First off, let me just thank each and every one of you for such a positive and enthusiastic response to my post on ‘Top Ten Writing Mistakes.’ For a new blog the response was overwhelming – I think more people read this than all of my academic publications combined. It just goes to show what you can achieve if you distil your life’s work into ten bullet points. Point Number Nine (‘Bad Sex’) seemed to have touched a nerve, and I have more to say on the subject, but not today…
Instead I’d just like to offer a tip o’ the hat to Professor Stefanie Rocknak (not that she needs my approval) for her amazing sculpture of Edgar Allan Poe, which was unveiled at Poe Square in Boston on Sunday, October 5. ‘Poe Returning to Boston’ was funded by the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston and cast in bronze by New England Sculpture Services, and I hope that all concerned will forgive me for reproducing one of the official photographs here (© Stefanie Rocknak). The ghostly, life-sized statue depicts the father of the modern short story walking south, from the railway station towards the house where he was born, a battered suitcase full of papers in his hand, a haunted look in his eyes, and a huge raven by his side. ‘He’s home, the sculptor told the New York Times. ‘He’s back, in triumphant gesture, respected as a literary figure.’
Follow these links for the full story, anyway…
And thus we commemorate one of the true literary giants, a global icon, and another artistic genius who lived and died in poverty and despair.
As this is, however, supposed to be a blog about the art and craft of writing, this story got me thinking about some of Edgar Allan Poe’s views on creative writing. You can find these in his satirical mock interview ‘How to Write a Blackwood Article’ and its companion piece ‘A Predicament’ (originally published as ‘The Psyche Zenobia’ and ‘The Scythe of Time,’ in the American Museum, 1838) – proving that there’s many a true word said in jest – and his essays ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ (Graham’s Magazine, 1846), and ‘The Poetic Principle’ (published posthumously in the Home Journal in1850).
Here, then, on the 165th anniversary of his death, are ten of my favourite points from the above pieces by Poe…
- HAVE THE CORRECT WRITING IMPLIMENT
The matter stands thus: In the first place your writer of intensities must have very black ink, and a very big pen, with a very blunt nib. And, mark me … mark me! — that pen — must — never be mended! Herein, madam, lies the secret, the soul, of intensity. I assume upon myself to say, that no individual, of however great genius ever wrote with a good pen — understand me — a good article. You may take, it for granted, that when manuscript can be read it is never worth reading. (‘How to Write a Blackwood Article,’ originally published as ‘The Psyche Zenobia,’ 1838)
- ALWAYS KNOW YOUR ENDING BEFORE YOU START WRITING
Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention. (‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ 1846)
- AIM FOR A PARTICULAR EFFECT
There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis — or one is suggested by an incident of the day — or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative — designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent. I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest — I say to myself, in the first place, ‘Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?’ (‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ 1846)
- MASTER A VARIETY OF RHETORICAL STYLES
Having determined upon your subject, you must next consider the tone, or manner, of your narration. There is the tone didactic, the tone enthusiastic, the tone natural — all common — place enough. But then there is the tone laconic, or curt, which has lately come much into use. It consists in short sentences. Somehow thus: Can’t be too brief. Can’t be too snappish. Always a full stop. And never a paragraph.
Then there is the tone elevated, diffusive, and interjectional. Some of our best novelists patronize this tone. The words must be all in a whirl, like a humming-top, and make a noise very similar, which answers remarkably well instead of meaning. This is the best of all possible styles where the writer is in too great a hurry to think.
The tone metaphysical is also a good one. If you know any big words this is your chance for them. Talk of the Ionic and Eleatic schools — of Archytas, Gorgias, and Alcmaeon. Say something about objectivity and subjectivity. Be sure and abuse a man named Locke. Turn up your nose at things in general, and when you let slip any thing a little too absurd, you need not be at the trouble of scratching it out, but just add a footnote and say that you are indebted for the above profound observation to the ‘Kritik der reinem Vernunft,’ or to the ‘Metaphysithe Anfongsgrunde der Noturwissenchaft.’ …
There are various other tones of equal celebrity, but I shall mention only two more — the tone transcendental and the tone heterogeneous. In the former the merit consists in seeing into the nature of affairs a very great deal farther than anybody else. This second sight is very efficient when properly managed. A little reading of the ‘Dial’ will carry you a great way. Eschew, in this case, big words; get them as small as possible, and write them upside down … Put in something about the Supernal Oneness. Don’t say a syllable about the Infernal Twoness. Above all, study innuendo. Hint everything — assert nothing … As for the tone heterogeneous, it is merely a judicious mixture, in equal proportions, of all the other tones in the world, and is consequently made up of every thing deep, great, odd, piquant, pertinent, and pretty. (‘How to Write a Blackwood Article,’ 1838)
- LEARN HOW TO BLAG IT
Let us suppose now you have determined upon your incidents and tone. The most important portion — in fact, the soul of the whole business, is yet to be attended to — I allude to the filling up. It is not to be supposed that a lady, or gentleman either, has been leading the life of a book worm. And yet above all things it is necessary that your article have an air of erudition, or at least afford evidence of extensive general reading. Now I’ll put you in the way of accomplishing this point … By casting your eye down almost any page of any book in the world, you will be able to perceive at once a host of little scraps of either learning or bel-espritism … I shall make two divisions: first, Piquant Facts for the Manufacture of Similes, and, second, Piquant Expressions to be introduced as occasion may require. (‘How to Write a Blackwood Article,’ 1838)
- KEEP IT SHORT, BUT NOT TOO SHORT
I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length … On the other hand, it is clear that a poem may be improperly brief. Undue brevity degenerates into mere epigrammatism. A very short poem, while now and then producing a brilliant or vivid, never produces a profound or enduring effect. (‘The Poetic Principle,’ published posthumously, 1850)
NB: Poe made the same point regarding prose narrative in ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ writing that: ‘If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression.’
- EMBRACE AESTHETICISM
I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth … I make Beauty the province of the poem, simply because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from their causes. (‘The Poetic Principle,’ 1850) – As Oscar Wilde would later put it, ‘All art is quite useless.’
- REJECT DIDACTICISM
Excellence, in a poem especially, may be considered in the light of an axiom, which need only be properly put, to become self-evident. It is not excellence if it require to be demonstrated as such: — and thus, to point out too particularly the merits of a work of Art, is to admit that they are not merits altogether. (‘The Poetic Principle,’ 1850)
NB: Didactic art is supposed to edify as well as entertain. In the same essay, Poe describes this as a ‘heresy.’
- UNDERSTAND THE SECRET OF TRUE HORROR
Sensations are the great things after all. Should you ever be drowned or hung, be sure and make a note of your sensations — they will be worth to you ten guineas a sheet. If you wish to write forcibly … pay minute attention to the sensations. (‘How to Write a Blackwood Article,’ 1838)
- DEATH IS THE PUREST SUBJECT
Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones … I asked myself — ‘Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?’ Death — was the obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?’ From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious — ‘When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world — and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.’ (‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ 1846)
So, as Angela Carter once put it, Poe really did like dead girls the best. More to be said, I know, but excuse a bit of fun from an old goth for now…
Van muerte tan escondida,
Que no te sienta venir,
Porque el plazer del morir,
No mestorne a dar la vida.