Music and Lyric: On Poe’s Poetry

By Ava KofmanNovember 14, 2014

The Poet Edgar Allan Poe by Jerome McGann

I thank you as another reader would thank you for this vivid writing, this power which is felt! Your “Raven” has produced a sensation, a “fit horror,” here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music.

— Poet Elizabeth Barrett Barrett in an 1846 letter to Poe

EDGAR ALLEN POE's lasting influence on both popular culture and high modernism long disoriented literary critics. Was Poe massively popular in spite of his starving, solitary genius? Or did he pen hack-machinist pulp? His position at the limits of mass culture — never quite insider or outsider — led to his uneven and delayed critical acceptance.

But while the influence of his prose is now indisputable even to his detractors, his poetry, particularly in America, often leaves critics cold. At best, Poe is pegged as a major writer with a minor poetical range, what scholar Jerome McGann calls a “persistent academic annoyance.” McGann’s new study The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel promises to save Poe’s poetry from this dire critical fate — one that began, he suggests, when Emerson called Poe the “jingle man.” His aim is ambitious: to give Poe’s poetry academic significance, to establish both its aesthetic appeal and its political relevance.

As Edmund Wilson does in his appreciative essay “Poe at Home and Abroad,” McGann figures Poe’s work as the suspension bridge across the chasm separating romanticism and modernism. He situates Poe’s work alongside and against the romantic poetry of Keats, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth; evaluates Poe’s sonic influence on the writing of Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Baudelaire; and, expands upon Eliot’s essay “From Poe to Valéry” to trace the influence of Poe’s critique of the romantic “I” through symbolism into high modern elasticism, and then, into language poetry and the latest work of Charles Bernstein. He demonstrates Poe’s unquestionable impact on the way Americans thought about poetry and the way poetry thought about itself.

McGann returns to Poe’s effect on the culture of his own time — a line of inquiry he followed in Poe and the Remapping of Antebellum Print Culture, which he edited with J. Gerald Kennedy, and which situates the conditions of possibility for Poe’s writing in the predatory print economy of antebellum magazine culture, its decentralized technologies of distribution, and its nascent communities of readers.

This prior collection makes clear that Poe’s theorizing about his own works of their conditions of production is inextricably related to his painstaking attention to literature’s effects on what he called the “common sense of the public.” This public is all but effaced, however, in McGann’s new monograph, which fails to even mention the unregulated print industry through which Poe’s poetry circulated. Instead, McGann here frames his argument as a response to Yvor Winters’s negative critique of Poe’s poetics in his essay “Edgar Allan Poe: A Crisis in the History of American Obscurantism.” Winters characterizes Poe’s poetry as devoid of “subject-matter,” but McGann argues that poesis, for Poe, is not in the what but the how. Unlike his fictional detective Dupin, Poe is not interested in truth, some bare casket of bones, but in truth-effects: the way truth is made to sound, the way it is perceived. His procedural aesthetics emerge not out of skepticism or cynicism (though Poe’s work is rife with both) but out of a concern for the texture, the mechanism, and the detail through which something is worked out. He is interested in the thing not in itself, but as it appears. Poe’s oft-quoted statement on these procedural aesthetics is “The Philosophy of Composition,” which McGann quotes at length for its famous articulation of the “unity of effect.” Poe’s essay, while it does explain some of his poetic principles, is also a bit of a hoax — a performance of virtuosity to show readers the secret formula behind the smash success of “The Raven”; it is as much Poe’s effort to retroactively project a fantasy of authorial control as it is a serious theory.

In it, the playfully pedantic Poe condemns “the didactic heresy,” which “urges readers to bypass the immediate morphemic and phonetic presence of words in order to traffic instead with their least musical elements, their abstract and/or referred meanings.” McGann points to this as evidence of Poe’s delight in the brute, acoustical sound of his poetry, and thereby its sentimental currents, arguing that the “rhythmical creation of beauty,” rather than meaning, is Poe’s poetical object and intention.

The central tension in Poe’s work for McGann is between the ratiocinative and the fantastical — that is, between cold, mechanical sense and mournful, harmonious sounds. As Poe himself avers in another mock-serious essay, “The Poetic Principle”:

He must be blind, indeed, who does not perceive the radical and chasmal differences between the truthful and the poetical modes of inculcation. He must be theory-mad beyond redemption who, in spite of these differences, shall still persist in attempting to reconcile the obstinate oils and waters of Poetry and Truth. […] 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.

McGann presses on Poe’s phrase “most nearly attains” as evidence of Poe’s understanding of his poetry encountering its own limits. His harmony, McGann warns, should not be confused with perfect music. Figuration necessarily ends in failure. Or, as McGann asserts, by way of Dante: the mirror of art is always cracked; Beauty, Truth, and the other Platonic forms of harmonic composition disintegrate.

In “The Rationale of Verse,” Poe explains at voluble length how versification alters, confines, and convolutes access to poetry. Veering toward nonsense, the essay itself engages in “the gross confusion and antagonism of the scholastic prosody” it seeks to deride. McGann pushes past the essay’s send-up of the “pedants of versification” in an effort to recover its positive contributions to prosody. Drawing on the work of acoustic-learning scholar Christopher Aruffo, McGann argues that we should take seriously Poe’s insistence on poetry as oral performance.

Poe’s prosodic indeterminacy — some of his works read as nursery rhyme jingles, others as approximations of the rhythms of ordinary speech — lends itself to a multiplicity of readings, depending on the starting point for a given reader’s interpretation. For McGann, Poe’s attention to devices and his creation of devices to hold the reader’s attention call on the reader’s critical capacities. But while McGann suggests this engages readers politically, he doesn’t develop the notion except by arguing that the poems stage events to encourage the reader’s affective responses to unfold. It is unclear what, exactly, the politics (a term not defined in his argument) emerging out of solitary scenes of reading would look like, especially when so little historical attention is given to contemporary experiences of reading, writing, and performing poetry.

Instead, McGann’s formalist focus on the work’s effect on “the Reader” takes for granted that a single, well-understood form of reading is shared between readers. While McGann is right to remind us about poetry’s performative aspects, he neglects to analyze how Poe’s public performances were, at the time, actually received and how his poetry traveled through networks of transatlantic readers. How and by whom read and performed poetry at the time? How might we recover some of the heterogeneous forms of its reception? What types and fantasies of agency were encoded in these scenes of reading?

Poe’s penchant for the energetic exegetics of publicity, most evident in his hoaxes and hoax-essays, extended to his poetry as well. He gravitated always toward controversy, and performances of his poetry were no exception. Following his success with “The Raven” in 1845, Poe caused a stir when he proceeded to read “Al Aaraaf,” instead of a new poem, at the Boston Lyceum. In addition to being one of Poe’s most difficult poems, “Al Aaraaf” was a piece of juvenilia. Poe admitted as much after the reading, when he scandalously suggested over a bottle of champagne that he had written the piece at the age of 12, thus insulting the intelligence of his Boston audience.

Or consider “The Raven.” As in McGann’s book, it can be read as a melody on mourning and melancholia. Or it can be read as a comment on the perversity of reprint culture in the age of the machine. Its refrain, “nevermore,” spread across the Eastern seaboard like a pre-internet meme. Choosing affect over meaning, as McGann does, or vice versa, as he claims his straw man Winters does, obscures important features of Poe’s historical horizon, leading us to misunderstand both his romanticism and his mechanism, as well as the largely unregulated print industry of which he was a part. Poe’s creation of catchy, melodic poems like “The Raven,” “The Bells,” and “Annabel Lee” must be understood in the context of the mass distribution of texts, where a catchy, musical refrain produced the highest potential for going viral.

As Meredith McGill argues in her groundbreaking study, American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting: 1834–1853, Poe’s aesthetic eclecticism was the hallmark, rather than a quirk, of an emergent mass magazine market that sought to address as many readers as possible with as many means as were available. In the absence of an intellectual property law, reprinting texts was the norm. Literary periodicals in the US made almost no money in a market dominated by cheap reprints of books from Britain. Poe’s poetic experiments with these dislocations of space, identity, and modes of address are, McGill shows, extraordinary instances of ordinary practice.

For instance, Poe’s turn away from the romantic “I” and individual imagination is not solely, as McGann posits, the case of a tortured soul critiquing celebratory humanism. Poe may have been isolated, but his isolation was not from the printing industry, where he worked as a typesetter, editor, writer, and, briefly, publisher. His strategies of narration were canny and cunning attempts to make his work palatable to its heterogeneous media ecologies. Unlike Emerson’s notion of singular genius, Poe distributes, dislocates, and deprioritizes subjectivity. And this dislocation was already a fundamental understanding of writing during this era: writing was recognized as a series of unstable reproductions, not as the expression of individual authorship.

McGann rightly points out Poe’s poetic reflexivity and infatuation with artifice, but reads it as a commentary on the inevitable falsity of art; McGill, instead, posits that these “fictions that refer the reader primarily to themselves for their authority” are designed to deflect and redirect our desire for context, sending the reader to the inside of the text itself.

Poe’s tireless desire for provocation, the dialectic of sound and sense animated across his work, the algorithmic posturing in “The Rationale of Verse,” his arch and performative yet earnest aesthetic theories, his allegiance to both the mathematical and the poetical — these cannot now be reduced to a simple romanticism or any other unitary reading.

Like his Detective Dupin, he was unwilling to invest either deduction or intuition with absolute authority. Poe is both “poet and mathematician.” One can read “The Philosophy of Composition” as implying that creation may as well be delegated to brain-like machines, impressive instruments of rationality such as the touring mechanical chess player popular at the time; or, on the contrary, one could read it as a clever hoax that mocked such technology, even while it attempted to compete with its awesome effects. The same goes for “The Rationale of Verse,” which as McGann points out, reads like a Rube Goldberg machine, more pyrotechnic dazzle than rigorously technical. It is this complex relation to these present cultural preoccupations — not, as McGann would have it, to his romantic forebears — that makes Poe the “alien angel” of McGann’s subtitle: a brilliant extraterrestrial, but one very much on the earth, and an angelic musician, perhaps, but one hovering over a distinctly American horizon.


Ava Kofman is a writer living in Brooklyn.

LARB Contributor

Ava Kofman is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Jacobin Magazine and on and, among other publications. @eyywa.


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