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Melville’s Poetic Singe ELIZABETH RENKER The Ohio State University cholars have routinely judged Herman Melville’s poetry to be rough, inept, awkward, weak, and incomprehensible: in a word, bad. Of course, Sanyone familiar with Melville’s epistemology should be instantly suspicious of expectations that his writing be conventionally pleasant or easygoing. But, putting aside the longstanding critical problems with assessing Melville’s poetry, I will merely note that if literary scholars often come to such negative conclusions, it is no wonder that teaching the poems seems a formidable task. I have been teaching the poems to undergraduates and graduate students for almost ten years, with success. They are indeed formidable texts in every respect: diction, syntax, and meter as well as their use of allusion and metaphor and their relation to poetic tradition. Melville created a poetics of difficulty that burned through the didactic, sentimental, and formal conventions of his day. In that large sense, his poetry is akin to Emily Dickinson’s, although, of course, their specific poetics are wholly unique and distinct. If I had to offer one proposition that would explain why Melville’spoems are so wrenchingly difficult, it would be the following: they strive to record what Melville believes to be the truths of human existence and at the same time to embody the epistemological opacity that he believed any truth-seeker would, by definition, have to confront. That paradoxical knot is at the heart of Melville’spoetics.1 Sincemost of the poems are so recalcitrant in their difficulty,I have found it absolutely essential to give students clear pathways into the poetry so they do not feelhopelessly locked out of the reading experience. I structure our classes around four big issues: reception, criteria, form, and difficulty But the first problem the teacher of Melville’s poetry will have to confront is that of texts. Texts o approach any poetic project responsibly, it is essential to work with reliable texts, an issue that is pressing in Melville’s case. Melville pubTlished four volumes of poetry-Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), Clarel (1876), John Maw and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon (1891)-and left an extensive body of unpublished manuscripts at his death. 1 See my Strike Through the Mask: Herman Melville and the Scene of Writing (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996) for an extended articulation of how this paradoxical commitment informs Melville’s entire career. L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 1 3 E L I Z A B E T H R E N K E R Many of the unpublished manuscripts are not clean, and thus we are not certain of how he would have finalized these texts for publication. Howard P. Vincent’sCollected Poems of Herman Melville (Chicago: Packard and Co., 1947) is marred by error. The paucity of reliable texts, as William Spengemann correctly points out, has in fact been one of the primary reasons for Melville’s neglect as poet.* The textbook situation has been an impoverished one as well, but improvement portends. I have used Hennig Cohen’sSelected Poems of Herman Melville (New York: Fordham UP, 1991), which includes selections from all four published volumes and from the unpublished poems as well as a section of sometimes useful and sometimes wooden commentary on individual poems. This edition is limited in a number of ways. It fails,for example, to provide line numbers, which renders class discussion needlessly cumbersome. Nevertheless, it can suffice for classroom use in the absence of other tools. Douglas Robillards fuller classroom edition of the published poems, containing all of Battle-Pieces, John Marr and Timoleon, along with selections from Clarel, an introduction, and notes has just been released by Kent State University Press. In addition, the long-awaited critical editions in the Northwestern-Newberry series of Melville’swritings, Published Poems and Billy Budd and Other Late Manuscripts (the latter will contain the unpublished poems), are projected to appear in 2001 and perhaps 2003, respectively. Reception begin our classroom work on the poems by lecturing...


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