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 Spirituality: Edgar Allan Poe and the Role of Poetry

ArtBy Howard Bess

I am writing this column on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe comes to my attention for multiple reasons.

I serve on the Board of Directors of Palmer Arts Council. The Council attempts to bring to life artistic endeavors in our community. One of our annual events is the celebration of poetry month each April. We are deep into planning the events. We will be publishing a 50 page anthology of locally written poetry. The theme will be the 75th anniversary of the depression era move of 200 farm families from the Upper Midwest to the valley in which we live.

Poetry in abundance will be read and recited during April. In cooperation with the local school district, there will be poetry slams for local students. Local poets will be featured at evening poetry readings at a downtown Palmer coffee shop. Readers of poetry will be placed in many businesses and will read poetry for any who will listen. I hope to be placed in a local restaurant where I will go from table to table, reciting and reading poetry to willing listeners. My repertoire ranges from Invictus to Psalm 23 to Mary Had a Little Lamb. And my offerings include a rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

We who live in Alaska live in the land of the raven. The majority of Americans think of the Ravens as a football team from Baltimore. Not so in Alaska. Ravens are a part of our every day life. We watch ravens in abundance and ponder their movements and social behavior. We listen to their speech and wonder about the content of their conversations with one another. A faithful listener knows they have an extensive vocabulary and fine communication skills. Ravens are central to the legends and myths of native Alaskans, whether Eskimo, Indian or Aleute. It is the ravens that bring wisdom and understanding to life. ...

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We late comers to Alaska can easily understand why the raven is so important to the native population. They are fascinating birds.

My wife is a birder and loves to read about Ravens. She would never claim to be an expert, but shares bits of information with me. Ravens are apparently social, but have their rules of behavior. Male and female mate for life. They do their own special dances. They are fun to watch. At night sizeable groups roost together. They have a cooperative relationship with preying animals such as wolves.

Poe probably did not know much about ravens, but he did get one thing correct. Ravens speak truth. In Alaska native tradition, ravens speak for God. In the case of Poe the truth was quite painful.

Poe was born on January 19, 1802, to a couple with the last name of Poe. They named him Edgar. While Edgar was very young, his father abandoned the family. His mother died soon after. While he was never formally adopted, he was taken in by a family by the name of Allan. The Allans were people of means, and Edgar in many ways was a child of privilege. He was a college dropout, had problems with alcohol abuse, and struggled to find acceptance in the literary world. Apparently Poe lived a life of longing for acceptance and love that he never found. He married his 13 year old cousin, who died of tuberculosis. Other romantic relationships were short lived.

In the Poem, “The Raven,” the poet mourns the loss of his great love, Lenore. Who specifically was Lenore? The reader never knows. It is the Raven that brings him the bad news. Nevermore! His great longing for love will never be fulfilled. His loss is final. The writer concludes that it is the only word that the Raven knows. In fact, the raven knew many more words. However, the only truth that the raven could speak to the distraught poet was “nevermore.”

“The Raven” was an immediate success. It has spoken to generation after generation for 165 years. The poem obviously speaks to the experience of every person who has never found love. It is Poe’s legacy poem.

Much of the world’s legacies of both gloom and joy is captured in poetry. Enduring values are made memorable through poetry. This is especially true of the Bible writings. Few people when asked about the make-up of the Bible will answer “It has a lot of poetry.” There is little recognition that the greatest of the Old Testament prophets were poets. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, and Amos were all poets who left us unforgettable messages. They wrote and spoke poems of warning and of hope. They were great messengers of truth.

When I ponder the kind of world that would bring joy to every person, it is a world that learns, creates, treasures and speaks the language of poetry.

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings,
who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of joy.

Isaiah 52:7


The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected] .


[30 January 2010]

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