A scholarly defense of Poe’s aesthetics.
Although Poe was a popular poet among his contemporaries, the eminent Ralph Waldo Emerson scorned him as “The Jingle Man,” and many later readers concurred, including poet and critic Yvor Winters, who attacked Poe’s “obliviousness to the function of intellectual content in poetry.” Yet both T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams insisted that Poe was both significant and influential. McGann (English/Univ. of Virginia; A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction, 2014, etc.) addresses this study to those “who remain uncertain” about Poe’s poetic importance. The author provides meticulously close readings of poems and a few prose selections: Marginalia (“the theoretical center of Poe’s work”), his reviews of Hazlitt and Longfellow, and a long, discursive letter to poet James Russell Lowell. “Poe stands out,” writes McGann, “…because of the intimate connection between his theoretical writings and poetic practice.” Poe conceived of poetry as oral performance, using imagery and language whose “predominant power is acoustic.” Vehemently opposed to what he called the “heresy of The Didactic,” Poe believed that “social and ethical attitudes had ossified into various kinds of American ideologies, American exceptionalism and social progress being two of the most baneful.” Such ideas did not inform his poetry. Annotating poems’ literary allusions does not enrich a reader’s experience but rather “can be quite misleading if it suggests that the poetry requires the external control of translation or decoding,” and in fact, such scholarly investigations can undermine the force of “the work’s catastrophic energies.” The author finds recurring use of uncanny words, “dazzling verbal transformations” and unexpected rhymes.
In a book for literary critics, scholars and instructors, Poe as a consummate craftsman who daringly reimagined how poems invent meaning.