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Posts Tagged ‘Edgar Allan Poe’

28 JANUARY, 2014

The Poetic Principle: Poe on Truth, Love, Reason, and the Human Impulse for Beauty

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“A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement.”

“True poetic form,” Edward Hirsch wrote in his wonderful meditation on how to read a poem, “implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.” James Dickey, in his guide on how to enjoy poetry, argued that “poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.” In his sublime Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the late and great Seamus Heaney asserted that poetry works to “persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness” and remind us that we are “hunters and gatherers of values.” But, surely, all these exaltations apply to good poetry — great poetry, even. The question, then, is what makes great poetry, and why does it make the human soul sing so?

Arguably the most compelling answer ever given comes from Edgar Allan Poe in his essay “The Poetic Principle,” which he penned at the end of his life. It was published posthumously in 1850 and can be found in the fantastic Library of America volume Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews (public library), which also gave us Poe’s priceless praise of marginalia.

Poe begins with an unambiguous definition of the purpose of poetry:

A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags — fails — a revulsion ensues — and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.

And yet, he argues, this isn’t necessarily how we judge poetic merit — he takes a prescient jab against our present “A for effort” cultural mindset to remind us that the measure of genius isn’t dogged time investment but actual creative quality:

It is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer deciding upon a work of Art, rather by the impression it makes — by the effect it produces — than by the time it took to impress the effect, or by the amount of “sustained effort” which had been found necessary in effecting the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing and genius quite another

(It’s interesting that he uses the term “sustained effort” more than a century and a half before the findings of modern psychology, which has upgraded the term to “deliberate practice” to illustrate the qualitative difference in the effort necessary for achieving genius-level skill.)

After discussing a couple of examples of poems that elevate the soul, Poe takes a stab at what he considers to be the most perilous cultural misconception about poetry and its aim, a fallacy that profoundly betrays the poetic spirit:

It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral; and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged. We Americans especially have patronized this happy idea; and we Bostonians, very especially, have developed it in full. We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: — but the simple fact is, that, would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified — more supremely noble than this very poem — this poem per se — this poem which is a poem and nothing more — this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.

He goes on to outline a dispositional diagram of the human mind, a kind of conceptual phrenology that segments out the trifecta of mental faculties:

Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which, in the mind, it occupies. It holds intimate relations with either extreme; but from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues themselves. Nevertheless, we find the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms: — waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity — her disproportion — her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious — in a word, to Beauty.

(I wonder whether Susan Sontag was thinking about Poe when she wrote in her diary that “intelligence … is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”)

Beauty, Poe argues, is the highest of those human drives, and the domain where poetry dwells:

An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors, and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight.

[…]

The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness — this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted — has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.

Acknowledging that the poetic sentiment may manifest itself in forms other than poetry — art, sculpture, dance, architecture — he points to music (“Music”) as an especially sublime embodiment of the Poetic Principle:

It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles — the creation of supernal Beauty. It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, attained in fact. We are often made to feel, with a shivering delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been unfamiliar to the angels. And thus there can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for the Poetic development.

(Again, I wonder whether Poe was on Susan Sontag’s mind when she wrote that “music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts,” or on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s when she exclaimed, “Without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is.”)

Poe returns to the subject of beauty as the ultimate source of this “Poetic Sentiment” in all its varied expressions with an argument that rings all the more poignant and stirring today, in an age when we question whether pleasure alone can make literature worthwhile. Poe writes:

That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the Beautiful. In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement, of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from Passion, which is the excitement of the heart. I make Beauty, therefore — using the word as inclusive of the sublime — I make Beauty the province of the poem, simply because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from their causes: — no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation in question is at least most readily attainable in the poem. It by no means follows, however, that the incitements of Passion, or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons of Truth, may not be introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they may subserve, incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the work: — but the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem.

He then offers a precise, unapologetic definition of poetry:

I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth.

[…]

While [the Poetic Principle] itself is, strictly and simply, the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty, the manifestation of the Principle is always found in an elevating excitement of the Soul — quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart — or of that Truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason. For, in regard to Passion, alas! its tendency is to degrade, rather than to elevate the Soul. Love, on the contrary — Love … is unquestionably the purest and truest of all poetical themes. And in regard to Truth — if, to be sure, through the attainment of a truth, we are led to perceive a harmony where none was apparent before, we experience, at once, the true poetical effect — but this effect is preferable to the harmony alone, and not in the least degree to the truth which merely served to render the harmony manifest.

Portrait of Poe by Benjamin Lacombe. Click image for details.

Poe ends with an exquisite living manifestation of his Poetic Principle — a sort of prose poem about poetry itself:

We shall reach, however, more immediately a distinct conception of what the true Poetry is, by mere reference to a few of the simple elements which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect He recognizes the ambrosia which nourishes his soul, in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven — in the volutes of the flower — in the clustering of low shrubberies — in the waving of the grain-fields — in the slanting of tall, Eastern trees — in the blue distance of mountains — in the grouping of clouds — in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks — in the gleaming of silver rivers — in the repose of sequestered lakes — in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds — in the harp of Æolus — in the sighing of the night-wind — in the repining voice of the forest — in the surf that complains to the shore — in the fresh breath of the woods — in the scent of the violet — in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth — in the suggestive odor that comes to him, at eventide, from far-distant, undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts — in all unworldly motives — in all holy impulses — in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He feels it in the beauty of woman — in the grace of her step — in the lustre of her eye — in the melody of her voice — in her soft laughter — in her sigh — in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments — in her burning enthusiasms — in her gentle charities — in her meek and devotional endurances — but above all — ah, far above all — he kneels to it — he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty — of her love.

Find more of Poe’s timeless wisdom in Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews and complement it with his meditation on marginalia and Lou Reed on the challenge of setting Poe to music.

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07 JANUARY, 2014

French Artist Benjamin Lacombe’s Haunting Illustrations for Poe’s Tales of the Macabre

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“Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of to-day, or the agonies which are, have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been.”

Certain types of literature readily invite gorgeous complementary artwork. Classic fairy tales, for instance, have attracted some magnificent illustrations over the centuries. But arguably the most haunting art for literary-literature is that accompanying the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Nearly a century after Harry Clarke’s remarkable 1919 illustrations and shortly after the stunning graphic novel for Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven, French artist Benjamin Lacombe illustrated Poe’s Tales of the Macabre (public library) in his signature style of gentle, eerie, endlessly evocative large-eyed creatures.

The result is nothing short of bewitching.

The Lacombe-illustrated Tales of the Macabre is an absolute treat. Complement it with Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti’s take on The Raven.

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02 DECEMBER, 2013

The Raven: Lou Reed’s Adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe, Illustrated by Italian Artist Lorenzo Mattotti

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A graphic novel “meant to be heard in the mind.”

Over the past century, illustrations and riffs on Edgar Allan Poe have ranged from Harry Clarke’s stunning 1919 illustrations to today’s parodic Amazon reviews and literary action figures. But our era’s most exquisite take on the beloved poet comes from none other than the late and great Lou Reed. In 2003, he endeavored to set Poe’s most famous stories and poems to music, unleashing his legendary composer-lyricist magic on an album that was part tribute, part remarkably inventive interpretation of Poe’s literary legacy. Alongside the record came the eponymous graphic novel The Raven (public library) — Reed’s collaboration with legendary Italian cartoonist and artist Lorenzo Mattotti, whose mesmerizing crayon pastel illustrations amplify the dark whimsy of Poe’s poetry and infuse it with the defiant eroticism of Reed’s lyrical adaptation.

Prefacing Mattotti’s art and the cast of characters is this beautiful note from Reed on how the graphic novel is intended to be read:

This is the work for the imagination; therefore I have included only audio clues, as this version is meant to be heard in the mind.

Here’s Reed’s rewrite of “The Raven”:

Once upon a midnight dreary
as I pondered, weak and weary
over many a quaint and curious
volume of forgotten lore
while I nodded, nearly napping
suddenly there came a tapping
as of some one gently rapping
rapping at my chamber door
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered
“tapping at my chamber door
only this and nothing more.”
Muttering I got up weakly
always I’ve had trouble sleeping
stumbling upright my mind racing
furtive thoughts flowing once more
I, there hoping for some sunrise
happiness would be a surprise
loneliness no longer a prize
rapping at my chamber door
seeking out the clever bore
lost in dreams forever more
only this and nothing more
Hovering my pulse was racing
stale tobacco my lips tasting
scotch sitting upon my basin
remnants of the night before
came again
infernal tapping on the door
in my mind jabbing
is it in or outside rapping
calling out to me once more
the fit and fury of Lenore
nameless here forever more
And the silken sad uncertain
rustling of the purple curtain
thrilled me, filled me
with fantastic terrors never felt before
so that now, oh wind, stood breathing
hoping yet to calm my breathing
“‘Tis some visitor entreating
entrance at my chamber door
some lost visitor entreating
entrance at my chamber door
this it is, and nothing more.”
Deep into the darkness peering
long I stood there
wondering fearing
doubting dreaming fantasies
no mortal dared to dream before
but the silence was unbroken
and the stillness gave no token
and the only word there spoken
was the whispered name, “Lenore.”
this I thought
and out loud whispered from my lips
the foul name festered
echoing itself
merely this, and nothing more
Back into my chamber turning
every nerve within me burning
when once again I heard a tapping
somewhat louder than before
“surely,” said I
surely that is something at my iron staircase
open the door to see what threat is
open the window, free the shutters
let us this mystery explore
oh, bursting heart be still this once
and let this mystery explore
it is the wind and nothing more
Just one epithet I muttered as inside
I gagged and shuddered
when with manly flirt and flutter
in there flew a stately raven
sleek and ravenous as any foe
not the least obeisance made he
not a minutes gesture towards me
of recognition or politeness
but perched above my chamber door
this fowl and salivating visage
insinuating with its knowledge
perched above my chamber door
silent sat and staring
nothing more
Askance, askew
the self’s sad fancy smiles at you I swear
at this savage viscous countenance it wears
Though you show here shorn and shaven
and I admit myself forlorn and craven
ghastly grim and ancient raven
wandering from the opiate shores
tell me what thy lordly name is
that you are not nightmare sewage
some dire powder drink or inhalation
framed from flames of downtown lore
quotes the raven, “nevermore.”
And the raven sitting lonely
staring sickly at my male sex only
that one word
as if his soul in that one word
he did outpour, “pathetic.”
nothing farther than he uttered
not a feather then he fluttered
till finally was I that muttered as I stared
dully at the floor
“other friends have flown and left me
flown as each and every hope has flown before
as you no doubt will fore the morrow.”
but the bird said, “never, more.”
Then I felt the air grow denser
perfumed from some unseen incense
as though accepting angelic intrusion
when in fact I felt collusion
before the guise of false memories respite
respite through the haze of cocaine’s glory
I smoke and smoke the blue vial’s glory
to forget
at once
the base Lenore
quoth the raven, “nevermore.”
“Prophet,” said I, “thing of evil
prophet still, if bird or devil
by that heaven that bend above us
by that God we both ignore
tell this soul with sorrow laden
willful and destructive intent
how had lapsed a pure heart lady
to the greediest of needs
sweaty arrogant dickless liar
who ascribed to nothing higher
than a jab from prick to needle
straight to betrayal and disgrace
the conscience showing not a trace.”
quoth the raven, “nevermore.”
“Be that word our sign of parting
bird or fiend,” I yelled upstarting
“get thee back into the tempest
into the smoke filled bottle’s shore
leave no black plume as a token
of the slime thy soul hath spoken
leave my loneliness unbroken
quit as those have quit before
take the talon from my heart
and see that I can care no more
whatever mattered came before
I vanish with the dead Lenore.”
quoth the raven, “nevermore.”
But the raven, never flitting
still is sitting silent sitting
above a painting silent painting
of the forever silenced whore
and his eyes have all the seeming
of a demon’s that is dreaming
and the lamplight over him
streaming throws his shadow to the floor
I love she who hates me more
I love she who hates me more
and my soul shall not be lifted from that shadow
nevermore

In one of his last interviews, Reed discusses the challenges of making the album and the joy of his collaboration with Mattotti:

The trouble with Poe was that his language is so serious — the vocabulary — the words he’s using — some of those words were arcane when he used them — and then, architectural terms from Greece. And I, dutifully sitting there with the dictionary, looking all of this up and thinking, certainly, in a song or on the album I don’t want to have [things like this] in there — you can just as easily use a word someone knows what it means. … For him, great. For me, no. I spent most of the time translating them into English before even starting, but I couldn’t wait to rewrite “The Raven,” the poem. Mine is like a contemporary version of it, and we have a graphic novel out … illustrated by this great Italian artist, Lorenzo Mattotti. … Making things that are beautiful is real fun.

The Raven is exquisite to behold, both visually and lyrically. You can sample the album, which is an absolute masterpiece of literary adaptation, below:

Images courtesy of Galerie Martel

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