- Introduction"A Blast That Whirls the Dust": Nineteenth-Century American Poetry and Critical Discontents
In selecting Miranda Mahler's "Autobiography of Anon." (pictured opposite) as the lead image for this volume of essays treating nineteenth-century poetry, I mean to emphasize the role that critics have played in assembling the genre for modern readers. Modernism and its influences have, in large part, been blamed for this retrofitting. Since the rise of cultural studies, students and scholars have come to treat most nineteenth-century poetry as a kind of relic. Or, we might identify the literary remains critics have bequeathed us in more contemporary terms, as a skeuomorph, designed to bear us back to a quaint but outmoded form.1 Overburdened with the task of mapping culture so as to define it, scholars turned to prose narrative as a form less mediated by the formal. Narrative seemed information-laden while poetry—or so we are meant to believe—was too heavily encumbered by its aesthetic commitments to the past. More imbued with pattern as part of its very purpose, poetry took a backseat to the relatively unadorned facticity that prose narrative offered scholars and students alike. No need to learn meter or rhyme patterns, no need to bother with anapests, enjambment, or golden lines; just roll up your sleeves and get to work on the text/truth.
Resisting the platonic accusation that, as Christopher Nealon puts it, poetry "is a failed universality," the essays featured in this special issue argue for poetry as a specific field of [End Page 1] inquiry that contributes to human knowledge.2 Like any other discipline—and here I will not call it a genre—poetry requires of its practitioners, whether listeners, readers, or writers, an attentiveness to form as a means for acquiring and conveying knowledge. More than simply a "style" of writing, poetry, when thought of as a discipline, constitutes a body of knowledge that is both unique and historically specific. In our anti-formalist age, however, understanding form as solely representative of aesthetic principles has come to be judged a signal of class affiliation, a weirdly transhistorical activity, and a critical no-no in our post-Marxist milieu.3 Reversing the tendency to associate the formal with the aristocratic and/or transhistorical, this special issue as a whole emphasizes the importance of formal choices in terms of dominant rhetorical patterns and other critical discourses of the nineteenth century. Rather than privileging our (mis)reading of the period through these formal choices, the scholars given voice here urge a more sophisticated view of the relationship between form and content, ideology and history, culture and practice. In this way of thinking, poetry is deeply influenced by what Mary Zboray and Ronald Zboray call a "social sense" and must be read accordingly.4
The idea for this volume developed out of "Arise! Arise! 'Appreciating' Nineteenth-Century American Poetry," a panel organized by Melissa White for the 2006 American Literature Association Convention. The papers presented in the session sought to rehabilitate our (modernist, anti-formalist) sensibilities, enabling us to recognize the value of poetic patterns for nineteenth-century readers. Offering a multitude of insights across a broad spectrum of subjects, the essays developed from that panel all share the belief that the formal choices we associate with nineteenth-century poetry have both aesthetic and political aims. They thus invite us to reflect in new ways on the meaning of poetic conventions and the function of intertextuality within the cultural milieu in which the poetry was written.
Rather than assembling the poetry of the nineteenth-century U.S. in a kind of curio cabinet, the contributors to this collection show how poetic forms of the era represented cultural practices and consciousness. Taking advantage of a wide range of approaches—including materialism, deconstruction, [End Page 2] and historicism—they assume the critical importance of form while also reckoning with the historical contingencies that affect formal choices, including popular taste, market forces, and available publishing venues. Form, according to these thinkers, is conditional to and conditioned by a complex blend of aesthetic and political aims. To borrow Michael Cohen's words, the essays here resist recovery work that...