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  • Afterword:The Literary World Has Always Been Read/Write
  • Martha Nell Smith (bio)

Even in the age of personal computers and the Internet, which jointly give readers access to digital archives of materials formerly locked away for specialists only and to wikis, blogs, listservs, and other tools that facilitate communication in our read/write world, many are still more comfortable with and accustomed to reading by the book, as it were—and that fact has long affected the ways in which we read (or have read) poetry. The lyricization of poetry, or the conflation of all sorts of poetic writing—"songs, riddles, epigrams, sonnets, epitaphs, blazons, lieder, elegies, marches, dialogues, conceits, ballads, epistles, hymns, odes, eclogues, and monodramas"—into the "single abstraction of the post-Romantic lyric,"1 has led readers to assume that poems will be contained on pages, which are in turn bound within books. Each of the compelling essays collected in this special issue teaches something new about effective reading of too-long-neglected or at-best-skimmed American poetry, specifically that diverse body of work produced in the nineteenth century and circulated in many forms—magazines, newspapers, broadsides, oral performances, and yes, The Book, whether singly or multiply authored. However these contributors may define their critical strategies, they all, in one way or another, answer the call Joseph Harrington issued a little over a decade ago: "As a social form, poetry is not simply a value-neutral, universal taxonomic category but an interpretive cue and an evaluative epithet that shapes uses and judgments of texts. Bereft of inherent properties, the conversation called poetry [End Page 269] instead stages literary ideologies. A social-formalist approach thus contextualizes the historical productions of reading strategies generally."2 Scaffolding complex arguments, the contributors' varied, refreshing tactics for analyzing the wide range of poetic practices their subjects enact might each be called "social-formalist." Briefly recounting in this afterword their "method[s] of thought" and "ethical attitude[s]"—as a way of taking them in, again—shows how such "passionate, curious, multiple-vectored, personable, and invested discussions" generatively refuse the "already filled page[s]" of a literary history that has imposed aesthetic valuations anachronistically—misreading our poetic legacies and binding us in appreciations largely limited (throughout most of the twentieth century) to that odd couple, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.3 Constructions of literary history have also privileged The Book so that a collective amnesia about poetry's circulations—by hand through letters or in parlors, by broadside, by newspaper, and so forth—has, until recently, prevailed.

Michael Cohen's "Peddlers, Poems, and Local Culture" reorients our appreciation for the broadside as he asks: "What happens to 'poetry' if we think of poems as potentially cheap, disposable, timely, and local? What are the social uses and meanings of poems in such a culture?" (10). Turning these questions on Jonathan Plummer, a New England peddler-poet of the early nineteenth-century U.S., Cohen begins to show that poems have "surprising social and political uses" when historicized in their own singular "time and place"—revealing "'poetry' as a convention of our own scene of reading" (11, 13). Comparing Plummer both to a journalist dabbling in gossip as well as responsibly passing along vital information (warnings of epidemics, for example) and to a bard gesturing like the elder Hamlet, Cohen's analysis provides a fitting initial performance for all that can be found in this special-issue theater.

Supple and incisive, Max Cavitch opens up a world of reading the refrain's powerful effects in Stephen Crane's "spare, irrhythmic verses" (33)—a world that, through repetition imprinting words on readers' memory, becomes not "a collaborative field of invention and improvisation" but "the rhetorical figure of despair" (44). Rendering a history of the [End Page 270] refrain itself along the way, Cavitch finds in reviews by William Dean Howells and Willa Cather touchstones for his own critique of Crane's particular use of the refrain, which "always asserts the disruptive power of the conventional—the power, that is, to disrupt the fiction of the unique voice" (48)—and begins to index the "place Crane's poetry ventures to occupy in the history of...


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pp. 269-281
Launched on MUSE
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