Symposium Introduction

In the late Sean Bonney’s prose-poem nightmare “What Teargas Is For,” you are invited into a hissing cloud of teargas. Bonney is interested in both the physiological and the epistemological effects of this noxious substance—how it drowns the senses in excruciating pain and, for a while, evacuates all possibility of knowing the world. He explicitly compares a cloud of teargas, strangely enough (or not), to The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous medieval mystical tract in the apophatic tradition of negative theology: “In the center of that pain is a small and silent point of absolute Unknowing. It is that Unknowing that the cops—and by extension Charles Windsor—call knowledge. They want it. They’ve got scalpels if necessary but teargas is cleaner.”1

But this poem does not only dwell at the violently compressed conjuncture of riot and mysticism; Bonney backs out of this cloud to litter several concrete details about teargas—the name of a major teargas supplier, a “security solutions” company called the Westminster Group; its share of the market; its corporate board members; its connections with the British royal family. The haunting effect of the piece is that the more details we learn about the manufacture and distribution of teargas—economic and political details that should be demystifying when brought into the painfully bright lucidity of day—the deeper into unknowability and obscurity we tread. The last word of the poem, desperately, is “know.”

The unsettling dialectic of knowledge and unknowing probed in Bonney’s reverie is intimately related to the crux of Anahid Nersessian’s recent book The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life, the occasion of this symposium. Nersessian takes up the manifold pressures exerted upon poetry and visual art by the essential condition of unknowability in capitalist modernity: the condition of being wrapped up in huge structures of coercion, domination, and destruction whose contours and causes we can only faintly descry. If her first book, Utopia, Limited, limned a Romanticism “predicated on dispossession” in adjusting to the limits of the possible,2 The Calamity Form moves from unowning to unknowing in its exploration of the limits of the knowable. In dialogue with Geoffrey Hartman’s work on Romanticism and trauma, she calls this unknowing condition “nescience.” The book builds an analytic of nescience alongside a particular attention to the poetic utterances elicited in Romantic poets by this shattered sense of incommensurability between world and representable experience. For the poets in question, nescience is a strange, sometimes attenuated, sometimes opulently maladroit state provoked above all by “industrialization’s trauma, which, like all traumas, is an experience of phenomenological discontinuity, of the everyday match between what is felt, what is known, and what is actually true gone to irretrievable pieces” (3).

In chapters that range from Hölderlin and Cowper’s visionary paratactic stammerings, to Wordsworth’s and Keats’s intricate evasions, to the null revelations of Romantic painter John Constable’s cloud studies—clouds of unknowing, if ever there were any—The Calamity Form returns to the Romantic era’s dazed encounter with the early onslaught of the Industrial Revolution and the consolidated reign of the commodity form, in order to reimagine this much-imagined literary period afresh. The book’s title is intended to rhyme with Marx’s “the commodity form,” and the disjunctive overlay between the two forms occasions the work’s dazzling explorations of poetic form, which are cast under the rubric of “figure.” For Nersessian, “figures are structural devices that create disorder,” and thus refuse to absorb or represent the world in any linear or causally transparent way; figures perforate any presumption of worldly coherence by opening up “site[s] of misalignment” (15; 18). The main point is not how poems might obscure the material causes of exploitation, suffering, environmental degradation, etc. (though they might), but instead how they offer unique modes of encountering the already obscured, inverted world we live in. Here Romantic poetry’s capable negativity enrolls a repertoire of tools—figures like parataxis, catachresis, obscurity, apostrophe—that, rather than resolving the blockages or “clots in sense” (Halpern) constitutive of modern life, allow us to inhabit, to reframe, to tarry with, and even—not unambivalently—to enjoy them. Some of most beautiful moments of the book take these slivers of delight and alchemize their friction to conjure glimpses of inactually existing communism around the edges of the capitalist world’s stultifying darkness, as when Keats aims at “recapturing the senses for blissfully impersonal purposes” and sees eroticism as “hallucinat[ing] a communist form of work” (115; 121).

I like to hear in nescience not just a negation of knowledge but a practiced knowledge of negation, a nay-science, a furtive gnosis of the no; here it might greet abolition (an affiliation hinted throughout and coiled in the book’s final sentence). And it is here where, as in the central void of Bonney’s cloud of teargas, unknowing might coincide with another knowledge, dissolving this world and hallucinating another one. In this way, the poem offers a dream of cloudbusting, in the words of Kate Bush (one of the book’s confessed heroes). The lyrics of this tragic and exuberant track “Cloudbusting,” while skewing toward a distressed optimism not quite fitting for The Calamity Form’s more melancholy tonality, offer their own late-Romantic twist on the relation between knowledge, unknowing, and language:

Ooh I just know that something good is going to happen

And I don’t know when

But just saying it could even make it happen.

Over the book’s four compact chapters, Nersessian pursues the calamity form, sounding, with almost apophatic verve, its negative-theological niceties. The titular calamity encompasses both the element of real destruction (inclusive of, but not reducible to, environmental disaster wrought by capitalism) and an exquisitely frustrated poetics, one affectively bound up in “calamity’s unique structure of feeling” (4). Calamity is where we live, an ambient, cirrous realm of occulted accumulation and exhausted life. Perhaps we could say: that things are “status quo” is the calamity.

With its perspicacious close readings and a host of acute critical engagements with various theoretical traditions (Marxism, deconstruction, eco-criticism, rhetoric, analytic philosophy, and more), The Calamity Form charts a way forward for understanding Romantic poetry’s twinned desire to summon communal life and to confront what makes community so nearly impossible under capitalism. But it does much more than this. Although English Romanticism, with its peculiar historical perch, provides the book’s main case studies, Nersessian often veers into an eclectically arrayed archive of post-Romantic currents and contemporary art. Such constellations with the present remind us that the Romantics’ era is also “not not-ours,” as she puts it (45); they help us see the deep Cimmerian darkness of the present with differently charged, perhaps recaptured, senses.

It is very much worth adding that The Calamity Form is a sumptuous pleasure to read. Nersessian writes in a singular style, and with the deft and generous intellect that is also on display in her dialogue with the four outstanding interlocutors assembled in this symposium. All four approach the book with rigorous care, and from productively disparate angles. First, Margaret Ronda queries the relation of Nersessian’s interest in a “long Romantic mode” to the tradition of Marxist literary criticism that is part of the book’s oblique inheritance. Adducing poems by John Ashbery and Langston Hughes to reorient the question of commodity and calamity, Ronda’s response allows some of the more submerged interventions in The Calamity Form to surface.

Next, Tyler Harper zeroes in on The Calamity Form’s recourse to analytic philosophy and the philosophy of science to bring the thought of Wilfrid Sellars into dialogue with the book’s central concerns. Harper asks how Sellars’s insistence on the necessary gap between the scientific image and the manifest image of the world might map onto Romantic poetry’s murky adventures in nescience. Harper wonders about the place of phenomenology in The Calamity Form’s critical project, while complicating Nersessian’s characterization of eco-criticism, especially around the question of ecological catastrophe. In raising the specter of Romanticism’s apocalyptic imagination via Byron’s iconic, terrifying vision “Darkness,” he elicits a wonderful exchange on this poem.

Erica McAlpine focuses her response around live questions of judgment, evaluation, and pleasure in literary criticism, issues at the heart of the critical enterprise. An exchange on Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy” leads from the metaphysics, semantics, poetics, and erotics of grape-bursting to thoughtful ruminations from both writers on the variously entangled intellectual, personal, political, aesthetic, and affective investments of reading and teaching literature. Facing up to “the problem of judgment’s seemingly inherent conservatism,” McAlpine keenly asks, “what would a criticism that took up badness and goodness as criteria look like at this moment in literary studies?”

Finally, Rob Halpern’s response, drawn from the postscript to his recent volume of poetry Hieroglyphs of the Inverted World (Kenning Editions, 2021), foregrounds his own poetic practice in a dialogue with The Calamity Form and its orbit of concerns. Taking up the problem of poetic (un)knowing, Halpern’s intense interrogation begins by asking: “But as it, too, flickers and refracts, can my poem’s burnished amber show me something I don’t think I already know about the present?” Weaving engagements with Nersessian in and out of a meditation that broaches Marx and Hall on ideology, Césaire and Lorde on poetic knowledge, and poetry’s own fraught spirals of self-convicting complicity, self-renunciation, and uncanny imaginative beckoning, Halpern’s response turns Nersessian’s own reply toward questions of love, revolution, and half-forgotten radical pasts.

Halpern has also offered a stunning poem from his new volume to conclude his contribution, a tribute and homage to Sean Bonney that also engages the impossible and necessary questions raised in his prose response. Halpern’s poem imagines another poem outside of its knowledge, one that might augur an Atlantis of free and common life under the rising oceans of violence that every present poem swims within:

As if a poem could announce what will have been here

The way a star lodged in the gut of Cerberus might fall

From its orbit to bring us intel from the future whose origin

Coincides with some Atlantean place of new life no longer

Trapped in the cycle of accumulation & extinction

  1. Sean Bonney, Our Death (Oakland: Commune Editions, 2019), 73. The publisher has made a free pdf available:

  2. Anahid Nersessian, Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 73.

Margaret Ronda


In Doing So Be Undone

Reading Anahid Nersessian’s luminous and arresting work of poetics, The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life, I found myself recalling lines from John Ashbery’s apophatic ars poetica from his 1977 Houseboat Days, “And Ut Pictura Poesis Was Her Name.” Ashbery opens the poem by declaring: “You can’t say it that way any more.” Like the earth lopped from Constable’s cloud paintings in Nersessian’s chapter on apostrophe, Ashbery’s declaration gestures toward what it abjures, directs attention to occluded ground. What cannot be uttered, what is impermissible that the poem nonetheless conjures in its absence? What is it, in turn, about this now that makes this old way of saying unsayable? The poem ends with these bravura lines:

The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind

Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate

Something between breaths, if only for the sake

Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you

For other centers of communication, so that understanding

May begin, and in doing so be undone.

In its turning motions, its glimpse of social longing as a desire to express “something between breaths,” its light play with images of emptiness and fullness, Ashbery’s poem embodies a form of the poetics so beautifully evoked in The Calamity Form. These lines articulate their own presence as a space through which some uncommunicable truth moves, where understanding enters and is gently undone, a poetic space that Nersessian’s book dilates and tarries with across its pages. As Nersessian writes in her chapter on forms of obscurity in Wordsworth, such work “wants to make the insubstantiality of difficult experience and the compromised consciousness we have of it palpable” (85). Reading Ashbery by way of Nersessian, I apprehend with new force its particular way of “telling you what it is to know nothing” and its existence within a broader horizon of poems characterized by this quality of poetic nescience.

Ashbery’s poem marks a recent instance of the long Romantic mode that Nersessian charts in The Calamity Form. This poetics, emerging alongside the new productive relations of industrial capitalism, endures into our present as a mode acutely responsive to the challenges of consciousness and comprehension that characterize this system’s total workings. The Calamity Form examines the complex repertoire that poets and artists develop to convey the uncommunicability of this real and the affective and perceptual responses that this uncommunicability elicits. Turning to what she calls the “intransitive” being of figure across a series of poetic texts from the Romantic era and more recent aesthetic artifacts, Nersessian argues that “their organizing presence in a work of literary or visual art corrals that work into their own oblique mode of representation” (12). Nersessian undertakes a series of virtuosic readings that illuminate the oblique, refractory qualities of figure as an index of historical cognizance. The Calamity Form’s experimental method coordinates literary analysis with its objects to find an approach adequate to their particular figurative register. The figures she devotes time to across these chapters are thus not described so much as critically animated through her interpretive engagement. Nersessian’s critical orientation is dazzlingly kinesthetic: it “sidl[es] close,” turns, leaps, halts, compresses, swerves. Arranging its materials in startling, vivid array, the study develops a paratactical approach akin to Jarman’s seaside garden by the nuclear plant.

The work of Theodor Adorno and Geoffrey Hartman serves as central inspiration for Nersessian’s approach across The Calamity Form. Adorno’s attention to the negative aesthetics of damaged life finds sustained correspondence in Nersessian’s readings. If his Minima Moralia serves as ground note for the general sensibility of this study, his essay “Parataxis,” which develops a paratactical reading method via a reading of Hölderlin’s poetry contra Heidegger, elaborates a model that Nersessian’s own readings extend and redirect across the study. Hartman’s 1995 essay, “On Traumatic Knowledge and Literary Studies,” which considers how the insights of trauma theory can generate new approaches to literary interpretation via a turn to the “nescience” of “traumatic knowledge,” is another key source here. Approaching the signs of trauma in a text as that which eludes full comprehension or knowability, the interpreter’s task is not to “attempt a definitive judgment or evaluation” but instead to “disclos[e] an unconscious or not-knowing knowledge,” Hartman argues (544). Hartman’s framings of a literary nescience bearing signs of undisclosable trauma, and of the interpreter as one who listens for these signs rather than working to “expose” or demystify them, resonate in Nersessian’s characterizations of the task of the critic who takes close, inductive measure of the poetics of calamity through the divagations of figure.

To note, however, the guiding presence of these figures in The Calamity Form is necessarily to take account of the essential divergences in her approach. Both Hartman and Adorno’s work is situated within and creatively expands upon key philosophical traditions at the heart of literary-critical inquiry: psychoanalysis and historical materialist analysis, respectively. Their key concepts, methods of analysis, and horizons of interpretive meaning find their essential salience within these hermeneutical situations. Nersessian, by contrast, develops an approach that explicitly resists such situating, whether in relation to theoretical traditions or particular historical contexts, in order to attend to the irreducibly distinctive operations of the literary texts under investigation. She writes that the poetry she is examining does not “claim to be able to assemble a causal network of actors and events capable of being translated into a predictive theory. This is a strike neither against poetry nor against theory. It is just a glance across the distance that exists between them, and a hint that criticism (whatever its aspirations) ought to be responsive and responsible to that distance” (6). Nersessian’s argument pointedly refuses to read poems as “evidence” in any regard—and therein lies, perhaps, her departure from psychoanalytic perspectives that would regard poetry as testimony, however indirect. She wants to develop a brief for literary criticism’s work as relatively autonomous of contextualizing or evidentiary frameworks, whether theoretical or historicist.

This critical feature of The Calamity Form comes to the fore most complexly in Nersessian’s engagement with historical materialism. Nersessian opens the book by asserting that it will explore the “limits of historical materialism for literary study” (1). Nersessian lays out a certain critique of Marxist literary hermeneutics, indicating that the dialectical imperatives and causal accounts central to Marxist hermeneutics operate in a different register than the specific work of poetics, imposing strong readings that overlook the open-ended and elusive matter of figure that a more immanent approach can address. Part of the issue, Nersessian suggests, is that Marxist readings have tended to emphasize narrative both in terms of their interpretive objects and in their broader historical plot arcs, whereas she discerns in the poetry of capital’s calamity an eerie cutting loose of the present from past and future alike and a refusal of the teleologies of narrative.

Yet many of the formidable resources of Marxist aesthetic and literary interpretation seem very much at play in Nersessian’s arguments, if sometimes operating in buried or indirect fashion. Her critique of literary empiricism, for instance, takes its place within longer dialogues within Marxist criticism surrounding reflection theory and the politics of aesthetic form. Her elaboration of nescience dovetails with complex conceptualizations of ideology critique, reification theory, totality, and mediation central to Marxist aesthetic analysis. Despite her critique of Adorno’s emphasis on dialectical reading in “Parataxis,” Nersessian’s readings often feel essentially dialectical in their operations. And of course the commodity and its social logics are the central framework through which Nersessian’s “calamity form” develops its resonance (about which more below). In certain sections—most notably the stunning chapter on Keats and catachresis—these materialist inheritances emerge more directly as intellectual infrastructure of the project.

Nersessian’s determined foregrounding of the limit of historical materialism to her study thus returns me, in another register, to that question of occluded ground that she so deftly highlights in her reading of Constable’s clouds, and that Ashbery’s opening prohibition points toward. She draws my attention, quite fixedly, to Marxist criticism—its practices, techniques, debates—as a determining but obscured presence throughout The Calamity Form. I wonder, then, about the nescience that the book stages with regards to its affiliations with historical materialist analysis, and about its imperative not to engage more directly with these traditions—or, alternatively, to develop a more fully elaborated critique of what she regards as materialism’s limits for literary analysis. Why might the work of Marxist scholars who have attended so carefully to the specifically non-narrative and non-teleological logics of literary form remain unavailable as a resource for approaching “calamity form”? Why might the remarkably rich and supple repertoire of concepts that Marxist literary scholarship has developed precisely to explore the problems of representing the real—what Jameson calls the materialist “study of Darstellung”—that The Calamity Form pursues fundamentally insufficient for its analysis? “You can’t say it that way any more,” Nersessian seems to say. And yet the study enacts a more complex, ambivalent, and active relationship to this genealogy than such an assertion of limit would indicate. I wanted to understand the coordinates of this ambivalent relationship more fully.

These questions extend to the governing analogy of “calamity form” and “commodity form.” Nersessian sets these concepts alongside each other, thereby raising a series of questions about their shared properties and points of divergence. The calamity form, like the commodity form, “names a disfigurement that is at once sensual and cognitive: it effects changes in how we, as embodied beings, experience the material world, and it also makes those changes hard to grasp in explicative, let alone actionable, terms,” Nersessian asserts (4). Yet if the commodity form is the primary element of capitalist economic relations, expressive of its fundamental operations and social logics, Nersessian’s calamity form bears quite different proportions, both broader and more narrow: it is “both the Industrial Revolution and a poetics awkwardly responsive to or co-operative with it, working alongside though not necessarily in cahoots” (4). As defined in this way—as at once transformative historical condition and its coterminous poetic field of response—the calamity form as a concept emerges as decidedly heterogeneous to the appearance and logics of the commodity form within capitalism. I found myself puzzling over the extent of their mutual illumination and the directional force of the structural analogy Nersessian sets forth. To what extent does calamity offer a redescription or new turn to the commodity concept? How might the commodity form’s particular properties and itineraries find analogous dimensions in the calamity form? Might “disaster”—as event or as more temporally extended social texture—offer a way to understand the mysteries of commodification, at another level? How might we read the forms of “social life” that the calamity form makes manifest in relation to the social form of the commodity (that is, the relations it contains and simultaneously obscures)?

I’ve mentioned Ashbery’s poem as one that offered, for me, a new conjugation of Nersessian’s powerful argument. Another poem that preoccupied my thoughts while reading The Calamity Form was Langston Hughes’s 1925 poem, “Johannesburg Mines.” Here’s the whole poem:

In the Johannesburg mines

There are 240,000

Native Africans working.

What kind of poem

Would you

Make out of that?

240,000 natives

Working in the

Johannesburg mines.

The figure that Hughes employs in this poem is antimetabole, or repetition via reversal (here, of the opening and closing lines)—a syntactical “turning about.” In the poem’s turnings, the key polemical question that Nersessian poses—“What’s the point of reading a poem as a record of verifiable social and historical processes?”—is staged and worked through, in Hughes’s case through a meditation on the compositional rather than the interpretive act. Hughes identifies a fundamental divergence between the “verifiable” facts of capitalism’s operations and the form of being that is a poem. Hughes asks, “What kind of poem” could emerge from a bare reckoning with the calamitous everyday of extractive capitalism, its fully globalized modes of racialized exploitation and environmental plunder? What’s the point of making a poem that offers this kind of record, and what sort of poem would it be? The poem lays out these questions and answers them through the figuring of its presence, a figuration that hinges on the turn and return to elemental social facts: the site of production, the workers, their labor. Through its figurative reversal, it could be said to negate its own negation, bearing the awareness of the “strange fit” (following Barbara Johnson) of poem and historical knowledge while refusing to regard this relational unconformity as poetic limit. What kind of poem? One wherein the figurative resources of the poem are vigilantly deployed to illuminate the hard social fact as something more than empirical detail, Hughes answers. Reading Hughes’s (certainly non-Romantic) poem in the charged light of Nersessian’s thinking, I glimpse a different opening on poetic nescience, or a new turn, perhaps, of the ways poems can apprehend the forms capitalist calamity takes.

It is one small measure of the force of The Calamity Form that it leads me back to key poems to approach them anew. More importantly, this exhilarating study returns me to the most essential, challenging interpretive questions for the study of poetry, about the work of figure, the conditional qualities of representation, the relay between a poem and its historical present.

  • Anahid Nersessian

    Anahid Nersessian


    Response to Ronda

    The Calamity Form is a grieving book. For starters it’s dedicated to a friend who died while I was writing it. But the book is marked, too, by more metaphorical losses, bereavements, debts, and damages. It was meant to be a work of ecocriticism that treated some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poems as early documents of the Anthropocene. It was meant to engage more directly with theories of class formation during the Industrial Revolution, to use the work of E. P. Thompson, Carolyn Steedman, Cedric Robinson, and John Barrell to steer its own path toward a critique of political economy in the context of what Marx called metabolic rift. Ultimately, though, the book I wanted to write became impossible, and so—like Wordsworth with his Prelude—I wrote a book about the impossibility of writing.

    It’s thanks to Margaret Ronda that I’m able to understand this failure as a feature and not a bug of doing literary scholarship (or, really, anything) in the face of climate apocalypse. In her 2013 essay “Mourning and Melancholia in the Anthropocene,” Ronda gently chastises much of contemporary ecocritical writing for its “essentially observational and mimetic ethos,” since “the more radical idea of nature’s end demands an emphasis on what is not, on the negative workings of creative imagination in light of a concept’s withering-away.” Work like Ronda’s meets this demand, its “negative, indebted, elegiac” mood a form of mimesis “necessitated by global ecological crisis.”1 This is the kind of work I wound up wanting to do in The Calamity Form. The book doesn’t aspire to policy-making or even to historical analysis, but instead asks why policy and history so often fall out of poetry even when individual poets, and individual poems, claim to be intervening on exactly those fronts. Or, as Ronda puts it, I was interested, here, in “the oblique, refractory qualities of [poetic] figure as an index of historical cognizance.”

    On the subject of mourning and melancholia, Freud’s famous essay raises the possibility that it is much harder to lose people about whom we have ambivalent feelings—an absent or abusive parent, say, as opposed to a stable and loving one. If you asked me before I had read Ronda’s response if I has this sort of difficult bond with “historical materialist analysis” I probably would have said no. But what Ronda, in her characteristically generous and patient response, helps me see is something the book acknowledges only slantwise, through its own melancholic attitude: that it is, in part, the record of a political persuasion finding itself at odds with an aesthetic one, and of the mixture of embarrassment, irritability, and sadness that accompanies that realization.

    Ronda rightly ties my unease about historical materialism as a literary-critical method to questions about narrative. Briefly, and as I say in the book’s introduction, I take historical materialism to be an explanation, which means a mode of analysis that puts things in a necessarily linear relation of cause and effect. Climate change doesn’t just happen, it happens because we burn too much fossil fuel, which happens because of the scale of production required for the profitability of capitalist enterprise. While it’s certainly true that there are “Marxist scholars who have attended . . . carefully to the specifically non-narrative and non-teleological logics of literary form”—most famously Theodor Adorno—I am not quite sure they have produced good Marxism, though they may have produced excellent literary criticism. I mean that in earnest: I am not quite sure, by which I don’t mean I don’t think but I believe it is a question worth asking, especially given the fact that, as Raymond Williams put it, “the concepts of literature and criticism” have since the eighteenth century serviced “a class specialization and control of a general social practice, and . . . a class limitation of the questions which it might raise.”2

    The authors that interest me in The Calamity Form want to be good materialists but end up just being good poets. This bothers them, and it bothers their poems. None of this, by the way, applies to all poetry, or all poetic traditions, or even all Romantic poets: John Clare is a first-rate theoretician of what Robinson calls “the objective conditions, rhythms, and patterns of the proletarianization of English labor.”3 What I wanted to do was inhabit that same tension but as a critic, which is to say, as a person who is responsible at once to the historical world and to the world of the poem. The poem by Langston Hughes that concludes Ronda’s discussion might be read as staging a clash, at once revelatory and despairing, between a critical position and an aesthetic one—or rather, in Ronda’s terms, as a “turning about” of the question of what poetry owes to truth. Hewn into angular, compact shape and oscillating from confrontation to reserve and back again, “Johannesburg Mines” traps us in its own self-reflexivity, in the unanswerable anguish of its place in a place like ours, where neither art nor labor are free.

    The heterogeneity vis-à-vis “the appearance and logics of the commodity form within capitalism” Ronda sees in my notion of the calamity form is meant to take a contradiction and mobilize it as an analytic concept. The thing about the commodity form is that it is both absolutely real and an absolute scam, both (in Ronda’s words) “the primary element of capitalist economic relations” and (in Marx’s) the means by which “the definite social relation between men . . . assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”4 The poems and, in the case of the last chapter on Constable, paintings on which my book focuses try to unmask the facts of capital but can’t, because their own form likewise conceals a definite social relation, subtilizes, obscures, and disguises it; the closer they draw to the world, the more pronounced their dissimulation of it becomes. This is the calamity that sits on top of capital’s. As Hughes suggests, it is baked into the historical situation of poetry, and so poetry—especially poetry on the left, or poetry that is part of a specific radical genealogy—cannot be otherwise than calamitous. Understanding this problem doesn’t solve it, the way materialism can solve problems of causality or New Criticism can solve problems of structure. That’s what melancholy is, after all: being stuck in a crisis about which there’s nothing more to learn.

    1. Margaret Ronda, “Mourning and Melancholia in the Anthropocene,” Post45, June 2013, (last accessed September 16, 2021).

    2. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 49.

    3. Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 32.

    4. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 165.

Tyler Austin Harper


June 30, 2022, 1:00 am

Erica McAlpine


July 7, 2022, 1:00 am

Rob Halpern


July 14, 2022, 1:00 am