Saturday, February 12, 2011

Poe's (Ir)Rational Artist in The Philosophy of Composition

My American literature survey class is starting to breathe easier.  We are out of the 17th and 18th centuries with the dominance of personal narratives, sermons, and devotional poetry.  We have moved into the beginnings of short fiction.  Most importantly, we have been reading Poe.  Students love Poe.

As part of our three-days binge on Poe (along with Emerson, Poe is the one writer that I devote multiple days to in the course), I ask students to read "The Philosophy of Composition" (originally published in 1846).  Early in the essay, he writes, "I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would -- that is to say who could -- detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion."  (Poe's thinking here puts me in mind of Mark Twain's "How to Tell a Story" or, in another way, the addendum to Puddn'head Wilson, "Those Extraordinary Twins," but that is another topic for some other day.)  The essay gives a tightly focused description of the process behind Poe's "The Raven" and offers a look into the writer's exceedingly careful approach to story telling.  I have taught the piece before, but this time I had a rather strange reaction to it.

Like many of Poe's narrators, the speaker in this piece presents a picture of obsession.  That picture is, I think, a counter to our impressions of Poe as a tortured artist, as a writer given to excess and who meets the most stereotypical image of the romantic writer who gives himself over to the depths of emotion both within his life and the life of his characters.  Here we have Poe's very careful, even methodical and rational approach to setting the effects of his poem.  While the narrator in "The Raven" struggles to make his way through a world now dark because of the death of his lovely Lenore ("Nameless here for evermore"), the description of the creative process in "The Philosophy..." is strident in its care and focus on bringing a reader to a full aesthetic experience prompted by grief.  The whole description follows a direct path from a notion of the denouement ("Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth its name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen.") to the strategies for assuring the final effect.  In essence, Poe seems to be arguing against the organic quality of the creative process and, instead, arguing for the intensity of explicit planning during each step of composition.  How unromantic of him.

Yet, this is also in keeping with the obsessive quality of his most crazed narrators.  The cool and obsessive planning and the careful and intricate plotting seem to unite the writer Poe with his creations.  And that might just be the main point here -- that the seeming logic and rational approach to composition is, in reality, one more example of the obsessive nature.  And what seems inconsistent and atypical actually offers a complete identification of the writer (through the description of his writing process) with his damaged narrators.

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