Category Archives: Random

Every Writer Should Read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition”

Every once in awhile I remember how much I love Edgar Allan Poe’s detailed essay “Philosophy of Composition.” Don’t let its intimidating name fool you, though, this is an essay that is easy to read. In my intro to college writing course, I use this short essay to show the freshman college students how much thinking writing can take. And every now and again I return to it myself just to remember that even the “greats” like Poe do a lot of thinking and planning before they write.

Here’s the gist of “Philosophy of Composition”: Edgar Allan Poe–one of the most recognizable writers of our time, most students read something of his in high school–sets out to tell us all about the meticulous process of composing the–now iconic and very popular even at the time–poem “The Raven.” It’s an anatomy of a process that Poe likens to “a mathematical problem.”

The very first thing Poe does is think about form. He considers whether he wants someone to read his poem in one sitting or more than one sitting. A novel, he says, can easily be split into multiple sittings because it requires no “unity” of experience. But a poem must be able to be experienced all at the same time in order to produce the desired effect.

It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting—and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as Robinson Crusoe, (demanding no unity,) this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit—in other words, to the excitement or elevation—again in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect :—this, with one proviso—that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.

It’s almost a mathematical equation at that point: how long can a reader reasonably be expected to sit and read? And how many lines can he read in that time? Poe finally calculates that about 100 lines is the limit of how long a poem can be and still achieve its unity and effect.

After Poe has settled on form, he starts  considering his subject by thinking about the end, the effect he wants to produce in the reader (i.e. melancholy, contemplation of Beauty). Beauty, Poe claims, is the province of the poem. Other effects may follow, but it is Beauty that most suits the form.

When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating “the beautiful.”

Then he figures out how to produce this effect, taking into account everything from tone

Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation—and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones. (my emphasis)

to the repeating of a refrain over and over again to stick in the reader’s mind

Since its application was to be repeatedly varied, it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence, would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.

to the most melancholy sounds he can think of (“o” and “r” being both “sonorous” and “producible”)

That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt: and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant.

which leads to him finding a word that fits these sounds (the famous “nevermore”)

The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had predetermined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” In fact, it was the very first which presented itself.

to the exact way the poem will build in intensity (the narrator asking ever more frenzied questions and the bird speaking the same word over and over)

The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.” In observing the difficulty which I at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the pre-assumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a humanbeing—I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non -reasoning creature capable of speech; and, very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.

to the final “moral” overtones produced by the last two stanzas.

It will be observed that the words, “from out my heart,” involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical—but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza, that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:

“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore.”

It’s an almost dizzyingly intricate dance between technique and personal style. Poe’s goal is to puncture our idea that literature springs whole from the thigh of the writer. It’s a labor-intensive, hard-thinking project. But at the end, you could produce something like “The Raven.”

If you’re a writer–of any kind, really–take a few moments and read “Philosophy of Composition” and “The Raven.” I hope they inspire you as they have done for me.

The Moment of Confusion

I’ve had this interview between round-table icon Charlie Rose and award-winning Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance bookmarked for a year now because I really wanted to share the idea that Rylance posits toward the end of the interview.

It’s a wide-ranging interview which touches on Rylance’s long career; his experiments with “original playing” practices of Shakespeare’s plays, including staging, costuming, and pronunciation; his fascination with Shakespeare’s wit and humor; the sense of collective consciousness he feels in the room that allows a play to take on new meanings in front of each audience; and the idea that one should go on the stage and “play to win.”

Toward the end of the interview there’s this exchange (transcript below):

Rose: You’ve said that for the audience to have a sense that something has happened, there needs to be a fleeting moment of confusion.

Rylance: I’ve been to some plays where a lot has happened, but you feel like no one ever was really confused. None of the actors… I think even when a single cell grows in to two, there must be a moment of confusion at even a cellular level. And certainly in human endeavors, certainly in my life I spend a lot of time confused, particularly at moments of great importance…

Rose: Confused about consequences, confused about–

Rylance: Yeah, what’s the right path to take. Most plays will be about that kind of thing. You want to feel you’re in the presence of, um, not always in the presence of someone who knows exactly what they’re doing, but people who are considering different options.

When I first saw this interview, I recognized immediately what Rylance is pointing at when he discusses that “moment of confusion.” It’s something that most artists struggle to communicate. And it’s something that’s hard to play accurately.

As a writer, I know what’s going to happen to my characters. I work with an outline, so I have an idea of what needs to happen. Yes, there are spontaneous moments of inspiration when even I get surprised. But mostly I know what’s supposed to come next.

The same thing with the acting I’ve done. I already know what the character will do and say. I know where I will walk on the stage and how someone else will react.

So the key in both instances is to try and forget all of that knowledge and make the moments feel organic for the characters, make them feel like real people wrestling with real problems rather than characters who already know what’s going to happen to them.

In this way, I think taking time away from your writing can be the most valuable thing you do when editing. Once I step away, I’m able to return with fresh eyes and read through my story to see if my characters feel premeditated. Does it seem like they already know what their future holds? Or does it seem like they are experiencing that genuine “moment of confusion” that marks most of our lives.

For National Poetry Month: A Poem a Day Keeps the Blues Away

Since it’s National Poetry Month, I’m dedicating each Monday post in April to sharing my favorite poetry with you. I hope you’ll share with me too!

I forget why exactly I started doing this. But about six years ago now, I began memorizing T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.

Yep. The whole thing. From “Let us go then…” to “…and we drown.” And all the glorious words in between.

At that time my life was going off the rails professionally, my finances were in the tank, and I was facing some major life decisions like “should I stay in this city?” and “what the hell am I doing with my life?”

In times of anguish, I have always turned to literature to help me through. But until then, I had only read it. My favorite volumes of poetry have heavily dog-eared corners; their spines are broken where I have folded them back to read; their pages crinkled from nights spent sleeping on them.

But this time I wanted more. I wanted to have the words of “Prufrock” in my brain. To call them up whenever and wherever I needed them. I wanted to be able to stand on the train or walk down the street with an invisible book in front of my eyes with all of the words I loved at the ready.

So I crammed one stanza into my head. I repeated it for a week. Over and over again, I let the words roll around on my tongue. I muttered them quietly to myself on the shuttle bus to school. I wrote them out while my students worked on in-class writing assignments.

And I found myself feeling happier.

Memorizing some of my favorite words gave me a small measure of control in an otherwise insane time. It was something positive I could do each day. One or two lines. A sentence to stick in my mind palace.

And almost two years later, I had the whole poem in there. And it still feels amazing. I drag it out all the time, quoting sections to myself as I feel the need for them. And often they just pop in there when I am doing something else. Bits of a poem there to remind me that language is amazing and poetry is good for healthy living.

The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat. ~ Brad Leithauser on why memorize poetry (Source: Brain Pickings/Explore)

I am happy to say that things have gotten better (personally and professionally) from that time. But I still find it nice to spend a few moments a day either reading or memorizing poetry.

Have you memorized any poems? Or have ambitions to? What would you memorize if you set your mind to it?

“Schitt’s Creek” Introduced a Pansexual Character and the World Didn’t End

There are many reasons you should watch my new favorite comedy, “Schitt’$ Creek,” currently airing on PopTV in the U.S. and on CBC in Canada. And one of those reasons is that they are quietly changing the game for queer representation in television comedy.

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Spoiler Warning: This post contains spoilers through episode 10 of the show.

Some reasons to love this show:

1) Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, together again!

Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara as Johnny and Moira Rose in "Schitt's Creek" (Photo from visitschittscreek.com)

Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara as Johnny and Moira Rose in “Schitt’s Creek” (Photo from visitschittscreek.com)

2) A despicable family getting their comeuppance in the most hilarious fashion.

Annie Murphy, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, and Dan Levy as the Rose family in "Schitt's Creek" (Photo from visitschittscreek.com)

Annie Murphy, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, and Dan Levy as the Rose family in “Schitt’s Creek” (Photo from visitschittscreek.com)

The whole show centers on the Rose family, who have fallen into reduced circumstances due to a business manager who just “forgot” to pay their taxes. In the first episode, the family is forced to move to Schitt’s Creek, a small town Johnny (Eugene Levy) bought for his son David’s (Dan Levy) birthday as a joke. Turns out it’s the only asset of theirs that no one wants.

There they find a whole host of small town characters who seem determined to make the family’s stay exceptionally painful. Johnny and Moira (Catherine O’Hara) struggle to make friends while their spoiled, grown-up children David and Alexis (Annie Murphy) try to find ways to escape. Comedy ensues, of course.

3) It’s gut-bustingly funny and quotable.

(from the PopTV website)

(from the PopTV website)

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4) They quietly introduced a pansexual character and no one laughed at him. Well, not because of his sexuality, at least.

In episode 10, the “constantly baffled by the world’s indifference toward him” David Rose sleeps with his best friend and snark partner, Stevie. This confuses them both. Stevie, because she thought David was gay, and David because he didn’t realize he liked Stevie that way.

Awkwardness ensues as they try to talk to each other about what has just happened. Stevie asks him pretty openly about it and they proceed to have an amazing and pretty simple conversation about David’s sexuality that also manages to make me want all the wines.

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Stevie: So, just to be clear… I’m a red wine drinker.
David: That’s fine.
Stevie: Okay, cool. I *only* drink red wine. And up until last night, I was under the impression that you, too, *only* drank red wine. But I guess I was wrong?
David: I see where you’re going with this. Um, I *do* drink red wine. But I *also* drink white wine. And I’ve been known to sample the occasional rose. And a couple summers back I tried a merlot that used to be a chardonnay, which got a bit complicated.
Stevie: Oh, so you’re just really open to *all* wines.
David: I like the wine and not the label. Does that make sense?
Stevie: Yes, it does.

What is revelatory about how “Schitt’$ Creek” handles this whole plot line is that David’s sexuality is not the butt of the joke. He is never ridiculed for wanting all the wines (and who doesn’t want more wine?). And the other characters just kind of shrug and move on. It’s the reaction most of us actually have when someone comes out. “Okay, cool.”

The comedy resides in the extreme awkwardness of not only sleeping with your best friend, but also the gossip mill that is a small town. Sexuality is accepted almost without a second thought.

5) And the “adults” are totally understanding.

Here’s where this episode gets really REALLY amazing: at Roland and Jocelyn Schitt’s (Chris Elliot and Jennifer Robertson) annual luau, Johnny, Moira, and the Schitt’s get a leeeeetle bit baked and start to talk about the gossip over David and Stevie. Roland and Johnny have this conversation:

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Johnny: My son is pansexual.
Roland: Uh huh. I’ve heard of that. That’s, uh, that cookware fetish.
Johnny: No. No, no. He loves everyone. Men, women, women who become men, men who become women. I’m his father and I always wanted his life to be easy. But just… pick one gender and maybe everything would have been less confusing?
Roland: Well, you know, Johnny, when it comes to the heart, we can’t tell our kids who to love.

Did you see that? Still no comedy at the expense of David’s sexuality. Where we might expect his father not to understand or Roland to make some backwards comment and show his ignorance, neither does. Both men accept it, talk about how they want their kids to be happy, shrug, and move on.

So there we go… an openly pansexual character on a comedy show handled in a gracious and enlightening way and the world didn’t end. Representation matters. Well done, “Schitt’$ Creek.”

So tell me, do you watch? What do you think? And if you don’t watch, stop being a little b and go binge it!