Many readers are put off from Poe by the décor of his writings – the setting of his tales and poems, the often grotesque style of his prose, what Aldous Huxley object to as the vulgarity of his verse. His excrescent Gothic conventions which are often on the verge, if not over the verge, of self-parody, seem willfully remote from any possible reality. It is, however, a function of Poe’s theories of both poetry and fiction that so many mannerisms be interposed between reality and the reader. It is my hope, in writing sometimes personally about one reader’s relationship to Poe’s work, to suggest how Poe’s artifices – the images and patters in his Arabesques, the strange diction of his poems and tales – are intensifications of the realities they seem to avoid. Poe has exerted a force upon later readers and writers quite disproportionate to the weight of his slender stock of verses and the brevity of his tales. Although the characters in his tales are without exception fantastic personages, they must touch some deep, responsive nerve hidden in ourselves. Whose image do we see in Poe’s insane criminals, in his detectives with their superhuman intelligence, in his protagonists driven by mysterious obsessions or passively suffering equally mysterious adventures? As Thoreau replies to a correspondent who complained about Whitman’s animality, of whose experiences has he the power to remind us?
Quite excellent, and taken from one of the most idiosyncratic – if not the most idiosyncratic – book on Poe, poet Daniel Hoffman’s odd Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, first published in 1972.
If the French believe it’s essential to send a thief to catch a thief, it is probably fitting that we send a poet to root out another one. Hoffman (1923-2013) was a poet, essayist and academic, serving a term as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1973).
Born in New York, Hoffman was a World War II veteran, and a graduate of Columbia (B.A., M.A., and Ph.D.). He wrote several volumes of poetry and criticism, and despite holding many public positions (he was Poet in Resident at the Cathedral of St. John the Devine, for example), he is perhaps best known for his study of Poe.
To be sure, Poe7 is a very strange book. Hoffman set out to write a book about Poe in much the same manner Poe would have written it. This leads to a sometimes labyrinthine syntax, a love for emphasis, and a heavily-applied layer of subtext (and sub-subtext). It is not to everyone’s taste, but if you are interested in Poe, Hoffman’s book is essential.
Hoffman makes the point throughout that we never quite get our hands around the totality of Poe; that once we think we have wrung him dry of layers of meaning and importance, more come to light. I first came to Poe thought my keen interest in the Gothic, then found that – despite the gloom – that he had much in common with the aesthetes. What is his figure of Roderick Usher, for example, other than that of an aesthete who finds his highest artistic fulfillment in decadent art? All artists speak in the language that means the most to them, and Poe’s taste for Gothic tropes and wildly Romantic characters does not mean his art is any the less subtle, layered or significant.
I had revisited Hoffman’s book recently when reading about Poe in the news. Hoffman goes into great detail on Poe’s inductive reasoning regarding the origin of the cosmos and our place within them, as outlined in the prose-poem Eureka. Hoffman wrote his book in 1972, yet here is author Marilynne Robinson writing about Poe and Eureka in the New York Review of Books this past February:
Poe’s mind was by no means commonplace. In the last year of his life he wrote a prose poem, Eureka, which would have established this fact beyond doubt—if it had not been so full of intuitive insight that neither his contemporaries nor subsequent generations, at least until the late twentieth century, could make any sense of it. Its very brilliance made it an object of ridicule, an instance of affectation and delusion, and so it is regarded to this day among readers and critics who are not at all abreast of contemporary physics. Eureka describes the origins of the universe in a single particle, from which “radiated” the atoms of which all matter is made. Minute dissimilarities of size and distribution among these atoms meant that the effects of gravity caused them to accumulate as matter, forming the physical universe.
This by itself would be a startling anticipation of modern cosmology, if Poe had not also drawn striking conclusions from it, for example that space and “duration” are one thing, that there might be stars that emit no light, that there is a repulsive force that in some degree counteracts the force of gravity, that there could be any number of universes with different laws simultaneous with ours, that our universe might collapse to its original state and another universe erupt from the particle it would have become, that our present universe may be one in a series.
All this is perfectly sound as observation, hypothesis, or speculation by the lights of science in the twenty-ﬁrst century. And of course Poe had neither evidence nor authority for any of it. It was the product, he said, of a kind of aesthetic reasoning—therefore, he insisted, a poem. He was absolutely sincere about the truth of the account he had made of cosmic origins, and he was ridiculed for his sincerity. Eureka is important because it indicates the scale and the seriousness of Poe’s thinking, and its remarkable integrity. It demonstrates his use of his aesthetic sense as a particularly rigorous method of inquiry.
Writing on the Scientific American blog, writer scientist John Horgan responds to Robinson with: Now that is a theory of everything. But it isn't "sound," it's batshit crazy—in a good way.
Like Hoffman, I don’t think we will ever be through with Poe, nor will we completely understand him. His mind was too subtle (the melodrama of his plots and prose notwithstanding), his science too colored by aesthetics, his aesthetics too colored by his deductive and inductive reasoning, his true sense of beauty too tinged with melancholy and sadness. Poe remains one of the few great writers who was, at heart, a fairly miserable man – a walking anomaly, a personality divided. A man who saw horrors and sorrow everywhere, and yet dreamed of beauty.