If you’ve ever found yourself awash in the frothing whitecaps of Herman Melville’s prose, you are in good company. The authorial harpooner hit the double-century mark this month. So, how shall we celebrate? You might think of picking up ‘Moby-Dick,’ but Melville, from the great metaphysical sea-spray of the beyond, might have a better recommendation. You see, this prose master considered himself a poet as much as anything.
Melville’s career was riddled with sizable problems. One was that the work he deemed his best was the source of critical derision. Reviewers dug his travelogue-style novels such as ‘Typee,’ but the more lyrical his prose became — like with the synapse-exploding ‘Pierre’ — the less praise he received, washingtonpost.com wrote.
Melville wrote oceans of prose; the poetry didn’t lag far behind. Library of America will shortly be releasing a comprehensive 1,000-page collection of that poetry, and if all you know of this marine master is ‘Moby-Dick,’ it’s high time to dip your toes in the lyrical swash.
Melville was a rhythmicist. Some writers have a better feel than others for when to break off a line, when to follow a torrent of words with a single-syllable hard-stop. This was clear even in ‘Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War’ (1866), Melville’s first volume of poetry — 72 lyrical odes that put the smell of cannon fire and the sweat of stale uniforms in your nostrils, the buckle of bodies in your mind’s eye. ‘The Portent,’ about the hanging of abolitionist John Brown, is the American letters version of Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’: “Hidden in the cap/Is the anguish none can draw,” the poet intones, “But the streaming beard is shown/(Weird John Brown)/The meteor of the war.”
‘Clarel’ (1876), the longest poem in American literature, is the all-in poetical analogue to ‘Moby-Dick.’ Its 18,000 lines pit Christian doctrine against Darwinism via a religious pilgrimage to the Holy Land that reads like God and Satan syllogistically duking it out in ‘Paradise Lost.’ With earthy, Emersonesque New England-isms, the author throws himself down a chasm of “What are we really here for?” inquiry.
This is as bracing as American poetry gets. Do you need all 18,000 lines? Nope. But even an hour spent navigating these straits provides revelations.
“Pale ravener of horrible meat” sounds like a Morrissey lyric, doesn’t it? That’s from ‘The Maldive Shark,’ the tight, singsong account of the partnership between a Jaws Jr. and his pilot fish chums who hang out around his teeth, unscathed. You’re never far away from metaphor with Melville. But he’s generous — you can disregard that metaphor and revel in the sonic experience or the story.
‘Tom Deadlight’ shows Melville’s gift for Chekhovian economy. This is a poem rendered in rough and rowdy seaman’s argot, about a petty officer dying in his hammock. He has a final chanty left in his lungs, though, a hybrid song-speech regarding last wishes and instructions. He’s steering for the Channel for the Deadman, lest there was any doubt, but that doesn’t mean you ought to be soft: “And don’t blubber like lubbers when I turn up my keel,” he concludes, then dies. Avast.
Even best buddy Nathaniel Hawthorne had a hard time deciphering Melville. He’d wonder whether Melville knew that he was as unlike any other American writer as one could be, then concluded that, yes, he knew exactly what he was and kept pushing for the next horizon’s curve.
“Nature’s dark side is heeded now,” Melville wrote in a poem entitled ‘Misgivings,’ as apt a word as any for when even the best of us, who live the best lives — which, for Melville, would mean the fullest — look back at our pasts.
“Storms are formed behind the storm we feel.” That line has always felt to me like it has transitioned the power of the sea to the sky overhead and, from there, to our own breasts, where the weather systems of our emotions are always more complex than rain today, sunshine tomorrow.
May there be a bracing aroma of brine in the air in honor of your bicentennial, Mr. Melville. And may there be a gale-force book of his poems in your hand, dear reader.
* Colin Fleming's fiction appeared in Commentary, Glimmer Train, and Harper's. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Salon, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, JazzTimes, The New Yorker, and the Guardian.