Poetry Writing

Is John Keats a natural poet?

‘If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ John Keats, Hampstead Feb 27th 1818, Letter to John Taylor.

Keats wrote this ‘axiom’ in a letter to his friend John Taylor when he was 22. Are we to read this as a notion of genius — that great artists simply and effortlessly derive their work from the muses, while the rest of us lumpen, non-geniuses labour? Of course by the age of 22 Keats had already published and written sublime and lasting work. But read through his poetry and you can see the craft evolve at an extraordinary rate — accelerated by his deep study of Shakespeare.

Most texts, especially poetry, are worked at long and hard. Many writers, but I would suggest especially poets because of the nature of the form, will be familiar with the sensation of a poem arriving fully realised. The first poem I had printed (in Other Poetry, back in the early eighties) was written this way. I remember sitting down to write, after a visit to Kenilworth Castle,  and an effortless eight-line poem about the Castle simply popping out. It was a weird feeling.  Since then a few of my poems have emerged this way and when it happens, you must avoid noticing that it is happening, just go with the flow.

Keats’s Ode To Autumn, was published in 1820. While the first page of the MS here has crossings-out (I selected this image from Google because it seemed quite worked on) even this MS demonstrates that the poem arrived almost fully formed, and it was composed in one day — 19th September 1819. For one of the most famous poems in the English language, that’s not bad going. Here’s the first page of the MS version.


It is a moot point if anyone else can tell that a something written in one fell swoop or not, and if this matters?

T.E. Eliot’s The Waste Land, took years to write, and there is MS with not only Eliot’s workings but Ezra Pound, the il miglior fabbro (the better maker) of the poem’s dedication. Between them, they shrunk the poem by almost half with their edits and revisions. Here is the start of the poem as we know it, but notice the pagination, the first page of the poem in MS had been completely cut, with a light pencil line, by Eliot himself.


Naturally the methods of Keats and Eliot are entirely different. Modernism, as expressed in The Waste Land, is in part a literary collage, a piecing together to make something new. This is time consuming. The Romantic idea of genius, and a spirit suddenly possessing one is persistent.  It is a single-minded outpouring, rather than an assemblage. You may have read lots, but your poem must pour out of you in an inspired torrent.

Keats was an extraordinary person. If we were all to wait for poetry to emerge like leaves from a tree, poems would be few and far between. But perhaps there is a case to be argued that a Romantic poem being tinkered with endlessly somehow kills it. Wordsworth’s endless revisions of his own work may be an example of this.

Today, traces of Romantic thinking still exist in the caricatured expectations culture has for the way artists are supposed to behave. The image of the otherworldly poet inspired by a muse is a hard one to shake off.

Buddhism Guernsey Silence

The sound of one hand clapping

I have been fascinated by silence for years. Having lately met several classical musicians and composers, it is interesting to discover just what a touchstone John Cage’s 4’33” is. What I glean from these discussions is that John Cage was trying to get people to listen to the other sounds of the music hall, or wherever the piece was presented, as well as delightfully subverting people’s expectations. I learn that the piece’s performance has of late has a flavour of audience participation with, I am told, people comedically triggering off a mobile phone rings during the performance.

The excellent A book of silence, by Sara Maitland is a lovely description of the author’s quest for the meaning of silence. The book was a welcome discovery especially as I have as yet been unable to coherently express my thoughts on the subject. Maitland’s suggestion that there are all kinds of silences is one I fully support. She also suggests certain artistic expressions are somehow express silence too — a conclusion that I also agree with.

I put here a few notes on the subject from about 11 years ago first published in my now defunct AnotherSun ezine… It kicks off with a quote from Keats, whose poetry seems to me to be drenched in silence.

For me silence in art, maybe a bit like umami – something we altogether recognise but at one time had no word for.

The sound of one hand clapping

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

 Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on”
John Keats Ode on a Grecian urn.
I can remember the first time I was forced to think about silence.
My friend Michael and I walked out from the edge of Warwickshire village, where he rented an old house, into some muddy fields. The afternoon was windless and nippy. The road through the village was far behind us, and for once there were no cars, nor aircraft overhead. All about us subdued sheep stared into space.
         “Quiet isn’t it?” I said.
         “Yes,” said Michael, “this is what Heidegger calls the pre-linguistic state.”
         “Ah.” I said, nodding sagely.
         Of course, he could tell I was bluffing.
Later, hunched over his open fire in the approved student way, we had a lengthy discussion about silence. And the things he made me think about that evening have been with me ever since. What is silence? An absence of noise? What would being in total silence do to you? And above all… What would it be like to live without language?
Many philosophers suggest that proper thinking is impossible without having words to give your ideas shape and form. And if humanity had no language, then we would be no better than the poor old sheep snuffling about in the darkness behind the house. The German philosopher Heidegger, Michael told me, described mankind as the “language-animal”. Clearly one implication being that what sets us apart from other animals was language.
That’s how I became an amateur silence spotter.  If being able to communicate in language was what made us human, then what did silence contain? Things that weren’t human?  Something basic and sheep-like? Or something divine?
Even your novice silence spotter can listen to music and hear the silence between the notes. I discovered Kind of Blue by Miles Davis was especially good for this (especially, funnily enough, when accompanied by a jazz cigarette). I began to see music as an arrangement of silences with the quality of each silence being altered by the notes that surround it.
Things got a bit extreme when I started to think about words in the same way as musical notes. You can take a poem, for example, and view this as a collection of silences. The quality of the silences being altered by the words that come before or after them.
All this silence spotting didn’t really get me anywhere, apart from giving me a nagging sense that what cannot be put into words is probably the really interesting stuff. It left me with the firm conviction that words, if used skilfully enough, could signpost the undiscovered country of silence. Which is why poetry has always been important to me. I get the feeling that the best poetry is like Captain Kirk in the Starship Enterprise, boldly going where no man has gone before.
The second stage of my career as a silence spotter came through meditation. For a several years I went to a regular Thursday night meditation group. I always left feeling refreshed, relaxed and generally sorted.
Often the people trying to meditate spoke of struggling with voices chattering in their heads. I knew what they meant. Our brains are tuned to some kind of “Radio Self” and when you try to be really silent, your brain can’t stop chattering. It behaves like a child you are trying to ignore. With practice, however, you can at least turn down the volume.
And that’s how I think I got somewhere special in my silence spotting career — through meditation. There was one especially memorable time where I suddenly felt physically empty. And had a clear (and of course faintly ridiculous) vision of myself as a bell with no clapper. The chattering radio of the voices in my head had been switched off and I felt serene. Oddly I also felt as physically close to the people passing in the street outside, as to the person sat next to me in the darkened room.
This sensation, which I guess must only have lasted for a few minutes, was accompanied by a feeling of intense elation and meaningfulness. While the business of feeling like a bell was extremely specific, and I was strongly reminded of it when I walked into bell-shaped Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka.
At last my silence spotting had got me somewhere. For one thing to a direct and startling alteration of my mood.  It left me with a deep — if temporary — sense of spiritual well-being.
Below a door in St Martin’s Guernsey. One of my own snaps which seems to me to have a quality of silence about it.