Poetry

Keats And A Creative Fear Of Death


“When I have fears that I may cease to be

~~Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Before high-piled books, in charact’ey,

~~Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,

~~Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

~~Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!

~~That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

~~Of unreflecting love!–then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

– John Keats, When I Have Fears
_________

I find this poem so deeply relatable. I have many books and stories I am in process of completing and I always tend to keep more content in my head than on paper. I would assume that most other artists have contemplated the fear of dying without completing the work they can visualize. J.D. Salinger had a 6 chapters draft of The Catcher And The Rye stuffed in his jacket when he landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. I wonder what other manuscripts didn’t survive that day? That’s not to mention the countless authors like Dickens who have died in the midst of some of their most intriguing work.

This poem is not simply about leaving unfinished work. It’s also about the fear of leaving behind the very inspirations of this world. Keats writes like a man nurtured by romanticized nature and the triumphs of artists before him. For him the standing alone, thinking, and sinking into nothingness must have been greater than most. To be inspired is to run great risk.

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Listen Awhile Ye Nations, And Be Dumb.


Great spirits now on earth are sojourning;
He of the cloud, the cataract, the lake,
Who on Helvellyn’s summit, wife awake,
Catches his freshness from Archangel’s wing:
He of the rose, the violet, the spring,
The social smile, the chain for Freedom’s sake:
And lo!–whose steadfastness would never take
A meaner sound than Raphael’s whispering.
And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings?–
Listen awhile ye nations, and be dumb.
________

– John Keats, Addressed To Haydon, 1816

I never got poetry. When I was in elementary school my younger brother and I collected a binder full of our own attempts at poetry, but the only goal was to write simple, silly verses that rhymed. Apart from thoroughly enjoying complex rhymes, I never understood the draw of poetry. Even in school I never understood the enjoyment of poetry and the basic concepts involved didn’t make me excited. I couldn’t force iambic pentameter to mean anything on paper and I was without a passionate poet, so it bored me thoroughly. I was never really sure what to make of free verse.

Now, a decade later, I’m starting to really think there might be something I missed in this poetry stuff. I mean, I always assumed it must truly interest many people, but I wasn’t one of them. After realizing that so many people I respect were either heavily fashioned by poetry or were poets themselves, I have become somewhat determined to invest myself in understanding its enjoyment.

The three things I’ve come to understand about poetry thus far are that it is best read slowly, aloud, and indulgently.

Perhaps what I mean is that, in my experience, poetry is only enjoyable when it is paired with a slow lifestyle. When I was a child I assumed it was simply about rhyming. In school I never understood how the more complicated terminology explained any enjoyment. Now I am starting to realize that the poetry itself lies in the audible flow of the words.

I’ve always greatly appreciated prose. A witty or profound sentence full of large or interesting words is sure to be a delight. Now I’m starting to realize that poetry carries a similar intoxicant which is meant for sipping. Poetry is for re-reading, for memorization even, both skills that seems to have mostly fallen out of vogue. Memorization for pleasure rather than duty.

I have started slowly with the mostly free verse of Wendell Berry. His wonderful prose requires slow reading, and the transition to his poetry is a smooth one. From there I have begun to dabble in Keats, and I hope to eventually build up an appetite for modern poetry like Elliot and the old epic poems like La Morte D’Arthur, Spenser, and Milton.

My goal in this busy world is to slow down, so I think poetry is all the more worthy a pursuit. Like Keats says, if we slow down enough to take it all in, perhaps we will be able to stay quiet for a bit.

If you love poetry, please tell me why, and by whom.

Wendell Berry, Family, and The Cold War


“There is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with
you in silence besides the forest pool.
There is no national glory so comely as your daughter whose
hands have learned a music and go their own way on the keys.
There is no national glory so comely as my daughter who
dances and sings and is the brightness of my house.
There is no government so worthy as my son who laughs, as he
comes up the path from the river in the evening, for joy.”

“To A Siberian Woodsman”
Wendell Berry
_______

The title and content of this poem take on greater meaning when it is noted that this was published in the earlier years of the Cold War.

Somehow, looking back at a previous generations Cold War and Vietnam makes the question of the current wars all the more greying to the beard and furrowing to the brow. I read this thought from of a young Wendell Berry, speaking of his laughing children at play, and I manage somehow to veiw joyful youth and grow very old, all at once.

Every line speaks a gift and a curse.

E. Nesbit’s Brave Tone and The Depths Of Whimsy


The Railway Children is a book I was unfamilar with when I added it to my 55 List, but so many people mentioned how they enjoyed it that I decided to bump it up to get started on right away. I have only scratched the surface but I have not been dissapointed. Right off the bat the whimsical, amusing-adults-while-engaging-children tone reminded me of A.A. Milne and the extreme swing from charmed living to tragic squalor reminds me of Lemony Snicket. I know I will love the rest of this one.

One sure sign of true whimsy is a work that inplies and includes a great deal of writing of songs and reciting of poems. The point is never that they be wonderful (although they sometimes are) but that they give a creative outlet to the characters and show us that the characters themselves are strong enough to respond to hardship and wonder with creativity. Here is a great poem that the Mother writes and recites in the first chapter of said book. Her 10 yr. old son has been devestated to the point of sickness by the explosion of his favorite new toy engine.

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Wendell Berry’s Greatest Poem


While I have mentioned him here in passing, I must now go on record stating that Wendell Berry is my favorite living sage thinker. He takes the practical steps to live exactly what he believes. His life is an inspiration in its thought-out-and-acted-upon simplicity. He is a Kentucky farm boy, turned scholar and poet, turned university professor, turned cultural and political activist, turned farmer. While I would highly encourage you to dive into his essays, poetry, open letters, and novels, I am more eager that you delve deeper into his personal story.

While I would still consider myself a novice in his work, I always come back to one poem in particular. I have read and loved some of his short stories and his novel Hannah Coulter, and Jayber Crow is on my 55 Classic’s List. I have read many of his open letters and essays, and Bring It To The Table has also made its way into the 55.

Even with all this great material, I am most impressed by his poem “How To Be a Poet”.

How To Be a Poet
BY WENDELL BERRY
(to remind myself)

i

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

ii

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

iii

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.