Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Poe Country

The Carolinas are shut down by a devastating winter storm. Snow up to the eves...okay, they're expecting just three inches here, but in Tar Heel terms that would seem to be a blizzard; considering the two lane country roads all around, and drivers inexperienced on snow, I'm thinking I'll be going in late if at all.

Any unfortunate double-entendre in today's header is unintended; after all, politically if not economically speaking, we are looking at a relative embarrassment of riches starting today at noon.

No, the title refers of course to Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), who, I happened to see, turned 200 yesterday. He led an interesting life, if one marked by much suffering and a premature death that deprived us of who-knows-what wonders. As part of a venerable literary tradition, he was, of course, severely alcoholic.

I had forgotten, until I reviewed his bio, that he spent some ill-suited time at West Point (a less likely military man can hardly be imagined) and that he married his cousin Virginia Clemm when she was thirteen. I am sure some psychobiographers have worked up that relationship. Come to think of it, Samuel Taylor Coleridge ludicrously signed up for military service as well--is there something about poets and martial reaction formation? It's a bit like cats presenting for obedience training.

Poe has a special place in my reading remembrance--at an impressionable time he was one of several "gateway" authors for me. Encountering stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Masque of the Red Death" in Junior High School was a kind of dark revelation (well, there were a number of those in Junior High, but this was of the good variety). His work opened up vistas of alternative reality, Bizarro-worlds in which everything was as it is "here," but rotated one quarter turn, with highly morbid consequences.

The plots were ingenious, but literature has never been primarily about plot for me, but rather about place and about character. Like the infernally enchanted worlds of Robert E. Howard, but refined beyond literal and figurative barbarism, Poe's places seemed to exude an eldritch kind of energy, powered by the use of words like "eldritch" that are irresistible to many thirteen-year-olds with a Y chromosome. And I suppose his tales may have provoked an early interest in abnormal psychology--who would not want to treat the distinctly dysfunctional dynamics of the Usher family?

What attracted me in Poe's mystery was not the puzzle of ratiocination, but rather the deeper, metaphysical mind-benders that have no solution. So my adolescent literary interests proceeded more to fantasy and science fiction than to detective or horror fiction; I have always found wonder to be a more primal and a more interesting experience than either fear or wordplay.

Some authors are great, but great chiefly at a certain crucial age, after which their pleasures diminish. So when I reread Poe now it is still with interest, but an interest imbued with a good deal of reminiscence. As is the case with much of so-called genre fiction, he seems more gimmicky now--one can hear the creak of the literary machinery. An interesting comparison for me is H. P. Lovecraft; I somehow never read him until I broke down and bought the Library of America edition a few years ago. I appreciate the deep strangeness of his style, and am glad that I have finally encountered Cthulhu in the original, but somehow it is not something that I can take seriously at this point (but had I read him twenty five years ago I would have thought him fantastic).

It may seem obvious, but it bears noting that the most significant thing about Poe's worlds is that death is not merely always a heartbeat away, but indeed keeps intruding inconveniently into life. His young cousin-wife died early from tuberculosis, and considering his lifestyle and his milieu he cannot have expected a comfortable old age. So we have "The City in the Sea:"

Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.

And the grievous "Annabel Lee:"

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I see the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride
In her sepulchre there by the sea--
In her tomb by the side of the sea.

And this cheering lyric:

Out--out are the lights--out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, "Man,"
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.

May he inspire adolescents, including the grown-up kind, for another two centuries at least. He is for the ages now, as was said of another American of his time, and if he was obsessed with death, he could now say, with John Donne, "And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!"


Anonymous said...

His death is still a mystery with all sorts of theories ranging from rabies to syphilis. It's even been suggested that he was a victim of election fraud with "coopers" abducting and drugging him to cast multiple votes. Poe wouldn't be Poe without a little controversy.


Retriever said...

Good post. I personally dislike Poe's work, but he is a very intriguing character. As far as his West Point experience goes, it is interestng how many artistic types just couldn't hack it there and got kicked out or left. Perhaps people like Poe who ultimately self-destruct (their own demons and addiction) were drawn in moments of health to the structure and discipline of serving one's country, working with others, to defend and protect their fellow citizens. It isn't as crazy as you might think. For example, most cognitive behavioral interventions in the daily life of people with mood disorders involve a certain restructuring of their daily life to contain excess, instill more moderate and healthy habits. And if one suffers from angst and mood extremes, one might be drawn to a physically demanding and dangerous vocation where one had to set self aside and put others first. Another option might have been the cloister. Whistler couldn't make it at the Academy either.

On the other hand, many poets and literary types not only served in the military but did so with distinction and with honor. It is perfectly possible to obey one's country's call (and not be a draft dodger) and still be an awesome artist. Think of the First World War Poets, like Wilfrid Owen, Rupert Brooke. It is no more or less tragic that they died than that a whole generation of Britain's best and brightest young men died (the bravest and smartest were the first to volunteer and they were mostly slaughered). They wrote about war and the horrors of it, but with far more authority than a modern day pacifist who would never risk their hide for anyone, but would just snark at their country from comfort. And they weren't all killed. Tolkien served in the trenches in World War I.

Arguably, one might say that some authors are shaped and improved by military service. It jolts them out of narcissistic navel gazing, so that they can write about universals and not just their own selfish selves. And think of other famous people who had a hugely beneficial impact on the world, who served in youth in the military. I feel fairly certain that Bill Wilson, for example, learned a lot from his time at war that helped him later in starting and leading AA.

I don't mean to overstate my point. But as a patriot who admires our military, I am bothered by the way artsy types dismiss the military experiences of writers andartists as if they were awful, to be endured, absurd, instead of perhaps as shaping, disciplining and testing experiences that improved the people in question.

One thing's for sure. I'd much rather have a kid graduate from West Point than become a degenerate poet.

Anonymous said...

Actually, poetry can be a strictly disciplined art form in its fully- fledged regimented rule-based style, requiring the writer to marshal words and ideas into pretty pentameters and whatnot; unlike novel writing - which is wantonly uneconomical in its verbosity and mercilessly lax in structure because it thinks it has an eternity to unravel itself. SHort stories--like what Poe wrote--also require succinctness and discipline, and minimal wastage for maximum impact. So, it's not that far-fetched to conceive of a poet with military roots...or for that matter, a military officer with poetic roots.

Poe too has a special nostalgic place in my darkest of hearts of youth no more...yes, I was a cheery child and worshipped the sun's shadow.

Although, I find it hard to reread anything that impacted me at critical life points. I think it has something to do with not rippling the allure and idealism of yesteryear with the non-contextual wisdom of now.

Novalis, you failed to mention Poe was also insanely funny! - 'The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether' - the spark that burned the idea of psychiatry into your young and impressionable brain?...I know it bore the worm of insanity in mine...(just kidding).

And Retriever, youre being a tad unfair - 'degenerate poets' are an almost extinct species and I think we should propagate the madness that leads rational people into such foolishness!...unlike the sanity and rationale that turns death into collateral damage and friendly fire into a party your colleagues forgot to tell you about...

Novalis said...

I see your point, although if the only way we can achieve discipline and allegiance to a greater good is through an enterprise devoted to killing people (even in self-defense), then so much the worse for us.

And the World War I example is not a felicitous one--except for a few notable genocides, it's hard to find a more pointless and pathetic waste of life in the last century.

Retriever said...

I don't think discipline can only be achieved thru joining the military. What I was trying to express is that the impulse to serve one's country in the military can be one amongst many ways somebody reaches for it. Not all of those reaching are cut out to be soldiers.

I agree totallly about the discipline and passion of poets (we have them in the family--I'm just the verbose family scribbler and preacher. The poets are far more ruthless and selective. ).

The First World War was ghastly, and growing up in England one knew it better than people in the US, but back when I was young it didn't make us hate the Army. Stupid generals and corrupt vicious governments, maybe. But we grew up loving soldiers, admiring the military, and devoted patriots. Things are different there now.

You would doubtless like the film "Oh What a Lovely War" a kind of surreal trippy but poignant depiction of the Great War.

We wept on Poppy Day (memorial) for the frail generation of old ladies who would be marching in the street with the rest, who had lost husbands and sweethearts in WWI and who had never been able to find another as so much of their generation were slaughtered.

The images here (rather than my clumsy prose) might remind you why people often do noble work, not "just killing" without a noble goal, in the Army http://dianaretriever.blogspot.com/2009/01/join-army.html

This one would probably fit more nicely your paradigm of the futility of war http://dianaretriever.blogspot.com/2009/01/doomed-cavalry-and-tea-at-daquise.html

Better than either, as posts in blogs are evanescent as sea foam, check out this interview with Elizabeth Samet on her years of teaching literature, especially poetry to West Point cadets recently, including after 9/11. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bookshow/stories/2008/2189608.htm

Her wonderful book, Soldier's Heart... will deepen your understanding of the brave young men and women who are at West Point these days.

It troubles me that the courage and dedication of young people choosing to serve in the military is dismissed by the pacifism lite of the moment in our country. People can relate to them as victims when something awful happens to them in combat (better at least than the hateful attitude towards VIetnam Vets when I was growing up) but have little respect for their patriotism or personal commitment. They volunteer. They aren't conscripts. They make up the best army in the world.

When a mom friend I bumped into on the street was telling me about her kid who had come to grief with drugs, moods and literary aspirations, and was collapsed, I expressed sympathy, arranged to visit, and prayed for a kid I love. When the mom asked about the young Army officer to be in my family (whom she had not seen in 3 years, and did not know about) and I told her, she grimaced and said "How awful! How can you bear it!" I was staggered.

One can only be proud of a young relative who wants to serve in the Army. There are many worse things kids do, and more certain ways of killing themselves. Purposelessly. Drugs, alcohol. And people like Poe who choose to destroy themselves via addiction do not just destroy themselves. They break the hearts of those around them, and sometimes take a few others with them to Hades. Parents shrug about the inevitability of under age drinking but it kills or addicts many more kids than are killed in the military.