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R E V I E W WILLIAM C. SPENGEMANN Three American Poets: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010. 226 pages. W illiam Spengemnan’s latest book explores the work of three seemingly disparate precursors of modernism: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville. What links these writers is not, as is so often supposed, their “Americanness”—a quality Spengemann approaches with the greatest suspicion—but rather their shared relationship to poetry as a “vehicle of thought,” and, equally important, a response to the “ever-mounting assaults—scientific, philosophical, historical, political— on Christian understandings of the origins and purposes of human existence” (Spengemann xiii). Their works, catalyzed by radical disruptions in everyday life and thought, not only bear witness to what Whitman called “the Great Unrest of which we are a part,” but seem to head straight into the turbulence, racked by the conditions of this new reality and in search of its furthest expression. The poems they leave us are what Paul Celan called “gifts bearing destinies” (Collected Prose, Routledge 26): proceeding through their own lack of answers, they reveal the strangeness of our lives and the stakes of a poetry willing to risk everything, even its own homelessness. What remained reachable for Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville amid the century’s “perfect storm of alterations and disruptions . . . so rapid and thoroughgoing as to seem to those who experienced them unprecedented in human history” (Spengemann 3) was language. If one of the drawbacks of the heady, theoretically-oriented criticism of recent fashion has been its tendency to privilege commentary over poetry, Spengemann’s methodology offers a corrective. “The chapters ahead,” he notes, “try to avoid interpreting poems, translating them into other words, and concentrate, instead, on describing them in detail” (xiv). While the line between description and interpretation is arguably a fine one that Spengemann repeatedly crosses, his descriptive method nonetheless demonstrates the virtues of such attention through its readiness to encounter the detail, difficulty, and multiplicity of poetic utterance . Poetry is a vehicle of thought, yet thinking is arguably the most mysterious part of the poetic labor because thinking escapes all attempts at systematization. It requires a severe discipline and a finely attuned ear to follow c  2012 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing, Inc. 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 81 R E V I E W the “thinking” of Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville via an engagement with the words they wrote. In exercising his powers of close reading, Spengemann marks the exorbitant restraint at the heart of these poets’ respective styles of writing/thinking. His rigorous “descriptions,” moreover, show us how such analysis may be a prerequisite for the deepest kinds of intimacy. A serious reader of poetry, Spengemann is also a solitary one. His method requires an intense cloistering of the gaze: “To keep the reader’s eye as much as possible on the poems themselves, these descriptive chapters say nothing about the current critical conversation regarding these three poets” (xv). Spengemann’s silence will strike many as unwarranted. Here, however, I wish to consider what is salutary about this stance before noting its possible limitations. Spengemann’s first chapter is devoted to Whitman. He begins with a poet whose unremitting desire to reconcile all things seemingly disintegrated by time and change is realized in the seductive and apparently sui generis song of Leaves of Grass. In his account of Whitman’s work—its protean character and its long unfolding in nine revised editions—Spengemann does not stop to focus on any one poem but moves ceaselessly through the “Song,” whose division into separate, distinct songs is only ever provisional and transient. Like the swimmer swept away from the boat by a riptide, the reader must let go of the towline of writing she is holding and agree to sever her moorings: “The words of my book are nothing, the drift of it is everything” (Whitman, Poetry and Prose, Library of America 175; qtd. in Spengemann 42). Whitman’s meanings cannot be translated, or to use Spengemann’s word...


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