Today marks the 200th anniversary of John Keats’ death in Rome, in a small flat above the Spanish Steps. It reminded me of something I’d written many years ago, on my very first trip to London. It was December 14, 1972; my friend Blake and I were living in a cold-water room in Muswell Hill, and that day we walked over to Highgate and across Hampstead Heath to visit the house in what is now called Keats Grove where he lodged with his friend Charles Brown at Wentworth House, and where Fanny Brawne was his next-door neighbour. We examined the house, and I bought a postcard of the classic romantic portrait, by John Severn, with his head in his hand, which I have, somewhere, still.
Then we walked back across the Heath, and as we did I thought of Keats’ own walk, back from Highgate and a mummers play, a Christmas pantomime, when, arguing with his friends, he defined the concept of Negative Capability, as he explained to his brothers in a letter a few days later:
“several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”
I’d read Charles Olson’s interpretation of this moment, which placed Keats as a sort of post-modernist (long before that term carried today’s politically dogmatic connotations) rather than as a romantic. He spoke of staying “in the condition of things”, and portrayed Keats’ moment of vision as setting the stage for Heisenberg and a world of quantum uncertainty.
And this created a sort of dilemma for me, if not a rabbit hole to spend much of the rest of my life exploring. I had studied with Richard Wilbur, the foremost ‘formal’ poet of our times, at Wesleyan, and discovered Olson, a Wesleyan graduate, only when his funeral was covered in the university’s magazine. I soon realised I felt better suited to Olson’s approach to poetry, though at times I was still drawn instinctively to the formal and the romantic. So I would have listed Keats among my 21 year-old influences then, along with Olson, Wilbur, Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, EE Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Whitman and probably the beat romantics like Ginsberg and Corso. But why, I reasoned, could I not exist in uncertainties, and carry conflicting points of view, indeed approaches to poetry, forward as well?
I think I was reading Robert Gittings’ excellent biography; I might have bought it at Keats House. But that evening I sat down and wrote a sonnet, pretty much all in one go. I hadn’t figured out the idea of publishing poetry at that time; but when I soon did I hesitated with this piece— I thought it too much a student poem, and I sensed that it would automatically disqualify itself. I think I believed I couldn’t express things realistically in rhyme and metre.
I didn’t do anything with it for more than four years. Then, as I about to leave Montreal and move to England for what was supposed to be a couple of years and has turned into 44 and counting, life without parole, I sent it to one small magazine, and when it was rejected, by which time I was living in London, I sent it to Ash-Wing, a sort of personal zine published in Washington by Frank Denton, one of the most affable and sincere men I’ve known. Frank published it in March of 1978 in Ash Wing 23, and somewhere I must still have a copy of that issue. I couldn’t have known that years later, when I went freelance and pretty much gave up writing poetry as I couldn’t make a living that way, I would walk from my flat in Belsize Park to the Camden Library in Keats Grove, and commit journalism there, and only occasionally drift into a poem, or piece of one.
But I still have the original ms of the poem as I sent it to Frank, and I have been writing poetry again, so I pulled that one out last night and went to work. I changed the title, and made a few changes in the poem: it is a little less perfectly formal now, but I think I like it better this way. Who knows, until this version is published in three dimensions, it remains malleable. So almost 50 years in the making, if not 200, here is Across Hampstead Heath, as I now call it. I was a very young 21.
ACROSS HAMPSTEAD HEATH
He measured the room with a fury of pacing;
It shrunk, more confining, with each angry stride.
His eyes at the window through dim glass were tracing
The flight of a swallow, its leisurely glide.
But he felt no leisure; he was bound to his writing,
And each unfinished line made his solitude worse.
His muse was his torture, each thought fled him fighting
Against being committed to the prison of verse.
Just to be one with nature, footsteps drowning his cry,
But the swallow had hidden, in some corner of sky.
Darkened clouds passed him quickly; the words came and went,
He failed to grasp them with his weakening eye,
And could not now write them; his pen gone bone dry.
Words flown away wasted; the energy spent.