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  • An Historically Conjunctural Phenomenon
  • Jacob McGuinn (bio)
Marjorie Levinson, Thinking Through Poetry: Field Reports on Romantic Lyric, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018, 352 pp; £60 cloth

Form and history might be considered incompatible in lyric poetry. Indeed, recent debate over lyric genre can be abstracted as a debate about history as a form of 'compatibility'. To the extent that lyric formalises its materials it makes them less historical, less like themselves, more lyrical. Lyric designates incompatibility, this lack of fit, between the constraints of form and the requirements of historical representation.1 Or, lyric traces its own technical history which might intersect with, but is not necessarily identical with, history itself.2 This question of compatibility is of between two different systems, or two versions of systematicity. What is commensurable between the system of historical representation and the systematicity of lyric form: what could sonic, melodic, rhythmic, or visual poetic patterns – poetic material – capture of historical material? I want to follow this question of the compatibility of form and history, and of form and material, by thinking about that connection itself. What is the 'compatibility' which lyric puts into question? What is it to think, to turn to Marjorie Levinson's book, through poetry? In a series of essays on Romantic poetry and critical theory, by reconsidering their systematicity, Levinson's Thinking Through Poetry offers one way to think about those different systems – history and form – in common. Rather than being the organising container for material, Levinson's form is a system of materialisation itself. Understanding this means accounting for the kinds of mediation which lyric form makes available. I want to suggest that this attention to mediation allows us to think how history materialises in lyrical form.

Reviewing this argument in a book as richly expansive as Levinson's will require me to be selective. I shall follow the way the question of history leads Levinson to the idea of materialisation as 'conjunction', a process of critical differentiation which is folded into lyric's systematic materialisation. This seems to me important, firstly, for lyric theory, and – because of the nature of the theory of lyric Levinson proposes – important also for the ways this lyric theory rearranges a critical theory which would read it.

The first link in this plot concerns history as a non-causative system of conjunctions.3 Levinson's book performs this system. Encompassing essays from 1989's 'The New Historicism' to the present, Thinking Through Poetry consists in 'reports on the Romantic lyric' over a thirty-year period. How the book accesses and reflects on its own materials and procedures is therefore significant. Re-framing these essays purports to place them on the kind of horizontal axis of interpretation for which the book advocates. Rather [End Page 131] than a progressive, vertical elaboration of an idea, the book proposes to think about the 'conjunctures' of these essays in its organisational frame. That is to say, the book's form incorporates – quite literally – the history it recounts. But it also reconceptualises it in ways that put pressure on the concept of history.

Chapter two, 'The New Historicism' (1989), in this sense re-evaluates its own historicism: the question of the commensurability of the present of reading with the past it might hope either to capture or articulate. In the new frame of the book, this evaluation is exposed to a new conjuncture:

The key axiom is that the material (and/or nature) – its provenance, locus, content, and effects – is neither an essence nor a social construction (as in, either a hegemonic or consensual projection) but a historically conjunctural phenomenon in the sense of an objective convergence of historical forces. […] every act of materialist critique must first labour to determine what matters (which is to say, how matter materialises) within a given conjuncture (p2).

Thinking material as a 'historically conjunctural phenomenon' means thinking it together with history. The framing thus performatively differentiates Thinking Through Poetry's 'history' from the commitments redeployed in the second chapter. There, 'our reluctance to relate ourselves by difference to the objects we study is an attempt to save the present and its subjectivity from objectification by a critically transformed past' (p37). The present...


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pp. 131-135
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