Friday, April 24, 2009

A strong hand had written, 'I hate Poe' - Daniel Hoffman's Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe

At some point in the middle of my two week Poe festival, I felt an anxious spasm - I really should have read Daniel Hoffman's Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (1971) first. I think that's it - seven Poes. Well, now I've read it. It's kind of a great book.

Poe x 7 is an attempt to interpret Poe as a whole, meaning that Hoffman is going to pull every aspect of Poe into one interpretation. So we have Poe the horror writer, Poe the scientician, Poe the hoaxer, Poe the ratiocinator, and so on. In other words, Hoffman did exactly what I did, at least to begin. He breaks Poe into pieces before he recombines him. Reading Poe Poe... Poe was good for my self-esteem - I was on the right track.

Hoffman's book does have the advantage over what I wrote of being immeasurably more considered, comprehensive, intelligent, and complete. He doesn't have a graph, though!

This is a book of Poe criticism, primarily, so it's a little hard to recommend it to anyone not in the market for such a thing. It's excellent as such - I found the chapters on "Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," for example, to be highly instructive, well written, and completely convincing. But it has such an odd organization and tone that I could imagination any number of people with only a passing familiarity with Poe being won over by the book.

Hoffman mixes Poe's biography into the criticism, to the extent that his book functions well as a strange attempt at a Poe biography. But he also inserts himself into the book in some curious ways. For example.

Poe has a story, which I may have mentioned, that the Library of America calls "How to Write a Blackwood Article," the second half of which has its own title, "A Predicament." The gag is that a woman is writing an account of her own grisly death - she is slowly beheaded by the minute hand of a steeple clock. It's one of Poe's comedies.

Hoffman says that he read the story when he was in high school, and soon began having recurring nightmares which ended with his own beheading, by the minute hand of a clock, in a tower atop his own high school. These were real cold-sweat nightmares, not remotely comic. Hoffman knew that the dream had its origin in Poe, but he somehow could not remember which story. It took him a decade to re-discover "A Predicament." After rereading it, the nightmare never returned. Twenty years later, he publishes the greatest single work of Poe criticism.

Is this hilarious, or creepy, or just bizarre? It's pure Poe, Poe brought to life. The first couple of lines of Chapter 1:

"Across the flyleaf of my old Commemorative Edition of the Works of Edgar Allan Poe in Ten Volumes, Volume I (the only one I owned), a strong hand had written, 'I hate Poe,' and signed my name. That hand was mine."


  1. Yes! Hoffman's book is so unique. I refer to it as a memoir - one poet's personal experience as a reader of Poe. I especially like his chapter on Arthur Gordon Pym and I was impressed he actually took "Al Aaraaf" seriously. In fact, it convinced me to go back and read it.

  2. I have been thinking of reading Poe for some time now and your articles are very timely - I used to scare myself silly as a child with The Premature Burial and have written instructions that I want to be cremated when I go.

    Thanks for commenting on my Guterson review. I have added your blog to m blogroll

  3. I haven't even read your Poe posts yet, but you've certainly convinced me to read Hoffman. I had a slightly similar experience with Kipling, scaring myself to death as a child with The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes, but not knowing who the author was (for some strange reason I thought it was Lord Dunsany; I had read it in an anthology).

  4. P.S. - I found a used copy of Poe Poe Poe on Amazon and ordered it, and am going to buy a Poe book in a real shop this morning. I can't wait for the nightmares to commence!

  5. Thanks, Rob - a reader's memoir, that's just right. The reader is an unusual one, so the book is unique. I feel no compunction helping introduce readers to this book.

    I love these strong childhood responses to stories. Not sure that I have anything close to an equivalent.

  6. If I ever want to read criticism on Poe I will be sure to read this one. Only Poe though would find a story about beheading comic :)

  7. That nightmare scenario is HILARIOUS! Patrick Kurp wrote a few days ago of "the occult kinships and unacknowledged convergences between writers separated by time and space."

    The Hoffman/Poe relationship is surely as strange a convergence as I can imagine. But I suppose once Hoffman realized the invented "chimeras and imaginary monsters" (about which Montaigne has plenty to say) weren't his own, he was beyond relieved.

    Hoffman's initial - almost visceral - reaction to Poe makes his ultimate appreciation and affinity for the author's work that much more investing.

    Definitely going to check out Poe x 7!