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  • Introduction
  • Max Cavitch (bio)


The study of nineteenth-century American poetry and poetics has been enjoying an efflorescence that shows no signs of contracting, as the essays in this special forum attest. Each of the invited contributors has in his or her own way drawn on and extended what the past two decades, especially, have yielded up: (1) vast numbers of long-forgotten poems in need of “recovery” and interpretation; (2) fresh readings of many major poets and poems that had been languishing in inattention; (3) voluminous and well-edited anthologies and editions,1 along with a proliferation of sophisticated electronic databases and hypertext archives,2 which continue to make more and more poetry readily available for reading, scholarship, and classroom use; and (4) criticism of unprecedented variety and sophistication, which has done much to reinterpret and retheorize both established and emergent canons.3

Among the most consequential developments has been the belated recognition of not simply the existence but also the centrality to North American literary and cultural history of poetry by women. And the comparable recovery and demarginalization of poetry by authors of color has also had far more than an additive effect on canon (re)formation. Fundamental reimaginings of American literary history have taken place across a critical terrain now comprehensively reshaped by the salutary seismic pressures of the dialectic between identity politics and the politics of the impersonal. We continue to attend as scrupulously and humbly as possible to the historical situatedness of persons and the plight of subjectivation, while also challenging the [End Page 179] persistent but often misleading equation of poetic language with the manifestation of a personal voice. We have repaired the hasty dismissal of the aesthetic tout court with enhanced sociohistorical approaches to literary form and counterhegemonic reengagements with philosophical aesthetics. And our sharpened awareness of how the constant migrations, free and forced, of elites as well as of the disprized, along with women’s transnational voluntary associationism, has helped us deconstruct the often still tenacious national orientation of literary studies generally.

With such vital developments over the years has come the readiness of scholars of nineteenth-century American poetry and poetics to follow—and in many cases to help direct—the movement of critical thinking by various so-called turns: the linguistic, the historical, the ethical, the transatlantic, the transnational, the affective, the material. Long before all of this, of course, there was the turning of a plow at the end of a row that the Greeks called trepein and the Romans vertere, which gave to English the terms trope, for figural turns or shifts in meaning, and verse, for the literal turning of the end of a line. Line breaks have never been the absolute sine qua non of poetry as such, yet the line has always been fundamental to the making of poetry as a particular kind of discourse, turning to make another turn, in what may be recurrent or discordant patterns, as when a minister “lines out” a hymn, or when a blues artist “worries” the line. The line of nineteenth-century American poetry is manifold, in all the ways conjured by the Latin linea: originally, a linen thread or string essential to tasks of gathering, measuring, and ordering: used to make fishing lines and nets, to plumb depths, and to fix verticals in masonry and carpentry; also meaning the stroke or mark of a pencil; and, crucially, a line of descent, as well as a boundary, limit, or ultimate goal. (Let’s agree never to give up gorging on etymologies.)

As the lines, or lineages, of American poetry have turned and turned again with the shifting movements of critical thinking, what counts as American poetry has been an abundant source of literary-historical discord: written elsewhere; published elsewhere; frequently imagined to have come from a place existing only retrospectively, if at all; projected onto colonies, regions, territories, and nations, and fitting awkwardly, at best, the shifting measure that came at a certain point to be called the United States. In the present context, nineteenth-century American poetry and poetics are understood chiefly in relation to the North American geographical and linguistic sweep from Canada to [End...


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pp. 179-184
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