The Keats Effects

How is the image of Keats “constellated,” as Walter Benjamin might say, in the romanticisms of our contemporary popular culture? This essay attempts to answer that question by exploring the “Keats effects” or what the poet Frank O’Hara calls “Keatsness”: the particular pulses of his poetic and cultural charge, at the charged moment of his own popularity in and outside his circle and as his poems and images have entered the currency of our own contemporary cultural discourses, what biographers of Romantic poets like to call our “popular imagination.” This essay pursues two discursive strains of the Keats effects: on the one hand, the distinctively Keatsian cocktail of outsider and outsized Cockney ambitions, restless experimentation with revered and popular forms, artistic and poetic allusions, complete with devoted fans and fiercely reactionary enemies; and on the other hand, the indelible and affecting record of personal pathos, the doomed poet whose fragile beauty is inseparable from the poems themselves, their making, their reception, and the fate of their maker. I consider how both of these Keats effects posit modes of impossibility that remain impossibly beautiful.

The Keats Effects

for Karen Swann

I. Two Images

1.        I begin with two charged examples of the Keats effects. The first, an image of Keats in one of the last poems Frank O’Hara composed before he was killed by a dune-buggy on Fire Island in the summer of 1966. It’s an eleven-line poem called "Again, John Keats, Or the Pot of Basil" which arrives at a Keatsian impasse:

I have a pot of basil a friend gave
me and am reading Keats and realize
that everything is impossible in a different way
(Collected Poems 471–72, lines 7–10)
The gift of the basil from an unspecified friend prompts O’Hara’s rereading of Keats that results in the poem’s central event, a “realization” which offers no vision into the future, no way beyond the impasse. I want to understand this last line, one arrived at by reading Keats again: how is everything impossible but in a different way? What does this revised impossibility mean for Keats and his historical currency?

2.         For the second version of the Keats effects, I invoke the famous penciled image Keats’s friend and companion Joseph Severn drew of the poet during a long-suffering night in Rome in the weeks before his death: “Keats on his death-bed,” an image that quickly became an icon of the passion of the poet, that failing “lunger,” who knew long before the fact that “his name was writ in water.” In Severn’s picture, Keats’s head rests on a pillow and in bed clothes more suggested than drawn. More prominently, the artist has penciled two concentric cones, a light exterior and dark interior cone which serve as contrast to the three-quarter image of the sleeping poet. Thus does Severn, drawing this picture at 3am to “keep awake,” have the face of Keats propped directly against a figured oblivion, his own impossibility.

Figure 1: Joseph Severn, “Keats on His Death Bed,” 1821

Figure 1: Joseph Severn, “Keats on His Death Bed,” 1821

3.         Neither item is likely to be what first comes to mind for the topic of “Keats in Popular Culture.” Neither was composed by the poet; and neither would seem to belong to what in the most restricted sense we presently call “popular culture.” But the rubric is capacious enough to invite many permutations of the topic. I hope to demonstrate that both of these tokens are examples of Keats’s “currency” for popular Anglo-American culture, more expansively construed. What interests me here are the “Keats effects,” what O’Hara calls “Keatsness”: the particular pulses of his poetic and cultural charge, at the charged moment of his “popularity” in and outside his “circle” and as his poems and images have entered the currency of our own contemporary cultural discourses, what biographers of Romantic poets like to call our “popular imagination.” While I’ll be making some direct references to Keats’s poetry in our contemporary culture, I’m more interested in two discursive strains of the Keats effects. On the one hand, there is the distinctively Keatsian cocktail of outsider and outsized Cockney ambitions, restless experimentation with revered and popular forms, artistic and poetic allusions, complete with devoted fans and fiercely reactionary enemies. On the other hand, there’s the indelible and affecting record of personal pathos, the doomed poet whose beauty—fragile and fractured—is inseparable from the poems themselves, their making, their reception, and the fate of their maker. We all know this image, and we know it as image more than story or fact, an image Karen Swann describes as the “beautiful dreamer” who “lives a posthumous life, beyond life and death, but transcending neither” ("Endymion’s Dreamers" 21). I want to consider how both of these Keats effects posit modes of impossibility that remain impossibly beautiful.

II. Romantic Constellations, Pop Cultural Effects

4.        The conceptual model I take for my thinking about the relationship between Keats and contemporary popular culture is Walter Benjamin’s poetics of history, especially the "Theses on the Concept of History" and his earlier scattered methodological formulations in The Arcades Project. Turning to Benjamin means dispensing with the themes that drive most narratives of literary or cultural history—tradition, influence, progression—and learning instead to attend to the historical “constellations” between Romanticism and the contemporary and to measure the specific charge of the “Keats effect” in the images and dispositions of contemporary popular culture. Elsewhere, Jacques Khalip and I have invoked Benjamin to suggest that Romanticism offers images of itself to the future which may be reclaimed or, as Benjamin puts it, redeemed in a present, including the present of our contemporary popular culture. Benjamin describes this fortuitous convergence of past and present as a constellation (Konstellation). Like the arrangements of stars in the night, these constellations are shifting and contingent, and they offer no promise of alignment. Therefore, the dispositions of Romantic constellations are by no means uniform, especially in what we have come to call popular culture. My project here, as in my collaboration with Khalip, is to find a way to “grasp the constellation” into which our “own era has formed with a definite earlier one,” in this case the era we designate as Romantic ("Present Darkness" 1). For Benjamin, “the constellation as image serves less as the temporal measure of the difference between the past and the present (and, as a consequence, their seemingly inextricable relationship), and more as a structure for interpreting the ‘now’ as the event of a seizure, a grasping of the past as if for an emergent intelligibility,” something that occurs, often inconspicuously, in a contemporary poem or a song or a film ("Concept of History" 397). Benjamin understood that each work of art—any document of culture, popular or otherwise—might be “redeemed” or “cashed in” through the constellations that materialize between past and present and crystallize in an image such as those that populate our poems, paintings, or pop songs. We look “with awaken’d eyes”—as Keats says of himself as he sees “his Psyche true”—for a sight to behold and to which we become beholden. For Benjamin, the past makes itself available as “true images” that single out their beholders who may be separated from that past by hundreds and even “thousands of years” ("Concept of History" 397). These “images flash at the moment of their recognizability,” or as in the idiom of Shelley’s Adonais—itself profoundly charged with the Keats effect that it is also generating—as “incarnations of the stars, when splendour / Is changed to a fragrance” and descends to earth (lines 173­–74). Keats’s “splendours,” as Shelley calls them, are the images that populate his poetry, both the images he made and the image he became, what made him reviled and has made him adored. “It seems,” Frances Jeffrey famously says of Endymion only in order to dismiss it, “as if the author had ventured everything that occurred to him in the shape of a glittering image” (203).

5.         What Jeffrey dismisses I want to redeem. What this means, methodologically speaking, is attending to the appearances of these “glittering images,” discerning their “shape” in order to attune oneself to their reconstellation in the present as a distinctively Keatsian currency in the genres of popular culture. In his own poetic thinking about the Keats effect, Shelley coined the best name for this currency: a “transmitted effluence,” one which “outlives the parent spark” (lines 407–8). If what Shelley writes is true, the distinctive charge or “transmitted effluence” of particular texts or authors will prove to have many distinctive permutations and prove to be far more varied than the rubric of Romanticism often implies. This means something other than, say, depictions of Romantic authors in our contemporary popular narratives, of which the biopic is the default genre and Jane Campion’s 2009 film Bright Star its most compelling example. But, however accomplished and nuanced, the biopic is a dead-end genre, one not capable of accounting for the ways in which the migratory effect of a writer’s work might well take its impulse far beyond its own historical context and far beyond its medium of origin. [1]

6.        Thus, there might be a distinctive “Byron Effect” or a “Blake Effect” (or, for that matter, with a poet such as Southey, no effect, at least in this moment of his “unrecognizability”) that inhabit and inform other genres or media as well as the specifically Keastian effects I’m identifying here. Not only are these effects potentially registered in any popular medium or genre, their manifestations often make legible certain aspects of the “original” which were yet to find their expressive medium. For instance, the “Mary Shelley effect” seems exclusively cinematic in nature; and Mary’s account in 1831 of how the story came into existence not only offers a paradigmatic version of the “unbidden” Romantic imagination and its powers of self-origination, but in her characterization of “the successive images that arose in [her] mind,” the “gift” of a cinema “the usual bounds of reverie”: “When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think,” she recounts, “my imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together” (Frankenstein 168). [2] This famous bit of text not only tells the origin story of the story of a new origin, it refers itself to a new narrative technology and two of its genres that had yet to come into existence, the medium of film and the cinematic genres of horror and of kitsch.

7.         To sketch a wider range of reference, I turn briefly to two other versions of this Romantic effectivity. Unlike the “Mary Shelley effect,” the pop cultural effect I associate with Byron is not discernible in film as such but activates the commencement of “celebrity culture” and circulates in certain influential pop musical modes or poses. When, for example, Morrissey, lead singer for the 1980’s Manchester band The Smiths, opens the plaintive anthem "How Soon is Now?" to the iconic wails of Johnny Marr’s shimmering guitar with the following lines, no one who has read Byron can miss the reference, intended or not, to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

I am the son and the heir
Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
I am the son and the heir
Of nothing in particular.
What at first sounds like an anthem triumphantly declaring that he’s “the sun and the air” is undone by a homophonic pun (“son and heir”) and diminished further by the slack lines that follow the declarations: “nothing in particular.” The effect of these mock anthems is an affective irony that turns the song into the pop melodrama that defines most every anthem by The Smiths or by Morrissey. [3] The titles of the songs speak for themselves and speak volumes for this effect: "The Queen is Dead," "Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before," "What Difference Does It Make?" Or the famous chorus to "Bigmouth Strikes Again," certainly the best subtitle imaginable to the third canto of Childe Harold:
And now I know how Joan of Arc felt
As the flames rose to her Roman nose
and her Walkman started to melt.
When we hear those lines and that particularly dead-pan irony, we don’t need to see Morrissey sitting in his bath with a volume of Byron (as he does in the video to "Suedehead") to feel the songs permeated by the poet, affectively and tonally. Morrissey’s songs allow us to hear the campy quality that was always central to the Byron effect, at least in Childe Harold, the poem which “made” him; and Morrissey’s songs allow us to hear for ourselves the queer desire in the poet that recent scholarship has given us to know. [4]

8.         If the first and most obvious example of the “Blake Effect” for the last half century of North American popular culture that comes to mind will be The Doors, only their name and the early song "Break on Through" feel genuinely charged by a Blakean energy or thematics. Without question, Patti Smith is the contemporary artist most “plugged” into the Blake effect, formally, thematically, even scholarly. From the eruptive event of 1975’s Horses to the present, Smith’s sung poetry and garage music embraced the full visionary mode of Blake’s poetics, a unique “marriage” of Innocence ("Wave") and experience ("Horses") with a religious ferocity ("In Excelsis Deo") and a transgressive proto-punk ethos ("Pissing in a River"). Not only does she sing Blake’s “songs”—most notably "The Tyger"—she has selected and introduced a popular collection of his poems and speaks and writes on the poet who is as much her muse as Genet, Rimbaud, or the Beat Poets. But for Morris Eaves, neither the Doors nor Patti Smith represents a version of the Blake he “wants.” In an essay called "On Blakes We Want and Blakes We Don’t," Eaves bemoans the very aspect of the “Blake effect” that I seek: “Blake’s durability seems to depend partly on his ready reproducibility in simple forms as a cultural marker—memorable images to decorate dust jackets, startling proverbs to launch book chapters, catchy phrases to name rock bands” (414). Eaves’s lament serves as an epigraph to Mike Goode’s "Blakespotting," a brilliant and pathbreaking exploration of the poetics of the Blake effect. Goode argues that Blake’s work circulated from the outset as detached pieces and images—poems, pictures, proverbs—and that this “detachability” is fundamental to Blake’s artistic project and its effectivity.  [5] Blake’s deployment of the proverb form and especially what Goode calls “the largely unmappable circulation of his proverbs” generate an anonymous textual system that is characteristically Blakean” ("Blakespotting" 773). Ironically, proverbial anonymity is Blake’s signature, the distinctive idiom of the “Blake effect.” For his methodological point of reference to this mode of poetic historicity, Goode turns not to Benjamin but to the “rhizomatics” of Deleuze and Guattari: “Blake, in his transformation of the proverb genre, created a medium that is its own heterogeneous message, and that message, like the ‘rhizomatic’ forms that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari celebrate, becomes senderless and receiverless over time, directed toward everybody and by everyone” (775).

9.         Over time many of Keats’s own phrases and formulations have also achieved the status of the proverb; but the signature of their “sender” is far too identifiable and too deeply marked with his poetic currency to produce the “rhizomatics” that Goode persuasively locates in Blake’s poetic effect. For Keats I discern two distinct but inextricable effects, something like the A-side and B-side of a vinyl record. For the first of these effects, I borrow Peter Szendy’s notion of “obstructive enthusiasm,” a term which I think characterizes an important impulse in the poetry both early and late, not only the vexed exuberances of Endymion, but the excesses in the late odes, for which the cascade of declared “happies” that get the speaker nowhere in the third stanza of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" can serve as an emblem.

10.         The second Keats effect I call “the shrine of no prospects,” one which counts Severn’s drawing as among its first collected items. I think this is the best term for the aura of painful regret which shrouds the poet much like Severn’s drawing and which connects him not only to that phenomenon of the singer dead “before his time” but to an affective and figurative temporality in Keats’s poems and letters that reappears—reconstellated—as the pop cultural image of certain singer-songwriters, contemporary death-bound troubadours. The rhetorical signature of this current of pop music is the Keatsian oxymoron in the affective dimension—“pleasant pain,” “half in love with easeful death,” and so on—and the plaintive and absorptive register of the poems, as if they were always composed in the minor key. But the curious “time signature” of this effect generates something other than straight melancholy. In this version of “the Keats effects,” we find a pop image of something which, quite like the poet himself, is always projective and already posthumous.

III. Cockney Pop

11.        The historicist turn in Romantic studies has demonstrated that Keats was in popular culture all along, a vibrant urban culture of art and politics, sedition and experimentation, famously derided in Blackwood’s as “the Cockney School of versification, morality, and politics” (qtd. in Roe 203). [6] We owe our understanding of this pop Keats to critics such as Nicholas Roe, Jeffrey N. Cox, and others who have unearthed the ways in which Keats was both indebted to and a principal contributor for what we would today call an “alternative” or “counter-hegemonic” culture, one in which his poems both originate and reiterate. Roe explains that the “Cockney” label was a multiform epithet, one linked explicitly to the seditions of Leigh Hunt and to the popular culture of “the London mob” and to the threat the urban experience posed for the reactionary circle of Blackwood’s, a threat marked by class and gendered affect. Citing Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, Roe notes that while “the leading sense of ‘Cockney’ is ‘a native of London,’ its second definition of the word is ‘any effeminate, low citizen’” (212). Thus does Keats belong to a particular poetic form of urban effeminacy, the “lisping sedition” of “the affected school of our metropolitan poets” (qtd. in Motion 523). The Cockney politics of Keats’s “metropolitan” poetry is always marked with an erotic charge. Jeffrey Cox illustrates how the erotic and even pornographic nature of this Cockney culture and the excesses of its Catullan resonances—both explicit and elliptical—not only form the popular historical context for Keats’s poems but inform their rhetorical and formal textures: “If we fail to notice the density of the punning in the ode [on a Grecian Urn], we lose a sense of the poem’s playfulness, of the experimental, even quirky nature of Keats’s language . . . and of the Catullan and Cockney delight in toying with what others considered serious in the name of a linguistic and also finally an erotic delight” (620). [7] Cox demonstrates that Keats effectively taps into this popular fascination with Roman eroticism, a fascination that makes this most auratic of Keats’s poems shot through with a sexual charge. It’s not that Keats doesn’t love the art of the “Grecian Urn” or the Portland Vase; it’s that with his “human breathing passion,” he loves it too much. Once we feel his desire for knowledge of the urn become erotic, we see how the poem participates in a subterranean pop cultural eroticism that veers to the pornographic, precisely like the urn itself: “a pornographic text offers the identical pleasure over and over again,” writes Cox, adding, “every time we read Keats’s urn we will see the same love ‘ever warm and still to be enjoyed’” (625). [8] The result of Cox’s reading is not so much to resituate Keats’s poetry in the context of popular discourses of classical and Cockney eroticism as to reinject these ostensibly “timeless” poems with what Benjamin calls the anachronistic “now-time” (Jetzeit) of their own popular culture. In this charged moment of British cultural politics, the status of Keats’s poems could shift in an instant from what Cox describes as “a coterie favorite” to “that of a target of the Cockney School attacks” (616); and Keats’s aspirations of high literary art reduced to the parody of a gross popular culture and, as in the words of the British Critic, “the gross slang of voluptuousness” committed by “the meanest and filthiest” of “Cockney poetasters” (249).

12.         As hateful and reactionary as these attacks were, I count myself as one who prefers the Keats of the urban gutter to the Keats of the British Museum, until we reach the precious point at which those two versions of the poet become indistinguishable. This is the sweet spot often crystallized in Keats at which the most auratic of objects are simultaneously objects of explicit erotic desire, the sexual and popular “undersong” of the ode’s elevated lyric address. This is how Simon Jarvis teaches us to read Endymion, by carefully excavating Keats’s “undersong” in that poem, one which recognizes that the poet’s “ceaseless work on verse language, the invention of a verse repertoire every bit as consequential for nineteenth-century English poetry as Wordsworth’s” is also inseparable from its “systematic assault on taste” ("Undersong" 147). For Jarvis, Endymion’s “own grandeur,” one both fine and dirty, “looks forward” to “Picasso’s Vollard Suite” or to Frank O’Hara’s "Ode on St. Cecelia’s Day." In this way Jarvis discerns a scandalizing pop-cultural current—what he calls “a partial countertradition”—that runs from Keats’s (early) Endymion through (early) Wallace Stevens and is plugged in to the O’Hara of this (again, early) ode. O’Hara acknowledges the saint’s day by doing precisely what Keats would have done: run as far as possible from Pope’s famous ode commemorating St. Cecilia’s Day. O’Hara’s poem, which Jarvis invokes without a gloss, is more a Keatsian hymn to Pan than a celebration of “impoverished Cecilia”:

Those who are not very fond
of the tangible evidences of love
shun music and are quiet, doctored by
memory and the martyrdom of Saint Cecilia.
The rest of us play and are played,
seeking like Pan the pattern of our true desire,
willing to follow
motive anywhere
to the tempo of failure and crime.
Ultimately the poem is addressed not to St. Cecila or to Pan but to “the rest of us,” those who like Pan, like Keats, like O’Hara, “play and are played / seeking … the pattern of our true desire.” In Jarvis’s reading, the “countertradition” initiated by Keats’s “masterpiece” and its “deep thicket of new verse rhythms, textures, sentences, techniques” arrives smack in the middle of a brief quotation from O’Hara’s brilliant mock manifesto, "Personism":

I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does it make? They’re just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when the refreshment arrives. (498)

For Jarvis the literary “counter tradition” that leads from Keats to O’Hara—what I am calling its Romantic currency—gives up the “lofty ideas” once they are lofty enough for the refreshments to arrive and for the pleasures to begin for real. It is “the line of reviled virtuosity and of dandyism in deadly earnest” (163); and we should be clear that this “line” or trajectory of “Keatsness” is queer in effect if not in origin, what Khalip has in a different context called “tacitly queer” (Last Things). [9] This particular current of the “Keats effect”—the one that leads us from Endymion’s “glittering images” to O’Hara’s popular cultures—I call “obstructive enthusiasm.”

IV. “Obstructive Enthusiasm”

13.        “The ‘Cockney’ poem and its scandalized responses,” says Swann, “produced the Keats that even cool modernism came to love” (21). Perhaps none cooler than O’Hara, urban lyric poet in the era of Abstract Expressionism, Billie Holiday, and James Dean. O’Hara’s poetry is shot through with so many of the most vital currents of mid-century cosmopolitan culture—popular, elite, emergent, experimental—that he should have a cultural constellation named for himself. In the introduction to Donald Allen’s edition of The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery maps out this vast constellation of the poet’s influences and engagements and many of the relevant strains of nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry and art, from the French Symbolists and Surrealists through the Russian experiments of Pasternak and Mayakovsky as well as the Abstract Expressionism of de Kooning, Pollock, and Kline. Of artists who would find their fame after this moment of Abstract Expressionism, Philip Guston and Cy Twombly and the music of Cage, Schoenberg, Satie and even Paul Bowles, the experimental poetry of the Soviet Union and Africa. To Ashbery’s catalogue of persons, many of whom he might have found in his own rolodex, we must surely add the pulsing and tawdry kaleidoscope of mid-century popular culture, not just film or cinema but the movies and the catalogue of movie stars, such as Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, William Powell and Lana Turner, and above all James Dean: “the heavens operate on the star system,” O’Hara writes in "To the Film Industry in Crisis," his paean to that constellation: “It is a divine precedent / you perpetuate!” and “it’s you I love!” (232.43–45, 7). O’Hara’s poetry is charged with the enthusiasm of infatuation, one which attaches itself “variously.” “I don’t prefer one ‘strain’ to another,” he writes in "My Heart," perhaps closer to a manifesto of his poetry and his criticism than “Personism”:

I’d have the immediacy of a bad movie
not just a sleeper, but also the big
overproduced first-run kind.
The disregard for “strains” extends to music, where he could adore Cage and Rachmaninoff, opera and jazz, and the popular jazz singers, including the greatest of them all. [10] Thomas Byrom was both condescending and homophobic when he declared that O’Hara’s “aesthetics are from a catalogue of late Victorian camp, a matter of excellent personal taste. He burned hard and gemlike. . . a less frigid version of Paterian pop.” [11] But, however phobic his impulses and wrong his characterizations of the poetry or the aesthetic, I want to reclaim the very term that Byrom might have regarded as his most decisive dismissal: “Paterian pop.” I think there is no better way to name the cultural vitality of this queer popular current that runs from Keats to O’Hara.

14.         “As if I were Endymion,” O’Hara exclaims in “There I could never be a boy,” one of his poems to James Schuyler; and the references to Keats often occur when O’Hara is figuring a limit (excess, abstraction, enthusiasm) by which he measures his own aesthetic trajectory (216.14). This is the “Keats effect” that connects these most famous figures of the Cockney and New York Schools, two “coterie poets” who hail from the “affected school of metropolitan poets” and were both denounced by conservative critics as “poetasters.” To articulate this connection, I turn to Peter Szendy, French philosopher of pop culture, for the term that activates this constellation: “obstructive enthusiasm” or “infatuation” (engouement) Szendy calls it, with reference not to contemporary or Romantic poetry but to the affects and effects of popular music. Drawing on Theodor Reik’s psychoanalytic interest in “obsessive melodies,” Szendy declares something about the effects of popular music that, as Leonard Cohen might say, “everybody knows”: there are certain popular melodies that act “like a ghost that has come to haunt us. Or like a worm, a virus of the ear that keeps reproducing itself in us” (Hits 32). [12] But on certain occasions the effect of these melodies is something more than a mere “ear-worm”: in some instances the popular melody manages “to bring some obstructive enthusiasm into our heart of hearts, . . . bursts of enthusiasm, lyrical flights of incomparable force and emotion” (33). None of which get us anywhere: these are lyrical arrests, aesthetic seizures of the sort that O’Hara indelibly stamped at the end of "The Day Lady Died" when the speaker beholds the face of Billie Holiday on a “NEW YORK POST” and is

sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.
Everything prior to this arrest by the photographic image of “Lady Day” is movement and activity, clocked and named, Baudelaire’s flaneur on Manhattan time. It’s aesthetically exclusive (the gift of “a little Verlaine / for Patsy”) and democratically urban (lunch is “a hamburger and a malted”), cosmopolitan and popular (“a bottle of Strega,” French cigarettes, and the “NEW YORK POST”). This is O’Hara’s city “circuit” personally and poetically; and it belongs to the genre he made popular—“I did this I did that”—urgently enjambed parataxis until the moment of recognition: “a NEW YORK POST with her face on it,” at which point everything stops as “he is thinking of leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT” and the time suddenly changes and we belong to the memory of a “whispered song” by Lady Day “and everyone and I stopped breathing.” This “inside out” elegy, one in which the singer’s death is marked only in the title and the final brief stanza, is the poem that only a fan could write, one whose movement, direction, and enthusiasm has come to a standstill by the sudden appearance of an image. [13]

15.         “Obstructive enthusiasm” appears in a more specifically Keatsian vein in the O’Hara poem with which I opened this essay, "Again, John Keats, or The Pot of Basil." The poem begins with the speaker’s reflection on the condition of an empty blockage, a reflection which relies on the mutually exclusive colloquial definitions of “through” as both adverb and noun: the speaker’s sense of feeling “through” with things is likened to an image in a John Huston film, a “throughness” broken suddenly by the gift of “a pot of basil,” a gift which activates the derived meaning of “through” that prompts the speaker to announce a Keatsian “breakthrough” that turns out to be another limit: “am reading Keats again and realize / that everything is impossible in a different way” (471.7–9). How better to describe O’Hara’s realization of an impossibility “in a different way” than as an “obstructive enthusiasm”? The gift of the basil from an unspecified friend prompts O’Hara’s rereading of Keats—himself a serious “re-reader”—that results in the poem’s central event, a “realization” which offers no vision into the future, no way beyond the impasse. O’Hara’s “again-ness” with Keats reiterates the romantic poet’s own repetitive obsessions regarding the re-reading of King Lear in "On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again," which promises nothing more than a re-visitation of an impossibility, “the fierce dispute betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay.” But the affective charge of O’Hara’s impossibility is not direly obsessive but exuberant: if this is the poetics of the impasse, it is the happy aporia, what in a relevant register Emily Dickinson calls a “bright impossibility.” Keats’s odes are riven with this kind of “obstructive enthusiasm”: not only the famously awkward six “happies” of the third stanza of "Ode on Grecian Urn," which emphatically reiterate a happiness denied the speaker, but the urgent desire for the speaker of the "Ode to Psyche" to be the “pale-mouth’d prophet” that history denied the goddess, “latest born and loveliest vision.” The enthusiasms of the speakers of Keats’s odes may entice us into believing the speaker has gotten somewhere in the course of theode; and indeed, as in the "Ode to a Nightingale," the speaker may have enticed himself into believing that he has done so, until the music “flees.”

16.         O’Hara’s own “Keats effect” is registered throughout his poetry in forms both named and implied, often as examples of this “obstructive enthusiasm.” In a sonnet called "On a Passage in Beckett’s Watt & About Geo. Montgomery," O’Hara offers an extraordinary passage that marks both his affective debt and rhetorical leave-taking from what he identifies as the Keats effect and that he associates with “excess”:

what we’d known was in me of our life
and suddenly had trebled and shook clear
at the words’ excessive Keatsness”
In "The ‘Unfinished,’" a sprawling name-dropping exercise, Keats is posited as temporal reference: “I suddenly think of the moon, hanging up there / ever since the time of Keats,” as if the lunar object is itself a Keats effect (317.57–58). For O’Hara origins are always aesthetic, and therefore always multiple points of artistic reference and poetic relays that, to invoke Deleuze and Guattari once again, feel more “rhizomatic” than lineal or arboreal. In "For Bob Rauschenberg," O’Hara’s often manic name-checks take on a poignant tone, one in which art is enthusiastically registered as failure. “The frail instant” is “drowned in Liszt” and our speaker has come to “despise” his “love for Pasternak” (322.5, 9). The poem’s third stanza creates a constellation of three poets who rarely occupy the same canonical space, from which the speaker, “alone in pain,” is excluded:
what should I be
if not alone in pain, apart from
the heavenly aspirations of
Spenser and Keats and Ginsberg,
who have a language that permits
them truth and beauty, double-coin?
In this triad of “heavenly aspirations,” Keats’s “truth and beauty” gets the upper hand, especially as it is followed immediately by a question—“double-coin?”—an activation of the two-sided nature of the Keats effect.

17.         Many of the important impressions of the Keats effects in O’Hara’s poetry take the form of unattributed invocations, like the deployment of a crucial phrase in "Light clarity avocado salad in the morning." This astonishing poem closes with a moment of intensity that conjures both the act of writing and the dropping of acid:

though a block away you feel distant the mere presence
changes everything like a chemical dropped on a paper
and all thoughts disappear in a strange quiet excitement
I am sure of nothing but this, intensified by breathing
The opening clause of the final line—“I am sure of nothing but this”—activates the famous line from Keats’s 1817 letter to Bailey, a letter which declares Keats’s agnosticism as well as his poetic project: “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination.” And when O’Hara wants to pursue this ungrounded Keatsian intensification to the limit place of poetic abstraction, he turns in "Personism" to Keats’s “negative capability” in order to address the nature of poetic versus painterly abstraction: “Abstraction (in poetry, not in painting) involves personal removal by the poet,” writes O’Hara; and he goes on to link the “abstraction” and “removal” of the poet to “negative capability (as in Keats and Mallarme)” (498). But in order to achieve a “true abstraction for the first time, really, in the history of poetry,” O’Hara’s "Personism" goes in the opposite direction, restoring, so it would seem, the “person” to the poem, and in the process, “abstracting” him. While the irony of this mock manifesto makes it impossible to decide how seriously we are meant to take O’Hara’s formulation as a poetic project, the passage does mark Keats and negative capability as a kind of limit case for the development of a decisive mode of abstraction in contemporary art. And as O’Hara moves in his manifesto from Keatsian negativity capability to Personism, we reach “obstructive enthusiasm, the infatuated “vitality” of the limit: “What can we expect of Personism? (This is getting good, isn’t it?) Everything, but we won’t get it. It is too new, too vital a movement to promise anything” (499). Expect everything, O’Hara’s says—just as it’s “getting good”—but realize that nothing will come of it: "Personism," the poetic movement of vitality with no future. Without promise, “you just go on your nerve,” writes O’Hara, identifying a term he invokes often for his account of the fundamental poetic “charge” or impulse. “Implying both spontaneity and outrageousness,” writes Brad Gooch, “‘nerve’ was O’Hara’s campy version of Keats’s prescription of ‘negative capability’ or ‘wise passivity’ for the young lyric Romantic poet. . . .‘Nerve’ was his aesthetic motor, his program” (435). “Nerve” as “aesthetic motor”: “negative capability” with vitality but no promise, “both a plus and a minus” as Gooch characterizes it, the same impulse-blockage two-step that characterizes this version of the Keats effect.

V. Shrines of No Prospect

18.        If we can assign “a plus and a minus” to the Keats effects, “shrines of no prospect” is the phrase I’d invoke for the “minus sign,” the alternating current to “Obstructive Enthusiasm.” By this term I hope to convey the luxuriant mourning for this doomed poet that Keats’s poetry, his death, and his “circle” put into circulation for our own generation of doomed popular troubadours. What Swann says about the various images of the poet in Endymion—at least in the seductive mythology that is itself a part of this shrine—extends to a rock music constellation we know well: “all abstracted dreamers, all piercingly beautiful, all singled out by the gods, all marvelous fated boys, all destined for celebrity”—and all doomed (20). [14] This aspect of the Keats effect—the aura of painful regret—forces our hand: as readers we are demanded to make a decision about the poet ahead of time, a decision based on our feelings, a demand that was always in effect for the poet’s first readers. For them and for us, one doesn’t “come around” to Keats the way one might develop an admiration or critical interest in Wordsworth, for instance, or even a fascination with the delirious irony of Byron’s many poses. The affective response produced in advance by this Keats effect is not derived from our understanding of his ethical impulses or his formal achievement or his political engagement. Nor is it the result of careful rhetorical readings, however much the poems may yield to that practice. Though the affective relationship with this poet does not preclude rhetorical analysis or formal interpretation, the Keats effect happens in advance of any subsequent critical engagement; and it’s bound up with our image of him.

19.         In this context, it’s worth remembering that Keats initiates his own poetic project with a series of poems addressed to popular models of the poet: "Imitation of Spenser," the pageant of Western poets in "Ode to Apollo," of course, and the sonnets to Byron and to Chatterton, that young suicide, “Dear child of sorrow! Son of misery,” now “among the stars” whose “hymning” is now far “above the ingrate world” (5). Keats’s elegiac outbursts to this tragically dead young poet with whom he identifies establishes the rhetoric of a relationship reactivated in Adonais, arguably the most beautiful British elegy of the nineteenth century. [15] With his fifty-five “Spenser stanzas,” Percy Shelley constructs Keats’s first “Sovran shrine,” one which the older poet adorns with his friend’s own poetic images or “splendours” (100, 174, 198, 363, 388). The revisitations of these images are the dead poet’s own special effects in a “Temple” not of “Delight” but of Melodrama, one designed exclusively for a ritualized weeping that is marshaled “against oblivion.” Shelley’s elegy is certainly as responsible for this aspect of the Keats effect as anything the younger poet ever wrote: Adonais enshrined an image that almost immediately became inseparable from both poets. Shelley famously inscribes an image of himself in this “enduring monument” as “one frail Form, / A phantom among men, companionless” (271–72), one of the poets who gather to mourn Adonais. As Andrew Motion puts it, the early responses to Keats’s death “took their lead” from Adonais, “the single most famous and influential response to Keats’s tragedy…. [Shelley] turned Keats into an archetype—not someone who had suffered uniquely, but someone who represented all artists oppressed by reactionary regimes” (571). Motion laments the fact that Shelley’s “distortions” became “quickly and firmly rooted in the popular imagination” (572). Shelley’s own biographers agree that these “distortions” are the result of his own projected hyper-identifications that crystallize in this poem, especially the ad hominem assaults by conservative reviewers on young poets associated with Hunt and Byron, agents of sedition and immorality. Shelley’s emotional investment in the fate of Adonais may have exceeded anything else he wrote; and it prompted him to draft (and subsequently abandon) a preface to the poem which stresses the “calumny” “heaped in so profuse a measure” upon himself (qtd. in Being Shelley 264). Given the compounding of these affective substitutions between mourner and mourned, it is not surprising that Shelley would express his hopes for the life of the poem. “I am especially curious to hear the fate of Adonais,” he wrote to Charles Ollier: “I confess I should be surprised if that poem were born to an immortality to oblivion.”

20.         “Oblivion” is an important word for Shelley, one that appears in many of its forms in his poems and prose, including the lines of the elegy dedicated to “the inheritors of unfulfilled renown” (Chatterton, Sidney, Lucan) from whom “Oblivion … shrank like a thing reproved” (397, 405) and in the closing sentences to his preface in which he praises “Mr. Severn, a young artist of the highest promise.” In return for Severn’s “unwearied attendance” to the dying poet, Shelley invokes the spirit of Keats to bestow a final plea on behalf of the young artist, a plea that has the ring of an aesthetic benediction: “may the unextinguished Spirit of his illustrious friend animate the creations of his pencil and plead against Oblivion for his name!” The irony, of course, is that it is the extinguishing body of Severn’s illustrious friend that “animated” the one creation of his pencil to have “defeated oblivion for his name.” Severn made many other pictures, of course, paintings of historical or literary subjects—Keats and Shelley among them—subjects which constituted his ambitions and the miniatures which made him money. But it seems fair to say that the artist’s images of Keats and Shelley were saved from oblivion in part by their affective relation to a poetry and aesthetics of oblivion, the “oblivious spells” and “oblivious melodies” of Shelley and of Keats. But for the circle of friends devoted to the memory and reputation of Keats—a record of devotion which has made his death a genre of its own—the phrase, “against oblivion,” might serve as an alternate caption for Severn’s death-bed drawing. While Keats’s head rests on a pillow more suggested than drawn, Severn has penciled two concentric cones: a light exterior and dark interior cone which serve as contrast to the three-quarter image of the poet. Thus does Severn, drawing this picture at 3am to “keep awake,” have the face of Keats propped directly “against” a figured oblivion.

21.         What are we to do with what Khalip calls “last things”? How do we dispose of Keats’s effects, the personal artifacts and cultural remnants that have been saved from oblivion, more “cloudy trophies hung” in the Keats reliquary, none of which we’ve been assigned to study? In "The Strange Time of Reading," one of the most beautiful and most moving pieces of literary criticism I know, Karen Swann begins by addressing another item of “Keatsiana,” an “image of Keats’s death mask” (275–82). [16] The effect of the image, she writes, “is haunting, fascinating … precisely because of the way its working depends on a sloughing off of context” (275). Swann’s thinking about this version of Keats—“at once supremely self-conscious and so absorbed in his medium that he can seem lost to us”—poses an important question for the Severn image: is it possible to read Severn’s image without inscriptions or captions, whether real or imagined, without the saturation of affect, the genuine pathos that attaches itself to this poet and his artist-caretaker at this “strange time of drawing”: “28 Janry 3o’clock mng. Drawn to keep me awake – a deadly sweat was on him all this night.”

22.         Severn records his image of Keats in that late indeterminate period of “no prospect” when, as Rei Terada phrases it, the poet “was able to know” “the experience without poetry” ("Looking" 301). [17] In the final term of the death sentence, an artist is marking time against the oblivion of sleep in the days before his poet-friend “stopped breathing.” What appears does not belong to the temporal register of the death mask, that cultural relic on which Swann reflects, but a limit-image. In the mask, she writes, “‘Keats’ only comes into view … as the bright, aesthetic image peeled away from referent and context,” an image that generates the “elegiac delusion: that impossible feeling that ‘the poet is not dead’—but merely sleeping, dreaming, wasting…. The feeling is … the affective freight or ‘ache’ that becomes attached to the image that comes into view at the vanishing point, as ungraspable and ungeneralizable singularity” (275). Much of what Swann says about Keats’s death mask and its casted finality is transferrable to the hastily drawn image Severn produced at the limit: indeed, the “affective freight or ‘ache’” attaches itself perhaps more acutely to Severn’s sketched image, one which documents how the poet might well be “sleeping, dreaming, wasting.” [18] But unlike the death mask, the particular “ache” that attaches to Severn’s image is not “ungraspable and ungeneralizable singularity” but is acutely specific, “graspable,” and re-applicable. It’s three in the morning, the end of “Janry,” and he is drawing this picture to keep himself from sleeping while the poet—sweating a lot right now—is sleeping? dreaming? wasting? dying? It’s an image which, as Shelley puts it in Adonais, “can scarce uplift / The weight of the superincumbent hour” (281­–82).

23.        If the ephemerality of drawing often conveys the sense of what Rebecca Comay calls “unfinishedness” (or “under-determination”), the sense of “unfinishedness” conveyed by Severn’s quickly drawn image of Keats is “over-determined” by our awareness that the artist is documenting in “real time” the premature finishing off of the poet ("Tabula Rasa" 142). The drawing is an image of the poet at his limit and, in its own state of “unfinishedness” at the limit of the image. Maybe those of us who confess to be taken by the gifts and the passion of this poet will, when we gaze upon this limit-image, “have grown into the likeness of his death,” as Paul writes in his final letter, the one to the Romans. This is another way of asking the question: can seeing ever lead to reading when the very object we behold is constituted more by the aura of painful regret than the proficiency of the artist? Is this the kind of image that, once beheld, makes us beholden, or puts us “in a thrall”? [19] And isn’t this precisely how this “limit-image” becomes an icon? To borrow Swann’s phrasing for my account of Severn’s picture, the image “takes on the force of a relic, … sharply intruding the time of the one who is no longer here into the presence of our” beholding ("Strange Time" 279). In Severn’s scandalized presence, Shelley seemed to delight in shocking the pious artist with his indictments against Christianity. But when he writes to Severn of his desire to collect the “remnants” of Keats’s compositions in order “to have them published with a Life and Criticism,” even the godless Shelley declares that Severn’s promised picture of the poet will be “considered among the most sacred relics of the past.” [20]

24.         Perhaps the power this image exerts over the beholder is a result of Severn’s depiction of the figure’s solitary and even unconscious absorption. Perhaps in order to examine the properties of this image, we can borrow the principles that Michael Fried derives from Diderot for his defining engagement with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French painting. If we look at this picture from Fried’s perspective, Severn’s image of the sleeping poet might derive its power from its depiction “of a personage so absorbed [that it] appear[s] unconscious or oblivious of everything” (7). In other words, it’s an image that defeats theatricality at the limit of consciousness, by surrendering to oblivion. “Like Adonis,” writes Swann, “Endymion is possessed of a certain stagey dreaminess” ("Endymion’s Dreamers" 25). Swann names an aspect of Keats’s work that, while crossways with the art historical terms Fried employs, identifies a kind of stage presence charged with this “Keats effect”: “theatrical absorption,” an experience we might have treasured in an acoustic live performance by Elliott Smith or Kurt Cobain. In the drawn or painted representations of sleeping figures, as Fried puts it, the human being abandons “the upright posture that establishes it in perceptual opposition to the object world … surrendering all control or bodily functions as if to a power or rhythm outside oneself” (67): the “deadly sweat was on him all night.” If Severn’s absorptive image intends so little and means so much, it’s because this “unfinished” drawing delivers us to limits that it doesn’t know (unconsciousness, death, oblivion) but that it makes iconic in this shrine of no prospect.

VI. “So I can sigh eternally”

25.        I take this final section title from the second verse of "Pennyroyal Tea," a song Kurt Cobain wrote and recorded with Nirvana on their last album, In Utero (1994), and performed most memorably in a solo acoustic version on MTV’s Unplugged four months before his death. “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld,” begins the verse, “so I can sigh eternally.” Cobain is alluding to "The Tower of Song," Leonard Cohen’s sardonic account of a place where our best singers reside, both the dead and the dying. Cohen’s “tower of song”—“far in the unapparent”—sounds a lot like a hotel, maybe even the Chelsea—L. Cohen is “paying [his] rent every day” to be there—but it also, and again like the Chelsea, sounds a lot like a shrine, the shrine of the dead or dying troubadours. The only other lodger Cohen identifies is Hank Williams, who “living a hundred floors above him,” is not much of an interlocutor:

I said to Hank Williams, ‘how lonely does it get?’
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet;
but I hear him coughing all night long
oh, a hundred floors above me in the tower of song.
One can see why Cohen’s song appealed to Cobain, by turns musically ambitious and personally self-deprecating: the singer’s desire to find oneself in the “tower of song” is not only ironized by the declaration that he is mere “penny royalty,” but by the doubled irony of a desire that he has made into a death-wish.

26.         Cohen’s song is saturated by a religious rhetoric which—Christian as well as Jewish—is a feature of so many of his poems and songs and which is always, even when he’s singing his famous “hallelulias,” subjected to the same ironic, “broken” undertow. Here the singer’s prophetic, messianic impulse—“Twenty-seven angels from the great beyond!” “There’s a mighty judgment coming!”—is undone, often in the very next line: “But I may be wrong: / you see you hear these funny voices in the tower of song.” And, however much he might be “crazy for love,” he’s also already singing, posthumously, “with that gift of a golden voice” “from the other side”: “you’ll be hearing from me, baby, long after I’m gone. / I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the tower of song.” The tower of song is this place where the dead are still coughing and the living are “sighing eternally.”

27.        It’s as old as poetry itself, of course, this elegiac literary tradition in which poets honor their predecessors by mourning them, fashioning in the process a company of singers they hope to join. Adonais makes famous allusions to Bion and to Moschus—both translated by Shelley—and to Milton; and the poem fashions images of Byron, Hunt, and himself. But Shelley’s elegy marks a new and distinctive species of hyper-identification with the dead poet, one which begins with Shelley and his own personal and poetic projections on a poet about whose poems, at least until Hyperion, he felt a genuine ambivalence. Adonais inaugurates a version of this Western elegiac tradition that amplifies the affective dimension of these retrospective lineages at the very moment it drains them of redemptive potential and sings in praise of that. Or, more precisely, what Walter Benjamin would call its “redemption value” is rendered into something sheerly aesthetic, weak, impotent, and ineffectual: the shrine of no prospect. In the elegy that mourns and celebrates Keats, Shelley called it “the abode where the Eternal are,” where we mind and tend the effects of what Cohen called the “beautiful losers,” residents of the tower of song, not only Cobain but Hank Williams, Nick Drake, Ian Curtis, Elliott Smith. These singers belong in the same expansive cultural constellation with such figures as Oscar Wilde, Percy Shelley, Frank O’Hara, James Dean, Billie Holiday, Walter Benjamin, and especially John Keats—“lost angels of a ruined paradise” as Shelley would call them, icons whose beauty is inseparable from a suffering that in their “excessive Keatsness,” always belonged to “the other side,” always already posthumous. [21]

28.         Among the singer-songwriters of this constellation, it’s possible to discern what Benjamin, following Goethe, called “elective affinities” in form, theme, and presentation; but the most significant aspect of their Keats effect resides in their image, one they sang about—the “afterworld,” for instance, of Cohen and Cobain—and an image they sang “to”: songs that went in search of that image and songs that addressed it. And then in many cases, they became that image, “a portion of the loveliness” they “made more lovely.” I do believe the poets and singers I have gathered as examples of the Keats effects share among many other things a demonstrable commitment to the radical lyricization of the ballad form and—at least in the songs that register their “Keatsness”—an avoidance of the anthem. Self-conscious or not, the Keatsian affective register of the oxymoron is inscribed like a signature in the songwriting of these artists, such as Elliott Smith’s one popular hit single, "Miss Misery," in which the plaintive puns on “missing” and “misery” also produce the melancholy effects of those late odes. Or Cobain’s "Dumb" in which the singer’s experience of the blank emotion of dumbness is, suddenly, “maybe just happy.”

29.         What, then, is the Keats effect that connects these singers, their songs, and others who, regardless of genre, belong to this constellation, this special version of Pandora or a “Keatsness mixtape”? It is an image, one which is redeemed without prospects, without futurity. If redemption without futurity sounds incoherent—two fundamentally different discourses yoked together, something like a theologized nihilism—this discursive discordance is precisely what these images invoke: a Leonard Cohen afterworld of sighs and coughs, “the soul of Adonais, like a star,” beckoning a poet’s boat “far from the shore,” where it is “borne darkly, fearfully, afar,” shrines of martyrs, icons of saints and an absent God, an angel of history forever suspended, forever turned from the future, sighing eternally such that it asks whether there can be an image of the sigh.

30.         The last song of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set, performed on a stage covered with candles and Stargazer lilies, was their cover of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" or, as it is most often called, "In the Pines." The set of songs Nirvana performed for that show posited its own remarkable constellation: Cobain’s own compositions, of course, but also songs by David Bowie, The Vaselines, and The Meat Puppets, as well as the homage to Leonard Cohen in "Pennyroyal Tea," and then, “lastly,” "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" Cobain introduces “the last song of the evening” as one written by Leadbelly, his “favorite performer,” though as he had to know, the song was an anonymous ballad performed by artists ranging from Bill Monroe and Roscoe Holcomb to Loretta Lynn and most recently by Fantastic Negrito. The stories told by the ballad differ considerably from version to version—most often a tale of forsaken love—with the chorus as the song’s only constant. In the Leadbelly version that Nirvana covers, the narrative is almost entirely eliminated, and a central haunting question is introduced which distinguishes this version from every other: “where did you sleep last night?” It’s a question posed to a lover—“my girl”—followed by her reply:

in the pines, in the pines
where the sun don’t ever shine
I shivered the whole night through.
The Leadbelly version of the song is almost entirely comprised of the chorus which both introduces the song and is then repeated five times, punctuated by an instrumental interlude and one brief verse, which offers only the sketchy violence of a murdered husband whose severed head is found in a “driving wheel.”

31.         Nirvana plays the song as a dirge, its relentless ballad measure slowed painfully: three acoustic guitars, a cello accompaniment, Dave Grohl’s brushed drums. The performance has the feel of inevitability. Throughout the song, Cobain’s aspect is thoroughly absorptive: eyes downturned (reading the music, reading the lyrics?), voice determined but measured until his signature wail erupts in the final explosive chorus. The last line is broken down into the shards of the chorus: “I shiver whole—[pause]—night through.” That final “through” is extended and distended until it is no longer a sung note but a cry hurled from the very end. But the image of the performance I’d like to extract from this final line is the instant before that, the sudden and brief arrest—fleeting standstill—at which the song and its singer reach the limit. In the instant before that final chilling cry, Cobain sighs and for the first time in the performance opens his eyes.

Figure 2: Still image of Kurt Cobain performing Where Did You
                            Sleep Last Night? on MTV’s Unplugged

Figure 2: Still image of Kurt Cobain performing "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" on MTV’s Unplugged

“With awaken’d eyes,” in that moment “where everyone and I stopped breathing,” he gave a breath to his image. This is not just the image of a sigh, but the instance of visual image and audible sigh converging to make a “sigh-image.” In the form of a sigh, it’s an image which comes only to perish. The Keats effects converge here, not as explicit references from Cobain to Keats, but as the affective register through which we experience the performance of this ballad by a singer made iconic by early posthumousness and his own obstructive infatuations. These Keats effects remain ours.


32.        This essay has been long in the works, and some preliminary portions were presented at two venues: first, in 2009 as an invited talk for a special session at the North American Association for the Study of Romanticism in Toronto called "Genres of Death," and then in 2012 as an invited lecture for a Colloquium at the University of Massachusetts at Boston called "No Prospects: Romanticism at its Edges." I want to thank, respectively, Ian Balfour and Elizabeth Fay for their invitations and for initiating my early thinking on this topic. Every aspect of this essay is the result of ongoing collaborations and conversations with Jacques Khalip, for which I am immensely grateful.

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[1] I can be certain that there are exceptions to this rule because I am aware of one: Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) which, despite certain explicit anachronisms, conforms in the main to the narrative expectations of the genre except at the decisive level of the shot where it often depicts a transfer of images that activates the currencies between the film and this most cinematic of painters. The best account of this relationship is Leo Bersani and Ulysses Dutoit, Caravaggio. To my mind the most vitally true deployment of a Romantic poet in Anglophone cinema is Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) which features Johnny Depp as an accountant from Cleveland named William Blake who travels west and “finds himself” in a surreal Western. After being shot in the chest while in bed with Thel, Blake is revived and taken on a trip by Nobody (“Exaybachay”), a Native American without a tribe (played by Gary Farmer) who learned by heart the poetry of this “dead man” in the “white men’s schools” in England. Over the course of their travels further west, Blake “becomes” the poet, a “killer of white men,” whose poetry is written with his gun. Dead Man is both visionary and revisionary, a “reconstellation” of the poetry of Blake in the redeeming of the genre of the Western. BACK

[2] The Mary Shelley effect operates on an altogether different scale for popular culture, dwarfing in consequence any of the effects we might discern from her contemporaries, including her husband, father, and mother. Shelley’s novel deploys Milton’s poetry to displace his version of the Adamic myth with the Frankenstein creation myth as the popular cultural paradigm for creation. A subset of that popular effect is the way in which the creature’s “subversive eloquence” was one of the first and consistent casualties. In the first and very popular stage adaptation of the novel in 1823—retitled as Presumption, or The Fate of Frankenstein—the creature is rendered mute and has essentially remained that way on stage and screen ever since. In a form of narrative arrested development, theatrical and cinematic productions—the latter beginning with a silent film in 1910 in Thomas Edison’s film studios—the creature remains the “wretch,” the “miserable monster whom” Victor “beholds” at the moment of his “birth.” In the countless versions of the story for stage and screen that have mined the tale for its horror and its kitsch, the creature’s eloquence, his aesthetic sensibilities, and his capacity for poetry have been muted into their opposite, the “muttering” of “inarticulate sounds,” that not only drain the story of the novel’s lyricism but avoid the more threatening undecidability that attends to the creature: how can we not call this cyborg human if he is “moulded” of our same “clay” or if he can express our deepest ethical longings and aesthetic judgments, and turn his demands into a Miltonic prose poem? BACK

[3] While I believe that the pop cultural trajectory from Byron to Morrissey is self-evident, what happens if you don’t feel it, especially if you know both Byron and Morrissey? The challenge of this essay is to wrestle with how we might measure these effects in forms other than cultural allusions or formal influences. BACK

[4] Morrissey, one of the most literate—and literary—of pop singers, has been written about often and well, most notably by Morrissey himself: Autobiography chronicles the story of Morrissey’s cultural education from the point of view of the streets of Manchester, almost as much a literary as a musical education, though more modernist (Housman, Auden) than Romantic in its engagements. Above all, it’s Wilde. As he writes in "Cemetery Gates," “Keats and Yeats are on your side and Wilde is on mine.” Musically, his points of departure are Bowie, of course, but also the glam rockers, Lou Reed, New York Dolls, and Patti Smith among others. The book-length study most relevant to my discussion is Gavin Hopps’s Morrissey: The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart. Now, quite sadly, but without apology, we must acknowledge a new and indisputable fact which changes everything we think and say about this artist that meant so much to us: Morrissey has become a fucking racist. BACK

[5] In "On the Currency of Images: Percy Shelley’s Minor Cinema," I explore the principle of the detachability of the image in poetry and film. There I argue that the image’s “detachability” makes it available as a historical and transmedial “current,” one which “charges” a constellation between such unlikely texts as Shelley’s The Triumph of Life and Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine. BACK

[6] Andrew Motion’s outstanding Keats is the first sustained biography to emphasize the depth of the poet’s engagement with the radical, dissenting political culture of the period. BACK

[7] On Keats’s deep engagements with his own popular cultures, see also James Chandler, "An ‘1819 Temper’: Keats and the History of Psyche" in England in 1819, 389–440; and see Marjorie Levinson, Keats’s Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style. BACK

[8] On the relationship between the pornography and the “popular culture” of the period, see Bradford K. Mudge, "Romanticism, Materialism, and the Origins of Modern Pornography": “Late Romantic ‘pornography,’ even that which originated in ancient Greece and Rome, was asked to assume subterranean accommodations in the cultural scheme of things…. Certain kinds of obscenity flourished during the period in enlightened and self-conscious opposition to both the philosophical assumptions and institutional practices of elite culture” (25). BACK

[9] Khalip’s book constitutes a decisive and ongoing engagement with the queerness and “lastness” of Romanticism, including a compelling account of the “tacit” queerness of Shelley’s The Triumph of Life (74–91). By now, the queering of Keats should be beyond dispute. The issue of Romanticism on the Net edited by Michael O’Rourke and David Collings features important essays—and an excellent introduction by O’Rourke and Collings—which address the queer or “proto-queer” aspect of Romantic discourse. On the queering of Keats, see in particular Caroline E. Kimberly, "Effeminacy, Masculinity, and Homosocial Bonds: The (Un)Intentional Queering of John Keats." On this posthumous “queering,” see Amanda Berry’s insightful essay, "Some of My Best Friends are Romanticists: Shelley and the Queer Project in Romanticism." And for any scholar pursuing this queer strain in Romanticism, we are indebted to Andrew Elfenbein’s Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role. While completing my essay, I came across Eric Eisner’s brilliant "Drag Keats: Mark Doty’s Cockney Poetics" and felt confirmed in the direction of my argument. Eisner invokes Keats’s Cockney currency as a way of reading Doty’s poetry and its special debts to Keatsian glitter and excess. As Eisner puts it, Doty’s “Keats is in fact a Cockney Keats, and … Doty’s queer poetics of excess—its campiness, its glitter, even its ostentatious derivativeness—can be understood as a kind of Cockney poetics,” with “Keats [as] … the signal poet of the simulated, impure, and over-the-top” (388). BACK

[10] Dean’s death in September 1955 prompted O’Hara to write three elegies, the third (and best) of which—"Thinking of James Dean"—conveys the nature of the poet’s immersion in cultural worlds in which there are no distinctions other than vitality, “nerve,” and “variousness.” Like many of O’Hara’s best works, the poem is both panoramic and intimate, a “cold last swim / before the city” set against “a sky Tiepolo / and Turner compiled in vistavision” as he imagines what it is like to be “robbed of these suns and knowledges” and writes a name not in water but in sand: “A leaving word in the sand, odor of tides: his name.” Along the way, O’Hara’s conceit careens from the Turner-Tiepolo cinema to a bit part in Julius Caesar at the Brattle Theatre as his friends “listen to La Boheme”: all as way to register, to frame “Each panoramic second, of / his death” (230–31.22–23, 2–3, 20, 32, 26, 3–4.) BACK

[11] Byrom’s evaluations of O’Hara appeared in his TLS review of Marjorie Perloff’s Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters which was reviewed alongside two published volumes of O’Hara’s poetry. Perloff quotes the passage in her introduction to the second edition of the book, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1998. BACK

[12] Will Bishop translates engouement as “enthusiasm,” but I also want to activate “infatuation” as the translation that speaks more to the aesthetic affect at work here. BACK

[13] This is a poem which has been written about often and well; but I want to note two important and engaged readings of the poem that have long been crucial to my understanding of the poem and of O’Hara: Marjorie Perloff, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (xvii–xix; 179–83); and Andrew Ross, "The Death of Lady Day" (68–77). BACK

[14] And it will not be surprising to know that it is something to which O’Hara would be attracted. Gooch writes that the poet was “addicted to the notion of the tragic romantic artist” (303). BACK

[15] It depends upon whom you ask, of course. When Shelley wrote to Ollier that he was “composing a poem of the death of Keats,” he called it “a highly wrought piece of art, perhaps better in composition than anything I have written.” Not the judgement of the review in The Literary Gazette, Dec. 1821: “The poetry of the work is contemptible, a mere collection of bloated words heaped on each other without order, harmony, or meaning” (qtd. in Ann Wroe, Being Shelley 265). BACK

[16] The full range of Swann’s thinking and writing about the aesthetic after-lives of Keats and Shelley has been indispensable to my own critical and affective engagements with these poets and their work. But this one essay in particular is special. As with everything Swann writes, it’s exquisitely composed and delicately conveyed: Swann reads “effects” as closely and intimately as she reads texts; and she allows herself the vulnerability of a reader who acknowledges that she “finds herself reading in the manner of Keats,” offering her own critical voice to this affective currency of reading-relays. And in the context of the “Keats Effects” I am describing, it is relevant to note that I heard the “live version” of this article when it was first presented as a conference paper. I was moved in a way I very rarely experience in such venues. At that moment, I found myself listening not only as a Romanticist who learns from Swann’s work but with a fan’s devotion. BACK

[17] Khalip quotes this passage in the course of his own thinking about the temporal force of the “posthumous” in Keats’s last letters: “To read Keats thinking about his posthumous existence in a ‘last letter’ … is to fall into the tangled temporalities of the epistolary form that breaks apart the commemorative containment of something like a ‘life of letters’” (70). BACK

[18] Severn has drawn a dying face that also resembles what Khalip has called a “sleepy head,” the spot-on phrase he uses to think through Joanna Kane’s arresting photographic portrait series of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century life and death masks collected in the Edinburgh Phrenological Society. She published her treatments of the images in The Somnambulists: Photographic Portraits from Before Photography. If, as Khalip puts it, those “image-masks errantly sleepwalk out of time,” Severn’s image is pinned to its moment (68). BACK

[19] “When reading Keats,” says Swann, “at least some readers find themselves reading in the manner of Keats, who was always exceptionally alive to the call of the image, always vulnerable to the sharp ache, the feeling of being ‘drained, without any force’ that it induced” (279). BACK

[20] Perhaps like the charred remains of Shelley’s heart that Mary wrapped in the pages of Adonais and preserved as a relic to be shared with close friends. BACK

[21] I understand that the premature deaths of these poets and singers and actors result from a variety of causes; and I don’t intend to minimize the differences between rock and roll suicides and poetic consumption, drowning, or even accidental death by sports car or dune-buggy. But I believe that in terms of the Keats effect, the mode or manner of death is less important than the image with which it is shrouded and made into something popular even if not biographically accurate. For instance, while composing Adonais, Shelley writes that it was only “by assiduous watching that [Keats] was restrained from effecting purposes of suicide”; and Shelley’s “Inheritors of unfulfilled renown” notably includes poets who died by their own hand. BACK