Spontaneous Poetics – 31 (Reading List – 2) (Melville)

[Herman Melville (1819-1891)]

Allen’s July 1976 reading list continues

AG: Herman Melville. I don’t know what anthologies carry his poetry. This is [Allen displays a copy of Melville’s Collected Poems] his poetry. He is a great poet. Very cranky weird language, like “there is a thick coal black angel..”, no, “There is a coal-black Angel/with a thick Afric lip..” He’s describing a cannon overlooking Vicksburg. “There is a coal black angel with a thick Afric lip.” – That’s where I get my”Afric” (or that’s where I get a certain sound). That’s where (Jack) Kerouac got a certain amount of his sound. Collected Melville Poems. Edited by a man named Howard P Vincent, some midwestern University put it out. They are hard to get and we’ll try and get them in the library. He’s in some anthologies. So anything that you can find by Melville in the anthologies is alright, any poem you can find. There are famous ones called “The Maldive Shark” (and) “Look Out Mountain”. [Allen reaches for the Norton Anthology] You might check out and see if there’s Melville in here. There’s a great poem at the end of his short story, Billy Budd “Sentry, are you there?/Just ease this darbies at the wrist, and roll me over fair,/ I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.” He was the American with a totally Shakespearean tongue (as you can see in Moby Dick, but it’s in his poetry too. “The House-Top, A Night Piece”, as it is called, (is) an accounting of the atheist roar of riot during the Draft Riots of the Civil War – “Wise Draco comes, deep in the midnight roll/ of black artillery…./ He comes, nor parlies…” – So it’s some of his rhetoric in that – warning against anarchy, actually – “Wise Draco comes deep in the midnight roll of black artillery” – Just little fragments from Melville. That’s a “Night Piece”.

Student: Who edited his Collected work?
AG: Howard P Vincent. That is, these are the poems, collected poems. He was never considered a poet. In fact, Mrs Melville wrote to Mrs Emerson, “Don’t tell anyone, but Herman has taken to writing poetry” [editor’s note: the actual recipient of the letter was Mrs Melville (Elizabeth Melville)’s mother, and the actual quote runs – “Herman has taken to writing poetry. You need not tell anyone, for you know how such things get around”] (because, at that time, they thought he was a failure, on account of nobody bought, after Moby Dick, Pierre or The Ambiguities, nobody bought Pierre, which is also a great piece of prose-poetry.
Oh yeah, here’s that “Night Piece”. Well, yeah, I’ll read you one poem. (I don’t want to get too much into the list. I’d like to run through this whole thing, and reading a sample of everybody’s work would be (too time-consuming). I would rather give you a couple of phrases)

Well, there’s a very interesting thing about (a poem from) 1859, “The Portent” – the Civil War – “Hanging from the beam/ Slowly swaying (such the law),/ Gaunt the shadow on your green, / Shenandoah!/ The cut is on the crown/ (Lo, John Brown),/ And the stabs shall leal no more.  Hidden in the cap/ Is the anguish none can draw,/ So your future veils its fac/ Shenandoah!/  But the streaming beard is shown/ (Weird John Brown),/ The meteor of the war.” – It’s just that nobody in 1859 had that sense.. – “Weird John Brown” – In other words, his dramatic intelligence was contemporary with his own history. He was able to see his own universe as dramatically as we can see our own. “Weird John Brown”. 1859. So that speaks well for his basic dramatic Shakespearean intelligence.
“The House Top. A Night Piece” – “No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air..” [Allen begins by reciting the first four lines]..”Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage” – “(M)aking apt for ravage” (there’s the immortal Bard again!) – “Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads/ Vacant as Libya..” [Allen goes on and concludes reading the entire poem] – “….(W)hich holds that Man is naturally good/ And – more – is Nature’s Roman, never to be scourged” –  So it’s pretty cynical, worried about… just like, “What (if) the Weathermen bring on the Police State” – So they were dragging the cannons into town to fight the draft rioters – “Hail to the low dull rumble, dull and dead” – not “to the dull and dead”, but “Hail to the low dull rumble, dull and dead,/ And ponderous drag that jars the wall.” – That’s really a mouthful – very few American poets had that power. You get, a little later, a little bit of that same kind of power in Robert Lowell (sometimes, a few rare times, in Robert Lowell – “I  saw my city in the Scales, the pans/ Of judgment rising and descending. Piles/Of dead leaves char the air -/And I am a red arrow on this graph/ Of Revealations..” – That’s Robert Lowell, which is a little like this Melville, talking about Cambridge or Boston. (in “Where The Rainbow Ends”) – “I  saw my city in the Scales, the pans/ Of judgment ../And I am a red arrow on this graph/ Of Revealations..” – That’s the best lines he ever wrote probably. It’s really apocalyptic.

Student: What book is that poem in, do you know?

AG: I forgot. An early book. One of the poems in Lord Weary’s Castle.   So you see Melville’s power. It’s the same power as he got in Moby Dick. (Read) “The House Top”, “The Maldive Shark”… open (up)  Melville (almost) anywhere.. There’s always some good phrase(s) in any poem.  As I said, I think, in the 19th Century, I would esteem Melville, Dickinson, Poe, Whitman, as being the four poet-poets, and then maybe Emerson and Thoreau, and other people, but I think Melville is up there with Poe certainly. But his work was not known because, for some reason or another, he was overshadowed, as a prose writer, (and his prose-poetry was so vast!). And, as poetry, the prose-poetry of Pierre, the book he wrote after Moby Dick, is extraordinary (and was a big influence on (Jack) Kerouac) – Pierre Or The Ambiguities – if you ever get a chance to see that. Then he has a long epic poem called “Clarel”, which is worth reading too. He went to Jerusalem and kept a sort of poetic diary, which is also mixed up as a long symbolic poem (his own personal detail mixed with a large symbolic structure). But just check out a couple of poems by Melville to see what you can do with a 19th Century American ear.

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