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Philosophy of Composition

I’ve always thought that Edgar Allan Poe was a little overrated. That is, because he writes stories of a gothic…

I’ve always thought that Edgar Allan Poe was a little overrated. That is, because he writes stories of a gothic or dark turn, and because bookish teenagers in particular often feel tormented and gravitate toward gothic or dark literature, they tend to like Poe not out of any particular appreciation for the aesthetics of his work but merely because he writes about dark things. There’s nothing wrong with this; my own interest in literature arose largely out of my being such a teenager. Still, I wonder if most who read Poe read him with a keen critical eye. I’ve long harbored a suspicion that he may not be as profound an artist as his reputation would suggest he is.

This has seemed especially true, to me, of his poetry, which I’ve often thought perhaps too erudite by half, overstated to the point of rhapsody, and just not very fun. This goes for the poetry minus, of course, “The Raven,” which I’ve loved since I first read it. It’s not the dark theme of the poem that draws me but is rather how fun it is to read, especially to read aloud. The relentless rhyming both at the line endings and mid-line makes it an absolute pleasure to read.

In the year following the publication of “The Raven,” Poe wrote an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition” that has become another particular favorite of mine. I read the essay with wonder every few years.

In the essay, he writes about how one constructs a work of literature. “There is a radical error,” he says, “in the usual mode of constructing a story.” Where many adopt the approach of writing down an incident or idea and filling in details, he proposes taking a more methodical approach, and as a case study, he offers a description of the method by which he composed “The Raven.” Initially, I took the essay very seriously as a sort of historical document and handbook, but as I’ve aged into skepticism, I’m more inclined to think it a fanciful essay instead. Others have expressed skepticism before me. T.S. Eliot, for example, wrote that “It is difficult for us to read that essay without reflecting that if Poe plotted out his poem with such calculation, he might have taken a little more pains over it: the result hardly does credit to the method” (via Wikipedia).

Still, it’s an interesting essay, and in it, Poe proposes a few things (some of them perhaps universally applicable and some pretty specific to his own aesthetic agenda):

  • You should write something that can be read at one sitting. Else day-to-day life interferes and ruins the effect a piece of literature might have on your reader.
  • “Brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect — this, with one proviso — that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.” In other words, if you want to pack an emotional punch, don’t go on for 200 pages or it becomes diluted; but, also, a haiku can probably pack only so much emotional punch.
  • Your subject should be universally appreciable.
  • “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem” (with a brief digression on what beauty is in terms of poetry).
  • Further, the “tone of [beauty's] highest manifestation” is sadness. And nothing can be more universally used as an artistic effect than the refrain (which is basically, I propose, a big part of why songs work so well).

He then goes into some of the specifics of how he made decisions about how to put “The Raven” together. For example, he figured that the long “o” sound was the most sonorous and the “r” the consonant most easily paired with that “o” over and over (and thus this combination was most suitable for rhyming). He goes into a technical digression about the poetic measure he chose and why. He walks us through his rationale for choosing a raven to utter the refrain and how that afforded him the gift of being able to escalate from an apparently meaningless utterance to one of increasing significance and ill portent to the man who hears it. He explains how he settles on mourning for the death of a beautiful woman as the most universally sad (and thus most beautiful) topic. He tells us about how he determined what the poem’s setting would be and some of its other physical particulars. And he says that he essentially composed the end of the poem first so that he might work back to it from the beginning to build up to its emotional climax.

I think much of what Poe gives us in “Philosophy of Composition” he made up after the fact, but that doesn’t mean it can’t provide a useful way of thinking about our own methods of composition. For example, I think Poe is right that for many, ideas suggest themselves during the day, and there’s a tendency to jot down the basic idea and fill in details without much of a method of composition. And I think that this can lead to problems of construction, plot, logic, and so on when the ideas are being filled out and turned into fiction, say, or blog posts in which some creative license is being taken. So there may be something to his idea of constructing stories more intentionally.

I like the audaciousness of the essay if he did fabricate his method after the fact, and I admire his discipline and artistic rigor if he relates his process faithfully. And I think that even if he did fabricate the details of his method, it can be a useful exercise to go back after writing something and deconstruct what it means and how you managed to create it, even if you fib a little in your deconstruction. Doing so can help you think about choices you might have made and lead you in creative new directions.

How do you approach your writing process? Are you an inveterate outliner or do you let your ideas flow and follow them where they take you?  Would you consider using more process than you currently do, or less? What do you make of the idea of starting by writing your endings and then working to them from the beginning? If you have your own helpful methods of composition, please share them!

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  1. I freely admit that I tend to sit down at my laptop and let the inspiration flow, but invariably something happens between the mind/heart/spirit and the keyboard. So I then have to go back over it, and over it, and sometimes over it again, until it resembles how it started out in my mind. Maybe this is being undisciplined, but it’s how I capture the emotion in what I’m trying to share.

    Thanks for this interesting post. Personally, I love Poe. I love his dark, moody, brooding style. I also loved the recent movie with John Cusack…wondering how you felt about his portrayal?

    1. I appreciate your reference to “until it resembles how it started out in my mind.” This is the discipline, rather than the “undisciplined,” in my opinion. Like a visual artist recapturing a scene. I will think about your phrase as I write.

  2. I think you’re trying too hard. There’s nothing to understand. Poe was never regarded as a deep thinker or great writer — he was a fantastic drug addict and alcoholic, though. He wrote horror stories plus some remarkably memorable, but really bad poetry which falls into the category of unintentional self-parody.

    He’s important because his stories began a long process of legitimizing horror stories. Even today, if you can ignore some quirks of Poe’s style (the long sentences that make the word “run-on” inadequate), they’re pretty creepy. None creepier, though many gorier. When I was a kid, I enjoyed reading Poe. I didn’t venerate him as a great writer. I just liked the stories. They were nightmare stuff. Dungeons, walled up alive, buried alive. Ooh. I think my 12-year old year self had the right idea.

    Try being 12 and read without the “great American author” tag. You might like the stories better. As for the poetry, well … It wasn’t great then. It’s no better now. What’s weird is how it gets stuck in your head anyway. Maybe skip the poetry. Who needs The Raven running around your brain?

    1. I will disagree with you on two points here. I took a seminar class on Poe and there was no mention of him being a drug addict. He did try to commit suicide by using a small amount of an opiate. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that his poetry was/is an unintentional self-parody. As with many writer’s some of their characters are meant to work out things in their lives. So, I would venture to say his poetry and some short stories for that matter were self-exploration.

  3. I’m with Morgan on this one. I tend not to know quite where I am going until I’m done, but then pay the price in editing and re-editing and revising a dozen times. Even when I start with a clear outline, I discover during the writing that the outline was not quite as brilliant as I first believed. It, too, is revised and reorganised.

  4. Well, I actually agree with Poe in many aspects. There should be some kind of method when writing, and it’s actually a good practice to outline just a little bit to make sure that you don’t start rambling or ending in another direction you didn’t want. However, I still believe that the level of outline must be shallow, one that lets you keep in line and nothing else. If the granularity of your outline is so deep that you lost your ability as a writer to flow, then it´s time to stop because no writer should be so restricted that you don´t let the freedom of your words show.

  5. I cannot remember any of Poe’s writing,simply because I didn’t get a good feedback for his work.So I did what I usually do kept myself aloof from his work.

  6. I’m a big a fan of Poe, and didn’t fully appreciate him until I took a college seminar class. He’s not particularly a great writer, but he is really good at writing the macabre and getting in your head and scaring the bejeezus out of you.

    As we all know every writers process is different. I personally start with the end of the story in mind and work from there. I already know what’s going to happen to the character at the end of the story and I work to that end. Sometimes, very rarely, the ending ends up not being the ending.

    Just curious if anyone has read any of H.P. Lovecraft’s work? He was greatly influenced by Poe and it has been said that he perfected the art of writing the macabre and horror story.

  7. I love the darkness and horrific imagination of Poe (and I’m quite a bit older than an angsty teenager).

    When I write I sometimes start with an idea that I want to write about but during the course of creation it may take me down avenues I hadn’t thought of, and by the time I’m done it’s turned out much different then my intention. A lot of times when I force it, the grey matter becomes stubborn and refuses to open up for me.

    Basically I’m totally undisciplined, but I try to edit the heck out of it, when I think I’m pretty done. If any of that makes sense. ;-)

  8. Hello and congratulations for this excellent article.
    My compositions are like never-ending stories. I´m able to create connections all the time. Passing characters from one situation to another. I don´t pursue a linear explanation of the plot but it comes to me from different ways or pieces.
    Warm regards
    Oscar

  9. My method is determined by my purpose and, looking back at two of my favorite posts, the lack of consistency works.

    I did a post on Stockholm that I knew would culminate in a few preselected pictures from my visit there. I knew my message going in and I knew the story that went with it. Letting the process move me in new creative directions couldn’t legitimately be on the menu that day and I was happy with the result.

    For my post on iTunes, I went on a romp. It weaves in and out of tangential ideas and includes a self-authored Rammstein/Dr. Seuss parody. It’s not a post that could have resulted from any coherent outline and I doubt a more organized approach would have worked better for my topic. Besides which, who doesn’t enjoy a fusion of Rammstein and Dr. Seuss? That’s not something anyone plans on writing…

    So, I agree and disagree with Poe… depending on the circumstances.

  10. I have no formal training in writing except if you count school essays and thesis for my engineering degree, I cannot say I have any method to my madness but I believe in editing, editing, editing till I see what I have written is what I wanted to say in the first place. What I would like to share is something I read in Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s (he is one of my favourites) wikipedia page :

    “For me, the first draft is what happens, the second is why and how the person it’s happening to reacts, the third is how they feel… In drive by style, that’s boy on bench crying, boy on bench crying because girlfriend left him, boy on bench crying because he knows exactly why his girlfriend left him, and he deserved it which makes him cry even more… That’s massively simplistic, because the scene could be nailed down to what, why and feelings on the first draft and not change”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Courtenay_Grimwood

    If I ever wrote a story, I would take this advice.

    My personal tribute to Grimwood:
    http://kallucuriocorner.wordpress.com/2013/06/07/my-casting-couch-a-one-act-play/

  11. I thump out the first draft of my writing in one go. I then rebuild the structure from that raw material and flesh out any gaps before I give it a light edit. I then put it aside for a period and then give it a hard edit.

    1. Really? Nice! I think I do the same thing. I’m new to writing my own thoughts and about myself, so as a challenge, I just let it go to public because that somehow makes me try to edit it a little. Guess I didn’t think anyone would actually read it, but I try to return to edit it after it sits a lil bit. Otherwise, I’ll edit all the magic out of it and end up keeping it.

  12. You won’t believe me, but I first read “The Raven” in Russian (Voron) in my high-school time. I learnt it by hart, but now I remember only the first line:

    Ah, ya vspominayu yasno, Byl togda dekabr nenastnyj

    I bought a Russian anthpology of English poetry. At high school I was studying Russian and German as foreign languages. Then came the Polish translation I found in a literary weekly “Kultura”:

    Ach, wszak pamięć mnie nie łudzi, to był ciemny dziki grudzień
    I płonących głowni rudzień budził syczeń duszny chór

    - so far I remember. I was preplexed as everyone here by the enchanting beauty of the poem.

    Poe is making up a story of the composition process described
    in handbooks of rhetoric. His enarrating the essential poetical rules is not his invention, but elaboration of more than two thousand years practice.
    To give a speech or make a poem you have to choose its topic and according to it “invent” which means find out the motifs that have to be processed in this work.
    If your topic is “loss of the beloved”, you have to make some choices about the speaker, the lost person, the sort and closeness of their relation, its time, space, circumstances of the loss. Was the speaker guilty? Were they ever happy?
    This is the phase of inventio.

    Then comes the divisio: you have to decide how are you going to form the story: as a lyrical contemplation (not bound to a time or place), as narrative ballad, a short story, a novel, a drama, and so on.

    And if you have decided for the ballad (lonely mourner, sleepless night, december, fireplace, late visitor…) you go to the elocutio – giving the work all you can give to make it a masterpiece.
    The language form is most important, and you are happy when you have a good example, as here in the trochaeic rhythm (XxXxXxXx + XxXxXxXx) and the rhyme scheme of the Corpus Christi sequence
    Lauda Sion salvatorem

    „Fracto demum sacramento, ne vacilles, sed memento,
    tantum esse sub fragmento, quantum toto tegitur.

    Nulla rei fit scissura: signi tantum fit fractura:
    qua nec status nec statura signati minuitur”

    ============================

    We all do apply this rhetoric procedure of inventio – divisio – elocutio even if unknowingly of the rules, because the rules only register the logic of creative thinking and inventing process.

    If I read the topic of the coming week’s photo challenge, I come up first with an observation
    “Keeping company is a reward”
    I will be working on it to make my next photo-poem, because this is my job here. I will be looking in my collection for matches of the phenomenon “companion”, and – what happens tomorrow, only the Muses know, if they care.

  13. With blog posts doesn’t it depend so much on what type of post we are writing?

    For poetry, (or rather my attempts at it), I’ll put down the words that have been spinning round in my head in the early morning before I get up, and refine them slightly.

    For fiction, I guess it depends how long it is, and whether – if blogging – it is serialised. Novels clearly need more structure. With short stories the work has to be in the editing to have the impact.

    As I have a core regular readership my blog posts tend to be pretty conversational and something of a mish-mash. Not what I would recommend! But having said that, when I’m reading other blogs, regardless of how well they may be constructed, if the style is poor, I switch off.

    Which comes first – the beginning or the end? I had a big shock when I joined my first newspaper after graduating from university. After spending three years writing carefully constructed essays to finally come to a convincing conclusion, I was horrified to discover that the total opposite applied to news stories and that I had to start with the most important point first, gradually working my way down to the trivia.

    Depends who you are writing for on your blog. Want new readers? Need a good title and good intro or they will just pass on by. Writing for people who know your style, have similar interests? You can afford some diversion and use a dropped intro technique. Or even no significant intro, just narrative. I also write differently on my various blogs. The style is similar, but the structure changes. Serious pieces merit thoughtful structure, chatty personal ones are just that.

    I don’t remember reading any Poe. Thought I had but I was confusing him with James and The Turn of the Screw, which I found most spooky.

  14. Interesting! Will now read the Philosophy of Composition.

    Thank you for sharing this!

  15. I’m forced to comment because I have to say that Poe is a genius :) His novella, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, is absolutely brilliant and he was a huge influence on other writers not to mention to surrealist painters.

  16. I write for two reasons, one professionally where I used outlines based on given information and the other for personal release where in I tend to just let my mind free and go with the flow.

    I admire Poe, just the other day I was reminded of Annabel Lee, I share the same appreciation for dark literature. When I feel sad, it is when I am able to write more.

  17. I really never thought about my “method of composition” before, so this post – and the comments – gave me a lot to think about, and some new ideas! Thanks!