A Dialogue on Poetry between Emerson & Poe

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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#45: Boston

Although Harvin, Ticcoa, and I said for weeks that we were “going to Boston,” in reality, we only spent one full day in the city. But what a day it was!

Our activities in Boston included walking the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile long walk that connects 16 stops important in the founding of our nation. We didn’t go to every stop, but there were some cool ones:

1. The trail starts at Boston Common, America’s oldest public park. It’s big and beautiful and right in the heart of Boston. Lots of green grass, the Frog Pond, and expensive parking. We wandered through the park, took a few pictures, and moved on to the first big stop.

revere's tomb2. Granary Burying Ground. Paul Revere is burried here. John Hancock. Samuel Adams. Ben Franklin’s parents. The five victims of the Boston Massacre. It’s really an impressive place, just a few blocks away from Boston Common. Old, crumbling tombstones; dirt paths; steeped in history. I love graveyards, especially when cool people are buried there.

3. Next was King’s Chapel and King’s Chapel Burying Ground. The graveyard actually came first, and the church was built later. In literary history, King’s Chapel is important because it’s where Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale were buried in The Scarlet Letter. Sadly, they’re not real, but it’s another great little, old cemetery.

boston massacre4. We also saw the site of the Boston Massacre, just outside the Old State House. A ring of bricks marks the spot where the five men died.

Near the massacre site is also the visitors’ center for the Boston National Historic Site, which encompasses most of the spots on the Freedom Trail. I bought cool postcards there. 🙂

cheers5. Fanueil Hall was an awesome place, if only for the marketplace near the old building. A replica of the Cheers bar is there; Chris demanded that I stop in and buy him a t-shirt. My dad also appreciated my stopping in, as well.

Fanueil Hall Marketplace is an impressive building. Food vendors sell all sorts of international cuisine. I ate Thai food–delicious! Coa enjoyed a lobster roll and Harvin a seafood wrap. Good, inexpensive food.

paul revere house6. We visited the Paul Revere House, too–the only house museum on the Freedom Trail. It wasn’t that great, really. Just four rooms housing some artifacts from Revere’s life. But it was a self-guided tour with little signs and descriptions on everything. Not the best museum we’ve been to, by far.

north church7. The best stop on the trail, and one of our best of the week, was the Old North Church, where the lanterns were hung to warn the colonists about how the Patriots would be entering Boston: “one if by land, two if by sea.” We arrived at the church in time to hear a great tour guide give a talk about the real history of the hanging of the lanterns. Revere was the one to give the order to hang the lanterns, but he never actually hung them–he headed off in the direction of Lexington and Concord to warn those residents.

newman windowA young man named Robert Newman was one of the two men to hang the lanterns in the church. They climbed up to the belfry to get the lights as high as possible, and when they emerged at the bottom after taking the lamps down, the British had already entered the church. Newman and the other man leaped out of the windows to escape. A replica lantern now hangs in the window known as the “Newman window.” One of the actual lanterns is housed in the Concord Museum, which we saw later in the week, and we also visited the site where Paul Revere was captured just outside of Boston. More about that later, though.

poe birthplacePoe, darling Poe, was also born in Boston. The boardinghouse where he was born is now a coffeeshop or something similar. There is a plaque on the building, though. We stopped to take a picture.

Boston is really a spectacular city. So much history, surrounded by so much urban development. It’s a pedestrian’s city, too–they’re fearless! They’ll just walk out in front of traffic, knowing that they’ll stop. I had to work up the courage to cross, even when the don’t walk sign was lit.

It’s a city I’d very much enjoy living near, but living in the city would be a nightmare, I think. I don’t have the courage–big cities still frighten me a bit. 🙂

There’s one other part of Boston I saw, that I’ll talk about later, since it was a special item on my list. I stood outside Fenway Park. It was a beautiful thing. 🙂

#78: Quote poetry at Poe’s grave in Baltimore.

poe portraitBesides reaching Maryland, a state that I had never before visited, which put me that much closer to reaching #41: visit all 50 states, visiting Poe’s grave in Baltimore was the first item I was able to mark off my list on this trip.

poe monumentOn Saturday, August 1, the second day of our New England Writers trip, we left Annapolis and stopped in Baltimore at Westminster Burying Ground, where Poe; his wife ,Virginia Clemm Poe; and his mother-in-law, Maria Poe Clemm, are burried.

Edgar A. Poe is one of my favorite authors–he has been since I first read “The Raven” in middle school. To see his grave in such an awesome cemetery was really an exceptional thing for me. The cemetery has this great brick walkways throughout, and the church that’s there was actually built after the burying ground, so a lot of the gravestones are sitting right next to the building, or even beneath the porch of the building. It’s a strange thing to find this, too, in the middle of Baltimore, with huge buildings so nearby.

The goal of this visit to Westminster wasn’t just to visit Poe’s grave, however. I had to quote something, too. And while I have significant portions of “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” and even “The Bells” memorized, the one poem that is my favorite is “El Dorado“–and at four stanzas, it’s a short one that I’ve had memorized for years.

I do have video evidence of this–the first time I have video proof of accomplishing something from my list. However, it’s stored on my brother’s camera’s memory card, and I won’t be able to access it for awhile. When I do, I’ll try to post it here.  It’s fun.

I’ll leave you with more pictures of Poe’s grave at Westminster, but if you’re a fan of Poe, be sure to check out the Edgar A. Poe Calendar, an incredible blog with great posts about important events in Poe’s life and literary history. It’s fabulous!

poe's grave

Harvin, me, and Ticcoa sitting at the monument. Note our two Poe dolls, given to us by Becky, and my Threadless shirt, Poetic Irony, which I bought specifically for this trip. 🙂

poe

Poe’s side of the monument. His wife and mother-in-law are on either side, and his image and name are on the front of the monument.

westminster

Westminster Hall

Additionally, on the trip back home, we stopped in Baltimore on Saturday, August 8, for dinner at Annabel Lee Tavern, one of the best restaurants I’ve ever dined at, and entirely Poe-themed. I had bison sliders (delicious!), with their fantastic sweet potato fries and bleu cheese cole slaw. Additionally, if you drink, they have cocktails named for Poe stories and poems–Harvin enjoyed the Annabel Lee.

annabel lee

The entrance to Annabel Lee Tavern in Baltimore.