- A Poetic E Pluribus Unum:Conventions, Imperatives, and the Poetic Call-to-Arms in Frank Moore's Rebellion Record
Poems, like all linguistic expressions, exist according to conventions. Lines, stanzas, rhyme schemes, metrical patterning, the distillation of meaning, the exploration of rhythmic and metaphoric possibility—we recognize poetry by such conventions. And within the broad generic category "poetry," conventions enable us to categorize poems by subgenre (sonnets, sestinas, elegies) and to locate them within particular historical moments and literary movements.
By acknowledging the ineluctable fact of conventions, I mean to suggest neither that conventions function in the same way in every poem (they do not), nor that we, as readers, are equally attuned to all of them (we are not). Our ability to recognize conventions in a poem at all is largely a product of our historically inflected understanding of what poetry is and what it does. That understanding shapes our expectations and, in turn, makes us more likely to perceive some conventions and miss others. Whereas conventions that conform to our expectations tend to remain seemingly silent on the page, those that depart from our expectations usually ring out more loudly. The volume at which readers hear conventions reflects, in part, the degree to which those conventions satisfy or depart from reader expectations.
Although all poems exist according to conventions, not all poems find themselves described as "conventional." In [End Page 171] the last century, "conventionality" has come to signify less an acknowledgment of conventions than a pejorative judgment wielded against particular conventions, namely those associated with genteel and sentimental poetry of the nineteenth century. "Conventional" is one of a host of adjectives, among them "derivative" and "empty," that have become shorthand for a facile employment of certain tropes, the oversimplification of emotions and ideas, and an allegiance to prevailing social mores of the nineteenth century. To be conventional is to be, in many ways, limited. From this perspective, contemporary scholars often describe poems as conventional, not because those poems abide by conventions and the so-called unconventional ones do not, but because they abide by particular conventions that so-called unconventional poems avoid or reject.1 Irony and dissonance are as much conventions of modernist poetry as earnestness and sentiment are conventions of nineteenth-century poetry. The latter, however, are the conventions of a poem more likely to be described as conventional.
Conventionality, then, has tended in recent critical approaches to operate according to a hierarchy that establishes some conventions as more inherently valuable than others—self-consciousness is more valuable than its apparent lack; the performance of alienation is more valuable than an appeal to sympathy. Themselves historically inflected, such claims of conventionality naturalize the expectations of twentieth- and twenty-first-century readers and lump together a host of different, particular nineteenth-century conventions under a larger, amorphous, judgment-laden idea of Convention.2 Consequently, conventionality obscures the wealth of convention in nineteenth-century poetry because it foreshortens the range of conventions even as it encourages us to think that we can, with relative ease, recognize and understand them.3
The degree to which claims of conventionality obfuscate the rich abundance—and, in fact, complexity—of conventions in nineteenth-century poetry reveals itself perhaps nowhere as clearly as in the poetry of the American Civil War. Traditionally, American Civil War poetry has been seen as relentlessly conventional in the pejorative sense, and as a result, little of it aside from the poetry of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, [End Page 172] and Herman Melville has received much critical attention until recently.4 In the last ten years, scholars have begun to recover the rich particularity of the Civil War's print culture and have enabled us to embed the poetry of canonical and noncanonical poets alike in the literary world of the 1860s. Eliza Richards's essay in this issue of ESQ, for example, examines the dynamic relationship between "the line" as a military unit in journalistic accounts of the war and "the line" as a poetic unit. But while the complexity of certain aspects of the print culture has become increasingly clear, other instantiations of it remain relatively underexamined.5 The influence of...