Something rather shocking happened within the “prestigious precincts” of American poetry web spaces, on September 28th, 2016.
For on that day the widely read LitHub site, a go-to locale for the up-to-date younger lit set, published an article titled “Herman Melville Was also a Failed Poet: On the Final Years of an American Legend-to-Be,” http://lithub.com/herman-melville-was-also-a-failed-poet/ wherein the author, Mark Beauregard, presents Melville as, well, a pathetic poetic failure: one who spent–wasted, that is–the last twenty-five years of his life ingenuously tinkering with light, trite, greeting-card level verse. Harriet, the daily blog of the Poetry Foundation, highlighted the article on September 29th, and with enthused approbation.
The examples Beauregard provides are clearly meant to demean and ridicule Melville’s efforts as a poet. As he writes, with not a little sarcasm:
[His poetry] contains none of the startling flights of fancy that make his best prose so engaging; but at the very end of his life, he turned his attention to homelier subjects, and his verse loosened up a bit and became more whimsical.
Through an orchard I follow
Two children in glee.
From and apple-tree’s hollow
They startle the bee.
Beauregard and LitHub (its poetry reviews and news are edited, apparently, by the prize-winning young poet and NYU Prof Adam Fitzgerald) would have us believe that this is what Melville’s poetic range and accomplishment amount to: cliché and mannered period doggerel not even useful enough for the popular fireside periodicals of the day. As Beauregard goes on to say, “His subjects at the end included roses and irises, bluebirds and chipmunks, his early life with Lizzie in the Berkshires, and children’s dreams.” That’s it. Melville squandered, we are to believe, his last years penning short, cute lyrics, which were later discovered by his family (our male and failed Dickinson!) and poignantly published in an inconsequential and quickly forgotten collection of the writer’s verses.
It is of course true that Melville as a poet has been significantly forgotten and his achievement horribly neglected. But it is flat-out jaw dropping that Beauregard (who, according to the bio at LitHub, is a novelist and “the author of THE WHALE: A Love Story [Viking], a novel about Herman Melville’s relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne and its pivotal role in the writing of Moby-Dick”) would be able to publish in a venue like LitHub such a smugly dismissive piece—one completely clueless, by all indications, that this same “poetic failure” was not just the only other poet besides Walt Whitman to significantly write about the U.S. Civil War (Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, 1866), but also the author of the 1876 tour de force “Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land.”
And what was, or is, Clarel? Here we will go ahead and quote Wikipedia, which happens to have it exactly right in this case: “[A]n epic poem …. originally published in two volumes. Clarel is the longest poem in American literature, stretching to almost 18,000 lines (longer even than European classics such as the Iliad, Aeneid, and Paradise Lost). As well as for its great length, Clarel is notable for being the major work of Melville’s later years.”
And a difficult and challenging major work it is. Clarel’s dark obsessions with the staleness and barrenness of modern society have been seen by more than one critic as uncanny anticipation of Eliot’s The Waste Land. And though it is generally patterned in iambic tetrameter, the epic’s prosody is by no means consistently regular, often shifting into fractured, sprung rhythms that are clear, calculated departures from the tones and rigid meters of the day (ones he easily imitated in the minor, commercially directed efforts that Beauregard would have us believe constitute his output).
Clarel was almost totally ignored in its day, but many 20th century North American poets have testified to its significance. Allen Ginsberg, who believed Battle-Pieces and Clarel to be among the visionary and overwhelming works of American literature, taught it at Naropa for years. The poem was, as well, an important work to the Melville scholar and great poet Charles Olson, who called it an epic “rosary of doubt.” Guy Davenport regarded it as “the masterwork of all meditations on ruins.” Robin Blaser revered it. Even Harold Bloom (though not our favorite critic!) has deemed Clarel one of the centripetal works of the “Western Canon.”
But much more study of this vast, strange, and (contrary to Beauregard’s attempts to paint Melville as a poetic simpleton and conformist) totally anachronistic work is needed, not least of the poem’s prophetic moral politics and prescient anti-racism. For now, one can only express a measure of wonderment: Is it possible, really, that a work of such singular and titanic ambition by one of America’s (and the world’s) greatest writers would be, by all indications, completely unknown to supposedly lit-hip younger writers and editors associated with two of the most prominent poetry sites in the United States, LitHub and Harriet?
We urge them to answer our bemusement, by writing to our Letters column. We will immediately publish any assurances they might provide that our concern is misguided.