Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Keats on the Petty Emperors of Poetry (& Blogs)/Midland Becomes Mesopotamia

I've been thinking about Keats, struggling with his notion of negative capability and what that might mean for an engaged poetry--a poetry with a vision of the possible, a war resistance poetry or any other poetry whose cultural work isn't simply or simplistically mimetic or interested in self-effacement. In his Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 February 1818, Keats wrote:

“We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.—How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, ‘admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose!" Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this. Each of the moderns like an Elector of Hanover governs his petty state, & knows how many straws are swept daily from the Causeways in all his dominions & has a continual itching that all the Housewives should have their coppers well scoured: the ancients were Emperors of vast Provinces, they had only heard of the remote ones and scarcely cared to visit them..."

This notion of a poetry that "has a palpable design upon us" can be read as a critique of poetry as a kind of rhetoric run amok, of poetry as propaganda; it's trying to convince us of something, and if we cannot agree with the argument, then it withdraws from us somehow. Keats is interested in a poetry that insinuates, that just is, and wants to avoid being the kind of poet who is a governor of a petty state, endlessly and ridiculous concerned with the minutiae of his fiefdom. Sounds a lot like blogging--all of us in our petty fiefdoms. Of course, his answer--to be more like Emperors--doesn't feel terribly politically correct these days, and deeply incurious. I'd rather be curious about my fiefdom than dreadfully ignorant of the outposts of my empire...though even those things tend to go hand in hand. Midland becomes Mesopotamia.

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