Herman Melville

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

“The fatal problem with poetry: poems,” says Ben Lerner (32). What he means by this is that each actually existing poem stands a monument to the unrealizability of the utopian hope that we call “poetry.”

Lerner has some interesting things to say about poetry and its relationship to work, the desire and the worry that writing poetry not be work. Poetry is utopian insofar as it seems to offer an alternative to “getting and spending,” an order of work that is also seamlessly a way of leaning and loafing at one’s ease; hence the defenses. That very utopian possibility also seems a monstrous indifference to the brutalities of being constrained to sell one’s labor in order to live; hence the denunciations.

'In your hearing words are mute, which to my senses / Are a shout.'

In her chapter on “Irritation” in Ugly Feelings, Sianne Ngai focuses first of all on Helga Crane, the ever-ambivalent and often-irritated protagonist of Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Quicksand. Helga is, at one point, a processor of scraps of others’ texts, and this tedious word-labor is a prime source of “irritation.” Ngai compares her to Melville’s Sub-Sub Librarian, but unlike that of our full-eyed poor devil of a Sub-Sub, Helga’s is not a labor of love. It is, in a very literal sense, a job, imposed by the wealthier woman who employs her.

One of the great appeals, for me, of Marianne Moore’s poetry is that sense of irritation that the poems so often give off—a minor affect, a pervasive mood. “To Be Liked By You Would Be a Calamity,” she titles one poem, in a most uncalamitous tone, in the conditional: an antipathy speculated upon and held off. Is it an accident that she, too, is a weaver of textual scraps, whose use of “business documents and//school-books” in poems is infamous?

This finicky female word-labor, not quite authorship, then, is irritating to Helga, but she swallows her annoyance. Moore, instead, undertakes it deliberately, then thematizes it. “I, too, dislike it.”

A pale Usher

Lexicon-Cetus is a dictionary that compiles and defines every single unique word from Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. There are approximately 16,000 “unique” words in Moby-Dick; about 5,000 of them are a mixture of common given names, plurals, infinitives, gerunds, and/or adjectival/adverbial forms of root words. If the root word is already defined in the lexicon, then any derivations thereof are for the most part excluded.

Susan Howe: marginalia is no longer marginal

I'm reading Susan Howe's Melville's Marginalia. Years ago, at the start of my own antiquarianism, I got deeply into writers' marginalia myself.I'm reading Susan Howe's Melville's Marginalia. Years ago, at the start of my own antiquarianism, I got deeply into writers' marginalia myself. I looked into Melville's reading, as have many scholars over the decades. He was one of those who left traces of his responses to reading. This morning I went to the web--of course--following an impulse to see if the scholarship was still out of the way, out of print, hard to find - itself, in short, marginal. But no. There's a fabulous web site that shows us everything. Here's your link. Go deep.

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