Monday, November 5, 2007

Edgar Allan Poe, worst writer in the canon

I remember Harold Bloom writing something like this, although I am probably paraphrasing. "In the canon" means he is still worth reading, and rereading. "Worst writer" means style. It means this:

"There can be no doubt, either, that the same result would ensue in the case of tobacco, while undergoing its usual course of fermentation, were it not for the interstices consequent upon the rotundity of the hogsheads."

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Chapter 6.

This is from a short novel that involves a stowaway, a mutiny, cannibalism, a ghostly plague ship, attacks by savages on uncharted islands, and so on. But also pedantic digressions on the stowage of tobacco and the arrangement of penguin nests:

"At each intersection of these paths the nest of an albatross is constructed, and a penguin's nest in the centre of each square - thus every penguin is surrounded by four albatrosses, and each albatross by a like number of penguins." Ch. 14.

There's about three pages describing birds. This is part of an interlude in the book where nothing happens.

I could put up dozens more awkward or silly sentences, but I'll stop. This is actually a good novel, but easy to ridicule.

Before Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe had been writing for about 10 years - poems, short stories, and book reviews. I don't think he had much to show for it. One decent story out of dozens ("MS Found in a Bottle", recycled in Pym), a few good poems (one great one, "The City in the Sea"), and a budding career as the most notorious book reviewer in America, the Tomahawk Man.

Rereading Arthur Gordon Pym, I now think this is where Poe really comes into his own as a writer. Tomorrow I'll see if I can show how he does it.

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