Poetry Friday: Edgar Allan Poe. When he was good, he was very very good, but when he was bad…

h1 October 31st, 2008 by eisha

Oooooohhh…… he was really quite entertainingly bad.

I don’t mean to offend any Poe fans out there. I mean, I love “The Raven” as much as anybody. And I thought of Poe today, not just because of Halloween and all things spooky, but because last weekend while digging around for my high school senior photos, I also found a pretty hilarious picture of my (future) husband and myself dressed as the Ushers for a Poe-themed party given by the Humanities department at our college. No, I’m not sharing that one.

Anyway. The thing is, while Poe definitely had a real talent for meter and rhyme, and a brilliant imagination… dude could sometimes stray pretty far into Melodramaville. Sometimes he was downright emo, even for a Victorian. Take this poem, “To — — –. Ulalume: A Ballad.” I mean, he even had to make the title mysterious making it clear it’s dedicated to somebody but he’s not saying who.

The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crispèd and sere—
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year;
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir—
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

Okay, pretty good so far, right? He’s doing what he does best: setting a spooky, supernatural tone; and that repetitive thing he’s doing is almost like a chant – maybe an invocation, maybe a talisman against some sort of malevolent power – which adds another layer of mysticism to the mix.

But read on.

We find he’s strolling with his personified Soul (named Psyche, natch), and against her advice he starts following a mysterious light. There are rhymes that involve “volcanic” and “Mount Yaanek;” not to mention “senescent,” “liquescent” and “crescent.” It’s hard at that point for me to even follow the plot of the poem because I keep getting distracted by his mad rhyming skillz. There’s a big build-up, and then the big reveal at the end – a grave. Which he buried his beloved Ulalume (rhymes with “tomb” AND “gloom”) in a year before.

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crispèd and sere—
As the leaves that were withering and sere,
And I cried—”It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed—I journeyed down here—
That I brought a dread burden down here—
On this night of all nights in the year,
Oh, what demon has tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber—
This misty mid region of Weir—
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber—
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

Then he speculates that the “woodlandish ghouls” have been messing with his mind. And… that’s it. Poem over. It seems like a let-down to me. He works awfully hard to craft a mysterious mood and building up a tension in the narrative, but then it just fizzles out. It’s especially disappointing when you compare it to some of his brilliant short story endings, like “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Cask of Amontillado.” I mean, TTH scared me so bad when my 4th grade teacher played a record of it (complete with sound effects) for Halloween that I had to hide my alarm clock in the closet for months.

But for some reason, maybe because of the extreme melodrama and the wacky word choices, I still find this poem entertaining. Not something that begs to be committed to memory like “The Raven” or “Annabel Lee.” or read aloud for solemn occasions or anything. No, it’s more along the lines of watching an Ed Wood movie. You admire the imagination and the passion, even while giggling over the more obvious attempts to manipulate the audience’s emotions. Works as a cautionary tale, too: even the great writers fall short of the goal sometimes. And for a writer, what’s scarier than that?

* * * * * * *

Happy Halloween! And do check out the Poetry Friday round-up at Sylvia Vardell’s blog Poetry for Children.

17 comments to “Poetry Friday: Edgar Allan Poe. When he was good, he was very very good, but when he was bad…”

  1. Is it just me, or did parts of that poem sound Seussian?

    “That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
    In the realms of the boreal pole. ”

    I was thinking zombie Sneetches would pop up….

  2. I confess I am a major fan of Poe (or, as we call them here in the Deep South, a Poe Boy *cough*).

    A terrific book: Daniel Hoffman’s Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (that’s seven Poe’s). I read it for the first time when the junior English class I was teaching was caught up in Poe — found it in the library — and was deliriously happy a few years ago when I found it in paperback. So I now have My Very Own Copy. (Here‘s the Amazon link — it’s got the “look inside” feature turned on. The Kirkus review is a pretty good summary.)

    Poe is almost hilariously obsessive about his rhymes and meter. That Yanneck/Auber/Weir stuff — really, kind of a stretch. (Like Sara says, Seussian. Or Ogden Nashish.) Heck, who CAN’T write rhyming poetry if they’re allowed to make up their own words?!?

    But d*mn, the guy sure knew how to hammer a rhythm into the brain. After you read his poetry for a while, you can almost empathize with the feverish state of mind which drives the characters in many of his stories — the rhythms of his poetry are maddening.

    Great choice for Poetry Friday. (And the image selection couldn’t have been better!)

    P.S. Do you have a favorite illustrated edition of Poe’s stuff, by any chance?

  3. Eisha, Somehow I’d never read this one, although I guess it’s probably not one of the ones that usually hits anthologies, eh?

    My mother used to play a TTH record every year at Halloween; I LOVED that thing. The flip side had this great story about a ghost train. I wish I still had it.

    Sara, I’m thinking I have to get someone to draw up some zombie Sneetches for me to decorate the children’s room with next year. Wouldn’t that be fun?

    JES, “Poe boy,” go on. Tee, hee.

  4. “Sometimes he was downright emo, even for a Victorian.”

    Best. description. of. Poe. EVER.

  5. Sara, good call! It is Seussian. You know, some Zombie Sneetches have no scars upon thars.

    JES, yeah, he’s a master of the catchy rhythm. As far as illustrated editions, there’s one for kids in the Poetry for Young People series, edited by Brod Bagert and illustrated by Carolynn Cobleigh that I remember liking, but I haven’t seen it in a while. I notice Gris Grimly has done one, too – he’s generally fun in a Tim-Burton-for-kids way, but I haven’t seen it in person. There’s one I saw ages ago in B&N, and it had black & white spooky illustrations – maybe even woodcuts – but I can’t find it online. Boo.

    Thanks, Dana. But he was.

  6. Love the explication, as much as the poem. Thanks for participating in Poetry Friday at my blog this week. Stop by any time…

  7. May I recommend to you Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Poe, Poe: A Life Cut Short. It’s not very long (!) but it’s very accessible and has some interesting insights into his writing as well as his life.

    Judith, who shares a birthday with EAP

  8. Oops! Managed to spell my own name incorrectly!

  9. This is all too much like watching the most recent M. Night Shyamalan movie the other night, which was not supposed to be a comedy, but I digress.

  10. With the repeated lines, it almost sounds like this was a draft, and those were either/or options (I mean, why rhyme “sere” with “sere” and restate the same damn thought? Etc., etc., throughout the poem.) Then again, Poe had a substance abuse problem, methinks, so perhaps his judgment was clouded.

  11. Kelly’s comment/insight explains everything for me!

  12. “no scars upon thars.” hee.

  13. adrienne, OMG, I bet it’s the same record. If I ever come over again you have to promise to hide it in the closet while I’m there. Better yet, the freezer.

    Sylvia, thanks, but this poem doesn’t give very stiff competition.

    Misrule, thanks! I’ll look for that. Poor man, he did have a pitiful life.

    Jules, my sister totally gave away the “twist” on the phone with me last night when she was complaining about it too.

    Kelly, good call – this poem has “laudanum” written all over it.

    Mary Lee, ditto.

  14. There was a “twist”? I didn’t even see said twist …it was THAT bad. He needs to STOP MAKING MOVIES WITH TWISTS.

  15. […] weekly around-the-Web Poetry Friday, the folks at the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog offered up Poe’s weird — and kind of forced — “Ulalume” (full title “To […]

  16. […] at 7-Imp: One of Edgar Allan Poe’s worst poems […]

  17. Thanks for the cool info about Poe! Too Shy to Stop writer Samantha Harvey just wrote a detailed piece about Nevermore 2009, the year-long Poe festival in Baltimore. You can read the article here.

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