Tag Archives: poe

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.

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?

A Line a Day, Or Why I Memorize Poems

I forget why exactly I started doing this. But about four 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.” 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.

And just as I was working on this post, a Tweet came across my feed about this very thing! It contained a quote that says exactly what I want to say:

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.

Here’s what I have in my brain-box at the moment:

T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Dear Friends”

The first five stanzas of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (this is a fun one, but I haven’t sat down to work on the rest of it yet…)

The last page of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (of which I also have a tattoo)

And I’m currently working on Hamlet’s “Rogue and Peasant Slave” soliloquy. See my favorite version performed by Kenneth Branagh or an also-very-nice one from David Tennant (my Doctor!).

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

Small Things: Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”

While preparing for my writing class tomorrow, I found myself once again fascinated by a piece I’ve used for a few semesters now. This piece is Edgar Allan Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition.” I teach a intro to college writing course and use this short essay to show the freshman college students how much thinking writing can take.

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.”

He starts by thinking about the end, the effect he wants to produce in the reader (i.e. melancholy, contemplation of Beauty). Then he figures out how to produce this effect, taking into account everything from length of the poem (can the reader absorb it in one sitting?), to the most melancholy sounds he can think of (“o” and “r” being both “sonorous” and “producible”), to the exact way the poem will build in intensity (the narrator asking ever more frenzied questions), to the final “moral” overtones produced by the last two stanzas.

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.