Sunday Pages: "For John Keats: On the Sense of his Biography"
A poem by Marie Ponsot
This past week was a good one for the defenders of democracy. The January 6th Committee ended its first season with a bang, not only making an incontrovertible case against the traitor Donald John Trump, but, to our astonished delight, mortally wounding Josh Hawley’s political career in the process. Steve Bannon put up no defense in his trial, was quickly found guilty, and must—mandatory sentencing FTW!—go to the hoosegow. Mark Zuckerberg and Sherlyn Sandberg, the prime movers of Facebook’s decision to choose money over democracy, are in legal hot water. My friend Sandi Bachom captured an iconic image of the grieving Trump family leaving the church after Ivana Trump’s funeral, which looks like a movie poster for a mashup of Godfather: Part V and Addams Family IV.
So why, then, do I find myself recoiling from social media and the news?
One of the burdens of living as a politically aware, fascist-averse human in the Age of Trump is that we must always know what the bad guys are up to. We must steep ourselves in their rhetoric, their actions, their images. This is the mental equivalent of snake-handling. All of that poison is corrosive, like the acid that melted through Steve Bannon’s bathtub, or whatever it is that is eating away at Steve Bannon’s face. With too much exposure, I respond viscerally to it. I feel revulsion. This is why I almost never run photos of Trump on PREVAIL: it’s bad enough I have to think about him; if I can help it, I’d rather not have to look at him. Or Mike Flynn. Or Elon Musk. Their images literally make me ill.
In a word, it is ugliness. In being vigilant, in standing up for our democracy, we must expose ourselves to toxic, to potentially lethal, doses of pure, unfiltered ugliness—a poisoned version of Semele beholding Zeus in all his radiant glory. Not physical ugliness, I should clarify, although there is plenty of that; ugliness of the soul. As giddy as I was watching the poltroonish Josh Hawley turn tail and run—both during the hearing, with Liz Cheney’s coldblooded narration, or on Twitter, to the tune of [insert your favorite song here; has anyone done Bon Jovi’s “Runaway” yet?]—that still required me to, you know, watch Josh Hawley. I mean, we had to all sit there and form a mental picture of Jared Kushner in the shower! How to recover from that torment?
This is also the week the paper of record ran a piece suggesting that now is a good time to start eating other humans. Yes, it was a piece about the arts; yes, it was tongue in cheek (and also tongue in cheek between two slices of bread). But still.
The ugliness. The ugliness—the artlessness, as my friend LB puts it—was unbearable this week.
Happily, I am in possession of the iodine tablet for acute ugliness poisoning. And I’m going to share that with you today. (The answer to winter is such saved time.)
One of the joys of writing this (at times rather grim) column is the connections I have made because of it—people I would probably not have otherwise encountered. Monique Ponsot is one of those I’m especially grateful to have met. She is the daughter of the Brooklyn-born poet Marie Ponsot (1921-2019), whose work I did not know, and might never have stumbled upon, without Monique piquing my curiosity. Marie, and by extension Monique, spent a lot of time in Ulster County, where I live. And this might explain why The Golden Notebook, the fine bookstore in Woodstock, had on its shelves a copy of her sublime Collected Poems, which I bought back in the spring. (Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.)
Poetry is about language, first and foremost, but the best poetry somehow manages to capture the passion, the emotion, the love and lust and joy and sorrow, of the poet, and to transfer those feelings immediately to us upon reading—like an incantation, a magic spell. It does this not through emotional manipulation, like a crappy TV show that plays gloomy music when we’re meant to feel sad, but by word choice, by phrasing, by meter and rhyme (or not rhyme), by somehow having your understanding of the poem be enhanced with each and every successive reading. The best poems manage to access the sheathed tuning fork of my soul and make it ring out. The best poets do this years, decades, centuries after they are no longer alive. It is pure literary magic. And Marie Ponsot is nothing less than a sorceress.
(Here she is in 2008, in her late eighties, reflecting on the state of poetry, deriding the derision of meter and rhyme, and extolling the poetical virtues of hip hop!)
Monique graciously granted me permission to reprint this poem, the very first one I flipped to in the Collected Poems volume. She gave this gift to me, Dear Reader, and today, to counteract all the ugliness, I share that gift with you.
“For John Keats: On the Sense of his Biography” is a great poet reflecting on the work of another great poet. There are so many good lines, so much meat on the bone here, the poem demands multiple readings. When I got to the end, the first time I read it, I actually gasped.
What you need to know about the subject of her poem, before digging in, is this: John Keats is the Buddy Holly of poets—or the Orson Welles, if you prefer, had Welles died miserably of consumption right after finishing Citizen Kane. Other poets particularly (and rightly) revere him. Keats was a contemporary of Byron and Shelley and Coleridge, but unlike those luminaries, his output is small because he died so young. And while his poetry books did not sell well during his lifetime (some things never change), he is more or less universally heralded as one of the all-time English-language greats. (I wrote about “Ode on a Grecian Urn” last year.) Born in 1795, Keats watched his mother, his siblings, and many of his friends die of tuberculosis. He trained in medicine, nursed one of his consumptive brothers, contracted the disease himself, and knew he was going to die when he saw the color of the blood on his pillowcase. He wrote one of his canonical poems, “Ode to a Nightingale,” under a plum tree out in his yard one summer afternoon.
And now, here is Marie Ponsot:
FOR JOHN KEATS
on the sense of his biography
John Keats coughs and spits blood.
And in the space
between the meaning and the dream, still does.
It spoke. He heard it, the bright arterial world.
Dying, he tried to exchange himself for verbal
closure of that space. Trying, having sealed
his present for us, he died.
Though many brutal English winters since
have struck the wet heath cold through
the lowest layers of its stone
& as many May weeks sunsteamed it into
a carpet thick with soft
explosions of flowers,
To praise Keats’s presence now helps me.
When he said he wanted to write successfully
Keats meant commercially, planned to arrange
a marriage of his gift with Byronic
cash & fame,
planned to dazzle the girl some day with diamonds
replacing amethysts. Through that promising
dream (trying for audience, shaping his skills)
the spring sun shone when friends and the woman
presented him with promises.
He became the clement season he needed,
plenteous in language
as in primrose the garden was, he breathing
between the cut grass and the plum
tree as if his were the coming
unbudding of summer, for a while.
Words rushed for him toward ripening
and, like the full summer in plums,
flushed in the shaping crystal of his glass;
their long light became the Keats we summer in.
The answer to winter is such saved time.
It is how he keeps us warm.
He had further to go, though; soon
the spot flew vivid from his throat
onto the linen pillowcover
and, bowered in by cotton fields of flowered lawn,
he began the life of what it is to die.
With riches, diamonds, and his darling girl
a bankrupt fantasy,
close to the comfort of his narrowing bed,
he brided his burden, married
his person to his voice. Mouth on mouth
lost in each other they enclosed
the soundless now of his necessity,
making love present gratuitously
as the pulse & tune, in what he wrote, of
what he did not write: his history,
until one day
the birds fell silent for
the singing of the tree.
Though nothing lives that does not die,
nothing dies that does not live.
The price of death is life.
The doctor in him died to find that out;
the lover in him died
to shine for us
on the leafy life we bear to our exchange with death.
Full of blood or words his mouth
lifted up the shape of the present tense.
That present is the secret poets dare not keep
or tell. It makes them mind. It makes them speak.
Some of them stuff the script of their saying
behind the books on a shelf or under
the other papers in the drawer, startled
if caught making audible the
name tuned beyond union or disunion,
ashamed to have let the tenor of the now
escape upon the loud wind script can go cold in.
As leaf and branch speak flight and water
Keats both keeps and speaks the secret,
quieting that fear
for the rest of us. When
he happened to his writing,
his future disappeared.
I sit outside his Hampstead house & estimate
the age of the mulberry tree.
They say it was old in his time.
It looks young to me.
Thanks again to Monique Ponsot for introducing me to Marie’s work and for allowing me to share it. I hope you have a beautiful Sunday—or, at least, an un-ugly one.
On the fifteenth episode of The Five 8, LB and I covered the season finale of the January 6th Committee Hearings. We were joined by the photojournalist Sandi Bachom, who filmed the rally and the besieging of the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Photo credit: Alphauser. Keats House, Hampstead.