Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On Edgar Allan Poe's 202nd Birthday

In fourth grade, our teacher told us we had to memorize a poem called The Raven. She handed us copies of the rather long poem, illustrated with a sinister-looking raven eyeing the stanzas. Each student was assigned a few lines to say aloud.

I only had two lines to memorize (I think my teacher was attuned to my anxiety over anything spoken in front of people) and I began practicing my lines non-stop. In the shower; on the bus. I knew myself well enough to know that I would be the single student to mess up the lines.

The day of the performance arrived and I was, of course, deadly nervous. But there was a buzz in the room. Something about the poem we all liked. It was a little scary and dark. For us ten year olds, The Raven was pretty edgy. We thought the name ‘Lenore’ was interesting. And we liked that the door wasn’t just a door, it was a chamber door.

When it was time for my two lines, I stammered them out in a continuous exhale. Any mixed up words were tangled up in my muffled voice:

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;

And then before I knew it, the next student took up the next lines. And on it went until the end when we all clapped with pride.

The great thing about elementary school education is that you’re told what’s important. And you’re young enough to just go with the flow. There’s no debate: Is this great art? And why? Naw. You just memorize things and they become cemented in your brain. And then several years later, you start to appreciate it.

At that age, your academic interests and talents are just beginning to show. School subjects are still up for grabs. It was possible for the geeky numbers-inclined boy to be moved to tears by a poem in Language Arts period.

In publishing, we dream of finding authors with genuine appeal and natural charisma. We’d like our writers to be like the lead singer of a band, luring readers to their work. I don’t know if you could call Edgar Allan Poe charismatic, I certainly couldn’t imagine him being interviewed on chipper morning television, but he left behind a mythic aura, so palpable, even fourth graders were transported by this rock star.

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