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The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life

August 2020

"Acute, lyrical, beautifully researched, and crisply argued."

-Christopher Nealon, Johns Hopkins University

"This a demand, careful and clear, that we unmake the world that gave us this calamity and the calamity that gave us this world."

-Joshua Clover, University of California, Davis


Romanticism coincided with two major historical developments: the Industrial Revolution, and with it, a turning point in our relationship to the earth, its inhabitants, and its climate. Drawing on Marxism and philosophy of science, The Calamity Form shines new light on Romantic poetry, identifying a number of rhetorical tropes used by writers to underscore their very failure to make sense of our move to industrialization.
Anahid Nersessian explores works by Friedrich Hölderlin, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and others to argue that as the human and ecological costs of industry became clear, Romantic poetry adopted formal strategies—among them parataxis, the setting of elements side by side in a manner suggestive of postindustrial dissonance, and apostrophe, here an address to an absent or vanishing natural environment—as it tried and failed to narrate the calamities of capitalism. These tropes reflect how Romantic authors took their bewilderment and turned it into a poetics: a theory of writing, reading, and understanding poetry as an eminently critical act. Throughout, Nersessian pushes back against recent attempts to see literature as a source of information on par with historical or scientific data, arguing instead for an irreducibility of poetic knowledge. Revealing the ways in which these Romantic works are of their time but not about it, The Calamity Form ultimately exposes the nature of poetry’s relationship to capital—and capital’s ability to hide how it works.

Available at the University of Chicago Press and Bookshop.

More reviews:

Reading this always arresting, often startling study feels a little like reading a poem by Donne. . . . [The Calamity Form] is a page-turner, the likes of which I can’t remember encountering. Reading Nersessian is like talking to a person of enormous intelligence, originality, creativity, energy, wit, confidence, and style who also works to make herself unknowing enough—vulnerable, susceptible enough—to channel the unheard melodies of the best known of Romantic era poems.

- Marjorie Levinson, Critical Inquiry

This is a book that I hope will have a shaping effect on literary study. It offers a model for how we might continue to address issues of ongoing social concern without exaggerating or minimizing the importance of poetry to criticism and, perhaps more importantly, to life.

- Brian McGrath, The Wordsworth Circle


Nersessian reads promiscuously, in the best sense, across disciplines, traditions, and languages. It's a densely crafted book fairly brimming with ideas—there is action on every page—and it's written with brio and an almost Pynchonesque vocabulary.

- Ian Balfour, Studies in Romanticism


Poised to become a touchstone of contemporary Romantic studies.

- Bakary Diaby, Los Angeles Review of Books

The Calamity Form gives a compelling demonstration of how we might have our formalist cake and eat history too.

- Jack Chelgren, Chicago Review


Nersessian brings a new and deeper understanding to Romantic poetry's response to capitalism....T]his probing, erudite study will appeal to scholars interested in such subjects as formalism, ecocriticism, Marxist theory, and literary theory as well as to those who study literature.

- Choice

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