For my grad school class on the American literary renaissance, I was assigned to imagine a dialogue between Ralph Waldo Emerson and another poet on the role of the poet. I had fun imagining what Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe would talk about, and I thought I’d share it here.
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The setting: a darkened restaurant in Boston, circa 1845
The characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe
The scene: Waldo slowly drinks a cup of hot tea and munches on bland crackers while Edgar hurriedly downs cups of black coffee, frequently checking the time on his pocket watch. We join in the middle of a heated conversation.
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POE: You have no idea what real poetry is, Waldo!
EMERSON: No idea, Edgar? Whose poetry is imprinted on a monument commemorating the birth of our nation at the Old North Bridge in Concord, within view of my grandfather’s house? Meanwhile, you were paid a mere pittance for that ghastly poem about a bird!
POE: [swigging from his coffee mug, only to realize it is empty before slamming it on the table] “The Raven” is a brilliant poem! Perhaps I have yet to make much money off my work, but at least I have realized the process involved in writing a great poem.
EMERSON: Process? Poetry isn’t about process. Poetry isn’t about rhyme or meter! A poet should convey truth to the masses. A poet should find in Nature all of the experiences of humanity, and his poetry should reveal our shared connection with the divine. The content matters far more than the form of a poem.
POE: The content does not matter at all if the form—the rhyme, rhythm, meter, every word contained therein—is not worthy to convey such truth. And as for your “Nature.” Waldo, nature is not perfect and divine.
EMERSON: A true poet would disagree with you, Edgar.
POE: Oh, really? What, then, would a “true poet” find perfect and divine about a young boy, orphaned and unloved? About a young wife withering away from a heinous disease? Where is the perfection in that, Waldo?
EMERSON: [sitting thoughtfully] “Everything in nature answers to a moral power,” Edgar (214). This darkness you’ve experienced is because you haven’t really understood poetry yet.
POE: I understand, Waldo, that a talented poet realizes that darkness and melancholia can evoke that which is truly beautiful. I’m not lacking an understanding of poetry. I have, in fact, transcended to the level of finally portraying a true picture of humanity.
EMERSON: By inviting a bird of death into your chamber?
POE: I didn’t invite him in. He invited himself into the chamber of my narrator. Besides, is a raven not part of nature?
EMERSON: Perhaps in its natural state, but inside a darkened room is decidedly unnatural. [Waldo patiently sips his tea.]
POE: Contrary to what you Frogpondians espouse, a poet need not always seek to reveal nature. Through a properly constructed plot, rendered in an acceptable length, a raven able to speak only one word may be both terrifying and beautiful.
EMERSON: [thoughtfully] It seems we agree on one thing at least, Edgar.
POE: [sneering] What is that, Waldo?
EMERSON: Poetry should be beautiful. A poet should convey beauty to the world.
POE: Perhaps so. But how would you define beauty?
Edgar tosses a coin onto the tabletop, sweeps his jacket off the back of his chair, and strides toward the door without a second glance at Emerson, who turns toward the fireplace and continues sipping his tea.