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This item is taken from PN Review 148, Volume 29 Number 2, November - December 2002.

The Edgar Allan Poe house in Baltimore opens only for a few hours each week. The tourist needs something like lottery luck to gain access. Even if you arrive during that Friday afternoon window of opportunity, the curator may not be there (the shrine, in a threadbare neighbourhood, with dereliction across the street and around each corner, is not exactly thronged). But from some vantage point he spotted our little party knocking at the door and arrived just as we were going, having photographed ourselves on the steps beside the plaques. He opened the shutters, switched on the video, and let us in.

It was worth a visit. The curator himself is knowledgeable and a little haunted. The few relics and copy relics are well chosen, the displays ranging from chiaroscuro to oscuro. What will stay with every visitor, even those from two-up two-down Britain, is the diminutive scale of the house, the steepness of the attic stairs and the tiny room Poe occupied during his stays, with a view worse than that afforded by Mr Bleaney's landlady. The material sparseness is part of the attraction: it is a conch, and visitors provide their own surf sound, or echo of the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

I bought a badge with a raven on it and the words, 'Poe Evermore'. Driving from the little house to Baltimore's modern Marina, you pass the huge sports ground where the Baltimore Ravens perform.

Visiting Poe's house and the grim city of Baltimore, with its social and architectural disparities, I reflected on the apparent neglect into which Poe has fallen among modern poets. Is it time to re-approach him, starting with the essays and then, cautious and fortified with irony, risking the melifluous stanzas, the hectic or tragic world of refrains, those formal gyres that deliver us obsessively to one fatal point over and over again? Does he have secret admirers too shy to admit to so unfashionable an enthusiasm?

Set in the scales against Emerson, whose star is always rising but never quite rises, Poe's is a smaller imagination, a narrower culture, but a wiser counsel. Repelled by Emerson's cloying benignity, Poe commented, 'Put in something about the Supernal Oneness... Don't say a syllable about the Infernal Twoness.' For Emerson, there was bad, there was good. But evil was archaic, not an active category in his thought. For Poe evil was an unarguable verity. It starts in the passing of time and what it takes as it passes.

Poe is the first American theorist of verse and the first to declare cultural independence: 'We have snapped asunder the leading-strings of our British Grandmamma.' He despised the didactic, and 'our British Grandmamma' was in full didactic spate. He despised extended narrative in verse; allegory repelled him. 'In defence of allegory (however, or for whatever object, employed) there is scarcely one respectable word to be said,' he writes, reviewing Hawthorne. Poetry is, 'a wild effort to reach the beauty above', and the poems move away: to the past, the future, another realm or star.

Poe's lucidity as critic and poet is modern in that it is willed and deliberate, not the fruit of a stable culture or an orderly upbringing. Nothing came to him by second nature, as it did to Emerson and Thoreau, Whitman and Hawthorne. He wanted from poetry three primary qualities: indefinition, music, and symbolism. 'A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end, music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.'

His verse is certainly extreme in its prosodic strategies, extreme in the precedence it gives to feeling over intellect, and in the way it plays the senses 'all at once' by a kind of synaesthesia. 'Indefinition' is not the absence of content that we get from Swinburne but a fullness which cannot be paraphrased.

What can be learned today from this radical imagination? In an age and place (Britain) in which the 'pleasure' of poetry has been intimately confused with the pleaures of anecdote and short narrative, in which the lyric voice has given way almost entirely to small-scale story-teller and the ambitious poet hitches rides on big history (World War II, the Holocaust), Poe might by analogy, not example, point a route away from the facile aesthetic of 'relevance' across to the lyric, with its specific rules of pleasure which derive from the nature of language itself, and which move off from literal occasions rather than remain rivetted to them.

In France Poe was read even while he was alive. Symbolists warmed to Poe's idea of the poem as itself, noninstrumental, non-didactic, unparaphrasable, something that cannot be appropriated. A poem raises questions of form, not of content; of process, not of product. The poem is, as John Ashbery says of a piece by Frank O'Hara, 'an instance of itself'. It will be comprehended, but that comprehension will be untranslatable. The rhythm of meanings in 'The Raven' - despite attempts to misread it - is not allegorical. The raven derives its identity from the poem and works only within that context.

The poem says nothing, means nothing but, as Baudelaire said, it does something. Poe's insights and practice are crucial to an art that seeks not to describe but to instil feelings, emotions, perceptions. What matters is the ways in which sounds and images, whole and fragmentary, come together. André Gide called it the acte gratuit. It is a short step from Poe's sense of art's autonomy to the dead end fin de siècle 'art for art's sake'. That is not the only outcome of Poe. In him rather than in Emerson or Longfellow, whose roots still feed back to Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, American literature becomes original in ways that he defines. 'We have at length arrived at that epoch when our literature may and must stand on its own merits or fall through its own defects.' He has advertent and inadvertent Anglophone heirs, poets who do not sound like him but understand intuitively the kinds of difference he makes and purposes.

This item is taken from PN Review 148, Volume 29 Number 2, November - December 2002.

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