Friday, January 23, 2009

Politics, Pageantry, Poetry, Poe

What a week, eh? Pageantry and Politics can be dangerous bedfellows, but Obama’s inauguration, spin or no, has been a shot in the arm for so many. Here’s to Hope (and industry)! In all the fuss, however, the celebration of another remarkable American, and notable occasion in US history, was a little overlooked.

Firstly, some context. As a child, I read anything I could get my hands on. I guess this trait came from my father, who once said he would “ anything from Playboy to the Bible” - although I never remember seeing either in his hands (or our home for that matter). Luckily, our family regularly frequented jumble sales, auctions, church fairs, junk shops, etc. along with more usual outlets, so we accrued a wide and random selection of reading material. A particular treat were those rolled bundles of used comics - usually sold for something like 10 for 10p.

I worked my way through Brer Rabbit and company, lots of Enid Blyton, Biggles, Just William, The Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, even the occasional Nancy Drew. My imagination was fired by Robin Hood, The Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, The Arabian Nights (abridged versions, I’m guessing). I really loved reading stories and as I got older everything was fair game, even schoolbooks now and then. 

One of the first 'grown-up' books I remember making a distinct impression was a paperback collection of short stories – titled, I think, Tales of Mystery and Terror. I was gripped! The Cask of Amontillado, The Telltale Heart, The Black Cat, The Pit and The Pendulum – brilliant, gruesome stuff. The Masque of The Red Death was a particular favourite.

Last Monday, January 19th, marked the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allen Poe, the author of those stories. His first publication was Tamerlane and other poems. Only fifty copies of this short collection of poems were printed, of which only 12 (not bad, considering!) are believed to still exist. He was in many ways ahead of his time, writing criticism, prose and poetry with clarity and focus. Tragically, not long after the success of his classic poem 'The Raven', he suffered an ignominious death. He was further unfortunate in having as literary executor one Rufus Griswold who harboured some personal grievances, and aimed to destroy his reputation in a thoroughly calculated way. Despite that, of course, his work is widely read and his influence remains strong today.

I first read those stories over 30 years ago, sitting on the ground by a bookshelf in Wexford. Though short, they felt utterly complete and had character and personality in a way I hadn’t previously experienced. They were freestanding. Involving. Chilling. Reading them, I understood clearly that it was possible for one person to write short, unique stories and see them appear in print. Perhaps I could do this too? This spark of realisation took a long time to catch flame. Intervening circumstances presented their own necessities, requirements and, yes, distractions. Preconceptions remained stubborn. For many years, the idea of becoming a writer was a foreign concept, accessed beyond any route I was aware of. Writers were writers - I was something else.

Nowadays I write regularly. To mixed effect, it's true - I'm no Poe. But that's the point. Hopefully I've shed many pre-conceived definitions or expectations that may have been obstacles and now I aim to write for the reward of the writing itself. So, today I'd like to thank Edgar Allen Poe and all those other writers who, in doing likewise, have inspired and enriched my life and world, even in the face of it's unremittant terrors - personal, domestic or foreign. And to Mister Poe, offer a (belated) Happy Birthday!