To Carry Keats in Your Pocket: Julio Cortázar’s Everyman Poet

This essay explores the generic hybridity and transtemporality of Imagen de John Keats, Julio Cortázar’s literary biography from the 1950s. An amphibious text that oscillates between a rigorous work of criticism and a playful work of fiction, it follows two lines of national influence: the Latin American surrealist short story and Romantic poetry. Moreover, in staging a sense of timeless contemporaneity by strategically merging literary-historical events, the book brings together Keats, Shelley, and Hunt with Cortázar’s own circle of Argentine friends and intellectuals. This rippling of chronologies makes it possible for Cortázar to personally inhabit a Romantic universality, rendering Keats accessible to the Latin American “everyman.”

To Carry Keats in Your Pocket: Julio Cortázar’s Everyman Poet

1.        In the 1950s, the Argentinian author Julio Cortázar (1914–1984) composed an ambitious work—a “life and letters” of his favorite Romantic poet. The result was Imagen de John Keats, a six-hundred-page collage of Keats’s poems and letters, Cortázar’s own prose, and a myriad of references to Latin American, Spanish, German, French, and British authors. This little-known masterpiece covers the entirety of Keats’s adult life and works, beginning with Sleep and Poetry and ending with his lesser-known dramas and posthumous works. Inspired by Cortázar’s Spanish translation of Richard Monckton Milnes’s The Life and Letters of John Keats, published in Madrid in 1955, it far exceeds Lord Houghton’s efforts in its geographical and generic scope.

2.        Imagen de John Keats opens with a gust of brightness and momentum, its initial sentence announcing participation in the Romantic tradition by calling upon Nature, Imagination, and an Aeolian breeze: “This is a Romantic book, driven by its impulse towards its theme with the focus and faithfulness of a sunflower” (15). Playful and ambulatory, Cortázar’s text meanders in and out of the modes of biography, literary criticism, personal essay, and artistic memoir. It functions as a Keats anthology tailored for the Latin American reader, as well as a collection of Cortázar’s annotated translations and original poems. The methodological declarations, personal effusions, and literary references culminate in what Victor Zonana terms a “generic hybrid” and the work of a “poet-critic” who, rather than composing an erudite and academic study, traces the process of a poetry “in the making” (57). But while it oscillates between various genres, Imagen is presented as one organic structure, its formidable "Table of Contents" offering a roadmap for the thirteen chapters and eighty-five subsections that follow.

3.        Published posthumously by Alfaguara in 1996, Imagen has garnered scant attention from Keats scholars and appears but briefly even in criticism of Cortázar. [1] The relative obscurity of such a monumental work begs the question of what has made this text so inaccessible to both Anglophone and Hispanophone readers. Especially given Cortázar’s recognition as a global author of the Latin American Boom movement, that Imagen has eluded critical attention cannot solely be attributed to the fact that the work has not yet been fully translated into English. [2] In addition to any language barrier, Cortázar’s text presents a difficult challenge to Latin Americanists and Romanticists alike, due to its ahistorical approach and its hybrid style. This essay introduces Cortázar’s Imagen de John Keats to unfamiliar readers by elucidating its genre and methodology. Attending to important parallels between Cortázar’s and Keats’s literary circles, I then situate the work within Cortázar’s own statements on the transcultural transmission of English Romantic works to a Latin American audience.

4.        Imagen de John Keats is unique among Latin American afterlives of the English Romantic poets in two significant ways. First, it is a truly transtemporal work, jumping timelines and collapsing eras within one literary plane. Cortázar creates a dynamic field that accommodates a motley crew of ancient Greek, Renaissance, Romantic, and modern Hispanophone figures. This differs from typical neoromantic interactions of twentieth-century writers who might simply import and repurpose familiar motifs of Wordsworth or Shelley in a postmodern context. Instead, throughout Imagen, Cortázar inhabits the same time and locales as Keats. What we witness is a contemporaneous overlapping of two literary circles: Cortázar and his fellow writers of the Boom era are superimposed upon the world of Hunt, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Blake. These figures intermingle in pages redolent of Cortázar’s signature style, featuring the crossing of paths of a seemingly listless flaneur. While Imagen de John Keats is one of Cortázar’s non-fiction works, its cast of characters occupies a fiction-like space projected onto an epic scale. In this essay, I draw upon the imagery of playing hopscotch and “blowing up” (expanding) an image—borrowed from two of Cortázar’s most famous works, Hopscotch (1963) and "Blow-up" (1967)—to explore the experimentation he employs throughout his innovative treatise on Keats. [3] In so doing, I seek to restore the lost reception of Imagen by untangling the two factors most problematic to the text’s transmission: periodization and genre.

5.        In the opening section of Imagen, titled "Preludes," Cortázar announces the scope of his project in teasingly lofty and legal language, calling his opening a “Sworn Statement.” At other points, as in the chapter "Sleep and Poetry," he shifts into a confiding voice, assuming the mode of personal essay or of casual biography. His reportage of Keats’s life in the section titled "Romanticism" feels at times flippant and comical:

He is twenty-one years old in 1816. He is close to Leigh Hunt, he knows Shelley, he devours books, and walks roads. He celebrates, he drinks libations, he is happy. It is the time of brotherhood, of the endless presence of Tom, George, Fanny, and the friends: Cowden, Clarke, Haydon, Hunt, and Reynolds. For him, Hampstead (an Adrogué of London) contains all of Greek mythology. Under this sky, John begins to raise the shadow of the god that he has elected for his suffering and salvation: Shakespeare. And this is where we find him. So, John, let’s walk together, shall we? [4]

(Imagen 31)

As we see in this passage, Cortázar regards Keats with a sense of camaraderie that borders upon self-identification. He speaks authoritatively and on behalf of Keats, as if present throughout the poet’s early years. The reference to Adrogué, a small town in the suburbs of Buenos Aires with cobble-stoned streets and town squares, familiarizes the foreignness of Hampstead through analogy and geographic translation. Rather than glossing an Argentinian reference for the benefit of an English audience, Cortázar naturally reverses the Anglocentric orientation, catering to his ideal Latin American reader. Ultimately, it is Cortázar who invites Keats for an exploratory stroll, not the other way around. His physical metaphor for companionship, of walking side by side, serves as a leitmotif throughout the text, proposing a relation of friendship and equality rather than one of idolatry or infatuation. This becomes an enduring theme in the structure, spirit, and timescale that is central to Cortázar’s treatise on Keats.

6.        Taking after Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets in its biographical homage, and emulating the personal accounts from Hazlitt’s "My First Acquaintance with Poets," Imagen de John Keats incorporates personal anecdotes with stylistic critique, whether offering its cultural commentary on nineteenth-century England or twentieth-century Buenos Aires. The work exhibits a comfortable mastery over figures in British literature, offhandedly alluding to lines of Spenser, Herbert, Wordsworth, and Coleridge as if they were close friends. Cortázar’s invocation of these authors is casual but not disrespectful; he gestures toward these canonical figures with disarming hospitality and a gracious informality. In an intriguing balance between admiration and sauciness, Cortázar conjures up a living community populated by Shelley, Byron, “John,” “Bob Burns,” George and Tom, and even “Mom and Dad”:

… John was born in autumn—the 31st of October, 1795—the year and the season in which Wordsworth and Coleridge met, with illustrious consequences. It was the year of the guillotine in the front shores of France…[Then] another star: William Blake, a nova of nineteen years-old, another space of ignorance of ice cold, black air that separated his light and that of Keats. And to think that, in 1795, he had already written the Songs of Innocence and Experience. John was barely crawling when Bob Burns, drowning in alcohol and ballads, after confusing immortality with a snowy night, was dying up in the north. Shelley was three years old, Byron seven. What a nursery!

Mom and Dad were just common people. There’s an obscure side in the family life of Keats that gave him such a proclivity to psychoanalysis. He comes afloat after a confusing childhood, closely tied to his two brothers, George and Tom, (both of them younger than him), and also to Fanny, the flip-flop of the household, who very early in his life bestowed upon Keats’ a predestined name.

(Imagen 29)

Here, Cortázar is at ease, mapping out the baby steps and first literary strides of William Blake and Robert Burns. He converts the publication timelines of Romantic literary geniuses into anecdote and caricature, pure baby stuff: “What a nursery!” He inserts himself into the scene of “John’s” infancy, bearing witness by inviting himself into the Keats family household and into the childhood playpens of the Big Six as well. Freely working on a first-name basis, he flits in and out as a welcome member of the clan with carefree familiarity. This quick movement from a grand historical scale to such individual intimacy characterizes much of the lengthy book and lends a dynamic rhythm to the long stretches of prose. Cortázar often zooms in at a rapid pace, “blowing up” meaningful moments to notice the possibility of unrealized, fantastic detail behind the mundane. This zooming in and out is an important device that breathes magic into the ending of Cortázar’s surrealist short story Blow-Up, in which the expanded print of a camera snapshot, scrutinized in the photographer’s studio after the moment of capture, reveals a chain of unforeseen possibilities and traumas. It allows the past to become present, locked in a dynamic stasis and primed for revelation and analysis. Such is the process of “blowing up” and developing the “image” of John Keats, opening up possibilities for alternative representations of the poet we thought we knew.

7.        Blowing up images allows for a mode of discovery that curates moments and transcends chronological time. In his literary practice of merging times and epochs, Cortázar intimately enters the Romantic past and brings the coterie of the Keats-Shelley circle to life, communing with Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Haydon, and Hunt; but he also shows how these spirits have come to life in his own day. He recognizes them in the works of contemporary Latin-American poets and translators, such as Ricardo Molinari, Francisco Luis Bernárdez and Miguel Cané (22). In many passages, Cortázar keeps the text humming with experimental punctuation and an irregular distribution of paragraphs that is particularly vivacious and poetic.

I’m thinking of others who have felt Keats among us. I think of Miguel Cané, of whom I quote a beautiful passage in the prologue of the translation that we were working on that afternoon,

on Julio A. Roca and Rafael Alberto Arrieta, who translated him,

on Daniel Devoto, always willing to present me with the most accurate bibliographic findings,

on Lorenzo Mascialino, who comes every now and then with a piece of news, a scrap from an Italian magazine, a scroll.

How many young boys are walking around with a little volume of Everyman in their pockets to read young Keats on the street, in the open air, under the green umbrellas of the squares. Keats is something to be carried in your pocket, where you carry the things that really matter. Your hands, your money, your handkerchief; the bookshelves shall be reserved for Coleridge and for T.S. Eliot, who are lamp-poets. A pocket is the house for the essential and the portable for every man; you must choose what is essential, and only a poet fits in that space.

Shelley also chose John for his pocket, and on what a day! Through my window I looked at the foaming river. That little yacht returning to shore, is it Ariel?

(Imagen 22–23)

Here, we are introduced to a confluence of journalists (Cané), poets (Arrieta), politicians (Roca), musicologists and literary critics (Devoto), and Classics professors (Mascialino). These are the Argentine writers who sustained the bustling afterlife of Keats in 1950s Buenos Aires, bonded through a common physical token of recognition: walking together, carrying an “essential” edition of Keats in their pocket: “Y cuánto muchacho habrá que anda con el tomito de la Everyman en el bosillo, para leer a John en la calle, al aire libre, bajo los parasoles verdes de las plazas” (23). Referring to the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series, this notion of a “pocket Keats” establishes the poet’s universality, accessibility, and portability. Through it, Keats is available to the Latin American everyman or fulano de tal. It claims Keats as a working-class poet for young men living out in the world, walking and reading outdoors in town squares. He is not a bust to be worshipped upon the bookshelves of musty offices and libraries, alongside Coleridge and Eliot. Keats’s poems are a practical necessity and an item to be used daily, palpably, by this troupe of Latin American writers. Cané, Arrieta, and Devoto exist within the same chapters and street corners as “John,” in Paris, Buenos Aires, Teignmouth, and Hampstead. It is this Romantic element of timeless universality and ubiquity that appeals to Cortázar, more so than the fractured images offered by the Modernists; it lends him a space of contemporaneity and freedom. More importantly, it offers him the ability to create a unified, unbroken image, una imagen de John Keats that is singular and not plural.

8.         What happens in the final lines of the passage above is jarring: in almost cinematic fashion, Cortázar draws parallels between the everyman’s daily ambles and a moment of high Romantic tragedy. Through this transition, he pans out from the pockets of the young Argentine men in 1950s to the pocket of a young Percy Shelley—drowned and washed up ashore in the Gulf of Spezia on July 8, 1822. The zooming out of the camera lens is a strategic narrative movement that affords a dramatic sense of identification between distant parties. This potential for immediate transport—physically, temporally, and historically—is seminal to Cortázar’s early writing and becomes absolutely definitive of his later works.

9.        Critics such as Ana Martínez Santa have read Imagen de John Keats as a compositional training ground for Cortázar, who after the 1960s would emerge onto the world literary scene in full force (195). As we can see, Cortázar does not simply borrow themes from Keats and transplant them within a Latin American setting. Instead, Imagen enacts a unique experiment in flattening timescales, providing in each chapter a series of permeable wormholes through which the reader and author can embark on literary time travel, spanning from 1816 to 1959. This does not follow the model of a two-dimensional timeline but rather inhabits a three-dimensional field, an all-encompassing space that plays host to otherwise impossible interactions. [5] Such fluid mobility, hopping from point to point, is fundamental to Cortázar, whose experimentations with novelistic structure became his principle claim to fame. Considered by Alfred McAdam as the novel that marked the beginning of the Latin American Boom movement, Hopscotch (originally Rayuela) presents readers with an innovative set of instructions in the "Table of Contents" from which to choose different reading paths, to read sequentially or skip around in an erratic sequence (Donald Shaw, "Which Was the First Novel of the Boom?" 360). The suggested trajectory for readers begins, for instance, not at Chapter 1, but Chapters “73-1-2-116-3-84-4-71...” (Hopscotch v). Much more than simply summon the reader to jump from section to section and experience the fluctuation of page numbers along a linear scale, Cortázar invites the reader to become immersed in jarringly different environments, transporting suddenly from a conversation with the enchanting Gekrepten in the Almagro neighborhood of Buenos Aires to a walk along the Quai de Conti in Paris with a different woman, La Maga. We can thus see how the seed of timelessness in Imagen, which would later explode in Hopscotch, also mirrored the transcontinental, back-and-forth movements between “el lado de acá” and “el lado de allá.” This penchant for dynamic movement, for a truly bodily experience of transport, fuels the “contemporaneous” intimacy that makes for the indissoluble personal bond, physically choreographed, between Cortázar and Keats.

* * *

10.        Imagen de John Keats is a project predicated upon forging a strong individual connection between Cortázar and Keats, but it also traces lines of affinity and overlap between their literary circles. The attentive reader will easily notice parallels between the Leigh Hunt circle and the Latin American Boom writers of the 1960s and 1970s. Both consisted of young men spurred to publication in response to the political turmoil and threat of censorship during their time, the former provoked by the Peterloo Massacre, and the latter by the violence of repressive authoritarian governments and dictatorships in Latin America. The rise of military regimes in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, and Peru in the second half of the twentieth century ultimately brought together many Hispanic authors across Spain and Latin America. Their political fervor and leftist ideological lineage earned the Boom authors an international audience of young readers who opposed the climate of censorship and the threats to human rights, themes featured in many of the Latin American novels produced during those years.

11.        Cortázar left his university post at the National University of Cuyo in 1946 as a result of his opposition to the regime of General Juan Perón. In many ways, the period of censorship and intellectual repression preceding the Dirty War in Argentina became for Cortázar what Peterloo was for Keats. Nicholas Roe’s Keats and the Culture of Dissent and Jeffrey Cox’s Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School have showcased how the liberal convictions of Leigh Hunt and the Cockney School shaped Keats in a stronger vein than has been previously recognized. Much like Keats, Cortázar was sympathetic to the political urgencies shared by other Boom writers. He protested the impending presidency of Perón, leaving his teaching position and his country shortly after. He would travel to Cuba numerous times, first in 1963, but his enthusiasm for the revolution quickly dissolved when the poet Heberto Padilla was arrested and jailed by the Castro regime in 1971. Relying on his own voice, Cortázar eventually withdrew from the Cuban cause, just as Keats had eventually distanced himself from the Hunt circle, though he would always remain strongly supportive of the political left throughout his life. Still, it is important not to impose exact parallels upon the political situations of both authors, nor to assume that a Latin American author would automatically cleave to Romantic literature for its revolutionary echoes. This is simply not the case, and despite resonances between the Latin American Boom writers and the Keats-Hunt circle, Imagen de John Keats is not a politically motivated work. [6] Instead, Cortázar creates a flattened world that celebrates individual connections over any group agenda, honoring individual talent over aesthetic or political movements.

* * *

12.        Scholars of the Latin American Boom typically trace any European influence to the French and British modernists, including Proust, Joyce, and the surrealists; or by way of Latin American modernismo authors at the fin de siècle, such as Rubén Darío, José Martí, and José Asunción Silva, who followed the French Parnassians and Symbolists. For a young Cortázar to align himself with John Keats rather than a figure like James Joyce was thus a marked departure from others within his literary circle, which was dominated at the time by French intellectualism. As Peter Standish attests, Cortázar “was in many respects a romantic, the prime source of his romanticism being English poetry of the nineteenth century” (14–15). Borges, who was also a great reader of English literature, delivered a series of lectures that included twenty-five classes from Beowulf to The Picture of Dorian Gray, with four classes devoted to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake ("Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature"). Cortázar avoids such strict chronological self-positioning: Rather than performing a historical survey, covering the breadth of the English canon, he plunged deeply into the works of a few Anglophone authors he admired, including Defoe, Poe, and Keats.

13.        As other articles in this Praxis volume show, the line of transmission from English Romanticism to Latin American writing evades the direct lines of conquest typical of transatlantic movements, such as that from Britain to colonial America and the West Indies, or from Spain to Latin America. [7] Hispanophone writers invoking British authors are not necessarily writing “against” an imperialistic tradition (c.f. Ramirez, "Keatsians in Argentina"). At the same time, the English-Spanish language difference both presents an obstacle and spares them from the anxieties surrounding a colonizing language. For Cortázar, despite recognizing British literature as a central cultural force, his position on the periphery of this somewhat distant tradition is neither one of adulation nor of marginalization. So, what jagged line of influence can be traced through the lens of this cosmopolitan reader? Again, Cortázar’s model of ambulation or meandering comes to play, emulating Montaigne’s impetus to essayer, try out new paths, or dar un paseo. In 1980, he lectured to a seminar of university students in the United States:

It has been asserted many times that Latin American literature in general enters modernity without all the baggage—and the confidence that comes with it—of a slow past and a slow evolution, as European literature has. We went from the Spanish Conquest to colonization and then independence in a stretch of time that, compared with the development of the great literary cultures of the West, is tiny, a mere instant. This means that when Latin American writers began to write, and write autonomously in each of our countries, they might have unconsciously felt the absence of a slow evolution of which they were the last link in a long chain. Suddenly they found themselves confronting a modern culture, and a language that could be used in all its expressive potential.

(Literature Class 31)

Here, in Cortázar’s assessment, Latin American authors enjoy the possibility of writing autonomously. The evolution of their literature is not a slow buildup across generations but a sudden moment in time, a “mere instant.” Its potential is thus explosive and optimistic rather than burdened by any “baggage” of periodization. Indeed, the “tiny,” “mere instant” of Latin American inspiration is not so much diminutive as it is liberating through its ahistoricity. It is important to recognize here that Cortázar’s trilingualism and worldliness afforded him the access and confidence to foray the European scene. Born in Brussels in 1914, he settled in Paris in the 1950s, traveling also to Cuba, America, Spain, and Egypt. [8] Not simply an Argentinian author but a true cosmopolitan figure, Cortázar shrugs off the typical postcolonial shackles of the Latin American author writing in Spanish or embracing canonical works of Old Europe. His notion of the rise of Latin American literature as transpiring after the height of Western civilization is a narrative marked by indifference to the imperial burden, in fact a soaring alternative to it.

14.        Fitting this conviction that Latin American writers could burst onto the scene without feeling like “the last link in a long chain,” Imagen de John Keats is a striking example of writing in the present, particularly from a formal perspective. This is a remarkable strategy for such a lengthy book that is able to maintain a reader’s interest without following the dramatic plotline of a novel or epic. Generically speaking, Imagen is not a collection of short stories, the form later favored by Cortázar and Borges; nor does it do the work of a history, mapping out a long-ranging trajectory with the poets of antiquity on one end of the timeline and contemporary writers on the other. Instead, the book is a series of moments always set in the present, invoking the mode of “automatic writing” that Cortázar and other surrealist writers would come to champion. He describes and enacts this autonomous, improvisatory process here in Imagen:

Years ago I had renounced thinking in any coherent way; my Waterman ink pen thinks better for me. It seems as if the ink pen was collecting energy inside my pocket:

I keep it in my vest, above my heart… I accept the cyclist’s impulse that starts in my hand, and I let it become entangled in the little-speaking-stick. And there they go, and I see them, while I sip my delicious mate where a tiny forest wafts its fragrance towards me.

This is slightly narcissistic, isn’t it? Just like the languages that converge in all this; just like the overwhelming mountain of quotations; just like the language that I have fancied to use. I know that this road with my poet will bother some, here and there, because look—this is what happens: here, I am talking about the past with words of the present,

I’d rather speak in present tense, a very present present, and of a very past past,

and this will bother those who believe that poetry was born with Petrarch, the little boy of the Forest of Arden, relegating the rest of poetry to the realm of crinoline and lace.

It being this way, I’m going to lose face equally with the old and the young, both the graveyard sentinels and the be-bop. But this is also out of faithfulness to my poet, because he had a frightening aptitude to lose faith with everyone in the Republic of Letters. Only his own friends understood him, and this is very helpful in avoiding the temptation of taking the easy way out, sticking to one-sided conventions.

(15–16)

In this "Methodology" section at the beginning of the book, Cortázar already proffers a disclaimer of his timelessness—that the old and young, those of the past and future, will very likely reject his work, which lives only in the present. [9] As if anticipating the paltry reception of this text, he is already aware that his references will meet disapproval from many readers as he skips around from Petrarch to bebop. [10] As this passage makes clear, Keats is “my poet,” and Cortázar is controlled by the driving forces of inspiration that reside in his pocket: both the Everyman copy of Keats’s poems and the Waterman ink pen. The author channels “[his] poet” and follows his portable muses in this process of automatic writing.

15.        Cortázar insistently refuses historicity, even as he enumerates Keats’s literary forebears. This confidence in seizing the present and shrugging off the past is professedly a tactic he learned from and shared with Keats. Just as Cortázar does not owe his inspiration to Keats, Keats is not beholden to his predecessors. Neither feels the weight of the English canon upon him. Cortázar explains:

This is how Keats always felt, and if it is literally impossible to say that he cleared the slate of the past, we will see that his adherence to this past is neither born out of a nostalgia nor a sentiment of reverence in the Manriquean mode. On the contrary, in his own poetic dimension, he lives so deeply in the past that he does not feel the need to profess about it, and this abolishes divisions of chronology. From 1814 to 1816, he was trapped by the magic of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Later on, it is Shakespeare and Milton who enchant him. But can we really speak about the past—in the sense that Ortega understands it—when we are talking about Shakespeare and Milton in England? When Keats feels the need to escape Spenser’s charms—and that was truly a temporal contemplation of a long-gone past—, John remains squarely within the same temporal dimension of Milton and, above all, of Shakespeare. They are not “models or norms”: they are the poetry at the level that Keats is striving so willfully to reach. In regards to Greece, where he finds all the imagery of Endymion, all the pathos of Lamia, and the instant purity of "Ode on a Grecian Urn," his talent is not that of a historian. For John, his world of Hampstead and Greece are the very same reality where nature and man coexist in an alternate plane of direct contemplation and mythological symbology. He does not feel the nostalgia of Greece; his overwhelming joy weaves the tapestry of pagan images in his poetry. He does not see any reason to deplore the passing of time. The eternal world is within reach of his hand, and what his eyes see in an oak tree is the same thing that Virgil saw. What would be the purpose of remembering the snows of yesteryear [11] if the snowy peaks of Scotland are waiting for him now?

That characteristic was one of the great discoveries of the Romantics….

We must keep in mind that the intertwining and struggle to break away from the remainings of the eighteenth century had, as a result, curious intermixings, peculiar confusions, ambiguities, and returns to the starting point.

(Imagen 32–33)

These “curious intermixings,” “peculiar confusions,” and “returns to the starting point” that Cortázar recognizes as fundamentally Romantic are a central structural component of Imagen de John Keats. They are also, I argue, what defines his major works, especially Hopscotch. This passage, excerpted from a section titled "Circumstance and Choice," celebrates Keats’s creative autonomy despite being informed by Milton, Shakespeare, and Virgil. In this shared reality, Hampstead is Greece; Keats sees the very same oak tree that Virgil saw. Any literary resemblances are not a matter of historical eventuality but of taste and happenstance of the present. In turn, Cortázar clears his own “slate of the past,” “abolishes the divisions of chronology,” and can draw on Keats without “nostalgia nor a sentiment of reverence.” This lends him, too, complete autonomy from any anxiety of historical influence, within or across national traditions. Both authors are free to shrug off any deferential indebtedness to their literary ancestors.

* * *

16.        Following his Waterman ink pen, Cortázar’s writing method is a spontaneous process based on personified inspiration, establishing Imagen as a creative work unburdened by meticulous planning. This complete improvisatory freedom—the possibility of ending up anywhere, in any time signature or any key—is reminiscent of the twist endings and perspectival changes that mark the endings to so many short stories of the surrealist and Latin American Boom movements. In this sense, the interaction of different genres at play adds great interest to Imagen de John Keats—a novel-length work, based on British poetry, that invokes definitive narrative techniques of the Latin American Boom short story style.

17.        The question of genre is perhaps the greatest source of distance between Keats the poet and Cortázar, the writer of short stories and fiction. It is also the most challenging aspect of critically approaching a work like Imagen. The book is patently not a historical novel that uses the Romantic poets as familiar characters. Instead, it is a text brimming with facts and details, despite presenting this informational content within a semi-fictional and poetic framework. How do we as readers then approach Cortázar’s text, recognizing its labor of literary commentary while attending to its formal elements of creative memoir? Might one read the many chapters as a series of short stories? As compositional fragments? Or as a manual for navigating Keats’s life and writings? [12] All these possibilities build up to a larger collection, one cohesive Image of John Keats.

18.        Cortázar provides us with the semblance of an answer when he broaches this question of genre himself. Answering questions posed by students at the University of California, Berkeley, he addresses why Latin America produced so many short-story writers: “In Latin America, the short story is so popular and is of such high quality that it can be considered among the best to be imagined or written in the world….Short stories and short-story writers appear in Venezuela, Mexico, Peru, and follow the aesthetic trends that at the time were coming fundamentally from Europe. So, when Romanticism arrives in Latin America, like a kind of enormous deluge, many stories and many novels are written that have Romantic characteristics, but the subjects are already Latin American…” (30–33). [13] Imagen de John Keats merges essentially poetic elements of Romanticism with Latin American fictional forms, melding both genres and national literatures. The structure of the text feels novelistic and draws from elements of the surrealist short story, while its content is poetic and biographical.

19.        Though Imagen is a dense book of prose, it often presents on the page as poetry, especially through Cortázar’s frequent play with sentence structure, repetition, and grammatical fluidity—which visually appear freer than even the most experimental portions of Hopscotch:

(by the way, the eighteenth-century novelists do not catch his eye. He says very harsh things about Richardson, he seems to respect Fielding

and Smollett, but none of them influence his ideas).

Bob Southey         leaves him cold

Shelley         “who has a good deal of fine qualities”

Hunt         too “writerly” for someone who looks up to poetry

as a destiny and not a profession

and Byron         nothing to say, nothing to hope         “he describes

what he sees, I describe what I imagine.”

(Imagen 36)

In addition to emulating free verse through line breaks and extended spacing between words, Imagen also quotes thousands of lines of poetry that interpolate the prose of the tome. These include selected stanzas of Keats’s poems translated by Cortázar himself, as well as lines of Baudelaire, Rimbaud (referred to as “Rimbe”), Mallarmé (“Stéphane”), Shelley, and occasionally, a rare poem or two of Cortázar’s own, inspired by Keats. Combining poetic elements with novelistic structures and components of the short story, Cortázar recruits historical figures but avoids a linear fictional plotline, placing them instead within an amorphous formal space—a space that bridges all three genres, and where time and setting are collapsed.

20.         Establishing poets as the ultimate measurers of time, Cortázar operates in the capacity of a vatic poet envisioning not just the future but an ever-mysterious present:

Born on ______ Died on ______

Nonsense.

As Giri says about his mother in "Coronación de la espera": Ni yo he nacido ni ella ha muerto. I have neither been born, nor has she died.

You will understand that with these critical tools, whatever I have to say about John I will say it here and today, with him at my side, winking at me. I suppose that it will be convenient to demonstrate that a young poet suffered the influence of Spenser, of Moore, of Milton, and of Leigh Hunt. But my tastes are more of my own time, and I see John as one in my own time

because he is one of the people who has helped build my own time.

Along with Coleridge, with Shelley, with Swinburne, with Tennyson, with Leopardi, with Kleist, with Novalis, with Scardanelli

with Baudelaire, with Rimbe, with Stéphane, with the Count, with Gérard.

So, John? This is a beautiful morning. Shall we go?


In this adventure, I’m simply following you. No one lived as passionately tied to his own days, to his friends, to his love, as you did.

You contemplate within, and there you find the past, partly because of the books and partly because every poet is the measurer of time.

(Imagen 52–53)

21.        Keats’s omnipresent timelessness is embodied in the improvisatory movements of Cortázar’s seemingly erratic, free-flowing hops and skips around sentences, stanzas, and chapters. In this poetic world in which there are neither birth dates nor death dates, "Julio y John" take turns leading one another. At the beginning of this article, Cortázar invited Keats for a stroll, placing him in his pocket. Here, he again initiates, but agrees to follow. We see Cortázar inverting the neoromantic impetus of a 1950s writer wishing he lived in the 1810s. Instead, he claims Keats as contemporary, emphasizing both the portability of a pocket Keats and the transportability of all authors into one another’s worlds. This poses a new kind of relationship between British Romanticism and Latin American postmodernist writing, one based on two Cortazarian models: “hopscotch,” which allows us to jump discreetly from point to point within a field that precludes strict sequencing; and “blow-up,” the zooming in up close to a single image, uncovering new life, movement, and action as in a film before panning out. Cortázar shows that the “time traveling” of Hopscotch and up-close reading experiences of "Blow-up" are not learned from Keats, but with him, as they go forward together, collapsing distance, overlapping time scales, and merging genres.

22.        From the beginning to the end of a long work that never truly feels sequential in its narrative, Cortázar cultivates a purposeful simultaneity and universality that allows him to commune eternally with Keats. Indeed, throughout Imagen, time overlaps on various levels: in the metric time of poetry, the historical timelines of biography, and the narrative horizontal direction of chapters progressing within a novel. Genres overlap as we see the novel and short story overlaid upon the smaller poetic building blocks of alliteration, metaphor, and anaphora. Ultimately, a thoughtful reading of Imagen de John Keats is not an exercise in noticing the many parallels between two worlds, two times, and three genres; nor is it simply an occasion to trace lines of inheritance. Rather, it is recognizing the vision of a lively constellation within a single shared space of three-dimensionality, a dynamic collage that choreographs participation in a shared “reality.”

23.        Cortázar’s book depicts the accessibility of the “everyman” Keats for all readers, inclusive of a Latin American and Hispanophone audience, from the 1950s to today. His games of “hopscotch” and “blow-up” depict a dynamic image of Keats not otherwise afforded to us in chronological memoirs, biography, or literary criticism. And while this formal ambiguity may have been the very reason for the omission of Imagen de John Keats from Keats’s critical lineage thus far, it is a work to be rediscovered and honored—to be preciously placed in our pockets—as a model that resists traditional patterns of Latin American afterlives through its insistent contemporaneity.

Works Cited

Almeida, Joselyn M. Reimagining the Transatlantic, 1780–1790. Ashgate, 2011.

——— editor. Romanticism and the Anglo-Hispanic Imaginary. Rodopi, 2010.

Boldy, Steven. "Mise en perspective de Imagen de John Keats." Cortázar, de tous les côtés, edited and foreword by Joaquín Manzi. UFR Langues Littératures, Université de Poitiers, 2000, pp. 13–26.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, edited, researched, and annotated by Martín Arias and Martín Hadis. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver, New Directions, 2000.

Chander, Manu Samriti and Patricia A. Matthew, editors. "Abolitionist Interruptions: Romanticism, Slavery, and Genre." European Romantic Review vol. 29, no. 4, 2018, pp. 431–556.

Cortázar, Julio. Blow-up: and Other Stories. Pantheon, 1963.

———. Cronopios and famas. Translated by Paul Blackburn. New Directions, 1992.

———. Hopscotch. Random House, 1966.

———. Imagen de John Keats. Alfaguara, 1996.

———. Julio y John, caminando y conversando: Selections from Imagen de John Keats. Edited and translated by Olivia Loksing Moy and Marco Ramírez Rojas. Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, Series VIII, 2019.

———. Literature Class: Berkeley 1980. New Directions, 2013.

Cox, Jeffrey. Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle. Cambridge UP, 1998.

Cruz Pérez, Francisco José. "Julio Cortázar, lector de John Keats." Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos: Revista Mensual de Cultura Hispanica, vol. 555, 1996, pp. 115–23.

MacAdam, Alfred. The Death of Manuel Puig. Review, vol. 43, 1990, pp. 66.

Martínez Santa, Ana. "Julio Cortázar y John Keats: Hacia una nueva ecología poética." Revista Hispanica Moderna, vol. 45, no. 2, 1992, pp. 193–209.

Milnes, Richard Monckton, Lord Houghton. Vida y Cartas de John Keats. Translated with an introduction by Julio Cortázar. Pre-Textos, 2003.

Moy, Olivia Loksing. "From Hampstead to Buenos Aires and Beyond: Anticipating Worlds in Julio Cortázar’s Imagen de John Keats." Forthcoming in Comparative Literature vol. 72, no. 4, 2020.

Picón Garfield, Evelyn. Julio Cortázar. Frederick Ungar, 1975.

Rodríguez García, José María. "A vueltas con Keats, Cortázar y la antigüedad clásica." Torre: Revista de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, vol. 4, no. 13,  1999, pp. 587–616.

Roe, Nicholas. Keats and the Culture of Dissent. Oxford UP, 1997.

Shaw, Donald L. "Which Was the First Novel of the Boom?" PMLA vol. 89, no. 2, 1994, pp. 360–71.

Siskind, Mariano. Cosmopolitan Desires: Global Modernity and World Literature in Latin America. Northwestern UP, 2014.

Sommer, Doris. "Pursuing a Perfect Present." Julio Cortázar: New Readings, edited by Carlos J. Alonso, Cambridge UP, 1998, pp. 211–36.

Standish, Peter. Understanding Julio Cortázar. U of South Carolina P, 2001.

Youngquist, Paul and Joel Pace. "Black Romanticism," Studies in Romanticism, vol. 56, no. 1, 2017, pp. 3–123.

Zonana, Víctor Gustavo. "Julio Cortázar/Daniel Devoto: Proyecciones literarias de su amistad en Imagen de John Keats," Inti: Revista de Literatura Hispánica, no. 79/80, 2014, pp. 51–69.

Notes

[1]See Boldy, Cruz Pérez, Martínez Santa, Rodríguez García, and Zonana for commentary on Imagen de John Keats. All of these essays appear in either French or Spanish publications. BACK

[2]Cortázar received the Prix Médicis in France in 1974 and the Rubén Darío Order of Cultural Independence in Nicaragua in 1983. The editors of this issue are currently completing a critical English translation of Imagen de John Keats. Selected excerpts have been published as Julio y John, caminando y conversando: Selections from Imagen de John Keats. BACK

[3]Cortázar’s major novel Hopscotch (Rayuela) is often regarded as a text marking the beginning of the Latin American Boom, while his short story "Blow-up" ("Las babas del diablo") was immortalized in film by Michelangelo Antonioni in 1966. BACK

[4]All passages from Imagen de John Keats are translated by Marco Ramírez Rojas and Olivia Loksing Moy. BACK

[5]For more on the transtemporal and transnational features of Imagen, see Olivia Loksing Moy, "From Hampstead to Buenos Aires and Beyond: Anticipating Worlds in Julio Cortázar’s Imagen de John Keats," Comparative Literature 72, no. 2 (June 2020). BACK

[6]The only overtly political statements where Cortázar connects Keats to Latin American revolutions occur in his introductory note to his translation of Lord Houghton’s Lives and Letters, and in "Casilla del cameleón," included in La vuelta al dia en ochenta mundos. See Marco Ramírez, "Keatsians in Argentina: Borges’ Nightingale and Cortázar’s Chameleon" for a political reading of Keats through the lens of Romantic sympathetic identification. BACK

[7]See special issues of Studies in Romanticism ("Black Romanticism," edited by Paul Youngquist and Joel Pace) and European Romantic Review ("Abolitionist Interruptions," edited by Manu Samriti Chander and Patricia A. Matthew). See also Joselyn Almeida’s Reimagining the Transatlantic, 1780–1890 and the collection of essays Romanticism and the Anglo-Hispanic Imaginary. BACK

[8]Many Boom authors were travelers and exiles, lending the political and social action they advocated greater urgency for their readers across the world. Mariano Siskind’s Cosmopolitan Desires discusses Latin American writing as world literature, recognizing the creation of Latin American literary modernity as a global phenomenon that led to the worldwide popularity of magical realism. BACK

[9]See Doris Sommer’s "Pursuing a Perfect Present" in Julio Cortázar: New Readings for further investigation into Cortázar’s use of present tense and grammatical time in relation to biography and jazz. BACK

[10]Cortázar was an avid trumpetist and a great lover of jazz, which influenced his spontaneous and improvisatory writing. BACK

[11]Cortázar’s note here reads: “François Villón, ‘Ballade des dames du temps jadis’” / “The Ballad of the Ladies of Bygone Times” BACK

[12]The form of short manuals or guides also figures prominently in Cortázar’s writings. The first section of Cortázar’s collection Cronopios and Famas, translated by Paul Blackburn, is titled "The Instruction Manual," and includes "Instructions on How to Cry," "Instructions on How to Comb the Hair," and "Instructions on How to Wind a Watch." BACK

[13]“Cortázar drew an interesting parallel between the novel as movie and the short story as paragraph. A movie has an open order, a detailed and rounded structure in which many frames or puzzle pieces eventually deliver a finished story to the viewer, as in a novel. A photograph, on the other hand, presupposes limitations. It is one immobile frame of a single significant piece to a puzzle, a fragment of reality to which the viewer must supply the remaining pieces, as in a short story. The short story, therefore, is an ‘opening up’ of a reality that is much greater than that of the actual tale: ‘that fabulous opening of the minute onto the gigantic, of that which is individual and circumscribed onto the very essence of the human condition.’” (Picon Garfield 13) BACK

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