Category Archives: Writing Life

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: Mary Wroth, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus

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!

Lady Mary Wroth

Lady Mary Wroth

This week features one of my favorite early modern (i.e. Shakespeare’s time period) writers. I long ago committed this sonnet to memory because I find it exactly expresses that feeling of falling in love and not being ready for it.

These 14 lines tell the story of the speaker, Pamphilia, and how one night she dreams that Venus, the goddess of love, comes to her. Though Pamphilia begs Venus’s son Cupid not to shoot his arrow of love into her heart, he does anyway and Pamphilia wakes up to find that she is irrevocably in love.

When night’s black mantle could most darkness prove,
And sleep, death’s image, did my senses hire
From knowledge of myself, then thoughts did move
Swifter than those, most swiftness need require.

In sleep, a chariot drawn by winged desire
I saw, where sat bright Venus, Queen of Love,
And at her feet her son, still adding fire
To burning hearts, which she did hold above;

But one heart flaming more than all the rest
The goddess held, and put it to my breast.
‘Dear son, now shoot,’ said she, ‘Thus must we win.’

He her obeyed, and martyred my poor heart.
I, waking, hoped as dreams it would depart;
Yet since, O me, a lover I have been.

For National Poetry Month: Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”

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!

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

I’m fairly new to “Song of the Open Road,” having just “discovered” it this past year. Before then, I’d pretty much stuck to the well-known Walt Whitman poems celebrating President Lincoln or the ever-popular “Song of Myself.”

But I am so happy I finally spent some time with my copy of Leaves of Grass because this long poem met me where I was in my life and accompanied me a ways down the road.

In the long-ish poem (though relatively short for a Whitman ramble), the speaker speaks about the longing to run away from the world, a longing I think we all feel now and then. He travels, meets people, and realizes many things about himself along the way. And, in that way Whitman has of articulating what it means to ramble and to celebrate life, he invites us to walk with him for awhile.

You can read the entire poem here. But here are some of my favorite verses:

from section 1:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

from section 5:

I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.

from section 11:

Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,
You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,
What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,
You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.

from section 15:

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?