Rue Gît le Coeur: street where lies the heart. On a tiny street in Paris, about a quarter of the length of a New York City block and just a little wider than a Venice passageway, lies a minuscule hotel. Its rooms, replete with medieval-era wooden beams and matching pastoral designs on the wallpaper and curtains, are just as tiny; only one person can move around in the room at a time. The elevator, too, can manage only one person per trip. Charming and minute, there is no space in this hotel for oversized couches and exercise rooms; there is barely space enough to stretch out your arms and yawn, let alone sing.
When I visited this sequestered street last year—almost hidden in the midst of a crowded tourist district—I was amused and surprised to see the plaques, figured prominently on the hotel’s front façade, and the photographs displayed proudly in the lobby, honoring several Beat-era poets who had stayed there more than half a century ago. According to one of the plaques, William S. Burroughs supposedly wrote Naked Lunch there.
This hotel is to architecture what haiku is to literature: charming, ancient, and airtight—“no room for petty furniture,” as Emily Dickinson writes of compressed poetry. If there is a general view of Beat-era poetry, it is that it rides the force of Whitman’s barbaric yawp and delights in expansiveness, open vistas, and freedom. So it is a little unexpected and amusing to imagine multiple Beat poets writing productively in this very cozy, well-appointed hotel, just as there is something unexpected about the Beat poet who ventures into the space of haiku.
Jack Kerouac did not join his colleagues at this hotel, but he did spend considerable time within the small chamber of the haiku, testing its edges, poking fun at its purpose, and stumbling into very sweet encounters with its essence. Yet what stands out in his playful attempts with the form (which he renamed “Pop”) is their humor.
In his Book of Haikus, edited in 2003 by Regina Weinreich, Kerouac toys with nature. In the Japanese tradition of seventeenth-century poet Matsuo Basho, haiku juxtaposes something man-made with something from the natural world. Generally in Basho’s poetry, nature complements if not soothes loneliness.
without flowers or moon
one is alone.
(Matsuo Basho, The Complete Haiku, translated by Jane Reichhold (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008)
However, in Kerouac’s haiku, man and nature collide, confront one another, or fumble towards connection.
A raindrop from
Fell in my beer
(New York: Penguin Poets, 2003), 30
Where Basho’s natural elements blend with or serve to illuminate the human situations in his haiku, Kerouac’s speakers sometimes come off as annoyed with nature.
don’t be like me
even though we’re like the melon
split in two.
Nature is a not a metaphor in Kerouac’s haiku, but an encounter—even a clash:
Bee, why are you
staring at me?
I’m not a flower!
The earth winked
In the john
In his imitations of the Japanese model, Kerouac produces humor by reversing the direction of the metaphor: human experience is no longer compared to something beautiful in nature; rather, nature interferes with or is pitted against man-made entities.
I sat down to read Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher’s second novel, on the same day a former student emailed asking for a letter of recommendation to become a resident assistant on campus. As I scrolled through the email, I had to chuckle. Not only did I vaguely remember this student, but as I searched my memory (and previous online grade book), I realized this student did not do particularly well in my class nor did he demonstrate any of the qualities necessary for a resident assistantship.
So to is the woe of Jason Fitger, the epistolary novel’s witty anti-hero and beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, who chronicles a year’s time with the incessant requests for letters of recommendation from current and former students, many of whom do not possess the intelligence and/or the aptitude deemed essential for their sought after positions. Take the case of a Mr. Allen Trent for example. Professor Fitger writes, “Mr. Trent received a C- in my expository writing class last spring, which – given my newly streamlined and increasingly generous grading criteria – is quite the accomplishment. His final project consisted of a ten-page autobiographical essay on the topic of his own rageful impulses and his (often futile) attempts to control them. He cited his dentist and his roommate as primary sources” (22). Some were requested by little known students like Melanie deRueda, who, Fitger explains, “I’ve known . . . for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes” (12). These student stories remind me of the video “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities?” that I was introduced to in graduate school (2:00-2:17), a humorous yet all-too realistic take on the state of affairs in our field.
Others showcase bright students as products of academia and a hopeless job market, as Fitger explains: “You or any other employer will be very fortunate to hire a person such as Ms. Cuddigan . . . I hope you will not consign her to a windowless environment populated entirely by unsocialized clones who long ago abandoned the reading and discussion of literature in favor of creating more restrictive and meaningless ways in which humans are intended to make themselves known to one another” (88).
Although student shortcomings and our product-driven world are the focal points of many letters, taken as a whole, the novel acts as a beacon of social criticism. It highlights the travesty of minimalizing students, professors, and the profession into a stock, three-paragraph letter. There are quite a few instances in Schumacher’s book where Professor Fitger must complete a confidential, online letter, only to be cut off mid-sentence due to an imposed word limit. In one such application, the question reads, “Are there any other comments you would like to add,” to which Fitger angrily retorts, “Yes: I would like to finish my fucking sentences. I suppose your organization is to be commended for not resorting to the absurd array of little black boxes . . . but given that your damnable form has cut me off every time I initiate a” (55). It seems as though these letters also undermine the very subjects and lessons I teach, such as the larger social significance of ideas, the power of face-to-face interaction, and critical thinking.
I emailed my student back requesting a visit and a chat prior to the commencement of my letter writing. We met over coffee on campus, and I learned so much about my student’s hopes and dreams for his future. After our talk, I sat down and crafted a letter, adding in my own sincere request for a phone conference to discuss matters further at the end of the letter. So, during the crazed end of the fall semester, I’m reminded, thanks in part to Schumacher’s hilarious, social critique, not to lose sight of why I even got into this profession in the first place.
c 2014 Tara Friedman
In this series thus far, I have discussed the ways in which Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps best viewed as a literary prankster or practical joker. In Part 1, I argued that the great theorist of “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” was also, in his various works, a master “diddler,” frequently putting one over on his readers. In Part 2, I discussed the “poet as prankster,” suggesting that even Poe’s poetry is not always as serious as it seems, while examining one poem (“O Tempora! O Mores!”) that was itself composed and presented as part of an elaborate practical joke. In Part 3, I argued that many of Poe’s most well-known stories, which are usually read as Gothic horror or mystery, might be considered as humorous, frequently functioning as comical send-ups of popular fictions of the era. In this entry, I want to consider another genre of writing for which Poe was quite famous in his own time: literary criticism. Not surprisingly, Poe’s literary criticism bears the mark of the prankster’s spirit, as his book reviews and essays are often filled with sardonic humor.
As a literary critic and book reviewer for a number of magazines, Poe developed an infamous reputation as a “tomahawk-man,” a harsh critic who, in the words of his great contemporary James Russell Lowell, “seems sometimes to mistake his phial of prussic-acid for his inkstand.” Lowell’s own humorous aside does not detract from his judgement, stated one line earlier, of Poe as “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America.” Perhaps because of this discriminating, philosophical fearlessness, Poe-the-critic was loathe to suffer fools gladly or even at all, and some of his best known zingers have come at the expense of his fellow poets and fiction writers.
For example, in an 1843 review of William Ellery Channing’s Our Amateur Poets, Poe writes: “His book contains about sixty-three things, which he calls poems, and which he no doubt seriously supposes so to be. They are full of all kinds of mistakes, of which the most important is that of their having been printed at all.” A paragraph later he calls for the author to be hanged, but—out of deference to his good name (Channing Sr. having been a “great essayist”)—Poe urges that the hangman “observe every species of decorum, and be especially careful of his feelings, and hang him gingerly and gracefully, with a silken cord.” Presumably, the remainder of the book review represents that figurative execution.
In my previous entries in this series, I have discussed the ways in which Edgar Allan Poe might best be thought of as a literary prankster, a “diddler” or a practical joker, who delighted in “putting one over” on his readers. This flies in the face of the wildly popular depiction of the nineteenth-century poet and littérateur. To his legions of fans and to the multitudes of merchants making commercial hay (and no small amount of money) off of Poe’s mythic image, Poe remains best known and best loved today as dark, brooding, alcoholic, madman-genius. However, to the great disappointment of my own students, all biographical evidence suggests that this image is largely false. Yes, Poe had his occasional problems with the bottle, although in this he was not all that far from the norm in his besotted epoch, and yes, he wrote some stories about madness, mayhem, mystery, and mortality, although he wrote far more burlesques, hoaxes, satires, and spoofs. Above all, Poe was a canny magazinist, an astute judge of the appetites of the reading public, and he used his own literary talents and business acumen to give the people what they wanted.
One of the things that readers desperately wanted, as Poe knew better than most, was a shock, especially in the form of tales combining elements of the bizarre, extravagant, terrifying, and weird. If Poe is best remembered today for his tales of terror, it is in part because he recognized that such tales would be the most popular in his own time. For example, after one publisher objected to the gruesomeness or bad taste of “Berenice” (a rather disturbing tale, it’s true, but well worth the read!), Poe explained that “to be appreciated, you must be read,” and he pointed out that such stories are “invariably sought after with avidity.” What kind of stories are so popular? “The history of all Magazines shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles” whose nature consisted of the following: “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical.” In other words, Poe asserts, excessive, over-the-top stories are what the people demand. So, again, if Poe became a master of horror, it is because Poe knew that horror sells.
How does this relate to my argument that Poe is best viewed as a literary practical joker? Poe’s burlesques, hoaxes, bizarreries, and practical jokes are obviously examples of his perverse sense of humor. But what about those stories that are “clearly” meant to be read as works of horror, mystery, or suspense? It is not for nothing that Poe is widely considered a master of Gothic fiction, right? (My use of the scare-quotes is an obvious giveaway, indicating my skepticism over whether any of Poe’s work could “clearly” be so described.) I would assert that even Poe’s apparently Gothic tales of terror are, on one level or another, also examples of satire, humor, or hoaxing. That is, even in his apparently serious fiction, Poe’s impish, satirical, and critical attitude prevails. This is not to say that we need to re-categorize Poe’s tales of terror as comical pieces, but it is to suggest that the prankster’s spirit infuses all of Poe’s work. As an example, I would like to look at “The Fall of the House of Usher,” one of Poe’s most famous and celebrated works of Gothic horror. Notwithstanding its gloomy atmosphere, mysterious characters, and horrifying climax, the story of Roderick and Madeline Usher’s frightening downfall is thoroughly suffused with playful humor. Continue reading →
In my last post, I suggested that Edgar Allan Poe was essentially a practical joker. That is, although he remains best known today for tales of terror and mystery, of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Poe in his own time was very much a satirist or humorist. Not infrequently, the joke is on us, the readers, who are duped into believing the most incredible things, as becomes embarrassingly clear in “The Balloon-Hoax” or “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” for example. After all, Poe was the philosopher who was able to explicate “diddling” – that is, tricking or swindling – as “one of the exact sciences.” In his various hoaxes, satires, and “diddles,” Poe proved himself to be an accomplished prankster, which unsurprisingly stood him in good stead in the bumptious literary marketplace of his era.
Less obvious, perhaps, is the way that Poe the Poet might also be considered a practical joker. Poe’s poetry, unlike his more well-known prose tales, is generally thought to represent the Romantic ideals of supernal beauty. In the best poems, Poe’s mastery of sound and sense helps to produce poems of haunting loveliness, as in “The Raven” or “Annabel Lee.” But, then, it should also be observed that many of his poems appear to be crudely imitative; Poe concedes that his earlier poems were essentially attempts to reproduce Byron, for instance. Some might be labeled failed experiments, while others appear to be downright awful. Who can listen to “The Bells” more than once without going mad? The pealing repetitions are so intensely jangling to the nerves that one can only conclude that such was the poet’s intention. The point of the poem is to drive us crazy! But even in Poe’s most successful poems, there is a lurking sense that Poe is putting one over on us. The reader of Poe’s poems must always be on guard, as one cannot shake the vague suspicion that the poetry may be an ornate armature upon which to hang a joke in poor taste. However, we can identify at least one poem in Poe’s corpus that is unquestionably also a practical joke: “O Tempora! O Mores!”
“O Tempora! O Mores!” is one of Poe’s earliest poems, although it was not published until years after his death. Its title, deriving from Cicero’s famous lament and translated “Oh, the times, Oh, the manners [or customs]!,” is already suggestive of humor in a modern context. The phrase is generally reserved for those satirizing the jeremiads of the era. Studying the poem more closely, we see that the jaunty doggerel appears to lampoon a single character, a handsome salesman or clerk who has charmed his lady customers, but who the poet recognizes as an unintelligent and unworthy “ass.” The poem was written sometime in 1826, when Poe was only 17 years old, and in my own reading I had taken it to be a satirical critique of the crass, commercial culture of the United States in the nineteenth-century. That is, like the biographer Kenneth Silverman, who noted the poem’s “scorn toward the clerk as a plebian vulgarian, and its contempt for the world of merchandising,” I saw the young poet in “O Tempora! O Mores!” as a Romantic bemoaning the unrefined, boorish, middle-class values of the day. Like nearly everyone else, I was perplexed about the final word of the poem, in which the speaker names his object of ridicule, “Pitts.” But, in the end, I was able to file this away as mildly interesting juvenilia.
However, I heard a fascinating talk by renowned scholar Richard Kopley at the 2014 MLA convention, which shed light on the backstory of the poem. (An abstract of the talk appears in The Edgar Allan Poe Review 14.2 [Autumn 2013]: 250–251.) Alas, I can offer only a teaser here based on my faulty memory of the presentation, but Professor Kopley is currently working on a scholarly biography of Poe, which I have no doubt will be well worth the wait. For now, let me just say that the poem “O Tempora! O Mores!” was the acid coup de grâce of an elaborate practical joke.
Edgar Allan Poe remains one of the most popular writers in the history of American literature. In the twenty-first century, Poe finds himself at the center of movies, television shows, and internet memes; the very name or image of Poe can be considered “click-bait” on the web. Yet the pop-cultural version of Poe is not a very accurate picture of the man, as a number of Poe scholars (a.k.a. pedantic killjoys) like to point out. Although biographers reveal the man to have been a savvy, business-like, professional magazinist, someone who knew what sold in the literary marketplace and who gave the people what they wanted, most fans prefer to confuse Poe with some of his more memorable protagonists. Many readers envision Poe as a dark, brooding, Gothic madman, a visionary poet obsessed with waking nightmares, horror, and the mysteries beyond the grave. The author of “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Raven” is assumed to be obsessed with premature burials, murder, and death. But what if this is all a ruse? What if, to employ a term that Poe uses with approval, Poe is “diddling” his audience. In Poe and the Subversion of American Literature: Satire, Fantasy, Critique, I argue that Poe is perhaps best viewed as a practical joker, a highly skilled literary prankster whose fundamental talent lay in putting one over on people. More frequently than we care to admit, the victims of these confidence games, these diddles, are us, the readers. While we are thrilled by otherworldly wonders, aghast at inhuman terrors, and in awe of supernal beauty, Poe is grinning.
Although Poe is best known and best loved as a figure of dark romanticism, he was also a humorist. In fact, Poe wrote far more pieces that could be considered humor or satire than those that would be called horror. If his first published tale (“Metzengerstein,” which actually could be viewed as a burlesque) was not intended to be comical, then his second (“The Duc De L’Omelette”) certainly was, and one of the last tales published during Poe’s lifetime, “X-ing a Paragrab,” was a silly little piece lampooning the newspaper or magazine industry itself. As David Galloway has pointed out, “comedies, satires, and hoaxes account for over half of his output of short stories.” (Significantly, Galloway’s observation appears in his introduction to a collection of short stories titled The Other Poe, whose title serves to emphasize the degree to which Poe is not widely known for his comedies and satires.) By numbers alone, one could argue that Poe was primarily a humorist, if sometimes a black humorist, and that his tales of terror or mystery were secondary to the main body of his collected works.