Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Dream Within a Dream

Make no mistake, I love a good lecture.

Today's was the Virginia Historical Society, a place still torn up with construction (meaning the Boulevard entrance is closed unfortunately) and on the topic of Richmond's favorite adopted son, Edgar Allen Poe. Barbara Cantalupo, author of Poe and the Visual Arts was speaking on "The Poe You May Not Know."

Barely back from my truncated walk in time to leave for the lecture, I debated changing out of my walking clothes but decided not to since I had more walking to do after the lecture. I should have known that my choice all but guaranteed I'd run into someone I knew.

And not just anyone but a former work associate from 15 years ago who said he'd been wondering recently what had happened to me. Well, clearly I go out in public looking like a mess since you last saw me, drat the luck. After suggesting that we get together, his next question was blunt. "Did you get married again or can I find you in the book?" I wrote out my phone number to make it easier and waved farewell.

Once in the auditorium, the sweet older woman I usually sit next to couldn't resist leaning in and asking if I wasn't cold "with just those pink shorts on." I explained my before and after walk and she let my attire slide just as the lecture began.

First we got a little humor from the VHS president, who greeted the crowded room saying, "Good afternoon. Isn't it a Poe-like day?" Gray, wet and coolish, I suppose it was. His final reminder was to silence cell phones, saying, "Even if they have an eerie ring, take out your phone and make sure it squawks nevermore." Big laugh.

The speaker was an English professor at Penn State who lectured about Poe's deep worship of beauty, beginning before he was even 20 years old, and his desire to be a poet and express beauty through language. She spoke of "graphicality," a term Poe coined to describe striking imagery, the kind he used in his writing.

I found her most compelling thesis to be about how Poe tried to mimic the way painters create illusion when writing for the desired effect, trying to represent what he sensed in nature through "the veil of his soul." She used Claude Lorraine as an example of someone who had a huge effect on American painters but also on Poe's work.

She said that during his time living in Philly, he'd visited the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts many times (alas, I've only been once), soaking in the landscape work of Thomas Cole, Thomas Scully and Nicolas Poussin, the latter's "The Deluge" showing the elemental fury of nature. When he moved to New York, he saw Frederick Church's landscapes.

Her conclusion: Poe's work was influenced by landscape painting and his abiding love of nature, a place that always calmed him down in a way that the built world did not. She read from Poe's "The Philosophy of Furniture," a treatise on creating an interior room's space in the same way a painting is created.

Calling Landor's Cottage Poe's the last story published before he died, she conjectured that it brought about a renewed desire to be a romantic poet after years of magazine writing (and the kind of suspense/horror work with which most people associate him) he'd had to do to earn a living.

Despite a wealth of interesting material, the lecture itself was presented without expression or vitality. The man next to me pulled out his book and began reading instead of listening after a few minutes. Several people appeared to be dozing in the rows behind me.

The problem was that the entire lecture was read word for word, sometimes even when the wording was a direct quote and was shown on the screen onstage. Other times, she would misread a sentence or paragraph only to realize it meant something entirely different than what she'd intended and reread the entire thing. It was tedious, to put it kindly, although her subject matter wasn't and clearly she'd done a wealth of research and possessed loads of knowledge on the subject.

Walking out afterwards, a stranger caught up to me and smiled. His first question was, "Do you come to a lot of these?" and I said I'd come for years.

"So do I. That was the most boring one I've ever sat through. I wanted to leave after ten minutes. Why did she have to read the whole thing?" Some questions have no answers. It wasn't that she wasn't knowledgeable, but it would have come across far more appealingly spoken rather than read like a to-do list.

The good news is, I learned about an entirely different side of Poe than I'd ever heard about and reconnected with someone I haven't seen in over a decade. It should be fun to catch up.

Sometimes lectures are good for more than just learning new information. They're a reminder not to wear pink shorts to the historical society.

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