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The Cambridge History of American Poetry
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Book description

The Cambridge History of American Poetry offers a comprehensive exploration of the development of American poetic traditions from their beginnings until the end of the twentieth century. Bringing together the insights of fifty distinguished scholars, this literary history emphasizes the complex roles that poetry has played in American cultural and intellectual life, detailing the variety of ways in which both public and private forms of poetry have met the needs of different communities at different times. The Cambridge History of American Poetry recognizes the existence of multiple traditions and a dramatically fluid canon, providing current perspectives on both major authors and a number of representative figures whose work embodies the diversity of America's democratic traditions.

Reviews

'… a physically imposing fifty-chapter book, consisting of more than 1300 densely packed pages and weighing almost four pounds. But this rather daunting volume turns out to be not just an essential addition to any serious poetry library but an exciting and absorbing reconceptualization of American poetry … The History has a lot of possible uses. Individual chapters could be very helpfully assigned to students in American literature classes. It will make a valuable reference work for when you suddenly need to figure out who the Connecticut Wits were. Scholars will find new ideas in the chapters dealing with their areas of expertise (or at least I did in Robin Schulze’s discussion of Marianne Moore’s cosmopolitanism). The book’s greatest value, however, is in providing a series of orientations - detailed but manageable - to fifty different permutations of American poetry. For readers with the time, it is enormously satisfying to read it cover to cover: even the most knowledgeable reader will gain insight into the richness, variety, and surprising harmony of American poetry.'

Rachel Trousdale Source: Twentieth-Century Literature

'… all a student would need to gain working knowledge of American poetry through the end of the last millennium. … Those looking for a roundup of the best late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century literary criticism on American poetry will find more gathered here than in any other single volume.'

Elisa New Source: Modern Philology

'Celebrated teachers as well as critics, Bendixen and Burt position themselves as knowledgeable enthusiasts, not as kingmakers or gatekeepers, in order to bring to poetry a vital curiosity … Burt and Bendixen imagine their field in full 3D: as a set of intersecting planes, formed by means of poetic affinities, identities, and unexpected resemblances.'

Walt Hunter Source: Essays in Criticism

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Contents


Page 1 of 3


  • Chapter 6 - Poetry in the Time of Revolution
    pp 129-152
  • View abstract

    Summary

    The oral tradition's various tribal creation accounts invariably link the generative word, the resulting narrative, earth, animals, and people into one great chain of Native being. The poetics of the oral tradition, which governs Native orality, also informs modern Native writings to the extent that there's no clear demarcation between old and new, oral and written. American Indian literature is creative power controlled and propelled by a specialized vocabulary. American Indian medicine texts incorporate prose accounts, songs, poetry, dance, and sacred objects in ritual form. Works in the oral tradition fall into four major categories: the ancient tradition that existed before contact, the nineteenth- and twentieth-century works collected by ethnologists, the modern oral tradition, and current written works, which are closely informed by the oral tradition. Once Musquash, or Muskrat, is invoked by the power of the Algonquian word, Prospect becomes an example of American Indian poetics at work.
  • Chapter 7 - Asserting a National Voice
    pp 155-176
  • View abstract

    Summary

    More than two hundred American Puritans wrote poetry that is still extant. In their worldview, the physical world was itself a book written by God to connect this world with the next, to link the lowly creatures with their creator, because that, which may be known of God, is manifest in them. Standardized prayer was criticized as a papist and Anglican ritual, because any good minister could and should pray in the spirit. The practice of meditation, of making abstract doctrine real and true to human experience through an intense focus, was itself a poetics, away of channeling thought and feeling in language. Anne Bradstreet, Roger Williams, Michael Wigglesworth, Edward Taylor and Jane Colman Turell, wrote poetry, as a part of their religion, an unending struggle to connect transient life and lasting truth, to work out the meanings of life, to connect the natural and supernatural orders.
  • Chapter 8 - The Emergence of Romantic Traditions
    pp 177-191
  • View abstract

    Summary

    Benjamin Franklin's parodic ingredients summarize the artistic failings of the Puritan elegy as post-Enlightenment critics have defined them. The paradox of observing a death in time by invoking the supposed timelessness of art helps explain why critics have never known quite what to do with occasional poems like elegies. Most elegists during sixteenth century took an approach to verbal mourning that drew on Elizabethan patriotism and patronage and, later, Jacobean melancholy and popular devotional traditions. The New England elegy began to separate from its English counterparts by laying greater stress on the commemoration of what William Scheick has called a collective self that enabled survivors to absorb the deceased's piety. With social and political themes pervading the full range of elegiac verse, the chief distinction in American elegy became and largely remains between poems designed for popular audiences and those written for a more traditionally literary readership.
  • Chapter 9 - Linen Shreds and Melons in a Field
    pp 192-216
  • View abstract

    Summary

    People from a range of social positions wrote poetry in colonial Georgia, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Poets wrote about social relations between the sexes, but they also wrote about the trials and tribulations of forming social bonds between men and the manners appropriate to forming productive social bonds within a community. Ballads, one of the most popular poetic forms in early seventeenth-century England, served the purposes of colonial propagandists particularly well. The periodicals' inclusion of poetry by colonial authors marks the beginning of a poetic tradition in which the colonists themselves composed at least part, if not always all, of the imagined audience. Much of the poetry published in the major periodicals of the region deals with the relations between the sexes: many poems concern courtship or take-up the problems faced by lovers, spurned and otherwise.
  • Chapter 10 - Edgar Allan Poe’s Lost Worlds
    pp 217-237
  • View abstract

    Summary

    The story of poetry in the time of the American Revolution is a story of the interaction between manuscript, print, and oral culture. From the Stamp Act crisis through the Revolutionary War, colonists used poetry to vent their anger, express their political beliefs, and articulate the principles that defined the new nation. Many women began writing poetry during the Revolutionary era. Boston historian and playwright Mercy Otis Warren is one of the best known female poets of the time. Throughout the eighteenth century, many readers considered Milton's biblical epic Paradise Lost the single greatest poem in the English language. The long poem has become one of the defining features of American poetry, as Walt Whitman's Song of Myself and Herman Melville'sClarel testify. Even the poets Harriet Monroe championed in Poetry turned to long poems to prove their poetic mettle.
  • Chapter 12 - Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, and the New England Tradition
    pp 259-281
  • View abstract

    Summary

    The noblest literary pedigree rested in poetry, and the eighteenth century, true to its penchant for taxonomic hierarchies, exalted the epic as its highest form. Only the emergence of an American epic would certify the poet's credibility as a literary power and, more important, fortify their sense of nationhood. Richard Henry Dana spent his adolescence warmed by the foment of the Monthly Anthology Club, a group of young Federalists in the Boston area eager to promote a nationalist literature within the bounds of taste and tradition as a bulwark against abuses by a democratic culture. A native of Cummington, Massachusetts, William Cullen Bryant won the esteem of the young literary establishment in his state, but his rise to national attention dates from his closing his law practice in the Berkshires to accept co-editorship of the newly launched New-York Review in 1825.
  • Chapter 13 - Other Voices, Other Verses
    pp 282-305
  • View abstract

    Summary

    A number of poets practiced varieties of Romanticism that are quite different from the transcendentalist tradition, especially in their treatment of nature, sensuality, and myth. American Romanticism has its real beginnings in New York. The American relationship to the natural world embodied a crucial conflict between reverence for the glories of a bountiful nature and the desire to convert that bounty into cash and productive industry. Much of nineteenth-century American poetry was devoted to dramatizing the passions and intrigues of the classical past, particularly in the form of verse drama, which constitutes one of the most under examined genres in the literary history. In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to a number of female poets, including Alice, Lucy Larcom, and Lydia Sigourney. American poets, particularly southerners, often turned to the mockingbird because their own native land lacked the bird dearest to the English poetic imagination, the nightingale.
  • Chapter 14 - American Poetry Fights the Civil War
    pp 306-328
  • View abstract

    Summary

    Lydia Sigourney is often misunderstood as an excessively sentimental and possibly not very smart poet and a writer of ponderous advice handbooks for mothers and daughters. In the poem, To a Shred of Linen Mrs. Sigourney displayed having an unexpectedly witty, even iconoclastic, streak. Ralph Waldo Emerson found himself hankering after such worthier bards. He disliked poetry in which the meter influenced what the poet wants to say. Emerson's closest ally was Margaret Fuller who had written an unrhymed poetic sketch titled Meditations. Margaret Fuller's spirit of love quietly rebels against one of the most iconic images of Transcendentalism before Emerson had even had time to formulate it: the image of the solitary eyeball melting into the horizon. The works of other poets including Osgood, Waldo, Saadi Shirazi and Henry David Thoreau are also discussed.
  • Chapter 15 - Walt Whitman’s Invention of a Democratic Poetry
    pp 329-359
  • View abstract

    Summary

    Poetic literacy was at a peak in mid-nineteenth century, and Edgar Allan Poe was fully immersed in the social networks that produced and disseminated poetry to a wide readership. Poe's poetry repeatedly dramatizes the ways that certain human values, capacities, and energies are not only threatened but actually extinguished. Poe explains that death is a transformation from particle to unparticled matter. For Poe, the properties of poetry that stir desires for impossible beauty are the elements of language that are irrelevant, or at least secondary, to its signifying capabilities. Poe's theory of death and the afterlife might seem somewhat idiosyncratic, particularly his understanding of an immaterial material, unparticled matter, as God, creativity, action, and spirit. Many of Poe's poems fall into two categories: there are the apocalyptic landscapes, like Dream-Land, and more familiarly, there are the meditations on lost love, like The Raven and Annabel Lee.
  • Chapter 16 - Emily Dickinson
    pp 360-382
  • View abstract

    Summary

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most influential American poet of the nineteenth century. More than a century after Longfellow's death and Whitman's idiosyncratic evaluation, Angus Fletcher compared the two and lamented that as a poet, competing for attention in the modern age of anxiety and irony, Longfellow has fallen from his great height. Longfellow remains one of the very few American poets to be commemorated in Westminster Abbey. A Psalm of Life was included in Longfellow's first book of poetry in 1839, and its generic success accounts for the generic title of his second book of poetry Ballads and Other Poems. The classical literacy that Longfellow's poetry made available at a discount became the subject of his two best-selling narrative poems, Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha. Longfellow's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy was the product of his collaboration with other members of the famous Dante Club.
  • Chapter 17 - The South in Reconstruction
    pp 383-402
  • View abstract

    Summary

    The New England tradition was contested throughout the United States, its meanings were never monolithic, and authors like John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell are more interesting than literary history has remembered them to be. Whittier's relation to the antislavery movement was entirely print-mediated, and in the vexed political climate of the 1830s his publications made him notorious. Whitman Bennett has described Whittier's antislavery newspaper poems as a very special brand. The dialectical distinction between national and natural literature characterizes Lowell's stance on literary value: literature becomes national as it becomes natural, by growing from a global tradition. The decline of Lowell's productivity after the Civil War has been noted, but the Commemoration Ode really commemorates the passing of the kind of public verse he had championed, which once shaped the social order, but which will have a less important place in the new, postbellum world.
  • Chapter 18 - The “Genteel Tradition” and Its Discontents
    pp 403-424
  • View abstract

    Summary

    Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century was lousy with poets. At the apex of respectable high cultural ambitions, the Atlantic Monthly, under the editorship of James Russell Lowell and with the nods of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes among other worthies, was publishing poetry vigorously. At some point in the 1860s, each poet separately composed a self-consciously major poem on the summer chorus of the crickets. The other voices of mid-nineteenth-century American poetry could scarcely be more other than Thomas Hill's transcription of Martian verse. The journalistic branch of American poetry was closely related to other modes of gaining access to authorship: Walt Whitman began his authorial career in social movement writing, with a temperance novel, and John Greenleaf Whittier moved through stints as a school teacher and a newspaper editor before becoming one of the major poets of nineteenth-century social movements.
  • Chapter 19 - Disciplined Play
    pp 425-444
  • View abstract

    Summary

    The Civil War witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of poetry by men and women from all walks of life. In the poetry of this era, both amateur and professional writers confronted a crisis of representation, as they sought to define the changing meanings of family, home, and nation in wartime. While canonical writers like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville might address this crisis more explicitly, studying the full spectrum of poetry from this period makes clear that popular writers, women poets, and African Americans also grappled with important representational and aesthetic challenges in their poems. This chapter considers that full spectrum, ultimately arguing that Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville all responded dialogically to the work of their poetic contemporaries. The Civil War and the years immediately preceding it proved to be a time of extraordinary variety in the range of techniques African American poets employed in support of abolition.
  • Chapter 20 - Dialect, Doggerel, and Local Color
    pp 445-471
  • View abstract

    Summary

    Walt Whitman devoted his career to defining and enacting a new poetics that would be distinctive to the American nation and its democratic aspirations. Whitman's influence has extended well beyond poetry. He has been examined seriously by political scientists and cultural theorists as a philosopher of democracy, and he has been a central figure in gay history and queer studies, often credited with inventing the language of homosexual love. Whitman's notebooks and surviving manuscripts reveal the intensity and fluidity of the development of his poetic style. He was teaching Americans how to begin to think and speak democratically, in a freer and looser idiom, in a more conversational and less formal tone, in an absorptive and indiscriminate way. Major historical events like the Civil War and Reconstruction had a palpable effect on the physical makeup of his books.
  • Chapter 21 - Political Poets and Naturalism
    pp 472-494
  • View abstract

    Summary

    Emily Dickinson's poetry addresses the social ostracism she experienced as a religious skeptic. In some poems, she uses religious and biblical language but undercuts it by using punctuation and physical format to emphasize its dubious qualities. Dickinson has often been portrayed as a victim of Victorian social conventions, but her life, like her poetry, was a declaration of independence from the limitations of prescribed behavior. Dickinson's poems explore a wide range of emotions ranging from fury to ecstasy; much of her poetry focuses on love, autonomy, nature, and death. Dickinson accepted the inevitability of death, and her poems celebrate her deepest convictions that life should take on intense meaning in the context of mortality. Throughout her life, Dickinson rejected social convention and the comforts of religion. Her poetry and letters form a chronicle of her challenging, and often dramatic, adventure.

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