The poetry of Edgar Allan Poe has had a rough ride in America, as Emerson’s sneering quip about “The Jingle Man” testifies. That these poems have never lacked a popular audience has been a persistent annoyance in academic and literary circles; that they attracted the admiration of innovative poetic masters in Europe and especially France—notably Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry—has been further cause for embarrassment. Jerome McGann offers a bold reassessment of Poe’s achievement, arguing that he belongs with Whitman and Dickinson as a foundational American poet and cultural presence.
Not all American commentators have agreed with Emerson’s dim view of Poe’s verse. For McGann, a notable exception is William Carlos Williams, who said that the American poetic imagination made its first appearance in Poe’s work. The Poet Edgar Allan Poe explains what Williams and European admirers saw in Poe, how they understood his poetics, and why his poetry had such a decisive influence on Modern and Post-Modern art and writing. McGann contends that Poe was the first poet to demonstrate how the creative imagination could escape its inheritance of Romantic attitudes and conventions, and why an escape was desirable. The ethical and political significance of Poe’s work follows from what the poet takes as his great subject: the reader.
The Poet Edgar Allan Poe takes its own readers on a spirited tour through a wide range of Poe’s verse as well as the critical and theoretical writings in which he laid out his arresting ideas about poetry and poetics.
McGann succeeds in forcing us to rethink Poe’s poetry… Poe’s sound experiments, especially his strange variations on meter, deserve, as McGann shows by citing numerous rhythmic anomalies, to be taken seriously… In an age of predominantly, and purposely, flat and prosaic ‘free verse,’ mnemonic patterning is perhaps re-emerging as the emblem of poetic power. In this sense, Poe is once again Our Contemporary… In making the case for the close link between the poetry and the aesthetic theory, [McGann] succeeds admirably: Poe’s reputation as poète maudit belies the fact that here was a poet who knew exactly what he was doing.
McGann [wants] to set the record straight, right an imbalance and show why Poe deserves a place beside Whitman and Emily Dickinson, the venerated father and mother of American poetry. His marvelous short book combines old-fashioned ‘close reading’ with a capacious historical and theoretical sense of Poe’s place in American literature and mid-19th-century American culture… McGann’s basic thesis about Poe’s poems (he calls them ‘Poe-try’) and his remarks about individual gestures, lines, sounds and rhythms are constantly engaging. Readers who believe that God is in the details will find plenty to astonish them… By moving away from poetry’s expository and thematic features to its aesthetic and rhetorical ones, McGann has performed an important cultural and intellectual service.
The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel promises to save Poe’s poetry from [a] dire critical fate… [McGann’s] aim is ambitious: to give Poe’s poetry academic significance, to establish both its aesthetic appeal and its political relevance. As Edmund Wilson does in his appreciative essay ‘Poe at Home and Abroad,’ McGann figures Poe’s work as the suspension bridge across the chasm separating romanticism and modernism. He situates Poe’s work alongside and against the romantic poetry of Keats, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth; evaluates Poe’s sonic influence on the writing of Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Baudelaire; and, expands upon Eliot’s essay ‘From Poe to Valéry’ to trace the influence of Poe’s critique of the romantic ‘I’ through symbolism into high modern elasticism, and then, into language poetry and the latest work of Charles Bernstein. He demonstrates Poe’s unquestionable impact on the way Americans thought about poetry and the way poetry thought about itself.
Elegant… One of McGann’s greatest services is to introduce lay readers to Poe’s critical writings. He excerpts several longish selections from Poe’s correspondence and reviews as well as the Marginalia, sundry magazine pieces he authored between 1845 and 1849. What emerges is an Edgar Allan Poe who thought profoundly about poetry and literature and who was able, mostly, to express his ideas and theories in clear prose.
McGann has set out to address and correct the problem of Poe’s poetry, and the result is a necessary volume not only for those compelled and beguiled by Poe but for anyone who understands the importance of poetic tradition and its umbilical to American imagination. This book is McGann’s deep-seeing riposte to those critics—Emerson, Yvor Winters, D. H. Lawrence, Harold Bloom, et al.—who have dismissed Poe’s aesthetics as by turns decadent and preposterous… Part of the large pleasure of McGann’s book is his contra-academic gift of phrase, his parsed insights into Poe’s ‘legend-laden life’ and the ‘angel of the odd’ suspended over his writing desk.
In the process of clearing up so much of the critical fog that has enshrouded the poetry of Poe, McGann helps his readers understand how to read poetry more generally… McGann has demonstrated that Poe’s significance as a poet in his own time and as a major influence on the development of poetry for 150 years since makes him one of the two or three greatest American poets.
From a close reading of Poe’s rhetorical tropes and careful reconstructions of context, McGann draws out a much richer understanding of Poe’s perspective on art and life.
[Shows] Poe as a consummate craftsman who daringly reimagined how poems invent meaning.
McGann persuasively defends Poe’s poetry against its many detractors, who have criticized the work as all ‘jingle’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson) and lacking in ‘intellectual content’ (Yvor Winters). Through close readings of Poe’s marginalia, reviews, and letters, as well as his essays on poetic composition, notably ‘The Poetic Principle,’ McGann shows how Poe worked out a sophisticated theory of poetics… It will certainly provide readers with a deeper appreciation of the writer’s achievements as a poet.
McGann restores Poe to his foundational role for American, and 19th century, poetics. McGann’s breathtaking scholarship makes Poe’s work thrillingly present and hauntingly prescient. Only this and nothing more.
The Poet Edgar Allan Poe is a landmark intervention that helps to explain why, among his antebellum contemporaries, Poe alone has remained a fixture of popular culture as well as a globally familiar icon of literary art.
- 256 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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