Poetry has to me never been what I have so often heard called a problem, and that was so for the simplest of reasons: It was never presented to me as a problem until I was advanced in school, after which it was reformulated as a target of incomprehending odium by students whose insensibility had been reinforced by their “education.”  But back in the day, poetry was presented to me as the experience (not the label) of delight and wonder.  A considerable portion of my mother’s library was poetry, and an aunt recited poetry by Housman, which she had effortlessly memorized.  An uncle of mine thought nothing of citing and quoting Milton’s sonnet on his blindness—I mean Milton’s blindness, not my uncle’s, and by the way, Milton was the poet’s last name—and he was a mathematically gifted navigator in the Air Force (my uncle, I mean, not Milton).

A teenaged peer of mine revised the last line of that same poem as a new poem, “At the Buffet”: “They also wait who stand to be served.”  I heard all sorts of poems quoted and recited, Shakespeare, Lovelace, Herrick, Pope, Browning, Tennyson, Dickinson, Kipling, Eliot, and so on—this, as I said, not only from adults but also from youthful peers.  Later, I understood that poetry was in effect a mnemonic device, and that made sense.  And I began to understand that history is the story of the displacement of poetry from the center of culture, and that therefore the story of poetry is one of the great topics of study, possibly even the greatest when we remember that religion and philosophy and history and even science were once poetically expressed.  We can hardly do better than to escape the limits of our own time, unless it is to escape the limits of our own language, as even I, with no gift in that direction, have clumsily done in Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, and German.  (I wish I had done more and better.)

Such was my experience of poetry, but it was not repeated—the joy was somehow confined—when I went over the familiar works in the classroom from the other side of the desk.  It seemed that members of the succeeding generations were baffled by verse.  Young people seemed unfamiliar with, puzzled by, and even hostile to poetry—yet those same students knew who Poe was and had actually heard of him.  After all, he was the only poet whose name is three fourths of the word poet.  Did he have to draw you a picture?  With a name like that, the guy was in for it, which resulted in the present embarrassment, and I don’t mean of riches.  Edgar Allan Poe and his work are of central importance in our cultural history, as even the latest subliterate generation is aware, but while it is remarkable how easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting the poetry of Poe is, it is even more remarkable how we have failed to come to terms with the elusive Mr. Poe and his famous compositions, and therefore with ourselves.  In America, Poe is a big promblem, but in France he was long ago the solution.  The story of our displaced reception of Poe in modern poetry received through the psychedelic lens of French symbolist poetry is well known, but I wouldn’t recommend telling anyone in the eighth grade.  It’s at this point of need, and many another, that Professor McGann offers to be of service.

Now before I dictate any sort of evaluation of McGann’s tome or monograph, I want to try to describe it, because the book is remarkable in several ways.  In the first place, it is not a scholarly treatment in the obvious sense, even though it does have footnotes, a bibliography, and an index.  It is rather idiosyncratic to a fault, in more than one way.  It is narrow in the sense of exclusive—McGann doesn’t bother with the record but simply takes what he wants and leaves everything else out.  I am not saying I have any objection to this, but some of the omissions are rather gapingly big.  I didn’t see any mention of Allen Tate on Poe and the “Angelic Imagination,” which I have always thought made a difference in our ability to read “Annabel Lee,” for one thing.  I didn’t see any mention of Daniel Hoffman’s Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, which is an indispensable book, I should have thought.  (I have never forgotten Mr. Hoffman’s suggestion that Roderick Usher had to bury his sister alive because, well, an artist needs a poetical topic, like the death of a beautiful woman!)  Nor did I see any mention of much of the biographical work done in the last generation (not that I really care).  I could cite other examples, but perhaps the point is made.  Not that I fault him on the matter, but he didn’t sufficiently emphasize the “sorrow for the lost Lenore”—a memorable or immemorial phrase.  I met only one Lenore in a lifetime, and she wasn’t lost—I noticed.  I had been waiting—I had to be.

Not that I fault him on the matter, but there is another idiosyncratic point about McGann’s take on Poe.  His attack on Poe is framed around Poe’s best and best-known (though not best-comprehended) poems.  That’s why the term monograph came to mind.  We are talking about the obvious ones: “Al Aaraaf,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” “The City in the Sea,” “The Conqueror Worm,” “Dreamland,” “El Dorado,” “The Haunted Palace,” “Israfel,” “The Raven,” “The Sleeper,” “Sonnet—To Science,” “Tamerlane,” “To Helen,” “Ulalume”; and of course, Eureka, not a poem, is called one.

Idiosyncratically enough, the vehicle of McGann’s argument is a prose style that has what we may call transumptive moments.  He makes leaps in tone or logic that are challenging, arbitrary, or difficult, perhaps because he is trying to reflect the difficulties that Poe presents us with.  He likes the noun move to represent whatever he may mean by that word (rhetorical device? choice of subject? procedure? transition?), rather than its more assimilable association either with the realm of Terpsichore, or the square circle of the Sweet Science, or U-Haul.

But getting away from Poe in lateral considerations, McGann seems a bit arbitrary in his expositions.  He actually thinks that his frequent mention of Emerson means Emerson is to be taken seriously, and he is not alone in that belief.  But I never think about Emerson, who wrote exactly two good poems, unless of course I am conniving to marry a consumptive heiress, and then I always do think of him.  Jerome McGann also apparently takes Whitman seriously, without acknowledging the wheezingly crippling limitations of that sometimes inspired, sometimes expired, but always syntactically challenged gasbag.

Not having faulted the professor, I remain to praise him.  Though the general reader might flinch as much as, or more than, I have, McGann’s view of Poe does rise to the occasion—it teaches us something, and it teaches us a lot of what we need to know, even if we do not realize it, or even particularly so in such a case.  His treatment of “The Raven” is most valuable, but when we consider first that it is the most famous of American poems, and second, that hardly anyone knows what it says or means, then it is invaluable.  His treatment of “Ulalume” gave me not only what I didn’t have, but also what I didn’t know that I didn’t have.

Professor McGann doesn’t indicate that the first line of the second stanza of “To Helen” is a dangling construction, and I wish he had.  But he is the only writer on Poe that I know of who can impress us with his comments on “The Sleeper.”  So then without a prepared transition, I would in an idiosyncratic rhapsody compare this book to a sophisticated analysis of the films of Douglas Sirk.  Such an account of All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels and Imitation of Life would insist that the heightened presentation of American vulgarity is not an example, but rather a dramatization and critique, of what is wrong with that vulgarity.  In this country, what else could we expect?  What more would we ask for?


[The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel, by Jerome McGann (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 241 pp.; $24.95]