Wednesday, February 27, 2019

'I Do Care Above All for Reality'

“I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity; It should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”

A fine excess not of adjectives or sentiments but of energy in a closed circuit. A poem or any written work without energy (Robert Creeley comes to mind) lies there on the page or screen, as inert as a dead thing. I think of “singularity” as a futile striving after novelty, which doesn’t exist. A good reader recognizes something in a good poem, dimly recalled, that makes intuitive sense. It feels as though you’ve been waiting all your life for precisely what the poem has to give you. Keats was writing a letter to his friend John Taylor on this date, Feb. 27, in 1818, and he calls his strictures “axioms,” as though he were Spinoza or a geometrician. What he describes are his own idiosyncratic ideals, which wouldn’t be realized until the following year, when he could write his great odes. Here is his second axiom:

“Its touches of beauty should never be half-way, thereby making the reader breathless, instead of content. The rise, the progress, the setting of Imagery should, like the sun, seem natural to him, shine over him, and set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight.”

Keats could be describing “To Autumn,” as in these lines:
“While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies.”

Keats was no sylph, despite his reputation. His eye is on the real, despite the periodic transcendental vaporings. He reminds me of a characteristically blunt assertion Rebecca West makes in one of her letters: “I do care above all for reality.” It’s not as though we have a choice in the matter.

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