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Materialism without Matter

Environmental Poetics from Spenser to Milton

This project argues that early modern poets—Edmund Spenser, Walter Ralegh, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton—used their poems to teach readers how to enjoy loss. Moreover, it argues that a poetry that invites us to enjoy loss is of radical importance to ecological politics today. Writing at the dawn of the Anthropocene, when the desire to accumulate nature’s resources seemed limitless and the risk of loss merely contingent with respect to the wealth and freedom promised by capitalism, Spenser, Ralegh, Marvell and Milton crafted an ecological poetics in which loss was no longer contingent but rather constitutive of desire. Materialism without Matter focuses our attention on the ecological benefits of loss and the means by which loss is enacted through poetry. 

While centered on early modern poetry, this project has broader implications for viewing the relationship between poetic thinking and material form. In recent years, poetry has been called on to resuscitate our world. For example, in The Mushroom at the End of the World, anthropologist Anna Tsing writes of the importance of cultivating a poetic sensibility attuned to nature’s forms. Tsing finds in poetry a means of noticing forms of living where life should not be, places destroyed or written off by capitalist production and consumption. As this example illustrates, poetry has become a site for thinking about the challenges facing our world, including environmental collapse and human and nonhuman collaboration. My goal in Materialism without Matter is to reorient studies of poetry around formalist concerns and to make poetry the heartbeat of materialist and environmental criticism.

Portions of this project have appeared in Spenser Studies, Criticism, and Queer Milton.

Pterapod shell dissolved in seawater  adjusted to ocean chemistry projected for the year 2100.

Pterapod shell dissolved in seawater adjusted to ocean chemistry projected for the year 2100.