Saturday, September 25, 2010

Aimless Reading: The K's, Part 4 (John Keats)

Keats, John
The Complete Poetry
and Selected Prose of Keats

Not really sure where I bought this. It looks pretty old, but I am sure I bought it within the last ten years, possibly at Rust Belt Books. It has a Filene's price sticker on the cover. Looks like the price was $.95. I remember shopping now and again at Filene's Basement in Chelsea. They used to have lots of cheap clothes there. I think it became a gigantic Old Navy store.

Keats has been enormously important for me at various points in my life. He was probably the first poet I read seriously when I was an undergraduate. I remember taking a class on the Romantics during my sophomore year. I had just stopped drinking and was going to AA religiously. For a time, I became something of a purist, not only about getting sober, but about the ideas that floated around the rooms and how they applied not only to daily life but to moral/philosophical thought.

My thinking went something like this: I had been trying to escape from reality for a long time, but if I wanted to get and stay sober I had to learn to face reality without artificial aids. I then for some reason took this a further step, declaring to myself that escape from reality was morally unjustified. I guess I created this false ethic as a kind of projection of my own feelings of failure. If I could overcome the need to escape reality, that would make me morally superior to others. If I were morally superior to others, I would not feel bad about myself. If I did not feel bad about myself, I would not need drugs or alcohol. Something like that.

Which is all a roundabout way of telling you about my first paper as an undergraduate English major in which I excoriated Keats' for what I perceived to be his escapism and thus his moral weakness in "Ode to a Nightingale." You see what Catholic education does to people? Anyhow, the professor loved it and pointed me to all kinds of criticism to support my thesis in one way or another. For a long time after that, I thought badly of Keats.

At the same time, my first poems were pretty much naked imitations of Keats, without any reference to the present, just straight up rhyming iambs and mysterious ghostly women come to cleanse and purify the corruption that was my mortal soul. I am glad I threw all of that stuff away.

Fast forward to the early part of the last decade. I wrote a poem about Keats that actually made it into my first book. In it I was testing my ancient theory about Keats and escapism. I'd had long since stopped going to AA, but had managed to stay sober and find other ways of mingling escapism and reality that did not involve the wholesale derangement of my senses. A seemingly obvious idea for most, but for me an important one, and not so obvious at that. I desire escape at every turn. It's in my nature.

I discovered I really liked Keats.

Fast forward a couple of more years. For about a year, I got in the habit of coming home at lunch and trying to memorize poetry while I ate. I found that memorizing metred, rhymed poems was not only easier than memorizing modern poetry, it was also a sensually more pleasing experience. I found that even some of my favorite poets -- Creeley, Williams, etc., were not particularly pleasurable to memorize. Their verses were hard to remember and their irregular rhythmic patterns felt kind of flat on the tongue in comparison.

Which isn't a criticism -- just a way of noting where some of the value of metred, rhymed poems lays.

My two great feats of this period were the memorization of Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," which took several weeks, and the memorization of all of Keats Odes, which took about the same amount of time. One other thing I learned about memorization -- at least beyond childhood -- is that it doesn't last. I might still be able to pull off a recitation of "Ode to a Nightingale," but none of the other Odes, and certainly not "Tintern Abbey."

However, the memorization process left a deep impression of each of these poems. Not just the content, but the rhythm and the form. Fragments of the poems: lines, phrases, images, remain embedded in my consciousness and rise to the surface at unexpected times. This period had the further effect of helping me make a wholesale change to my poetry. Everything I have written over the past 3 years has been profoundly different than the short, tight, fragmentary poems of the first two books. My line length and poem length have stretched out. I find myself employing narrative and toying with iambic pentameter. However, I think these poems are contemporary in a way that my early imitations of Keats were not. I feel like I have absorbed and assimilated and deployed the information rather than having simply parroted it. At least, that's the hope.

from The Complete Poetry And Selected Prose of Keats

Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness, -
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain -
To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: - Do I wake or sleep?

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