Poems have social lives, or at least they had them in nineteenth-century America. Who knew? Granted, some readers of Michael C. Cohen’s lively book might protest that American literary scholarship has talked for some time now about nothing but the social, or political or historical, lives of poems, as distinct from their aesthetic or formal lives—that is, when it has talked about poems at all. As Cohen observes, “For much of the twentieth century, nineteenth-century poetry was not part of American literature” (12). Rarely on the syllabus, not much invoked by the grand historians of American literary nationalism, and not collected in modern scholarly editions (aside from the trinity of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville), “poetry is the open secret of American literature: so much of it, so popular, so unread, so seemingly unreadable” (12).

Cohen is by no means...

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