Charles Harrington Elster
The Big Read: Shades of Poe is a month-long celebration inspiring San Diegans to read Edgar Allan Poe through visual art, performances, music, exhibits, and celebrity appearances. Here’s a full schedule.
I’ve always been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, that master of mystery and the macabre, so when Write Out Loud asked me to participate in this year’s Big Read, how could I say “nevermore”?
As a San Diego author and former member of the city’s Board of Library Commissioners, I’m all for reading in any way, shape, or form. And I applaud the mission of The Big Read and Write Out Loud “to encourage reading for pleasure and enlightenment.” But that’s only one part of the literacy equation. To enjoy and learn from what you read you must understand the meanings of the words a writer uses. You do yourself a grave disservice if you read around words you don’t know, or worse, merely guess at what they mean without bothering to look them up.
For me, reading has always been not only a quest for pleasure and enlightenment but also a word-hunting expedition, a lexical safari. That’s one big reason why I’m enthralled by Poe: his telltale verse and prose is a maelstrom of vivid, morbid words guaranteed to shock and awe readers of all stripes and ages.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of another writer whose vocabulary was so imbued with the gloomy, gruesome and grotesque. Who but Poe could — or would dare to — put together such a grandiose string of words as “this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore”?
Poe regularly trotted out scores of eerie specimens to augment what he called the “effect” of his writing, by which he meant the impression his word choice and narrative tone had on the reader. Some of his favorites were abyss, afflicted, aghast, agony, appalling, apparition, crypt, demoniacal, desolate, dirge, emaciated, enshrouded, fitful, frenzied, ghastly, grotesque, hideous, immolation, intolerable, malady, pallid, prostrate, quiver, sullen, tremulous, writhe and wretched.
And what better place for a young reader to go than to Poe’s stories and poems to build a strong vocabulary? Any student preparing to take the college entrance exams (the SAT or ACT) would do well to read or reread Poe, for his work abounds with the sort of vocabulary that regularly appears on those tests — words like acrid, endeavor, lofty, impetuous, repugnance, veracity, sagacious, decrepitude, prodigious, elucidation, sonorous, turgid and prolixity.
And because he liked to make readers sweat, from time to time Poe tortures us with some really scary words, such as ague, apothegm, autos-da-fé, castellated, eld, flacon, ignus fatui, moiety, paean, pertinacity, Pyrrhonism, roquelaire, Sexagesima, Stygian, supposititious and surcingle.
Perhaps my favorite of Poe’s killer words is nepenthe (nuh-PENTH-ee), which appears in his famous poem “The Raven”: “Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!” the depressed narrator moans. If you know what quaff means (“to drink a beverage, especially an intoxicating one, deeply and heartily”), you have a decent shot at deducing from the context that nepenthe means “a magical drug or drink that makes you forget your sorrows or misfortune.”
Unlike that other great 19th-century American writer, Mark Twain, whose language was colloquial, accessible, and presciently modern, Poe’s language was never entirely liberated from the stilted Anglophilic style of the early 19th century. One sentence, from “William Wilson,” will serve to illustrate the point: “To the uttermost regions of the globe have not the indignant winds bruited its unparalleled infamy?” But it is a testament to Poe’s genius that he took the deathly verbosity that dominated 19th-century writing and transformed it into a high-flown, hair-raising literature of fantasy, terror, revenge, murder, and death — a literature that laid the groundwork for much modern fiction.
Although the word detective was unknown to Poe (its first recorded use is in 1850, a year after he died), he is often credited with being the father of the detective story and the inspiration for the popular genres of mystery, horror and suspense. As San Diegan Kathleen Krull reminds us in her charming book for young readers, “Lives of the Writers”: “The Edgar Awards, given each year by the Mystery Writers of America for the best mystery books, are named after him.”
In his introduction to “The Viking Portable Poe,” the historian Philip Van Doren Stern writes that “this neurotic and unhappy artist is strangely modern, oddly in keeping with our own neurotic and unhappy age. He knew what the death wish was long before Freud defined it. He was in love with violence half a century before Hemingway was born; he knew how to create suspense before the psycho-thriller was thought of; he used the theme of the double self before the term ‘split-personality’ was invented. And, most important of all, he was endlessly concerned with inner conflict — the major theme of present-day literature.”
Poe was indeed strange and shocking and, quite likely, mad. But he was also a preternaturally gifted writer. Which is why for generations, and for good reason, legions of readers have gone crazy over his gory, glorious words.
Charles Harrington Elster is the author of numerous articles and books about the English language, including the vocabulary-building program Verbal Advantage and two vocabulary-building novels for high school students, Tooth and Nail and Test of Time. He will participate in a panel discussion with Arthur Salm on April 24 at Mission Valley Library.
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