of a different quality, though Melie, who had been through so many vagaries of mood with her husband, remained apprehensive.
On the day that he turned his first morning bottle one whole revolution, Vincent came to the door and sat down facing it. He turned up the flame and placed his lantern so that its light shone full upon the enigma of the locked door — the saffron flare fell into the grainy wood and the iron, and it glowed deeply in the wine that fell back in tiers into the recesses of blackness down the aisle. He kept his eyes fixed on the door even as he fumbled in his lunch pail and began to eat.
He heard it clearly first, and then he saw it — the great door scraped and began to open. Vincent sat as though stricken to granite, his eyes fastened to the widening crack of darkness. His lamp flickered, but it did not go out; neither did its light penetrate into the well of silence and shadow beyond the door, which at length stood open wide.
It seemed to Vincent as though his heart might explode, as though the pulse in his ear were as loud as summer thunder rolling over the poplars whipping in the wind along the road to his home and hearth. And then both pulse and heart seemed to stop, for Vincent heard a voice say, from the night beyond the door, "Papa!" — just the one word, but crystalline, like a single lute string being plucked.
Vincent did not move until his heart began again. Then he drew a great, rasping breath, took up his lantern, rose suddenly, and began to back away. "Papa, don't go," he heard the child's voice say. "Tell me again about the wine." But Vincent continued to edge backward, and as he did so there was a hesitation — a pause felt rather than heard, a flicker of light or of shadow — then the door began to scrape again. Slowly it swung to, and Vincent heard the latch, then the bolt. Understanding that he had lost something, yet not comprehending what it was, Vincent faced back to the tunnel of wine racks and, giving each bottle as he went an efficient, precise, careful quarter-turn as was his habit, he began the return through amber light.
In school they told us it was wrong to imitate, that we had to emphasize originality. They believed that was the one sure road to fresh, new writing. I ignored this advice and continued imiitating other poets, albeit with some guilt. Then I read an essay by a poet whose name I must confess I don't recall. He taught me one of the two lessons that has guided my poetry ever since. Don't be afraid to imitate. If you have any imagination, you will likely create what is a poor copy of the poem but what may be a fine original poem of your own.
T. S. Kerrigan
Grammar school teachers think that if you try to teach pupils anything about writing you will stifle their "creativity." As though "creativity" were bestowed upon the little tykes in their DNA or by the Gift of God. That's why there are so few young writers around, because teaching writing in college courses has been such a failure. The only college students who haven't been taught how to write these days are education majors. Here’s my high school imitation of “Jabberwocky”:
THE DEATH OF THE OLD WAMBLE DOG
And glying came the wamble dog
Through yellow floods of dimble trees.
Along the way he flaffled at
Grand hordes of ifferary fleas.
“Aha!” cried he, gapflumpf with glee,
“Bewordling there, who can that be
Standing beside the rordle sea
And waiting lorily for me?”
His flaffle tail stood tall and straight
As he approached, with breath abate,
The black cloaked figure on the shore:
‘Twas Mother Goose and nothing more
Delarling in a tarn of gore
With story books and rhymes galore
And tales you’ve never heard before,
Bound up within a silken noose.
So up he glyed with panting breath
(For he was old, and Mother Goose
Is know to grownups, too, as Death).
The wamble dog will gly no more,
For now he frondles Stygian lore,
And life’s short game, for him, is o’er
Since death has evened up the score.