Philosophy of Composition
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 Initially, I took the essay very seriously as a sort of historical document and handbook, but as I’ve aged into skepticism, I’m more inclined to think it a fanciful essay instead.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!