BALTIMORE — I’ve never given Edgar Allan Poe his proper due. Then again, he doesn’t need my approval, nor has he ever asked for it.
I always considered myself more of, say, a Mark Twain guy, even though I have my reservations about him, too. Both men obviously know how to embroider a good yarn and each should be revered for his output. But given a choice between the two icons: the influential author of the famous short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and the spellbinding poem, “The Raven,” vs. Samuel Langhorne Clemens and the unique vernacular of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and what has been called the great American novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I tend to choose light over dark (unlike my choice of turkey meat) and pick the side of the legendary humorist, even if I am past the point of revisiting his novels. (Perhaps someday I will gladly retract that statement and return to a youthful study of boyhood classics.) I only use these works, mind you, as the most known examples that I can summon from my fuzzy brain and their bibliographies. Clearly, I need to clear the cobwebs and brush up on both of them.
With Poe and all of the many books written about him — he, lauded as the master of macabre, the sinister poet, the inventor of the detective story, it dawns on me to ask: what do I really know about him besides the train wreck of forbidden love he possessed for his aunt’s teen daughter, Virginia Clemm? More to the point, what do I care? I’m a 21st century publisher and admirer of literary fiction, not genre fiction, but Poe is an author who has traversed both worlds, whose art is sacrosanct, and whose reputation either has been made or tarnished by his long peer down insanity’s tunnel.
Regardless of my preference for the works of other men and women of letters, I still want to know what makes Poe relevant, what drives the literate public’s fascination with his words and life, and how do I harness that energy surrounding his unmistakable genius, and better understand this misunderstood enigma who helped checker and enrich the history of American literature.
Could this newfound knowledge help benefit my dealings with authors? Could it help determine and shape the course of future publications?
When I returned this past Sunday from my overnight stay in Baltimore, I set out to pick up a collection of Poe’s works that contained “Ms. Found in a Bottle,” which reportedly launched Poe’s career when it won best short story in an 1833 literary contest. It also garnered the 24-year-old a $50 cash prize. I browsed the shelves of All Books Considered in Kensington, Md., and found a near fine copy of The Illustrated Edgar Allan Poe by Satty (author and illustrator Wilfried Satty whose use of one name predates Colette and the artist formerly known as Prince). I acquired the book, a 1976 first edition, to see if I could get better acquainted with a side of Poe that had sorely escaped me. I did so, also, because the illustrations by Satty are terrific and terrifying.
I did so, primarily, to enliven my senses and dive in to a collection of imaginative stories characterized mostly as mysteries, but so grim and ghastly that they create a category that’s two notches above horror. I did so to be at once enamored and repelled, haunted and disturbed by tales written so many howls at the moon ago that to refute their immense value to the literary landscape would be foolhardy, if not sacrilegious. I did so because somehow I had shamefully forgotten the significance of Edgar Allan Poe.
I bought twelve stories and two poems by Poe, not because I admire the man with his various phobias, eccentricities and vices. I bought twelve stories and two poems by Poe because I need a keepsake and reminder of what is integral to my own fabric and tapestry. If I claim to be an author, then it would be sinful to overlook Poe’s mighty contribution to my chosen vocation. I bought twelve stories and two poems by Poe because it would be an outrage to forget the dear price he paid, the trails he painted black and set afire, and the pain he suffered just to get them down on paper. All to get them down on paper. Now it’s my job to read them. Twelve stories and two poems by Poe. It’s my job to read them, meditate between the lines, recognize the patterns, learn the intangibles that only a cryptic visionary could evoke.
Editor’s note: Photos taken at The Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, a graveyard established in 1786 and a former church erected atop the graveyard in 1852. The burial site of Edgar Allan Poe is located at 519 West Fayette Street, occupying the southeast corner of Fayette and Greene Street on the west side of downtown Baltimore. The complex was declared a national historic district in 1974.
Twelve Sticks and Two Pebbles (Just Ask Edgar Allan Poe)
I bounced my rent check today
I guess you might call it the poet’s way,
I even flipped my landlord the bird
This was before he’d heard
About the plumbing—
It’s really something
How you can wake with not a clue
That your world has come unglued—
I guess you might call it, God’s mysterious way—
Isn’t that what they say—
They being the ordinary schmuck
Who has run shit out of luck—
Only no one told him he’s lost control,
So he figures he’s still on a roll
Until he’s in the throes of a panic attack,
He’s no longer in demand, He’s a sorry sack.
Only then he meets a poet
And boy, wouldn’t you know it?
There’s a bastard sorrier than he—
“If it ain’t nailed down, then it’s gotta be free.”
When your rent’s overdue
And your wallet’s got the flu
And you don’t have a middle finger left to give,
Remember this: It’s a poet’s words,
It’s a poet’s words that live.
~ DC 7/11/97