Tuesday, February 23, 2021

What John Keats Taught Me

     The Argentine poet Jose Luis Borges once said that his first exposure to John Keats was a powerful moment that stayed with him his entire life. I have to make the same claim.
     For me, that moment came in May 1977 in Mr. Ed Taussig's English literature class at East Meadow Senior High School. It was my final month in high school and in four months I'd enlist in the Air Force. But that first day, the only one in which we'd covered Keats and several other Romantic poets, was one that changed the emotional, creative and intellectual trajectory in my life.
     That was because, although we'd studied other great writers prior to the Romantic period starting with the epic poem Beowulf, it wasn't until discovering Keats that I got my first dim realization of the true power and potential of English. The textbook's author(s) were wise enough to include as a sample Keats' magnificent opus, "Ode to a Nightingale". While I was still 19, I fell in love with that poem so much I declared it my favorite poem, Keats my favorite poet and that has not changed in the ensuing 44 years. By 19, I'd already had every word of its 80 lines fully committed to memory. In fact, taking a cue from F. Scott Fitzgerald and his novel, Tender is the Night, I'd derived the title of an upcoming novel, "Darkling, I Listen" (The second book in the Meghan McNamara trilogy) from "Ode to a Nightingale."
     Most importantly, it had made me decide to become a writer, a profession that since 1977 has been my sole constant in life.
     It may surprise you to know that your snarky blogger who declaims on much of the assclownery in the shit-stained political arena started his adulthood as a poet fully intent on making his mark on the world. Over the ensuing 19 years until 1996, when I'd abruptly stopped writing poetry for reasons I can't explain today even a quarter century later, I'd met or had corresponded with some of the finest poets and versifiers in the nation.
     Perhaps my poetry going nowhere and my getting forced-fed a steady diet of "No!" letters from the editors of literary magazines that never seemed to pay more than contributor's copies had something to do with my exodus from the foothills of Parnassus. Or perhaps it was my first novel getting me a literary agent that same month that had led me to abandon poetry for prose. I had an agent who was placing my novel in the hands of some of the most powerful acquisitions editors on the planet and I was perhaps spoiled for success that would elude me for the next 25 years.
     Be that as it may, poetry, poetry magazines, poetic criticism and biographies of poets from Keats and Shelley to Wilfred Owen to Sylvia Plath were meat and drink to me and I read little if anything else. And I owe that to the handsome little Cockney fellow born in Moorgate in 1795. Keats made me want to become a poet and writer in general. Another possible reason I abandoned poetry in 1996 was because, right around the time I got my first agent, I discovered Caleb Carr through his ground-breaking novel, The Alienist, and I knew I wanted to be a historical novelist. Ergo, my creative trajectory got abruptly pin-balled off in another direction.
     As the years went on, I gradually began to derive inspiration not just from Keats' literary example but by the way he'd conducted his very brief but astonishingly fruitful life. Keats' entire existence was plagued with adversity and it's easy to compare him to certain characters from another writer who'd come a bit later: Dickens.
     Between vicious critics with an agenda, namely John Wilson Croker, the Dave Chadwick of his day (a scurrilous little no talent wretch whose work has obviously not stood the test of time and was bitterly jealous of those whose work would), who'd shown his true colors in a hit piece on Keats' epic poem, "Endymion", Keats' entire life became a nearly masochistic, Job-like exercise in how much adversity one human being could stand.
     He'd battled a crooked executor of his grandmother's estate, Richard Abbey, that money being owed to him and being his sole hope of solvency. He'd battled literary critics and blockheads and, in one famous instance in his adolescence, a butcher boy twice his size whom he'd caught torturing a kitten.
     He thought so little of his work, he chose as his epitaph a line from Beaumont and Fletcher's "The Philaster", "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." Yes, Keats never thought his work would ever amount to a hill of beans. And yet, the little fellow never gave up because poetry was his own meat and drink. During dry spells he'd repeatedly told his correspondents of a pressure building up that only writing poetry, however poorly it went, could alleviate. And poor, vindictive or nonexistent critical reception and near constant poverty never deterred him from his true path, one of the greatest and most glorious in the annals of English literature.
     There's a lot to be learned and a lot of inspiration to be mined from such a stubborn insistence on putting one foot before the other and to not let the cocksuckers win. "Kick against the pricks", as he'd once termed it.
     And the reason I'm writing this in what is fundamentally a political blog is because Keats died painfully of tuberculosis in Rome 200 years ago today. I do this to memorialize not his death but the example he left behind and because I'd feel guilty if I didn't commemorate such a momentous milestone in world literary history in a honor of a man who, without possibly knowing it, changed the course of my life for the better. As the years and decades ticked by, I suppose I always knew I'd write something in the future on February 23rd, 2021 and that I'd always hoped, and still do, that the little guy would approve of what I'd write.


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