Disaster Poetics: Keats and Contemporary American Poetry

By Eisner, Eric | Wordsworth Circle, Spring-Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Disaster Poetics: Keats and Contemporary American Poetry


Eisner, Eric, Wordsworth Circle


Following the spate of devastating tornadoes that struck the United States in spring, 2011, the American poet, Mark Levine--also the author of F5 (2008), a book of journalistic non-fiction about the massive tornado outbreak of 1974--wrote an opinion piece for CNN.com that begins by quoting Keats. If the destruction visited by the tornadoes seems "a freakish demonstration of nature's power," Levine comments, "what might be more extraordinary [...] is our capacity to pretend that disaster--and the sudden upending of ordinary life that it brings forth--is not part of our very fabric, what poet John Keats might have called 'A partner in your sorrow's mysteries.'" (The quotation redirects the import of Keats's line from the "Ode on Melancholy," since in the context of the poem the line insists, by contrast, on the value of not taking any artificial partner in sorrow's mysteries: "Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be / Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl / A partner in your sorrow's mysteries," Keats writes, before turning in the next stanza to compare a melancholy "fit" to sudden weather [1. 6-8; 11]). What caught my attention here was not so much the general point Levine makes--though its capaciousness is "what we least want to recognize about our lives," our vulnerability to disaster might be the most basic thing we share--as the recruitment of "poet John Keats" as disaster's lyric signature. "Keats" functions in this instance as shorthand both for a collective vulnerability to disaster and for a consolatory form of melancholic feeling won from the proximity of disaster.

When I came across Levine's piece, I had already been thinking about the way Keats and disaster are linked in his difficult, compelling poem "John Keats," placed close to the heart of his collection Enola Gay (2000). Like the collection as a whole, the poem depicts (as John Ashbery puts it in the jacket blurb) "a post-cataclysmic, pre-apocalyptic world," where life hangs on haphazardly in the wake of some unspecified catastrophe but without--yet--either total annihilation or the surprise of something totally unexpected. This in-between time recalls Keats's description of his own "posthumous" existence, or the temporality of the Titans' grief in Hyperion (think of Thea's "listening fear [...] as if calamity had but begun" [I. 37-8]), or the knight at arm's sojourning on his "cold hill's side" in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" (1. 44). The poem opens with a logically challenging (or logically challenged) dexis, like the start of a story ("so there we were") and like a puzzling return ("weren't we already here?"), that sets the tone for the disorienting narration that follows:

  Here we were. Here here we were.
  Graphite and plaster and cardboard and canvas.
  A dozen human fingers of yellow rays.
  Mere fully exposed here fully protected.
  [...]
  The newly-dead were not lazier than we. (48)

In the possibly post-nuclear, apparently war-ravaged scenario of agonized indolence the poem describes (despite the insistence of "here," the poem never really explains where "we were"), "our ideal vase / was still with us," still a friend to man, to whom it is reciting, sadly or hilariously, "treatment methods / we were eager to share" (48-9). (1) In a poem that is part homage, part elegy, part ironic riff, Levine uses the figure of Keats as the pivot between lyric and its present conditions of existence, its history, and what seems the compromised possibility of its future.

The figure of Keats plays a special, even peculiar, role in the imaginary of contemporary American poetry in ways whose effects insist symptomatically across the range of poetry, sometimes in emphatic fashion, as in Levine's uses of Keats, and sometimes obliquely. The discussions in several excellent studies, including Jeffrey Robinson's Reception and Poetics in Keats (1998), Michael O'Neill's The Alt-Sustaining Air (2007), and James Najarian's Victorian Keats (2002), indicate the richness of the field. …

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