Monday, October 29, 2012

Popular Poe Stories in Plain English: A Review

[Disclaimer:  The views written in this post that do not degrade or insult Edgar Allan Poe refer solely to his literary output, and not to the man himself, whom I maintain is a maggot.  The passages quoted from the work under review are for the purposes of comparison.]

Regarding the work now before us, "Popular Poe Stories in Plain English" by Jeri Walker-Bickett, we are of two minds.  We are pleased to see the publication (if only in this supernatural digital format) of such a blasphemy against the memory of a man for whom we've nothing but the most undiluted contempt, but simultaneously feel an uncertain dread for the future of which the the perceived necessity for such a book bespeaks.  This ambivalence permits us neither to enjoy to the fullest capacity our joy at seeing Poe's literary labors so abysmally reduced, nor to be overly opprobrious in the handling of the woman who has, by dishonoring Poe's work, even if unintentionally, endeared herself somewhat to the likes of Poe's most notorious defamer.

The volume is slight, containing, mercifully, only five of the wretched degenerate Edgar Allan Poe's tales, rewritten by sophomore English teacher and burgeoning author Mrs. Walker-Bickett, as we learn from her introduction, " in a plain English version that is more accessible to today’s reader.  Both her inspiration for and the purpose of this misguided project was the mutual frustration experienced by both educator and pupil when grappling with Poe’s tales in the classroom.  She informs us that it was not her intent to abridge or otherwise alter the content, but to instead simplify Poe’s sentence structure and amend his “old-fashioned use of language” to make the tales more palatable and comprehensible.  She has done precisely as stated, seemingly rephrasing each individual passage sentence by sentence, and in doing so has transformed five of Poe’s most beloved and effective tales into ugly and pedestrian fare that is less suited to her intended reader, a young adult, than it would be to one who had accumulated half as many years.  Had Poe never lived (oh, if only) and were these tales to be submitted in this vulgarized form as original works tomorrow, they would certainly struggle to find publication.  It is not because the writing is poor; it is not.  It is simply uninspired and anonymous.  As advertised, plain.  

It will perhaps be instructive at this point to introduce a few passages from this new translation of tales, in comparison with Poe's original prose, which is taken from my own edition of the depraved poet's complete works, published shortly after he perished, in order to give our readers (both of them!) a feel for this project.

 From the final passage of "The Oval Portrait:

Poe:  And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well.  But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from the canvass rarely, even to regard the countenance of his wife.  And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvass were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him.  And when many weeks had passed, and but little to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp.  And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, 'This is indeed Life itself!' turned suddenly to regard his beloved:--She was dead!

In Plain English:  The passage continued, "In truth, some who saw the portrait would whisper how wonderfully it captured her likeness and that the care put into it showed the depth of the painter's love.  As time wore on and the portrait neared completion, nobody was allowed into the tower due to the painter's devotion to his task.  He kept his eyes on the canvas and rarely paid attention to the physical presence of his wife.  He could not see that the colors he applied to the canvas were those same colors on the cheeks of his cheeks of his lady who sat beside him.  After many weeks, little was left to do except for a brush on the mouth and some tint on the eye, when the lady's energy perked up a bit like the sudden poof of a flame when lighting an oil lamp.  Then the last brush stroke was made and the final tint placed.  For a brief moment the painter stood mesmerized by his own work.  In the next moment, as he continued to look upon the finished painting, he began to tremble and grow pale as he held his mouth agape.  'This is Life itself!' he said loudly and turned to look at his love but she was dead."

From "The Pit and the Pendulum":

Poe:  I had swooned; but still will not say that all of consciousness was lost.  What of it there remained I will not attempt to define, or even to describe; yet all was not lost.  In the deepest slumber—no! In delirium—no!  In a swoon—no!  In death—no! even in the grave all is not lost.  Else there is no immortality for man.  Arousing from the most profound of slumbers, we break the gossamer web of some dream.  Yet in a second afterward, (so frail may that web have been) we remember not that we have dreamed.  In the return to life from the swoon there are two stages; first, that of the sense of mental or spiritual; secondly, that of the sense of physical, existence.  It seems probable that if, upon reaching the second stage, we could recall the impressions of the first, we should find these impressions eloquent in memories of the gulf beyond.  And that gulf is—what?  How at least shall we distinguish its shadows from those of the tomb?  But if the impressions of what I have termed the first stage, are not, at will, recalled, yet, after long interval, do they not come unbidden, while we marvel whence they came?  He who has never swooned, is not he who finds strange palaces and wildly familiar faces in coals that glow; is not he who beholds floating in mid-air the sad visions that the many may not view; is not he who ponders over the perfume of some novel flower—is not he whose brain grows bewildered with the meaning of some musical cadence which has never before arrested his attention.

 In Plain English:  I had fainted, but didn’t completely lose consciousness.  What dim awareness I retained I will not even try to put into words, but all was not lost.  No matter how deep a person’s sleep, or how strange their madness, how quickly they faint, or how final their grave, all is not lost.  We have to believe that or else man cannot attain any immortality.  When we wake from the enlightenment of sleep, we tear the delicate web of some dream.  Only a second after waking (for that is how flimsy a dream’s web is) we can’t recall a single detail. 
As we drift back to life from that blackout we first feel the return of mental alertness followed by physical awareness.  It seems likely that a person would be able to remember something of that first state once they have crossed over into the second state.  The lingering effects of that first mental state should form some revealing insights into the void beyond it.  But what is that void?  What can we do to tell its darkness from that of the grave?  But if the effects of what I have described as the first stage can’t be remembered at will after some time has passed, does that mean they will never come back to us automatically, while we are left to wonder where those effects originated?  The type of person who never allows their mind to wander in this way is not the sort of person who can see strange castles and familiar faces in glowing coals; nor the sort who sees sad visions hovering in the air.  The focused person will never give pause to the scent of some unique flower and that person certainly won’t get carried away by the meaning of a musical rhythm that never before caught his attention.

The murder in "The Tell-Tale Heart":

Poe:  But even yet I refrained and kept still.  I scarcely breathed.  I held the lantern motionless.  I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eye.  Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased.  It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant.  The old man's terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!—do you mark me well? I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me—the sound would be heard by a neighbor! The old man's hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once—once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more.

In Plain English:  I still did not move.  I barely even breathed as I held the lantern still.  I tested how steadily I could keep the light upon the eye.  All the while the dreadful drumming of the heart grew quicker and louder as the seconds passed.  The old man's fear must have been extreme!  The sound would not let up, do you understand?  I'll remind you again that I am nervous.  I am.  At this dark hour in this frightfully quiet old house, the pounding of his heart drove me to wild panic.  Even minutes later, I still did not move.  Louder and louder beat the heart as if it would burst.  That was when a new thought jangled my nerves.  What if a neighbor was to hear that awful thumping of his heart?  No.  The old man's time was finally up!  Yelling loudly, I fully opened the lantern and dashed into the room.  The old man screamed once and only once.  In no time at all I dragged him to the floor and yanked the heavy bed on top of him.  That made a huge smile spread across my face now that my plan was so close to completion.  The minutes ticked by as his heart continued to sound its muffled beat from beneath the bed.  I didn't let it bother me since no neighbor would be able to hear it through the wall.  After a time, it did stop beating.  The old man was dead.  I pulled off the bed and studied the body.  Yes, he was most definitely dead.  I put my hand over the heart for some time.  No pulse at all.  He was stone dead.  The vulture eye would not trouble me anymore.

The opening passage from "The Masque of the Red Death":

Poe:  The "Red Death" had long devastated the country.  No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous.  Blood was its Avator and its seal--the redness and the horror of blood.  There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution.  The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.  And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

In Plain English:  For a long time a deadly plague known as the Red Death had spread over the land.  No virus had ever killed so many or been considered so dreadful.  A sure-sign was all the disgusting blood involved.  It announced its presence with light headedness, followed by bleeding from the surface of the skin, and inevitably death from all the blood loss.  The mess that leaked from the sick person, specifically the blood oozing from the face, made it impossible for anybody to help the victim.  The course of the disease from start to finish took only thirty minutes.

(The reddened portion of this rewrite fails to convey Poe's meaning clearly.  Why, Mrs. Walker-Bickett, does the oozing bloody mess make assistance from the unafflicted an impossibility?  Is it that the unwholesome discharge makes the face and body too slippery for a doctor to get his hands upon?  How, specifically, do the repulsive visible symptoms of the diseased prevent anyone from coming to their aid?  One must consult the original text for clarification, in which Poe makes it plain, despite his dense prose, that sympathy for the victim could not dwell in the hearts of those who were witness to the horrors wrought by the disease.)

From "The Cask of Amontillado":

Poe:  "I have my doubts," I replied, "and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter.  You were not to be found, and I was fearful of losing a bargain."

In Plain English:  "I have my doubts," I replied, "and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without asking for your advice.  I couldn't find you, and I was afraid of losing what appeared to be a bargain."

(We would be curious to make the acquaintance of any reader who could understand this rewrite, but would find the original text incomprehensible.  We encounter such quibbling alterations throughout the text, changed for seemingly no reason except for the sake of change.)

We are made to understand that this experiment began as a classroom exercise in which the students themselves were made to rewrite portions of Poe’s tales in a more straightforward manner.  This, we believe, has value; but rewriting them for the purposes of the student’s consumption is another matter.  Mrs. Walker-Bickett has stated that she also utilized this project as a means of combating her writers block.  Again, we would not begrudge anyone’s use of any kind of writing exercise if it proves helpful, but to put such a work before the public and to suggest, as an educator, that it should be read in place of authentic Poe if his original language proves too difficult to comprehend is absurd.  If Poe’s writing truly “goes against a reader’s modern sensibilities” would he still be so widely read?  We do not believe so, nor are we inclined to believe that there exists any justifiable reason that the average person, today, by the time they reach high school, cannot read and understand the majority of Poe’s tales (and certainly the ones included in this volume) in their original form.  The most that should be required is a light, a thesaurus and possibly a pair of spectacles.

 In a recent exchange on Twitter Mrs. Walker-Bickett bemoaned the difficulty of teaching literature appreciation “when standardized tests only value comprehension and 80% read below level.” While we’ve no figures before us we will take her at her word.  She would know better than we.  But if this be true are we simply to dumb down the material?  Are we to let indolence reign and disentangle the knots of Poe’s prose so the student does not have to just for the sake of test scores?  Should we throw our hands up and indulge these imbeciles in their bibliophobia?  I think not, and attribute this lack of comprehension to plain laziness; laziness on the part of the student and laziness on the part of the teacher.  If something is challenging is it not the preferable course to meet that challenge?  It is certainly not the fault of Mrs. Walker-Bickett that her pupils were presented to her so miserably unprepared for Poe.  We admire both her confidence and her desire to ease the suffering of her students, but their plight will only be exacerbated if she permits them passage in this manner. 

It is not true, as has been frequently alleged since Poe's death, that his writings are beyond the public's grasp.  Complex literature such as his should not be made duller to be more easily understood by people.  These blunt minds need sharpening in order for them to cease being frightened of syllables and syntax, and Edgar Allan Poe, who would no sooner have watered down the content of his tales to suit the sluggish of mind than he would have watered down his drinks, would no doubt agree, despite our mutual loathing, that this adaptation of his stories is only slightly less of a humbug than what the malevolent forces behind Sparknotes or  No Fear Shakespeare would churn out (though to be fair, a better comparison would probably be with that of Charles and Mary Lamb’s equally unnecessary “Tales of Shakespeare”).  He would likely prefer that his name be stricken from the syllabus than have his name attached to this reduction of his masterpieces. Mrs. Walker-Bickett in her introduction says that she endorses “reading to appreciate an author’s use of literary devices and elements of style” but admits that “there are times that readers just want to get to the good stuff without having to re-read a passage five times to understand it.  Our response would be that the good stuff is the literary devices and elements of style.  Much of what Poe has to teach us is inextricable from his “daunting vocabulary” and “baffling syntax”. The minutiae of word selection and the delicacy with which he constructed his sentences is vital to the effects created by the tales.  What, then, is the point of these Tales of Poe for the Illiterate?  Is it so vital to a student’s education that they be familiar with Poe’s grotesque scenarios? In the absence of Poe’s original phraseology and the music of his prose such details are but macabre titillation.

Mrs. Walker-Bickett declared recently on Twitter that "a public domain work is ripe for re-fashioning."  We respectfully disagree, and can only repeat that the work, treasured amongst the literature of our country-men for over a century, must remain fixed in permanence, while it is the mind of the half-witted modern reader that should be compelled to change.  Is this approach to be adopted by other subjects in the educational curriculum?  Death claimed Archimedes and Euclid over two thousand years ago; clearly the time has come to update their archaic ideas. Beethoven's works are in the public domain, as are Mozart's (and everyone knows that he employed far too many notes), therefore should we not find a way to make them more appealing to the modern ear?  As for history, the actions and motivations of those old-fangled people are so hard to understand and so completely irrelevant that we imagine we should confine our studies only to the events of the last half-century.  Plainly we jest, but do not regard this with an abundance of humor.

 It is not our intent to insult or to injure, and some may wonder why we are so offended by this despite the fact that while alive we would not have extinguished a burning copy of Poe's work with a stream of our own waste.  It is a genuine concern for the literary fortitude of the future population, coupled, admittedly, with a personal fixation just short of monomania regarding Poe, from whence our hostile reaction to this book’s appearance springs.  The enrichment of our young people has always been of importance to us, as evidenced by the publication of our “Readings in American Poetry for the Use of Schools.”  We respect educationists, and that Mrs. Walker-Bickett has undertaken to participate in the literary enrichment of an increasingly disinterested youth displays a certain courage, even if it, in this case, falls short of true erudition.  She is clearly earnest in her desire to help the dimmest among us light their way through Poe’s bibliography, and though we cannot condone her methods we hope we have been kinder than some would have been, poet-inebriate Edgar Allan Poe included (though it matters little for this blog has fewer readers than Poe had hot meals).  We shudder to think of the gore that he, for whom the integrity of American letters was of supreme importance, would have made with his tomahawk of this mass of mediocrity.

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