On Friday, the 20th of October, a handful of English students and professors Curtis and McDonnell congregated for a Dead Poet’s Society reading in the gazebo near Maddox and Wright Halls. It’s the gazebo with a statue of a raven on the tip of its roof that, with its endless and forbidding croak, seems to beckon for a group of nerdy Poe-enthusiasts to read and geek out there. While I obviously attended the meeting, I was not one of those Poe-enthusiasts only because I haven’t read that much Poe. I’m not certain if my colleagues were Poe-enthusiasts either, but there was one obvious Poe-enthusiast, the same one who organized the event and came up with the idea of having a Poe-day and a Dead Poet’s Society, and this was Dr. Curtis. Before the reading started, Dr. Curtis informed us of Poe’s life, and more specifically his death, since this was, after all, Dead Poet’s Society.
On an October night in 1849, Poe had disappeared from the city of Baltimore. He had been visiting his family in Richmond, Virginia. But he then turned up—and most likely turned up—in Baltimore on election day and was found unconscious in a gutter and wearing ill-fitting clothes. Many people suspected that because it was election day he was being used to conduct voter fraud. People now think he died of rabies because he kept falling in and out of consciousness and Dr. R. Michael Benitez wrote an article that pieces together various accounts of his death and argues quite persuasively for the possibility of his dying of rabies. So he very well could have been bitten by a rabid dog, a raccoon, or hopefully a bat.
The first reading was the hardest to start because nobody wanted to go first. Dr. Curtis didn’t want to start because he knew that he would get too intense. He told us that after “The Raven” came out it became a performance piece. Poe made a lot more money performing it and his other poems than he did publishing them. Curtis told us that women and nervous persons were highly affected in accounts of the time by what Poe wrote and that he developed a celebrity status by performing his works. Thus provided the context for Curtis’s reluctance to read first: when he reads Poe, watch out. He performs. “Let the crazy man in the gazebo do his thing” he said.
Dr. McDonald said she didn’t know that Poe performed and that this is why she comes to these meetings: to learn. The meeting was chock-full of tidbits about Poe, given by Dr. Curtis. Poe performed in New York for the leading literary figures of the day, such as William Cullen Bryant and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but also filled theaters because his performances were so scary. Apparently, at the height of his fame from reading “The Raven”, small children would follow him and flap their arms, to which Poe would suddenly twist around and shout “Nevermore!” Much of the literary establishment tried to pit his fame against him, saying that he’s just a poor huckster who’s tricking his audience with garbage. What’s interesting about Poe’s position in the literary establishment is that he himself was a brutal and incisive literary critic who had a running feud with the transcendentalists. One of the funniest contretemps he had with other literary figures was when Ralph Waldo Emerson called him the Jingle Man after “The Bells” came out. Poe was successful, but success is a loose word, seeing that it was far from easy for him.
Poe’s life was never easy. After his step-father disowned him, he wrote for money (which was scant) for the rest of his life (which was also scant—he died at age forty). But he never gave up on his dream. He had this grandiose idea of himself as an author, as a revered romantic poet, and that’s what he pursued. The dream was accompanied by poverty, mental-illness, and alcoholism, but he nevertheless succeeded.
Dr. McDonald, who has been teaching medieval literature and utopia this semester, aptly chose “Eldorado” to read. The poem and its supernatural influences opened a door for discussion about Poe’s thoughts on science. The humanities and sciences have always been polarized in the education system. Poe, although he loved astronomy, hated science. He wrote about how science is the death of the imagination in his “Sonnet to Science”, which Dr. Curtis read.
Dr. Curtis had a glut of papers splayed out before him, each one ready to be picked up by a willing student. He asked if anyone wanted to read, and Anna said she would read one from his stack and chose “The Lake”. Being a theater enthusiast, she read it with the flawlessness and expression that concealed the fact that she was reading it cold. Annie then read “Spirits of the Dead”, which fueled a discussion about how Poe loved astronomy and that one Poe character, C. Auguste Dupin, a detective before Sherlock Holmes was a thing, always talks about astronomy and the universe. Curtis added that Dupin was like Poe’s ideal self. He’s just all-around cool. He baffles the constabulary, solves crimes that no one else could solve, crimes of the weirdest sort. There is for instance a non-human murderer. What that non-human thing is, I do not know, but it is apparently a natural and not supernatural thing. Poe knew that the supernatural had no place in detective fiction, where the culprit is always unmasked at the end.
One of Curtis’s favorite Poe poems is “The Coquerer Worm”, which was published within the short story “Lygeia”. Poe wrote many short stories with poems placed in the middle because they reinforced and layered the main themes of the story. The odd thing about these interpolative poems is that some versions of his stories, including “Ligeia”, don’t include the poem in the middle, which Dr. Curtis doesn’t appreciate. The poem in the middle of “Ligeia” is one of Curtis’s favorites because it’s a prime example of the big, dramatic, theatrical Poe, literally because there’s a theater in it. He had to stand up to read it, not to be scary, but to be true to the poem. He couldn’t just sit and read it.
“The Conquerer Worm” is about a fictional play by the same name, which is about a worm that eats Man. The words writhed from within Curtis, almost as if the words were the worm! After a short dramatic pause, which was only natural for such a performance, Curtis explained how this poem was “so Poe, just so Poe!” In the story, “Ligeia”, a compendium of wisdom, understanding, beauty, everything the narrator wants, asks the him to read this poem on her death bed. And when he does, she’s complains, “Oh, is that all! Is that all there is!” And then Curtis retorted: “But you knew what the poem’s about, and if it’s going to upset you, why did you have him read it?!” But that’s what’s so Poe about the story: you perversely love what upsets you. The poem reinforces the mortality that “Ligeia” eventually overcomes…(?) or does she?! Dr. Curtis loves “The Conqueror Worm” especially because it’s so over the top.
Then I read “Annabel Lee”, a poem I studied in middle school, which was probably the last time I had read anything by Poe. I was charmed to learn that Katie also read it in middle school when she said that her classmate Frank said, “this boy needs a girlfriend.” Dr. Curtis said he’s got the perfect girlfriend, at least in Poe-world. The poem is about a girl who thinks about nothing but the narrator and then dies, which conveniently keeps his idea of her perfectness intact for him. Dr. Curtis couldn’t understand why this poem is taught to kids in middle school because it is clearly about necrophilia, something that I’m inclined to point out is frowned upon at all ages. Same thing with Romeo and Juliet: why do they teach that in school? “I can’t date who I want so I’ll kill myself,” Curtis jested. Katie’s 7th grade class acted out Romeo and Juliet, along with the Epic of Gilgamesh, To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, and all those stories that you probably shouldn’t read until later. We resoundingly agreed that none of those stories should be acted out in middle school.
Katie ended the meeting by reading “The Raven” with the persistence of an athlete. It is a long yet consuming poem because it is so sad. Poe wrote it while his wife was dying of tuberculosis, so when the narrator asks the raven questions he already knows the answer to, Poe is rehearsing for the death of his wife, his Lenore. When we left the gazebo, I took a glimpse of the raven perched on the tip of the roof. I know it sounds funny because it is a statue, but in light of “The Raven”, I was glad to see it was still there.