Anahid Nersessian’s book Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse (2021) is a collection of intimate essays on Keats, love, desire, and the poet’s enduring power. We’re delighted to present an interview with the author. This post is part II of a longer interview – be sure to read part I first here.
Anna Mercer: In some of the modules I teach, I give my students “creative-critical” assignments. Would you characterise your writing as “creative-critical”, or do you find categories like that unhelpful? You talk about Keats’s empathy in the poems as something that “makes language thick and extends its reach through time” (p. 7). Can prose have the same weight and “thickness” as poetry?
Anahid Nersessian: I like “creative-critical,” though to describe my own work I would probably just stick with “critical.” I’ve been lobbying for a couple of years to teach a course on experimental critical writing at my university, because I think that kind of approach is becoming more and more welcome in academia and in the public sphere more generally. As it happens I’m usually called in to teach courses in poetry, both Romantic and contemporary, instead, and in the history of aesthetics and literary criticism, which is one of my favorite classes to teach: my version of it starts with Plato’s Ion and ends with Trotsky and DuBois, and one certainly does see, reading those texts and those authors, possibilities for criticism that our current paradigms of scholarship don’t make enough room for and could.
Can prose have the thickness of poetry, its compression, its multidimensionality? Probably not. That moment in the book—about making language thick and extending its reach through time—comes out of a connection I draw between Blake’s poetry and Keats’s. In Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Blake says that the poet’s task is to build up an alternative material reality—not a fantasy, a reality—in which everything that has ever happened to us, everything we’ve ever done and felt, is preserved forever. It’s an image of radical abundance designed to counter the reality we know better, which is one of austerity and deprivation and a seemingly universal disregard for the sanctity of existence. You could picture it as the ecstatic inverse of what George Eliot describes, fearfully, as “that roar which lies on the other side of silence”—if we heard it, she says, we’d die. Blake thinks exactly the opposite: that if we don’t hear it, or try to, or believe we can, then we’ll be just as dead as capital and the state and the church (all his enemies) would like to make us. Maybe there is something to be understood, through that contrast, about a difference between poetry and prose. One seems to know, intuitively, that abundance is its birthright because it is ours, too, while the other is so anxious about failing to live up to its responsibility to capture what it can of life that it gives up on itself and us, a little bit. And I say that as someone who loves George Eliot, and who writes prose for a living.
AM: The book’s introduction addresses Keats’s origins and his class – I found this part fascinating because in my work at Keats House Museum, I’ve often found that visitors were keen to imagine Keats’s lower-middle class background as the thing that sets him apart (especially from Byron and Shelley, of course). Your book captures the nuance of that well. What is the importance to you of connecting Keats’s radical views and his lower middle-class status, and subsequently the depth and hidden meaning in his poems (so often read as simply “apolitical”, which your book challenges so brilliantly)?
AN: Here I think there’s a gap between what Keats scholars, and most Romanticists, know about Keats and what a broader public audience knows about him. The former treat Keats’s radicalism as axiomatic—his political views and his leftist circle of friends are what got him targeted in the Tory press, his poetry takes pretty clear positions against capitalism and also against imperialism and the enslavement of human beings, he’s talking all the time in his letters about how England needs a revolution like the one France had, etc.—but the latter are still fed a Keats who is just, as John Gibson Lockhart put it, “a fanciful dreaming tea-drinker.” I agree with you, that people who don’t know that part of Keats’s background are really excited by it, because it opens up a whole new vista of understanding and it also reminds us that poetry isn’t necessarily the bourgeois pastime it’s often made out to be.
With all this said, the emphasis placed on Keats’s class position by scholars is sometimes accompanied by pretty regressive assumptions about gender. Going all the way back to Walter Jackson Bate, who was the first biographer to insist that Keats was this rough-and-tumble guy who liked to get wasted and attend boxing matches and have casual sex, or at least casual sexual flirtations, the insistence that Keats was not effeminate strongly implies that there’s something wrong with effeminacy. And because that “pugilistic” image of Keats (as I’ve heard it called) tends to go hand-in-hand with claims about his radicalism, those claims end up perpetuating a very dangerous as well as plainly false idea that only normative masculinity is palatable to the revolution. There’s a great book by the historian Anna Clark about this phenomenon, specifically in the Romantic period, called The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class—I highly recommend it.
AM: At the K-SAA Blog, we often conduct interviews called “What Are You Reading?”, and I enjoyed reading about the range of Keats criticism that has inspired and influenced you, including, for example, James Chandler, Nicholas Roe, and Susan Wolfson. Can you tell us a bit more about what you’re reading now, Keats-related or otherwise?
AN: Well, I had my second child at the end of March, so I confess I haven’t been doing a lot of reading lately! When my daughter was born, I found I actually read quite a bit: I could hold her in one arm and a book in the other. Now, with two kids, I’m just so grateful for a quiet moment that, when one comes, I use it either to woolgather or to organize my thoughts about what needs to be done around the house. I did read Celia Paul’s Self-Portrait a couple of days before giving birth, after Gil Roth recommended it to me when I went on his Virtual Memories Show. I really enjoyed it, and then I made the mistake of looking at some of the reviews and was bummed out to see how much they focused on her relationship with Lucian Freud (whose work I’ve never liked, incidentally) when, to my mind, the most interesting stuff in the book comes from her account of her life as an artist—how she began painting in high school, her experiences doing portraits of her mother and then a portrait of her sisters after their mother’s death, and (my favorite) her descriptions of the various studio spaces she’s had over the past forty-plus years.
I have managed to sneak a peek at a few things. I read my friend Michael Robbins’s new book of poems, Walkman, in manuscript and am delighted to have the hard copy, with its gorgeous cover, on my dining room table, along with Barbara Guest’s Seeking Air and a book of love lyrics by Luís de Camões (in translation). I’ve read a PDF of Mark Christian Thompson’s Phenomenal Blackness: Black Power, Philosophy, and Theory, which is coming out in the fall from Thinking Literature, the series I co-edit with Nan Z. Da for the University of Chicago Press; it’s an astonishing book that brings thinkers and writers like Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver into conversation with the Frankfurt School to describe what Thompson calls a “Black aesthetic dimension” as the ground for an emancipatory politics. I can’t wait for people to have their minds blown by it. Meanwhile, I think of myself as someone who doesn’t like Dickens, but I’m slowly making my way through Barnaby Rudge and it turns out it’s the Dickens I’ve been waiting for my whole life! Who knew? And I read Tobi Haslett’s extraordinary essay “Magic Actions” lying on the floor of my baby’s room, moved to tears several times over.
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).