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Monday, 11 March 2013

Herman Melville's The Tuft of Kelp (A Poetry Comic by Nora Sawyer)


Herman Melville's The Tuft of Kelp (from John Marr and Other Sailors, 1888): A Poetry Comic by Nora Sawyer, from Nora Sawyer, 10 March 2013

Because who doesn't love Melville? -- N.S.

Hart Crane: At Melville’s Tomb

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides ... High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Hart Crane 1899-1932): At Melville’s Tomb, from The Complete Poems, 1933


Nin Andrews said...


TC said...

Robert Penn Warren cited this little poem as reflecting Melville's "obsessive theme of sudden disaster in the midst of pride and success".

It's hard to argue that from the vantage of the bottom of the ocean, success would be pretty hard to make out. Because of all those other ambient tufts of kelp occluding the view, among other things.

There are some natural enemies against which poems, especially poems as small and fragile as this one, have little defense.

Among these, surely none is as fearsome as the Assigned Essay.

It is always wonderful, in a way -- and too, always terrible, in a way -- to wander among the drear thickets of homework posted online.

One student confronted with "The Tuft of Kelp" turned to the tried and true method of spilling upon an insouciant cybersphere the first thought that came to mind, followed by the second thought, & c.

One advantage of this method: the virtual certainty that no one (including, and perhaps especially, the assigning instructor) will ever read what has been written.

Thus it is in the pristine solitude of our viewing module that we are allowed the honor of learning from one such stab-in-the-dark student essay the putative causes of the curious bitterness of the tuft of kelp.

"The kelp is bitter because it is a part of the natural world and because it has been ignored as something unimportant. This suggests that Melville felt that his work was being ignored."

Viewed in this welcome trickle of light amid the general obscurity of the sea floor, the plight of the tuft of kelp, caught up in a potentially lethal pathetic fallacy, does indeed begin to enlist our sympathy. Almost. Then again, if you're kelp, what's so bad about just accepting the fact and getting on with things?

After all, it can hardly be said that being a tuft of kelp is a fate worse than death.

Who would not prefer to be a tuft of kelp -- even for that matter a tuft of kelp that is retentively harbouring all sorts of bitter reactive feelings about its perceived lack of literary success -- than, for example, a doorknob?

A tuft of kelp would be more fortunate than a doorknob in several respects. It would be alive, first off. And then too, it would be secure from having antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains rubbed all over it every time it is handled by a human.

For as thoughtless and cruel as some humans are capable of being, few indeed would think to take out their resentment of the natural world, and their bitterness regarding literary failure, by depositing their germs upon on a mere tuft of kelp.

Not so much its innocence as its insubstantiality -- not to mention its submarine remoteness, which almost goes without mentioning -- would then be the tuft of kelp's first line of defense. Against microbes. If not also against critical-essay assignments.

TC said...

Oh my, our dear Nin had saved the day, and the endangered dignity of the tuft of kelp, just when it had seemed all might be lost -- and we hadn't known!

(The complex Scylla-and-Charybdis perils of Moderation!!)

TC said...

And by the by, for those who can't get through the rest of their day without being relieved of the burden of not knowing what a kelp tuft sounds like:

A half-minute of kelp tuft

Wooden Boy said...

I like Charlie Melville's (or is it Herman Brown's?) beard very much.

"...the circuit calm of one vast coil".

A very strange stillness in this line.

Wooden Boy said...

I've been working on "The Kelp Tuft" in the lounge just but it's a long way from being ready for the dance floor of the local discotheque (or whatever the young people call it these days).

TC said...

WB, Yes, there's definitely an institutional ring to those kelp tuft beats. I believe they call that sort of assembly of robotic dancing fools "The AWP Conference" over here. (On your side of the large water, I think it's simply "The Capital One Cup".)

And thanks very much for noticing "At Melville's Tomb", with that circuit calm of one vast coil and all. Surely a great many kelp tufts could be jammed into that coil.

When an unknown poet named Hart Crane sent this poem to Poetry magazine editor Harriet Monroe in 1926, an interesting exchange ensued. The correspondence provides a revealing document of the poet's figurative method.

Monroe enquired:

"Take me for a hard-boiled, unimaginative, unpoetic reader, and tell me how dice can bequeath an embassy (or anything else); and how a calyx (of death’s bounty or anything else) can give back a scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph; and how, if it does, such a portent can be wound in corridors (of shells or anything else). . . . I find your image of frosted eyes lifting altars difficult to visualize. Nor do compass, quadrant and sextant contrive tides, they merely record them, I believe."

And Crane replied:

"The nuances of feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority, and that to deny it is to limit the scope of the medium so considerably as to outlaw some of the richest genius of the past. You ask me how compass, quadrant, and sextant 'contrive' tides. I ask you how Eliot can possibly believe that 'Every street lamp that I pass beats like a fatalistic drum!' . . . It is of course understood that a street-lamp simply can’t beat with a sound like a drum; but it often happens that images, themselves totally dissociated, when joined in the circuit of a particular emotion located with specific relation to both of them, conduce to great vividness and accuracy of statement in defining that emotion".

A reader here makes out an echo of The Tempest in Crane's poem.

(That would seem an astute reader of the sound of one kelp tuft floating, to me.)

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Call Me Ishmael

“Kelp! Kelp!”

Or so I thought I heard
Rising up

From Crane’s fabulous deep,
That imagined agonizing

Yelp which made Harriet weep.