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January 19, 2009

On Poe's 200th anniversary: Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne RobinsonWhat better way to begin the 200th anniversary celebration of Edgar Allan Poe's birth than the words of author Marilynne Robinson, who won the Pulitzer prize for Gilead. Her wonderful guest post describes how he inspired her to think about the written word (for more on Poe, see the Read Street archives.):

There were times in my girlhood when an engrossing need to write poetry arose in me. The occasion and the subject were usually a storm. These episodes never yielded anything of much interest. In fact the dozen lines I could manage before the mood passed always disappointed me, and I hid them from myself and never looked at them again. But the impulse to write them, which might linger the whole of an afternoon, was as intense an experience as I have ever had, akin to but lonelier and more wonderful than the experience of reading a very good book.

I don't know when Edgar Allan Poe entered my imagination and took his place there, a place that somehow seems to have been waiting for him. At school we might have been reading Carl Sandburg and Paul Dunbar and Vachel Lindsay, all very forthright and American. But at home I was reading Poe--strange, arcane and melancholy Poe.

The poetry I was given to admire sounded to me like information. I accepted as fact that Chicago was hog butcher to the world, but I was moved by the unworldly territories of Poe's imagination--"In the fairest of our valleys, by good angels tenanted"--perhaps because in those days worlds made of words were vastly more real to me than Chicago, and the encounters of the mind with itself were closer to my sheltered experience than any social realism could have been.

Poe made me think about words. Which is the loveliest word, the loveliest letter? I believe I may have known that these are the kinds of almost idle questions one poses to oneself when a night seems to be unending, when the weight of sorrow is so great as to be dangerous. His stories rehearse grief and guilt, betrayal and accusation, and they are contained in a skin of language that is too elegant, too precise, as if their burden could be distanced by refinements that made art of them, by the wry attentiveness to cadences and sonorities that let the teller seem to think art was the whole point of the tale.

Poe at his best is not imaginable without the excesses for which he must be forgiven. I think I have always loved him because to love him requires loyalty. Those gothic dreams of his are the sort of thing a pre-adolescent girl might be enthralled by, and I did notice that brilliance and learning were among the glories of his perishing damsels. But I had to defend him and myself together from the idea that the tales were simply lurid or morbid. I knew better because I could not stop memorizing his poems. To say them and hear them taught me to feel the deeper coherences of language, as if words ordered by their sounds and suggestions were a charm that opened more meaning than words contain. And I learned from him that an ancient or an alien language had the intimate sound of a whisper at my ear.

Phrases come back to me still-- "his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming." And they remind me of that old joy I felt while I failed to put words to whatever it was that consumed me for an hour or two in my youth, a joy that yielded nothing and felt far more like inspiration than anything I have felt in all the years afterward.

Posted by Dave Rosenthal at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Edgar Allan Poe

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About the blogger
Dave Rosenthal came to The Baltimore Sun as a business reporter in 1987 and now is the Maryland Editor. He reads a wide range of books (but never as many as he'd like), usually alternating between non-fiction and fiction. Some all-time favorites: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; and anything by Calvin Trillin or John McPhee. He belongs to a book club with a Jewish theme.
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Edgar Allan Poe is 200!
All you need to know about the macabre master including Poe-themed events, photos, video and a trivia quiz.

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