Articles - December 2011

Ill, angelic poetics (PoemTalk #48)

Edgar Allan Poe, 'Dream-Land'

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Read Edgar Allan Poe's “Dream-Land” even just once and discover that it’s not at all clear if this land of dreams is the place from which the speaker has come, or is, rather, his longed-for destination — or if indeed it is the very mode and means and route endured along the way. Subject and object, both; content and form likewise; it is the process that demonstrates the importance of desired ends. “Thule,” a northerly, arctic/Scandinavian sort of zone,[1] is apparently an origin "from" which the speaker has traveled, but it is also apparently “it” — a “wild clime” neither geographical nor temporal, Out of SPACE— out of TIME.”  And “it” is also a space through which one passes.

Thomas Devaney, John Timpane, and Jerome McGann greatly admire what Poe achieved here. For them it is a matter of a sort of wild control. The poem seems to go where it will (and that’s its point) but the speed — as matter of tongue, teeth and lips saying its words — is managed at the level of the line. The poem is intensely languaged, as is the selfhood of the “I” whose journey is always already the poem. And so this work, as an act of writing, far transcends its Gothic conventions.<--break->

Jerry McGann visited the Kelly Writers House to give a talk on Poe, decentered culture and critical method, and also to record a session of “Close Listening.” We at PoemTalk took advantage of his proximity to our studios, as well as of Philadelphia’s Poe-centricity, and (unusually for PoemTalk) gave our fair city’s visitor his choice of which Poe poem to feature. He selected — as he explains briefly during our talk — a typical but less well-known piece. Emerging from the urban corners of the Poe-known world were John Timpane of the Philadelphia Inquirer, where poetry actually continues to have something of a foothold among daily journalism, and, from further south and west, Tom Devaney, who ventured in from Haverford College where he teaches his share of Poe along with a great deal else. It should be noted here that Tom wasn’t always at the bucolic edge of William Penn's town. In 2004, for instance, he spent several afternoons at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site (Poe’s house, in other words) performing “The Empty House Tour” as part of the ICA’s series called “The Big Nothing.”[2]

Of course we have no recordings of Poe reading this poem, and we’re not even certain he ever performed it in public, although Jerry and Tom assure us that Poe did give readings and was even, for a time, avid about it. PoemTalk’s featured poems are always drawn from PennSound’s vast archive, but in this case, fortunately, we were able to make use of PennSound Classics, a page featuring links to guest performances of Blake, Chaucer, Wyatt, Spencer, Homer, Sappho, Langland, Milton, Pope, Swift, Dryden, Shakespeare, Whitman, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats, as well as from among archaic Greek poems and Scottish ballads. “Classics” also include Poe, as selected and performed by our own Jerome McGann. Here is his recording of “Dream-Land.”

Our director and engineer for this show was James LaMarre, and our editor this time, and indeed for all 48 shows, has been Steve McLaughlin. We note with pride that Steve is now also the Director of PennSound Radio. If you tune in you will occasionally hear Steve’s voice announcing the playlist, but know, in any case, that he’s the DJ behind the selections.

“Dream-Land”

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule—
From a wild clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE— out of TIME.

Bottomless vales and boundless floods,
And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods,
With forms that no man can discover
For the tears that drip all over;
Mountains toppling evermore
Into seas without a shore;
Seas that restlessly aspire,
Surging, unto skies of fire;
Lakes that endlessly outspread
Their lone waters— lone and dead,—
Their still waters— still and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily.

By the lakes that thus outspread
Their lone waters, lone and dead,—
Their sad waters, sad and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily,—
By the mountains— near the river
Murmuring lowly, murmuring ever,—
By the grey woods,— by the swamp
Where the toad and the newt encamp—
By the dismal tarns and pools
Where dwell the Ghouls,—
By each spot the most unholy—
In each nook most melancholy—
There the traveller meets aghast
Sheeted Memories of the Past-—
Shrouded forms that start and sigh
As they pass the wanderer by—
White-robed forms of friends long given,
In agony, to the Earth— and Heaven.

For the heart whose woes are legion
'Tis a peaceful, soothing region—
For the spirit that walks in shadow
'Tis— oh, 'tis an Eldorado!
But the traveller, travelling through it,
May not— dare not openly view it!
Never its mysteries are exposed
To the weak human eye unclosed;
So wills its King, who hath forbid
The uplifting of the fringed lid;
And thus the sad Soul that here passes
Beholds it but through darkened glasses.

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have wandered home but newly
From this ultimate dim Thule.

Above, left to right: John Timpane, Jerome McGann, Thomas Devaney.

NOTES
. The term “ultima Thule” in medieval geographies indicates any distant place located beyond the borders of the known world.
2. For links to essays, articles and more information about Devaney’s work on Poe, click here.

Into the Field: Sean Cole

LISTEN TO THE SHOW 
Sean Cole is a poet and radio producer currently based in New York City. I spoke with him last summer in Toronto, where he was living at the time. Sean’s chapbook Itty City (Pressed Wafer) was published in 2003, and The December Project (Boog Literature), a collection of postcard poems, came out in 2005. Sean has contributed to numerous public radio programs, including This American Life, All Things Considered, Marketplace, and Weekend America. He produced a memorable piece on Flarf poetry for Studio 360 in 2009, and his story “Death Mask” appeared as a Radiolab podcast last month.