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Su Zi


(For Alfred)

Edgar Allen Poe, Oh-Poe is established as foundational in American literature, as a classic of the New Voice that has hallmarked the reverberative roar of American artistic influence, but his legacy is one that is gravely compressed: most textbooks will feature a work of prose and a poem–usually “The Raven”–and texts for the lower levels will also feature illustrations that are as lurid as 1950s science fiction cinema posters. Instructional editions for secondary education put more emphasis on an unfortunately short life than they do on brief comments reducing Poe’s work to that of America’s brief Gothic tradition. Although Poe still appears in classrooms, his is a legacy that is now a cliché of corvids and black lipstick, an autumn lesson that is augmented by store displays for Halloween. It is more than unfortunate that scholastic views of Poe have been mostly reduced to either emotive demonstrations, or as an opportunity for evidence of classical allusion in poetry.

It might just be that this truncation of pleasure offered by Poe to our descendant culture is born of sacrifice to standardized testing in public educational institutions; it might be that miserly offerings in collegiate anthologies are the result of Committee written Curriculum of texts overall, it might be that attention that might be paid to Poe in advanced work is still constrained by the Overview of buffet anthology style of syllabus design–always also segregated by the Corset of region or historical time–and, alas, professorial prejudice, but even advanced readers stumble over Poe, tumble over the density of his sentencing, and stagger about or his deft use of tore.

Given Poe’s position in American literary history, it is sad, ever pathetic, that a crucial aspect of his work has been so consistently overlooked his sly and distinctive use of humor.

Humor is, at its core, a moment of shared perspective. There’s an inherent similarity between the “Aha” of philosophical enlightenment and the “Ha Ha” response of a joke–in both cases, the listener is electrified with the bolt of an unexpected idea, and atingle with the immediate internalization of that current of thought coming to ground. Since Poe was prolific, it’s not difficult to find roaring examples of absurdist humor that delights still, and which then and now are groundwork for whole movements in literature, in painting, in cinema, in music. Still, the tendency is to be overly convinced of Poe’s work as a sermon of a serious mind, and to overlook the joy of his jokes.

It might be that a further look into two of his pieces might yield an even more profound respect for Poe’s brilliance, and greater appreciation overall. Certainly, even secondary students who have been pointed toward the more physical aspects of Poe’s humor find a satisfaction, a first flower of critical euphoria that is far superior to the deflated disappointment offered by standardized views. Undergraduates, although often resentful of how Poe illuminates lapses in their reading level, will find in Poe an increased sensitivity to language, structure, setting that can carry them to increased critical ability overall.

In this direction, allow a rereading of “To Helen”–three stanzas of five lines with an interesting rhyme structure: specifically, the introduction of a shift in line 9 of the large vowel.

Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicean barks of yore,

That gerity, o’er perfumed sea,

The weary, way-worn wandered bore

To his own native shore.


On desperate seas long wont to roam,

Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,

Thy Naiad airs have brought me home

To the glory that was Greece,

And the grandeur that was Rome.


Lo! In yon brilliant window-niche

How statue-like see thee stand,

The agate lamp within thy hard

Ah, Psyche, from the regions which

Are Holy-Land!

Depending on pronunciation, this longe appears to repeat the rhyme in lines 1 and 3, and echoed in line 11, however, if the vowel of “Greece” is felt as a rhyme with “niche”, then it is unlikely to rhyme with the “which” in line 14. This jarring of the rhyme unsettles the ear, and might be seen as a bit of a poke for whoever slept through the quadruple alliteration in line 3 of “weary, way-worn wanderer”. Having established the poem as one of direct address in the first line, the aural sense of this alliteration is of breath, of breathing: Poe is breathing on Helen. Whether or not modern courting techniques have undergone modification in subsequent centuries, biology hasn’t–breathing a bit much tends to indicate some rise in internal physical pressure. Poe is breathing a bit heavily or Helen here. While this may or may not amuse, Poe is also fairly thorough or his classical allusions here–so much so that the poem has become a favorite of instructors of literature as an illustration of that device. Given the direct address of the poem, and the references to flowers, seductive mythic females, and ancient civilizations, Poe’s technique here is that dark Comedic trick of hyperbole–a technique still used in verbal foreplay. While a hormonal infusion will put a glow around object of passion, Poe’s choices here are absurdly elevated–any view of Baltimore (or any of Poe’s cities of residence) are rarely of glory or grandeur; however, the occurrence of three consonant Gs within two lines, a continental rhyme, once again gives an aural effect of verbalized breath, of grunting. It is at this point, Poe gives us the poem’s most concrete image of a woman standing in a window holding a lamp, specifically an “agate lamp”, which has not much color but which makes for rice assonance with “hand”, so that the focus is or her hand. The point of view here is amusing–the Voice of the poem is on the other side of the Window, he is Outside. Despite the intimacies of the previous thirteen lines, the voice of the poem is not in physical proximity to the inspiration for these devotions. In modern parlance, he could be stalking her, or otherwise viewing her vicariously. The poem closes with two lines of introspection from the point of view of the poem’s vision, and a charge in direct address to that of thought, or Psyche. The charge in direct address is the clue to the purch line, so to speak: “the regions / which Are Holy-land!”. While line 15 end line rhymes with that of line 13’s “hard”, the meter climaxes with four syllables and two stresses. Poe literally climaxes the poem with a bit of blasphemy.

While the humor in “To Helen” might not be of the rough and nasty variety that is vogue at the time of this rereading, still it serves everyone to be aware of the breathing, grunting and blasphemy inspired by the poem’s person of direct address. The humor here is assly as Poe’s structure: subtle in shifts of rhyme, aural, allusive, and complicated in a meter that suggest symbolic structures. This sort of humor-slightly wicked-is not a Corsisteritstance in Poe’s work, although humor is present in all of his writings, both prose and poetic inform. Poe seems to wary the tone of his humor to suit his topic, as a form of emphasis of his point; it may well be that the reader insensate to the “Ha” might still get the “Aha,” but without the lilt of laughter.

But ah, it might be that an inflexible reader, a puff of wooden importance, might still laze about with dismissive gestures about Poe’s mere romantic tones. Generic summations of romanticism emphasize the sensate as incertive for the swells of narrative plot, but such similar claims are applied by to a synopsis too of the Symbolists, as well as to their “successors” the Surrealists—once again, shuttling off vibrant poems to some old folks home of historical literature. Given the cultural influence of the post atomic age, even an acknowledgment of these days of techno-barbarism, Allow then a rereading of Poe’s “Sonnet-To Science”:

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!

  Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

  Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,

  Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering

To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,

  Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,

  And driven the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star?

  Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,

The Elfin from the green grass, and from me

The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

Once again, Poe uses direct address in his first line, lestthätsimplest point be clouded. Here, Poe’s tore is more bitter, as evidenced by his harsh verb choices in lines 2 and 3 of “alterest” and “preyest”. In case the violence of these verbs is missed, Poe directly addresses the poem’s object with the pejorative “Vulture” at the beginning of line 4, and Continues with line 5 “How should he love thee?”. The point of view here is an attempt to love something unsavory, potentially repugnant. Poe does not ask how could, but instead asks how should he takes on science’s very point of view-an inspection of the unlovely. Poe enumerates Science’s misdeeds by Once again using widlentwerbs:”dragged Diane”, “driven the Hamadryad”, “torn the Naiad” in conjunction with the lofty sense given by the allusions.

Obviously, the energetic verb choices here give Poe a tone of passion consistent with his Carlor; however, his wry laughter is still present. Consider the poem’s adept conclusion, that begins online 2 and is signaled by the slant rhyme of “flood”, which ought to match the vowel of line IO’s “wood” but does not. A first glance yields the standard rhyming couplet of the end two lines, but the difficulty of construction has “torn”working in appositive constructions still enumerating science’s misdeeds. Softly enough, Poe utilizes “Elfin”, and the allusions in the poem bear the weight of this reference, except for the implication of elfin as being similar to children. Poe’s accusations now include the destruction of childhood’s innocence, and yet he continues or with a reference to his own self for the poem’s concluding note. By now, “torn” is operative for the last line, which sings an assonance of vowels, including the alliterative “tamarind tree”. The image is of a drowsy mind in a pleasant position being forcefully removed, and a modern mind might speculate or how Poe would view deforestation. Yet, there’s much afoot the use of tamarind tree, for its allusion is to that of the Budda, as tamarind is native to the Budda’s geographical origins. Poe’s posited dichotomy is of science versus spirit- an argument that rages Centuries later, however, Poe is positioning himself as Budda, and one  treated with violence. The humor here is far more dark, a sort of self-deprecating hyperbole. Given that Science is an activity, a mode of thought, Poe’s accusations to Science are absurd-therein the bitter laugh: Science is a Criminal of no substance, but much afoul is done in its name. This humor might strike some as jaded, but it accomplishes the goal of understanding, of a seen point of view. Although Science was a new citizen of the western Culture in Poe’s time, his view of it is presentiert from a modern context. It is a more macabre laugh in modern times for our “Ha Ha,” as our polluted waters sully the Naiad realms, but “Aha” is certainly present.

And yes, it might still be that Poe’s language alone is too much of a challenge for the ear all too accustomed to the computerized beat box prosaic to the modern soundscape. In a culture of crude questions that quantify inquiries into multiple guess responses for supposedly educated thinking, and mob response for the not more than sensate populace, such turns of phrase are not even tackled by the most masterfully adept griots of the flickering media.

But ah, let the lower of literature succumb once again to the sensual sweep of Poe’s language, and yet singer wiser eyes on his gift to letters. While the work of Poe has been given a place in history, and Poe himself credited with the invention of genres still in use, Poe’s influence or art- already acknowledged to Symbolism, Horror, Surrealism but also thus to the connective ligaments of the modern body of thought, the influential sweep of DaDa, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism-car be tied to his dark humor. Ary modern viewer of the paintings of Ivan Albright or of German Expressionism, is viewing the progeny of Poe, Additionally, and perhaps more obviously, is the influence Poe has had or our modern griots: Comediaris. Certainly, the self-deprecation, the cynicism, the hyperbole evidenced in Poe’s work are easily found in a pantheon of Comediaris. While modern allusions have charged, the rhyme of rap music and its jaded point of view have antecedents in Poe. We owe Poe, and we owe far more than is offered in reductionist textbooks, flyover anthologies, and emo-oriented Pinterest offerings. His is a prepotency that has influenced far more in western Culture than is currently credited. If finding the jokes is a step toward acknowledging that potency, then it’s one that ought to be both taken and taught.