“Poe’s writing style seems to really bring out the reader’s emotions…”

Today’s Horror comes from the “Why didn’t you just stop there?” department.

Aside from the typical student reluctance to commit fully to any observation (“seems to really bring out”!), this isn’t a bad statement. It can lead into a nice specific discussion of the various aspects of Poe’s technique as it relates to his stated concept of the purpose of literature.

But my student just couldn’t stop there. Yes, he’s right that the idea isn’t finished; but he’s wrong that the sentence isn’t finished. So he goes on to finish it, in the process second-guessing himself into nonsense:

“Poe’s writing style seems to really bring out the reader’s emotions, whatever emotion Poe happens to be trying to get out that is.”

Well, heaven forefend that I might think the student meant Poe’s style brings out random emotions! Far be it from my student to imply that a reader might double over with laughter while reading “The Raven,” or fall in love with Montresor in “The Cask of Amontillado,” or think that “To Helen” is suspenseful. To prevent this kind of misunderstanding, that qualifying phrase materializes.

It’s not just that the clarification is unnecessary; it’s also that two other things manage to sneak in as well, things that students don’t seem to be able to resist: the implication that the act of writing is random, or coincidental, or accidental— “happens to” — and the implication that the author is making an effort that may or may not be successful—”trying to.” In the current combo, Poe is, purely by chance, making an effort to bring out an emotion.

That is.

I also like the idea that the emotion is somehow wedged there deep inside the reader, and Poe comes at him wielding his style like a big spoon or a crowbar or a forceps, trying to get it out. Oh, comes at him purely by chance to try to get it out.

All this, tagged on to a statement of observation and appreciation.

Maybe I should start rationing sentence length, to save them from themselves.

No wonder Poe looks worried. (from poemhunter.com)

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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