Published in 2021, 200 years after John Keats’s death in Rome aged just 25, Anahid Nersessian’s book Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse is a collection of intimate essays on Keats, love, desire, and the poet’s enduring power. Today the K-SAA is delighted to present an interview with the author.
The book describes how Keats’s poems are “alive”, and how they address in their various ways, “love and its wild inconvenient expression” (p. 1). This view necessarily plays on Keats’s negative capability and the intense draw of uncertainty, and how one may remain content with the inconstant qualities of the world, and settle into a state of unknowing, but not without exploring the potential of those unknowable truths. The book covers Keats’s biography, his poetic skill, his language. It looks at the classical influences, Marxism, the relevance of Keats today, and so much more.
This interview is part I, check back tomorrow for part II!
Anna Mercer: I was struck by the book’s incredible and poignant way that the prose at once “introduces” us to Keats’s Odes, and your reading of them, but that it also speaks to a reader that is keenly aware of the great weight of existing discourse surrounding this famous grouping of poems, and indeed, their author. As you say yourself, “this book is not a memoir but a work of literary criticism, the whole of a particular love is folded inside it”(p. 18). Do the “intimate, often idiosyncratic responses” (p. xi) to Keats that you present require the reader to have a pre-existing relationship with Keats, and if so, why do you think that is? Have you had many thoughts about your audience?
Anahid Nersessian: One of the things that surprises me always when I teach Keats is how enthusiastically undergraduates in particular respond to him. When you compare Keats to one of his contemporaries, say Wordsworth, the bar to entry on that poetry is not very high, or doesn’t seem to be. Wordsworth, who famously rejected what he called “poetic diction,” doesn’t compulsively invoke mythological entities or use a lot of archaisms like “doth” or “saith,” whereas Keats does all that and then some. So on the face of it, Keats’s poetry would appear to be quite rebarbative, and as if you would have to know a lot—about Keats, about literary history, about poetic form—to be able to enjoy or even understand it.
It turns out, in my experience at least, that’s not at all the case. Students respond in a very visceral, passionate way to Keats’s visceral, passionate poetics, and I don’t have to do much if anything to help them get there. Keats’s Odes is aimed at an audience a lot like my students: people who have signed up to read literature, who have signed up to read difficult though not aggressively experimental or enigmatical literature, and who are interested in having that literature described to them by someone who has some expertise but doesn’t pretend to have the last word. In my mind the only thing you have to bring to the book is a belief in what Dorothy Van Ghent, in her unfinished book on Keats, identifies as “the ‘serious meaning’ of poetry”—which is to say, a belief that poetry makes a space for whatever life as we know it seems to have made impossible. We can call that love; we can call it joy; we can call it a complete emancipation of the social relation. Keats’s Odes calls it all those things in turn and sometimes at once.
AM: You pay attention to Keats’s relationships with other writers, contemporary and otherwise, and for example you discuss the way in which Shakespeare figures as someone in a creative relationship with Keats, because of his palpable presence (as often explicitly expressed in the letters). Would you say you and Keats are in a “creative relationship”, do you feel his influence even when not explicitly writing about him or his work?
AN: Nicholas Dames, in a review of Keats’s Odes for Public Books, called it “a series of letters addressed to an unknown reader.” I think that’s a terrific description and I’m a little embarrassed not to have come up with it myself, since my history with Keats began when I first read his letters to Fanny Brawne, and since it’s entirely right to say I experience my relationship to some of the authors I’m writing about or thinking with as—if I’m lucky—a correspondence. The trouble, as I say in the introduction, is that an exchange of any kind between a female critic, born in the twentieth century, of a certain ethnic background and a certain political disposition and a Romantic poet would be unimaginable to the Romantic poet. I’m interested in the asymmetries of understanding and sympathy produced by that kind of distance, which isn’t merely historical, and the book gambles on the idea that those asymmetries and the forms of estrangement they produce don’t have to be a dead end. This is something I talk about often with my friend Manu Chander, a brilliant critic whose book Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century confronts the inadmissibility of various kinds of people to the category of “Romantic poet” and who, like me, spends a lot of time thinking about what it means to be unthinkable to the writers who’ve meant so much to you.
Letters to unknown readers could be described as apostrophes, and apostrophe is without question the book’s master figure. The most straightforward definition of apostrophe is that it’s an address to someone or something that can’t answer back, but in this book and elsewhere I’ve tried to test the limits of that definition by thinking of apostrophe in terms of the mood or disposition to which it gives a rhetorical form. Apostrophe, in other words, might be just as much about the speaker as the object—about having, as Robert Creeley says, “no other voice left.” My academic monograph, The Calamity Form, ends with a chapter on apostrophe as orientation or bearing in John Constable’s cloud studies, which are I think quite self-consciously apostrophic in their attempt to make a disappearing world and our relation to it visible.
It’s hard to say whether I always feel myself close to Keats when I’m writing; probably the influence is so profound that it’s often unconscious. There are a handful of writers like that for me: Keats certainly, William Blake, Donne, and for the last couple of years I don’t travel without something by Diane di Prima—it could be Revolutionary Letters, Loba, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, whatever—though needless to say I haven’t travelled much since the pandemic began.
AM: My favorite ode is “Ode to Psyche”, and I could feel your clear adoration for that poem in the book. I enjoyed your discussion of the influence of Mary Tighe and how Psyche represents the education of the soul (p. 98), and the importance of light in the poem (p. 107). You call Keats’s poem “a love poem crossed with a social critique” (p. 103). Do you think it is important to examine Keats’s poems as a study of society as well as personal imaginative experience?
AN: Mine too! Honestly it’s my favorite poem in the English language.
I’m less and less in the habit of telling anyone how they should or shouldn’t read, so I wouldn’t say I think it’s necessary to read Keats politically. It’s necessary for me, because that’s how I understand his poetry and I want to have fidelity to that understanding, but others are welcome to take Keats however they like. That said, in “Psyche,” Keats is very explicitly stacking one social critique on top of another: you’ve got his attack on religious orthodoxy, behind that a show of support for the French Revolution and its twin programs of dechristianization and the flattening of social hierarchy (neither entirely successful), and then you’ve got the insistence on a certain kind of sexual frankness that Keats’s critics in the right-wing press always seized on as evidence both of his moral corruption and his radical principles. All this is then sutured to the story of Cupid and Psyche from Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, in which, as in Tighe’s adaptation of that story in her poem “Psyche,” there is a fairly direct engagement with questions of gender and power. In his “Psyche,” then, Keats has bitten off perhaps more than he can chew, but that’s one of the many reasons I love that poem. It’s got a lot of nerve, but given the size of the burden it’s chosen for itself it’s also miraculously effervescent.
I’m impressed, more than anything, by the mechanics of that ode, which uses poetry to mimic the transcendence of all the bad things it mentions. You miss that unless you really listen to it—to its astonishing sensitivity to musical shifts and patterns of harmony, tension, release, and especially to its moments of silence. It’s a poem with a parenthesis—the two lovers turned toward one another in sleep—at its center and it also uses parenthesis as the model for its own acoustic environment. The second stanza, for example, begins with this almost hiccupping movement: “Mid hush’d” pause; “Blue” pause; and then the next three lines are all parted down the middle or, as Keats says, “disjoined” by caesuras, so that the two halves of each line are, like Cupid and Psyche, as close as it’s possible to be to each other without touching. Compared to the other Romantics, Keats’s prosody is really quite underrated.
AM: As a follow-up to that, I was moved by your examination of the classical sources for Keats and your important insistence that sexual harassment in the workplace and in educational settings should be called out and challenged, following a powerful deconstruction of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” – in particular that unpacking of the phrase “still unravished” has stayed with me (pp. 45-55). I cannot do justice to the subtle, sensitive (and again, personal) way you explore these issues in the book in my own words here, so I simply encourage people to read it themselves; I know it will resonate with so many. How important do you think it is that we use our creative outlets (reading and/or writing) to address consistent oppression and injustice in the societies we exist in?
AN: Wow, thank you for saying that. I guess my answer would be much the same as my answer to your last question: I don’t really care to tell people what they should write or how they should use their writing, but I can say that both the poetry and the criticism that moves me the most is always on some level engaged with justice and its absence, and in taking on the moral and political as well as psychological burden of describing pain. That said, I’m very attached to writers who capture real joy without turning away from the extraordinarily cruel reality we live in and to which all of us have varying degrees of exposure—Keats first among them, of course!
To return to the question of teaching, my goal in that chapter on “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was not precisely to argue for trigger warnings, but to suggest that the student looking to bring a personal experience of harm into a classroom discussion isn’t necessarily trying to shut down the project of understanding the text on its own terms. People who are against trigger warnings often assume that those who are in favor secretly (or not so secretly) hate art and don’t take it seriously, that they trivialize art by reducing it to their own personal concerns. But as Allen Grossman, whose beautiful account of the myths of Orpheus and Philomela I include in the chapter, explains, people who personalize great art—who find in the harms it represents, perhaps in the harms it enacts, a reverberation of some harm that’s been done to them—actually take art as seriously as possible. They recognize that its stakes are nothing less than the determination of whose life matters. I would hope that my own work keeps those stakes forever in mind.
Anahid Nersessian is associate professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment (Harvard University Press, 2015), The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life (University of Chicago Press, 2020), and Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse (University of Chicago Press, 2021). She edited the Broadview Press edition of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Laon and Cythna; or, the Revolution of the Golden City (2016) and founded and co-edits the Thinking Literature series, published by The University of Chicago Press.
Interview by Anna Mercer (Director of Communications, K-SAA).