- Poetry in Motion
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2013 marked the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, along with the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Ninth International Melville Society Conference, “Melville and Whitman in Washington: The Civil War Years and After,” held at George Washington University on June 4–7, 2013, brought to light—most of all—the historical aspects of what Melville called “man’s foulest crime.” The conference also explored the aesthetic dimensions of poetry, chiefly focusing on Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Whitman’s Drum-Taps. In 2007, Leviathan’s special issue “Melville the Poet” was co-edited by Elizabeth Renker and Douglas Robillard, who wrote in their introductory essay that Melville’s poetical works sadly lacked “widely available, reliable editions” and “careful, persuasive close readings.” Times have changed; the long-awaited Northwestern-Newberry edition of the Published Poems has appeared (although some important poetical works, including “Weeds and Wildings,” remain to be published in the NN edition of the Unpublished Poems), and quite a few Melville scholars have made serious attempts to analyze his poems in detail. In terms of its critical reception, Melville’s poetry is in motion, and on a marked upswing. [End Page 164]
Unfortunately, though, Doug Robillard is no longer with us. At the dinner table on Thursday night at the Arts Club of Washington, we offered a silent reflection upon those Melvilleans who have passed away in recent years, including Robillard, Donald Yannella, Robert K. Martin, and Milton Stern. Many years ago, when I posted a note on Melville and Hart Crane to Ishmail, the Melville Society’s now extinct listserv, Robillard kindly sent me a back-channel reply, saying hello to a complete stranger and assuring me that he wished to welcome anyone who would mention the name of Hart Crane.
Indeed, Robillard did much to help us understand Melville’s poetic achievements. Now, studies of Melville the poet must move on to the next stage, as Elizabeth Renker observed in one of the four keynote lectures delivered at the conference. After historicizing Melville’s poetics against the backdrop of contemporaneous Civil War poetry, Renker issued a call for productive interaction between studies of Melville’s poetry and nineteenth-century U.S. poetry studies. Renker noted that a new academic movement for historical poetics has arisen in recent years. However, the community of scholars working in the new poetry studies and the community of Melville scholars remain mostly separate from each other, holding different conferences and publishing in different journals. Renker argued that a fuller understanding of Melville’s poetry required situating his work in the broader context of nineteenth-century U.S. literary history. She suggested that Melville scholars work in a more integrated fashion, conceptually and institutionally, with the current movement in poetry studies.
Such contextual and comparative work was on display at the D.C. conference, as Melville was placed beside arguably the greatest American poet. Melville scholars had the opportunity to learn from and work with Whitman scholars, who in turn found a fresh interest in Melville’s poetry. Aesthetically, Melville and Whitman similarly destabilize the boundary between poetry and prose, as Samuel Otter explained in his paper titled “Melville and Whitman in Prose and Poetry.” In his handout, Otter included a passage from F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance, which analyzes how Ahab’s speech in “The Quarter Deck,” when divided into lines, can virtually be read as blank verse. I would add that Matthiessen’s American Renaissance is a book not so much about prose writers as about poets who wrote prose works as well: Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Whitman. Recognizing the poetic interests of Matthiessen’s writers, Susan Howe, in The Birth-Mark, critiques him for excluding Emily Dickinson (rather than Harriet Beecher Stowe or Susan Warner).
Although no panel specifically dealt with Dickinson, the conference did not exclude the lady in white, whose popular image of social seclusion and political indifference has been significantly revised during the past few decades. In different sessions, Elizabeth Renker, Faith Barrett, and Mikayo Sakuma all [End Page 165] focused on Dickinson...