STEPHEN SMITH: Poe's Work More Funny Than Scary
Having grown up in Maryland, I have a long and checkered association with Edgar Allan Poe (notice I spelled "Allan" correctly).
No sooner was I safely seated in an elementary classroom than the teachers began indoctrinating me and all the other unfortunate Maryland students with endless misinformation concerning the life and times of Mr. Poe.
He wrote great poetry and short stories, they said, and he was from Baltimore and lived there off and on for a good deal of his life. Students in his "home" state should have a deep and abiding love for his macabre ravings. Blah blah blah.
At least once a year the teacher would read "The Raven." We were supposed to display outward signs of trepidation when we heard the bloodcurdling lines of the poem, but all I could ever do was laugh. Here was a poem that was supposed to scare the pants off you, and it was so sing-songy it sounded like a nursery rhyme -- and a hilarious one at that.
The old poem about the worms crawling in and the worms crawling out, which enjoyed a brief flurry of popularity on the fourth-grade playground, was more direct than "The Raven" -- and you could sing the worm song.
Here's a verse from "The Raven":
"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,/Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,/While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,/As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door."
If that doesn't make you chuckle, nothing will.
When I was in the fifth grade, students had to memorize and recite the first verse of "The Raven," and we held an impromptu contest to see who could rattle-off the lines the fastest.
B.T. Barnhart could recite the verse so quickly there was no comprehending a word he said. He didn't talk with much clarity under ordinary circumstances, and when Poe's words came out of B.T.'s mouth, he sounded as if he were an Uzbekistani speaking in tongues.
At Halloween we were allowed to wear our costumes to school, and there were always two or three Edgar Allan Poes. They inevitably wore fake mustaches and spectacles a generation out of date. A cardboard cutout of a raven would be Scotch-taped to their shoulders, and they'd walk around saying, "Never more! Never more!"
That night they would, of course, recite lines from "The Raven" to clueless adults standing in doorways and laugh out loud before yelling, "Trick or treat!"
In the sixth grade, the teacher read us "The Purloined Letter" and "The Black Cat," both of which put me instantly to sleep.
Dig this syntax: "For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence."
ZZZZZZZZ. The expression wasn't in common usage at the time, but I used to think something tantamount to: Give me a break.
I'm obliged to mention that for 50 years Edgar Allan Poe devotees charged tourists $5 a head to tour "The Poe House and Museum."
"This is the room where the inventor of the mystery novel slept," they'd say with a flourish. But recently the Maryland Historical Review published an article which revealed that Poe never lived in what's known as "The Poe House." In fact, the site of Poe's house in now a parking lot.
Last week the good citizens of Baltimore gave Edgar Allan Poe a long overdue funeral. There were two services and, of course, there was an admission charge. According to the AP, some of Poe's detractors showed up in period costumes to place Poe's talent in proper literary perspective.
On the Wednesday following the funeral, the Poe House (the fake one) held a viewing of a wax replica of Poe's body stretched out in a cherry-wood coffin -- which strikes me as absolutely appropriate.
Contact Stephen Smith at email@example.com.
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