Monday, September 04, 2006

Taking John Keat's Hand

It was a happy coincidence when Dreamer Idiot shared Wislawa Szymborska's Some Like Poetry last week, and the lines "Poetry – / but what sort of thing is poetry?" appeared, I was in the midst of exploring the answers to the same question!

Indeed, what is a poem? Recently, I read a collection of essays by Edward Hirsch at In Metaphor: A Poet is a Nightingale, Hirsch posits that a poem is made of metaphor, is metaphor. "It is a collision, a collusion, a compression of two unlike things: A is B." He lists the ways the poets describe a poem: "The poem is a capsule where we wrap up our punishable secrets (William Carlos Williams); A poem is a well-wrought urn (Cleanth Brooks); a verbal icon (W. K. Wimsatt). A poem is a walk (A. R. Ammons); a poem is a meteor (Wallace Stevens); A poem might be called a pseudoperson. Like a person it is unique and addresses the reader personally (W. H. Auden.)"

As Szymborska says, "Many a shaky answer / has been given to this question."

"A poem," Edward Hirsch offers, "is a hook, a hand, a prayer. It is a soul in action." I wasn't sure what he meant by that so, my curiousity piqued, I went to Borders to hunt for Hirsch's books. I found How to Read a Poem: And Fall In Love With Poetry, browsed through it, and finally saw, or rather, felt— after all, the surest way to know poetry—what he meant.

In the third chapter of the book, "A Hand, a Hook, a Prayer", first published as an article in The American Poetry Review (Sept/Oct 1997), Hirsch discusses a late, untitled poem from John Keats. Hirsch relates that in late 1819 Keats was working on a comic poem with the provisional title of The Caps and Bells. That poem remained unfinished, but evidently Keats had at some point broken off from the work at hand to write these eight beautiful lines — perhaps meant to be used as part of a future, larger work — in the margins of the manuscript:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed —see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
Here Keats seems to be desperately holding out his hand to us, reaching out across time and distance to touch us, clinging to a hope that we can somehow, on reading his words, give him life after death. What or who could have this fragment been intended for? As it is, it could very well be that the speaker of this poem is Keats himself, then already dying of tuberculosis, and that it is addressed to a loved one... or as I felt when I read it, for myself, a simple reader, far in the distant future, far across the seas.

It is as if Keats had cut off his own hand, and had buried it in my garden, just under my window where I perch on the sill every morning to enjoy a cigarette. Like an angry ghost in a Korean movie, the hand had haunted my days, chilled my nights, until I had recovered it from the ground. Now, the vampiric hand, having fed on my own vitality, red life now streaming in its veins, has returned to life, to reach out in greeting from beyond the grave.

It is one that has touched me in so many ways, as it were, has now become a personal favourite. These lines carry so much more than words, but also a part of the poet himself, who had perceived that he was dying, and that these lines flowing from his mind to his hand to pen and to paper would be all that is left... and it is not enough to be immortalized in his work, he must live on! So his spirit lived on in these haunting words, then was made flesh in my imagination.

As Hirsch writes:
I have never been able to read the line "So in my veins red love might stream again" with any equanimity. The haunting, he seems to suggest, would be more terrible even than death and so you should actually give up your own life to resurrect him. The fury behind the idea is immense — the fury of the desire to live, the fury of the consciousness of death, the fury of some love might have assuaged all this suffering. The utter lack of love infuses the poem's tone. What ferocity drives it!


To read Keats in good faith is to breathe in these devastated and devastating lines, to take up the offer of his flesh-and-blood hand. He holds that hand toward you in a fierce and plaintive gesture of poetry that tries to go beyond poetry. One imagines his hand moving furiously across the page and suddenly stopping. The truth was intolerable. The reality that his actual hand would be replaced by these living lines of poetry seems to have given him no comfort. Still, these lines must carry as much of him as possible now; they are all that is left. The poet perceived this in advance. He gave his word for it. Take it up, as if you were taking his hand.
Like he is saying, "Machinist, meet John Keats. John, Machinist."

So I took his hand and have been holding on ever since... here too, I fall into agreement with Dreamer Idiot, with Szymborska, I hold on to it, "like a saving banister", and conversely I feel Keats holding on tightly, to me the reader, his salvation; it was the day I fell utterly in love with poetry — if I was not yet already, if there was any lingering qualms left, then it was on that day avowed beyond doubt. Indeed, it felt like all these years of reading poetry, of 'kenning' poetry (as Hirsch would describe it), it was so that day could unfold as it did.

All thanks to Edward Hirsch, who has already achieved what his book's title promised to me in only 49 pages — because, of course, I would never have had received the poem the way I had without his introduction— and I had not even stepped away from the poetry rack yet. And, of course, need it be said? I bought the book!



Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Beautiful post... to be moved so deeply and immensely, till one is consumed, that in-itself is poetic... just as you quoted the inimitable Emily Dickinson in your own blog. Yes, THis IS poetry. :)

PS. You have a soul of a poet, my friend.

12:20 AM, September 05, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

a poem is an icebox
in which words are kept fresh
until needed by a hungry heart

2:06 PM, September 05, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said... nice, Sharon. Your description reminds me of some poem I read long ago.

10:55 PM, September 05, 2006  

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