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The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel
Harvard University Press, 2014
256 pp., 27.5
Harry Lee Poe
The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty
We live in a culture that has largely lost its poetry—probably the only culture in human history to do so. At the end of the 19th century, the public and private reading of poetry as well as the memorization and recitation of long passages of poetry were major forms of popular entertainment rather than the rare practice of an intellectual elite. For most people in our culture, poetry has grown as inaccessible as Egyptian hieroglyphics.
From time to time someone appears who makes poetry once again accessible, in spite of our tendency to reduce language almost exclusively to the grunting of brute data that may not even be facts. C. S. Lewis succeeded with A Preface to Paradise Lost in helping his readers understand how epic poetry, a lost art form, actually works. A similar book is Jerome McGann's The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel, for in the process of clearing up so much of the critical fog that has enshrouded the poetry of Poe, McGann helps his readers understand how to read poetry more generally.
Few people could have written The Poet Edgar Allan Poe. Many fine Poe scholars could have written a fine book on the poetry of Poe, but it took McGann to do what he has accomplished in this book. A Poe scholar who has devoted a life to the study of Poe may be easily dismissed as a partisan when commending Poe to the rest of the literate world. McGann, on the other hand, came late in life to Poe after having established a reputation as one of the great scholars of American literature. His venture into Poe came as a surprise, given the long-held tradition in American literary studies that Poe should not be taken seriously.
This study is all the more significant for its confessional tone. Like Walt Whitman and T. S. Eliot before him, McGann came to grasp the significance of Poe after a distinguished career in which he had accepted the standard line that had been passed down in intellectual circles since Emerson that Poe was merely a "jingle man." ...