Edgar Allan Poe Explains it All

Early on, I admired the work of  Edgar Allan Poe, thanks mostly to my mother who read out loud to me his very creepy short story The Gold Bug. It was about a man obsessed with

searching for treasure after being bitten by an insect thought to be made of pure gold. The bug was described as a “scarab,” and I remember that detail adding an extra level of spine-tingling fear, because my mother was fond of wearing a colorful bracelet decorated with oval stones, also called scarabs.

Vicki Doudera here. Those early bedtime readings of Poe planted a deliciously sinister seed. Later I would read his short mystery Murders at the Rue Morgue and haunting poem, The Raven, and marvel at the way the man mixed literary horror and suspense. Truly Poe’s impact on literature, and on crime fiction specifically, cannot be overstated.

Given my history, you can imagine my delight at finding that Mr. Poe holds pride of place in a slim volume I’m reading called Great Writers on the Art of Fiction. His chapter, the first in the book, is an essay in which he makes the case that good writing is not the result of “ecstatic intuition,” but deliberate and careful consideration. Through painstaking analysis,  Poe offers what he terms a “peep behind the scenes” at how he came to write The Raven.

Some of you may have read John Curran’s book about Agatha Christie’s diaries and the secrets of her writing process revealed within the scribbled pages.  While Poe’s chapter is much more polished than those entries, and is, in fact, a well-constructed essay, it gives those of who write the same kind of insight as Christie’s journals.  There’s a wonderful kinship gleaned from realizing that the greats who came before us struggled with the same literary decisions.  They, too, had to scrap passages that didn’t work, change language that didn’t flow, and make the tough editorial choices all scribes must make. Just like me, they sat in front of a blank page and asked themselves, “Now what?”

For example, here are some of Poe’s concerns while writing The Raven:

1) Length, or what Poe calls the “extent” of the poem. He discusses just how long a reader will sit and read a poem, and makes a critical first decision: his work will consist of 100 lines. “It is, in fact, a hundred and eight,” he says, with perhaps just a touch of smugness.

2. Impression, or effect to be conveyed.  Poe says he wanted to create a work that would be “universally appreciable,” i.e., popular. “Now I designate beauty as the province of the poem,” he says, explaining that while truth and passion are also worthy topics, they are far better attainable in prose.

3. Tone. Having decided on beauty as his theme, Poe says that the highest manifestation of beauty is sadness – therefore his poem will have a melancholy tone.

4. Refrain.  He decides that a single word will be repeated, and then, ponders what that word will be. He’s led to the “long ‘o” as the most sonorous vowel, in conjunction with ‘r’ as the most producible consonant.”

You see where this is going, right?

“In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore,” says Poe. “In fact, it was the very first which presented itself.”

But who will speak the refrain?  Poe imagines a “non-reasoning creature capable of speech,” and pictures a parrot. He then decides instead on the raven, as it, too, can speak, and is “infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.”

Does anyone else eat this kind of literary explanation up?  Poe goes on for several more pages describing in more detail the actual composition of the poem, and it’s fascinating stuff. Not because he’s a poet crediting some distant muse for his flashes of inspiration, but because he’s a craftsman explaining in great detail the many important decisions made navigating the artistic road.

For me, this chapter serves as a log for one of Edgar Allan Poe’s creative journeys. It took a bit of effort to read it, but when I finished I smiled and breathed a sigh of relief.  Why?  Because unlike the man searching for treasure in The Gold Bug, I’m not alone. I’ve got Poe and Christie by my side, and they are formidable allies.

Who are the “greats” whose writing process inspires you?

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