Edgar Allan Poe is a global literary icon, best known for his Gothic horror tales. Actor Denis O’Hare stars as Poe in the new documentary “American Masters – Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive.” Listen to O’Hare read “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” with an original score by Damon Hardjowirogo (Infinity Shred), then learn about the poems and Poe’s legacy from Dennis Paoli, professor of gothic fiction at Hunter College. The documentary premieres October 30 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) and will be available to stream on Halloween via pbs.org/americanmasters and PBS OTT apps, as well as on DVD and digital download from PBS Distribution.
Anna Drezen: Edgar Allan Poe is the inventor of October, the spookiest boy who ever lived and one of the most famous literary figures in American history. Ever since his untimely and mysterious death in 1849, Poe’s stories and poems have inspired over a hundred years of adaptations and inspirations in writing, television, and film. Also, I personally believe that the word poem was inspired by his name because how could it not be? I'm your host Anna Drezen, and this is the American Masters podcast.
Anna Drezen: With Halloween right around the corner - I hope you have your costume picked out, you adult - we are lucky enough to have actor Dennis O'Hare in the studio to recite two of Edgar Allan Poe's most famous poems, “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee”. O'Hare, a Tony-winning and Emmy-nominated actor, is perhaps best known for his performance on the FX show American Horror Story, which is too spooky for me to watch. But on Monday night October 30th on PBS, you can watch his portrayal of Poe in American Masters - Edgar Allen Poe: Buried Alive.
Michael Kantor: Hi, Michael Kantor here, executive producer of American Masters. We're here in the booth with Denis O'Hare. Denis, welcome.
Denis O'Hare: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Michael Kantor: So we're here to talk about Edgar Allen Poe, and Denis, he has some interest in Poe that's outside of our project. And I'm wondering how you first got interested in the great writer.
Denis O'Hare: I was looking to grow a good mustache. And so he's got one of the best, you know, as far as historical mustaches go you can't do better. And so that was my initial attraction. That and the writing.
Michael Kantor: You had to dig deep to grow that mustache.
Denis O'Hare: Truly. I've kept it. It was so hard. You know, as a kid I was always attracted to monsters. I don't know why. So one of my favorite books growing up was a thing called How to Care For Your Monster, and it showed Frankenstein sitting under the basement stairs and the kid walking down with a plate of food. And I don't know why I was so attracted to it. I was a vampire for Halloween. I was a werewolf following. I was Frankenstein for Halloween. And one of my favorite movies was The Black Cat with Vincent Price and Peter Lawry, I think it was. I love vampire movies. Anything to do with horror I absolutely loved. And when I was around nine I think I came across a collection of Poe's stories. The story that's freaked me out the most, of course, was the Pit and the Pendulum, partly because just the idea of being strapped to a slab and having this massive blade coming closer and closer to you was so disturbing, but also because it was a hard story to understand. The way it was written was really dense and obscure, and it wasn't 'til I was older that I really got what was happening. But I got enough of the horror to understand at nine or ten.
Michael Kantor: So when you took on this role in our documentary what did you do to kind of prepare?
Denis O'Hare: You know, I read a bunch. Reading is always a great way to jump into a character. I read probably two or three different biographies and of course looked at the poetry again. And then, you know, just sort of talked a lot with Eric about what his take was on what happened to Poe at the end. And we sort of had to get on the same page about what we think happened there.
Michael Kantor: Eric Stange, the director.
Denis O'Hare: Who is really fantastic. And we also talked a lot about where we thought he was at any given scene. And there was a lot of really ethereal stuff that we had to contemplate about the afterlife. There's this great sequence where we're sort of on a bridge with a lot of fog on either side and we're actually reciting a poem, and we talked a lot about what Poe thinks he's doing in this nonliterary space – non-literal space rather – where in his mind is he, is he looking into the future? Is he looking into the afterlife? Is he looking toward heaven? What is he looking for? And so we sort of played with these really grand ideas of each step this direction equals a step toward oblivion and death but also toward his lost love. So these great tensions built in between longing and fear which seems to sum up the man.
Michael Kantor: When you try and dive into actually reading his poetry or speaking his poetry, do you try and do it in a 19th century way? Do you try and make it present? Do you study it like Shakespeare? How do you how do you attack actually trying to read it?
Denis O'Hare: Well there's two really big elements you have to confront. One is, ‘who is the speaker?’ and the speaker is almost always a version of Poe or an idealized version of Poe. So you're considering, ‘Who is this person? What is their circumstances?’ You know, in The Raven for instance, what's the time point of view he's talking from? It's obviously post the event because he's talking about it. Well how post the event? And he's obviously obsessed with the event, so how does he talk about the fact that he's obsessed with this event? But as a, as a technical feat you're also telling a story, and good storytelling means you have to have structure and you have to have a journey so you can't all be at one pitch and you can't come from just one point of view. You have to help the reader discover the picture with you. And the big technical mountain to climb is that this is a different time period. It's a different style, different aesthetics. It's hard for us to hear it the way they heard it. The emphasis on rhyme can sound to our ears facile or childish, but that's in the tradition of, you know, a great lay or great song or a great chant. It was much more acceptable, I think, in that period. And he works in that technique masterfully. He really does surprise by making the rhymes inevitable but still discoverable. His poems really have a lot of energy and forward movement pushing them forward. They don't stop at each line, which is the danger with a rhyme.
Michael Kantor: And you have a favorite of them all?
Denis O'Hare: You know, I do like some of the more obscure ones. We read a lot of them during the filming of Poe, and I was really happy to get to explore them. But you really can't go wrong with “The Raven”. You just can't. It's famous for a reason.
Michael Kantor: It was the most popular poem of the 19th century.
Denis O'Hare: Isn't that crazy to consider. In fact if you think about, ask anyone today to recite poetry, you know, what they're going to come out with? ‘I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree. You know something there is that does not love a wall.’ I mean they're going to get, you’re only going to get so far. ‘Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though.’ But, you know, thinking about what poems come to mind easily, he's up there with, you know, Dickinson, Frost. Who else? I mean really these, these are the poems that come to mind. Wordsworth. And “The Raven” at the time, as you mentioned, was this incredibly popular poem. Everybody knew it. Students recited it, and then he himself would recite it in salons, in the drawing rooms of very wealthy women in New York.
Michael Kantor: Well thanks for joining us and we look forward to hearing your readings.
Denis O'Hare: Thank you. Great to be here.
Denis O’Hare reads “The Raven.”
Anna Drezen: Professor Dennis Paoli teaches Gothic Fiction at Hunter College here in New York. He wrote the screenplay for the cult hit film Re-Animator and wrote the teleplays for two episodes of the TV series Masters of Horror.
Michael Kantor: Denis, where did Poe write “The Raven”?
Dennis Paoli: Poe probably wrote “The Raven” while he was working in lower Manhattan editing a couple of magazines in long days spending long hours writing and proofreading the work of others to put these magazines together. He hadn't been in New York very long, and he had just moved into a small house with his wife and her mother on a farm in what is now my neighborhood. I live on 84th Street and West End Avenue, and 84th Street has been renamed Edgar Allan Poe Street because it was there during that time that he wrote “The Raven”. It's likely that, as poor as he was, he would be walking to work every day and walking home at night – a journey of 10 miles total. And if you listen to “The Raven,” the insistent rhythm of it, this march that its meter takes – once upon a midnight dreary – you can almost hear him walking. And it's almost as if his imagination were focused on that rhythm as he walked, and in it developing the most spectacular poem of its time.
Michael Kantor: And when you hear that spectacular poem, what does it make you think about the character? What's happening to the character? What should someone who maybe has never heard the poem be listening for?
Dennis Paoli: The character in “The Raven” is like many of the characters in Poe's stories. If you read a number of his stories – The Telltale Heart, The Black Cat, some of his most famous stories, The Cask of Amontillado – they're first person narrators. They're told by a character who is engaged in a psychological struggle. Often a psychological struggle with himself. And that is indeed the situation of the young scholar that we engage in “The Raven”. He is- loves his literature. He's weak and weary from his study. And suddenly he hears a tapping, as if someone gently rapping, rapping at his chamber door. But there's no one there. Then there's rapping at the window, and there's no one there. It's as if the world around him suddenly changed, and he was seeing it, or in this case hearing it anew. And suddenly we are confronted by this figure of the raven. It's the nineteenth century, remember, people lived closer to nature back then. And I imagine a bird in the house was not that abnormal, especially if we remember that Poe is living in a farmhouse at the time. We know it's symbolic but for all of the poem we have no idea what it really is symbolic of. It's a mystery. It's a mystery to us and it's certainly a mystery to the scholar, who tries to engage with it and tries to explain it's, it's also insistent answer to all of his questions and all of his challenges. Nevermore. What does this mean? The scholar being a scholar wants desperately for a rational explanation, and he tries to explain it, and he tries to understand it. And as he does, we start to see his mental condition break down to the point where he has totally revealed himself as emotionally fractured and totally bereft for the loss of his lost loved Lenore.
Michael Kantor: So that the character who, who gives us the story of the raven you've pointed out is a scholar, and one of the, when I was reading it one of the important ideas is that the raven sits on a bust. Why is that important? Who is a bust of Pallas?
Dennis Paoli: It's probably Pallas, Athena, the goddess. The Greek goddess. She's the goddess, one might say ironically, of war on the one hand and poetry on the other. And it makes one think if one put those together that Poe in writing his poetry was in some way at war with himself or at war with the poetic principles of his time. Poe was a thorny character and constantly, because he was so poor, because he worked so hard, and because he knew he was so talented and his talent, never thought his talent was appreciated to the extent that it should be, that he was constantly confrontational in his work to the extent that, if you notice, his characters always end up confronting themselves. Because the raven never answers more than the mysterious response ‘Nevermore,’ which is so meaningful it's almost meaningless, the character simply has to end up confronting himself because the bird, like the bust on which it sits, is almost as of stone.
Michael Kantor: Implacable. Now do you feel like the ‘Nevermore’ provided by the raven is always inflected the same way or that in the in the character's perception of it, it's different?
Dennis Paoli: That's a very interesting question because it is a choice that any performer of the poem would have to make. And I wish we could be back and listen to Poe perform this. It's a poem that Poe performed in his lifetime many times because it was the most popular poem of his age. It's why he got asked and booked into venues to do readings up and down the East Coast. It is likely that at least at the beginning of the poem ‘Nevermore’ is in tone the same way every time because one of the first explanations the scholar comes up with is that the raven has learned the word like a parrot from a master and has escaped the master. So in that respect the scholar’s more likely to believe that if the word is in tone the same every time. So therefore you could do that all the way through the poem so that the only time you escape the scholar's psyche is when the raven speaks, is in the raven's speech. So it's almost as if you're coming back to a reality that is inimical to the feelings and the breakdown of the student. On the other hand if you hear it from his perspective, it probably becomes perhaps more harrowing, in some way louder, more insistent, more authoritative, more authoritarian, more dangerous, and indeed at the end of the poem he feels as if the bird's beak has pierced his heart. And while the bird hasn't moved – it's still sitting – but the student has a terrifying Gothic fantasy about the bird and what it has wrought on his poor person, on his poor life, on his poor conception of himself. And if you take that as your evidence it's entirely possible that you start to read those last ‘Nevermores’ in a more, a more gothic tone until perhaps the last one when it goes back just to ‘Nevermore’.
Michael Kantor: So “The Raven” is Poe's most popular piece. What do you think is his most personal poem?
Dennis Paoli: Probably “Annabel Lee.”
Michael Kantor: And “Annabel Lee” isn't published ‘til after he dies?
Dennis Paoli: 'Til after he dies. It's one of the last poems that he writes. He predicts that he's going to die young so he probably believes that he's approaching the end of his life. Nothing is going right for him. He's in a, in an even worse state than he usually was. He's as poor as he always was. His wife has been dead for a year and a, just over a year. And he is still in mourning and is grieving and is openly bereft, and the “Annabel Lee,” while it's pretty – it's a pretty poem, it's almost like a sweet song – is so sorrowful and so infused with genuine sadness that it's his most profoundly personal poem.
Michael Kantor: Well thank you so much, Denis Paoli
Denis Paoli: It’s been a pleasure.
Michael Kantor: I really appreciate your coming by.
Denis Paoli: Thank you.
Michael Kantor: Well the other poem we're going to read today is “Annabel Lee.” Denis O'Hare, thanks so much for reading and bringing us into the mind of Edgar Allen Poe. So why was “Annabel Lee” important to you?
Denis O'Hare: You know, the thing about good poetry like this is that it's easy to remember. It sticks in the brain. It has a structure, and a kind of like attraction to it so the rhythm of Annabel Lee is so seductive it really, like for a kid it's like an earworm. It stays in your head you can't get it out. ‘It was many and many year ago in a kingdom by the sea, that a maiden there lived whom you know with a name Annabel Lee.’ You kind of want to keep saying it over and over again. And also like Shakespeare, good verse is easy to remember, is easy to memorize, because it has a formula. It has a mathematical structure that if you get it wrong, you feel, you know what's wrong, you feels wrong. And when it's right, it feels right. And so much of Poe's poems feel right.
Michael Kantor: It's like a great song that sort of embeds itself in you. You remember when you first heard it.
Denis O'Hare: 19th century earworm.
Denis O’Hare reads “Annabel Lee.”
Anna Drezen: We want to give a special thanks to musician Damon Hardjowirogo for composing music for today’s episode.