Marjorie Levinson, Thinking Through Poetry: Field Notes on the Romantic Lyric. Reviewed by Carmen Faye Mathes.
Carmen Faye Mathes
University of Regina
Even before this book came to me, I’d been carrying the previously-published parts of Levinson’s study around for years in PDFs on two successive laptops, printouts in clear plastic sleeves, quotations long embedded in chapter drafts and my brain, hand-written conference notes recorded in variously colored, unlined Moleskines. I suspect that for many of us this is the case: that Thinking Through Poetry: Field Notes on the Romantic Lyric is a book unavoidably read out-of-order and with retrospect, as an “index” (Levinson’s word) of significant turns not just in the field of Romantic studies, but also in our own scholarly developments (1). Of ten chapters, the final three and the introduction are new. Of each previously published chapter, Levinson keeps the stand-alone style, asking us to retread paths of thought that likely include our own. The book is “an intellectual history conducted from within” whose longitudinal approach preserves Levinson’s participation in a recent history of knowledge-making that, by her count, spans 1978 to 2018; “[i]f there is any ‘wise passiveness’ in this book,” she writes, “it lives in the recurrent relinquishment of earlier positions following their interrogation by the movements of critical, institutional, and general history” (6). In this way. Thinking Through Poetry puts on display the work of critical re-thinking that renders our scholarship dynamic and vital but also ethical, which is another way of saying willing to admit of change and doubt.
Not that Thinking Through Poetry wants for strong arguments. Levinson’s rigor on questions of nature, agency, thought, singularity, value, and form (to name a few) extends, challenges, and, in review chapters such as “The New Historicism: Back to the Future” and “What is New Formalism?” (originally published in 1989 and 2007, respectively), brings into sharper focus, fields tilled by many decades’ worth of intellectual labor. Two such fields, lyric studies and Wordsworth studies, provide Levinson with source texts for testing intellectual frameworks—from new historicism and new formalism to historical materialism (specifically that of Spinoza), ecopoetics, and systems theory—against the longer history offered by the literary scholarship. At the same time, that the attention paid to Wordsworth’s and others’ lyrics is also, Levinson freely admits, “out of all proportion” with the amount of theorizing or “ground laying” that goes on may be entirely unsurprising to those familiar with her approach (22, 106). The unevenness, she says, reinforces her concern with thinking through (even sans poetry) as both readerly attitude and critical method.
In her introduction, Levinson describes thinking with, by way of Keats, as an “undefended entry into the world of the text, where the reader abandons himself to its unknown ways of being and to his own aleatory associations”; by comparison, thinking through, by way of Heidegger, is a more strict and exacting relation to the text: “that which brings forth objects rather than arises from them” (27). Levinson calls these “complementary rather than contrary critical practices,” and, although the book’s title suggests to which practice we should direct our energies, in Thinking Through Poetry, “thinking with and thinking through alternate over and over again, forming a pattern of thought that spirals both out and down, seeking always to expand and deepen its reach” (27, 29). The gyre, a figure that (fittingly) recurs throughout the book, here helps explain thinking as stretch and release, striving and gathering strength; it seems to turn Coleridge’s active/passive water-bug, metaphor for the action of thinking, in a new direction, going round and down rather than working its “cinque-spotted” way upstream (I: 124). Later on, in a discussion of lyric’s emergence as a genre, a whirlpool will demonstrate an autopoietic (self-organizing) system, revealing how environments are continuous with the forms that they both generate and are (274-6).
Yet the “asymmetry” (again, Levinson’s word) between literature and theory can still feel like a minor tragedy when one comes across a sustained close-reading—in my case, of Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” in one of the new chapters, “Parsing the Frost: The Growth of a Poet’s Sentence in ‘Frost at Midnight’”—and discovers the poem anew. It’s elating to have that titular statement (thinking through poetry) modeled (using poetry) rather than explained (using theory). In “Parsing the Frost,” a set of opening observations—the frost on the windowpane is like the ash on the horizontal “bars” (line 26) of the poet’s fireplace, which is like the horizontal strings of an Aeolian harp, and all are “sensitive surfaces positioned between interior and exterior domains” (212)—deepen and expand as associations layer. Horizontal bars are like sheet music, a fleck of ash like a musical note; frost and film are analogies not only for “thought when it is conceived as spontaneous design formation” but also for writing and reading music/sentences; “the poem’s explicit narrative of subject formation [gains] a parallel plot, this one having as its protagonist the reading subject” ( (222 n.49, 211). Whereas learning to read, as baby Hartley will one day do, involves successive state-changes, from the sounding out of individual letters to letters forming words (akin to ice melting into water), for a confident reader, reading is like the process of deposition by which a solid (ice, ash) forms directly from a gas, since meaning forms directly from sentences (209). In these ways, the poem “expose[s] … patterns of aggregation at work in a variety of formational processes that traverse biological, physical, and cognitive or semiotic divides” and lets us see identity formation as “saltational,” capable of skipping (evolutionary) steps, while still productive of a coherent sense of self (211).
There is much more to Levinson’s reading in “Parsing the Frost” than my gloss can do justice to, including a discussion of the eighteenth-century popular phenomenon of window-writing (courtesy of Christina Lupton), ruminations on the rise of chemistry, and conjecture about what the poem’s protagonist is reading (Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, says Levinson). For now, however, I want to conclude by observing that not only does the chapter enrich our readings “Frost at Midnight,” it also situates itself (like its previously published fellows) in a certain time and place. A postscript, composed sometime after the 2016 MLA convention, briefly compares and contrasts Levinson’s arguments with a newer reading of the poem from Tim Fulford. The effect is to preserve the integrity of the original reading, while also privileging the gyre at the heart of Thinking Through Poetry—the ever deepening and widening spirals of thinking that scholarly conversation, as a form of critical re-engagement, make possible.
Postscript (a page out of Levinson’s book):
In Levinson’s “Acknowledgements,” the list of previously published chapters is misaligned. Here is a corrected version. Chapter 2: “The New Historicism: Back to the Future” was previously published in Levison et al.’s Rethinking Historicism: Critical Readings in Romantic History (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989); Chapter 3: “Romantic Poetry: The State of the Art” was previously published in MLQ, vol. 54, no. 2, 1993; Chapter 4: “Pre- and Post-Dialectical Materialism: Modeling Praxis without Subjects and Objects” was previously published in Cultural Critique, no. 31, 1995; Chapter 5: “A Motion and a Spirit: Romancing Spinoza” was previously published in Studies in Romanticism, vol. 46, no. 4. 2007; Chapter 6: “What is New Formalism?” was previously published in PMLA, vol. 122, no. 2, 2007; Chapter 7: “Of Being Numerous” was previously published in Studies in Romanticism, vol. 49, no. 4, 2010; Chapter 8: “Notes and Queries on Names and Numbers” was previously published in Romantic Circles, Praxis Series, 2013; Chapter 9: “Parsing the Frost: The Growth of a Poet’s Sentence in ‘Frost at Midnight’” is new, as is Chapter 10: “Still Life without References: or, The Plain Sense of Things” and Chapter 11: “Conclusion: Lyric—The Idea of this Invention.”