The quirkiness of Keats’ Odal Cycle as involves intimacy,
“I-thou”; when Keats addresses the “you” in the Odes, it is almost always
either an archetype or an imaginative creation. Keats does not directly address
any other human beings. It is left to his readers to decide for ourselves
whether we can accept this approach; whether there is or can be any real
intimacy between Keats and Psyche, or a Grecian Urn, or a nightingale, etc.
Because the Odes are legitimately visionary, i.e. they create, consolidate, and
perpetuate an imaginative vision of human reality both complex enough and
self-contained enough to be seen to constitute a complex, self-contained
vision, the choice, as ever with visionary major high art consonant art, is
whether to accept this vision or not. The magnificence of Keats’ prosody is one
reason to accept Keats’ vision; that the prosody stands for or signifies that
the vision, of intimacy with things and imaginative vistas rather than with
people, is real, wholesome, and genuine. On the other hand, some audiences may
decide that Keats getting overheated about urns and nightingales falls under
the narrative-thematic aegis of the adolescent, and that the prosodic richness
of the Odes only partly compensates for the gravitas that is lost in ecstasy,
euphoria, and the passionate élan of unbridled imaginative sensuousness.
The Cheltenham Elegies replace euphoria with resignation. In
this humanistic context, all the “I-thou” textual energy is aimed
conventionally, at other people, be they living or dead (this, we do not always
know). What is meant to be mind-bending in the Elegies is dramatic intensity
and shifting perspectives, even as the Elegies’ prosody is not as rich as the
Odes’. With Shelley and Adonais, we have a vision of almost complete alienation,
of Shelley investigating the dry-ice “I-he” or “I-it” perspective in
nightmarish vignette after vignette. Shelley’s vision is the most materialistic
of the three, and (potentially) the most difficult to stomach— that death has
absolutely cut off any intimacy he might have achieved with John Keats, that
Keats is absolutely gone to him, and that Keats’ corpse is a fetish for Shelley
of raw, insensate meat and nothing else. Euphoria and resignation are answered
here with searing agony and horror; and, also (as with Keats), a sense of a
kind of textual Mannerism, which exaggerates quirks, extends textual limbs into
contorted positions, bends reality out of shape (all the necrophilia, the
personification of Death), and makes materialism morph, in a manner which may
be seen as either seductive or nauseating, into a kind of hyper-materialistic inferno-world.
Neither Adonais nor the Odes tackle humanity head-on the way the Elegies do.
Whether this counts for the Elegies or against depends on any reader’s given
taste for humanism and human intimacy in its most pure, least torqued
The progression of Apparition Poems, as a literary text,
into Cheltenham, I have noticed, also
constitutes a small cycle or mini-cycle. If one perspective which dominates
Apparition Poems is the relationship between a poetic “I,” a first-person
singular perspective, and a third person Other (“she” or “they”), and if what
this expresses is a certain amount of alienation (the more intimate perspective
being the second person, “you” or “thou”), then we may perceive how this
alienation, tied in by temporal constraints to the Great Recession, leads from
Apparition Poems to Elegy 261 and the other Cheltenham Elegies. One prominent
cumulative effect of the mini-cycle, is the impression of a protagonist trying
to understand how Center City Philadelphia has lost its Aughts luster, its
potentiality for I-thou intimacy, and became a kind of dead zone, not much
elevated over Old York Road at midnight. Old York Road at midnight is, indeed, hidden
in the textual peaks and troughs of Apparition Poems, with its motif of “wolf’s
hour” dimensionality. Why the Cheltenham Elegies, with their backwards glance,
must reclaim the intimate territory of “I-thou” for this protagonist, is to
surmount the vast entropy/decimation effect of the Recession, and to (by
accomplishing this) restore a vested sense both of humanity and of human
dignity. Elegy 261 thus constitutes a textual sea-change, wedged between
Apparition Poems and the remainder of the Elegiac Cycle; and a re-colonization
of lost narrative-thematic ground:
Never one to cut corners about cutting
corners, you spun the Subaru into a rough
U-turn right in the middle of Old York Road
at midnight, scaring the shit out of this self-
declared “artist.” The issue, as ever, was
nothing particular to celebrate. We could
only connect nothing with nothing in our
private suburban waste land. Here’s where
the fun starts— I got out, motherfucker.
I made it. I say “I,” and it works. But Old
at midnight is still what it is.
I still have to live there the same way you do.
Perspectives established in 261 create a bridge into
established dialogues and meta-dialogues which move past the generalized
alienation of Apparition Poems, into a realm of physical/metaphysical
specificity, which can create alternate impressions, either colder and harder,
or warmer and softer, than the bulk of Apparition Poems. This sense— the
Elegiac Cycle both ascending above and descending below Apparition Poems— makes
Apparition Poems, as a text, appear to establish and maintain a sort of stasis,
even as the alienation effect oscillates, sometimes drastically, from poem to
It is also worth noting that when the earmarks of intimacy
do manifest in Apparition Poems, as in 1550:
I’m in your house:
your husband, kids
not home. A voice
(yours) follows me
around, playing on
my body, until I’m
in your bathroom,
smoking butts on
a sunny spring day.
Your body doesn’t
appear. It seems to
me you’re suspect,
Steph, it seems to
me you want too
much. Then, you
always said I was
a dreamer. What
do we have past
What else is love?
there is the sense of a lived past impinging on a lived
present, and only the poetic elegiac or backwards glance allows the comfort and
security of profound intimacy or humanity, in
decimated/entropic moments. When a poetic perspective is created from
what is perceived as a decimated present, what textual options arise must have
to do with searching for other temporal currents which might lead to richness
meriting representation. A decimated landscape, meriting a decimated perspective
(the subject or protagonist decimated psychically and/or affectively), takes
consciousness (potentially, and sometimes) to a place where truth-consonance
leads securely to I-It (or, as in Apparition Poems, I-she). Elegy 261 is set in
place as a kind of door, from a decimated present into a different kind of
stasis-space, both tactile and evanescent, that is Cheltenham’s
physical/metaphysical, life/psyche-consuming presence in the world. If Cheltenham takes the artist out of the frying pan and
into the proverbial fire, he at least gets to create and manifest cohesion and
cohesiveness in his consciousness as regards the totality of his life and
experiences. After Apparition Poems, the quest for cohesion and coherence is
on, and all roads lead back to the subject’s first experience, both of real
darkness and of real intimacy. Alienation in Apparition Poems becomes
resignation in Cheltenham; and both become the skeleton key to a level of
consciousness which can assimilate alienation and resignation, and can transmute
them into suitably dark, suitably complex texts: dialogic, meta-dialogic.
Among the possible phenomenological circumstances
meta-dialogism must account for— when a distinct, cohesive voice within an
individual’s consciousness manifests, but the voice is (here) of an Other. If
the voice is not the voice of the subject, credibility becomes an issue, and
with it a relevant phenomenological inquiry— can a given subject channel the
voice of an Other with accuracy, so that a distinct “Other” voice is also a
credible one within his/her consciousness? Elegy 268 posits this inquiry
without offering an answer:
Satin blouses, trinkets (some kind of
jade pendant), & the big trinket between
her legs that nobody gets to play with.
Rare meat. She’s been babied by her
parents since her birth (Rabbit year,
a juxtaposition more sad than ironic),
and suddenly I can teach her something?
And I thought of what she was telling
herself in response, and the words came
to me, “I’m doing this because I promised,
my Mom wants me to do this, now I promised, I have to do
This inquiry also sets in place a novel facet of
meta-dialogism— distinct, cohesive voices within an individual’s consciousness
which are nonetheless generated from without, rather than from within. In
practice: when the “words come” to the Elegiac Protagonist in 268 (“I’m doing
this because I promised…”), and he (we assume) is channeling the doomed, rich
brat who is the subject of the Elegy, where exactly do the words come from? The
Elegy does seem to imply that the woman being addressed is simple enough (and a
naïf enough) that to channel her voice would not be much of a challenge for the
Protagonist. This returns us precisely to a point already made about Elegy 414—
the Elegies, as a series, invite us to examine the phenomenological issue of
how much, or to what extent, humans can (for want of a more graceful phrase)
infiltrate, inhabit, and colonize each other’s brains. Or: to what extent
individual consciousness is permeable, both to be assimilated into the
consciousness of Others and to assimilate what may hover “in the air,” the
consciousness of Others. This takes phenomenology (from the Elegies on out)
into a realm of mysticism, possibly against empiricism, its standards of
measurement— yet there is nowhere else for the inquiry to go.
However, as seen in 268, the function of meta-dialogism in
an individual consciousness is seen to change— rather than being strictly
self-contained, it is involved in processes (of assimilation, of imitation)
beyond itself, and beyond the boundaries of conventional subjectivity. This
perceived mysticism or post-subjectivism, inhering in meta-dialogism,
incorporating distinct voices of Others “owned” by the subject as phenomenological
“assets,” becomes an intangible force, another way or manner of realizing the
reality (mystical or not) of the human world. Significantly, it is a
spiritualized world, however elegiac, for the Elegiac Protagonist,
multi-dimensional, various, and angled against the “inertness model” which
constitutes Cheltenham’s surface of
appearances. This, indeed, is what a Cheltenham subject may own, against Cheltenham— the mobility of developed, multifarious
consciousness. This consciousness chafes against both the inertness of
Cheltenham’s manifested appearances (in 268, a frigid, frozen-into-place family
context) and imposes a multi-dimensional perception of human life on Cheltenham’s rigid, mourned-for singularity.
The Cogito in 268 for the Elegiac Protagonist (his “I
think”) is exercised for the imaginative purpose of making real to himself
seedy, materialistic lives (including, quite possibly, and in part, his own)—
and the process of reifying these lives, for the Protagonist, shifts him into
the elegiac consciousness-space, the apotheosis of using one’s mind to
configure the mindless. The problem with Cheltenham’s
mindless, repetitive rituals is that they do involve subtlety, and nuance; it
is just that the participants are not supposed to register this. If they do,
the hypnotic spell of inert matter dissipates into the nothingness of
self-perceived, self-avowed deterioration, decay, and psycho-affective
dissolution. Cheltenham’s inert surface is
there to be clung to, against sinister under and over-currents, and, as a
physical/metaphysical site, is its own nothingness place. Both dialogism and
meta-dialogism are enemies to this surface, as is any sense of cognitive
discipline in any inhabitant at all. Everything in Cheltenham
has been established to isolate the individual, and consolidate inert depths
with inert surfaces, both in individual and in group (often family) contexts.
The nuances and subtleties of Cheltenham-as-system
are all sophisticated, established routines towards homogenization, surface
maintenance, and eventual decimation of individual human lives. So seems the
routine in 268— a set of issues raised, and a context generated, to humiliate
many parties at once. Still: if the Elegiac Protagonist is able to add another
voice to his repertoire, the game is not necessarily completely a nothingness
game for him.
The opening salvo of Cheltenham Elegy 260 is an image both
tactile and subtle enough to convey the vagaries of a certain kind of teenage
life in the American suburbs— the Elegiac Protagonist, “too stoned to find the
bathroom,” pissing on a tree-trunk in the backyard of a friend of a friend:
I was too stoned to find the bathroom.
The trees in the dude’s backyard made
it look like Africa. You
were my hook-up
to this new crowd. The same voice, as always,
cuts in to say you were fucked up even
then. You had a dooming Oedipal
complex. We were all wrapped tight,
even when we got high. I was the
only one getting any, so you both
mistrusted me. African trees & easy
camaraderie. A primitive pact sealed
between warring factions— my spears
(take this as you will) for your grass.
That the trees look “African” is clearly the byproduct of
his intoxication. Dramatic tensions inhere— does the third party here, an
unfamiliar, approve of his tree-trunk being pissed on? Of even more interest is
a textual moment which bridges the chasm between the Bakhtinian dialogism
discussed in the Elegies recently and the phenomenological tensions explored in
the Elegies earlier this year— “the same voice, as always/ cuts in to say you
were fucked up even/ then. You had a dooming Oedipal/complex.” This constitutes
the manifestation, in a first person narrative voice, of a precise, coherent,
fully realized second voice; in it, the realization of a second complete
character, dramatic interest intact, within the first. The textual stance of
the Elegiac Protagonist must appear layered, because the complexities of his
character encompass a multitude of voices which may be channeled through him at
any moment. This phenomenological tension— the exploration of the narrative
first person singular, its potentialities not only to contain multitudes, but
to manifest precise, cohesive voices out of this multifarious consciousness—
creates the possibility of meta-dialogism,
the interstitial communication of complex data within a single character or
consciousness. A perceived stability— the “same” voice— establishes the dynamic
of meta-dialogism as a defense mechanism against the bewildering congeries of
appearances which constitute Cheltenham’s
“game face” to the world. Competing voices in a single consciousness arise out
of situations which manifest such extreme surface/depth tensions/abrasions that
they can only be processed accurately with a repertoire of cohesive voices in
So it is in Elegy 260— the Protagonist’s second manifested
voice is there specifically to assert depth— that the smooth phenomenological
surface (a dope deal, African trees, “easy camaraderie”) belies other voices
(Oedipal ones) which render the Other in the poem (the same Other, we assume,
as in 261) both impotent sexually and generally ineffectual. The Elegiac
Protagonist is sexually potent, and mistrusted for it; his “cock out” routine
in the Elegy’s opening vignette amounts to an assertion of physical confidence.
This receives a mirroring algorithm at the Elegy’s conclusion regarding the
Protagonist’s intellect— “my spears…for your grass” suggests that the bartering
process involves thoughts, plans, stratagem, and the recompense of drugs for
them. The textual back-lighting also shades the situation to suggest that the
Protagonist has been brought in as a hired hand, to employ the “spears” of his
intellect towards finding a solution to whatever the stalemated, drug-related
situation is. As in 261, the hero/anti-hero Other (or brother) figure in the
Elegies drags the Elegiac Protagonist into a dangerous, possibly
life-threatening situation (the rough u-turn in Old York Road being a compacted version
of this drug contretemps), and the suburban façade of placidity is disrupted
severely by the tasks being fulfilled by its inhabitants.
This congeries, which creates a practical/tactile base for
the emergence of meta-dialogism in the Protagonist, is both complex and a
complex (psychological hindrance), to be endured by those placed/situated to
endure it. What the function or purpose of meta-dialogism is for the Elegiac
Protagonist, is both a coping mechanism and a phenomenological quirk which
facilitates recognition, no matter how beleaguered, that the human world is
real, and that everything which happens to him in Cheltenham
really is happening. The only way to give human reality a stable voice, from
within one consciousness, is to develop several distinct voices. The
Protagonist’s meta-dialogism takes the world (Cheltenham-as-stage)
and solidifies it, against the wonted suburban impulse to nullify human
experience/reality via outright denial, and the adoption of singular,
indistinct first person perspectives.
How lighting effects are used, both in theater productions
and in movies, can drastically effect how we view characters and their actions.
An individual can be lit to look effective or ineffective, sensuous or plain,
emotionally well-rounded or flat, sans affect, and drab. In the context of the Cheltenham Elegies, textual devices are often used as lighting effects, lending
splendor, ambiguity, or psychological nuance to both the Elegiac Protagonist
and the ancillary protagonists arrayed around him. How, for example, the
protagonist of Elegy 671 is “backlit” creates a warped, funhouse scenario,
wherein everything about him is called into question, so that, by the end,
confusion reigns and we have witnessed another textual self multiply. This
inscribes in the poem the same dialogism in 671 we saw in 415:
Even as a little girl, she got beat down.
There was something wrong with her brains.
She couldn't relate to people. Cheltenham
guys noticed how adorably doll-like she was
(lookin’ real good, like Natalie Wood), but she
wouldn't date anyone. She died a mysterious
social drowning death. She got older and
became a Tennessee Williams heroine-as-Jewess.
I'm telling you this because I nailed her, dude.
I got her to give me a blowjob.
The first thing we notice as a textual lighting effect is
that the relationship between this protagonist and the woman he is blazoning
(after a fashion) is unclear. For all that the blazon (or semi-blazon) seems to
be his, there is a scripted quality to it, and a rehearsed quality as well,
suggesting that the entire blazon might have been composed by the woman in
question herself. The reason would be simple, and shady— the two, the
protagonist and his muse, are business partners, in cahoots towards the
completion of illicit tasks, and ceremonious about their communications,
linguistic or otherwise. The protagonist is, indeed, configured (backlit) to
appear ceremonious, delivering his semi-blazon towards a climax not only
absurd, but camp, in the Sontagian manner/fashion. The image of a “Tennessee
Williams heroine-as-Jewess” may or may not refer to Natalie Wood in “This
Property Is Condemned,” but the reference points (Tennessee Williams,
Jewishness) have some associative relevance to gayness and gay culture.
A new form of dialogism in 671— precursor to “I’m telling
you this…,” there is the entrance of an offstage voice, asking the protagonist
why this particular, ham-fisted speech, blazon or not, needs to be delivered.
The protagonist is thus caught out, and the lighting effects around him change;
now he is lit to appear as absurd as the blazon or blazon script he’s been
delivering. Put on the spot, and lit to appear that way, what the protagonist
anti-heroically blurts out instills a final, climactic ambiguity, both around
his possible gayness and whatever shady joint undertakings have already
transpired— is the avowed head-giving literal, or just a metaphor for our
heroine’s business deals having expanded towards a generous, ceremonious inclusion
of the protagonist? The point of how the Cheltenham Elegies are generally lit
is that nothing is let to appear stark or plain— voices collide with other
voices, or intercede beyond other voices; images and perspectives are
constantly shifting, even from or within first-person perspectives; and the
singularity of the Elegiac vision is founded on a “multiplicity” textual
paradigm. Unlike many of the Elegies, 671 is not set at night— the time/space
coordinates are indeterminate— but the lighting effects, some bright, some dim,
make clear that darkness and shade are as present as ever. If 671 is, in fact,
an elegy (albeit one which, uncharacteristically, includes bawdy humor), it is
an elegy which laments that dramatic conventions (scripts, blazons, metaphors)
prevent Cheltenham characters from manifesting moments of truth with/for each
other. Cheltenham dramas are lit to appear
flaky, stagy, corny (staged corny moments), and hitched to a stilted version of
camp (at least in 671) which makes, habitually, the actual truth of situations
both indecipherable, and, unfortunately, irrelevant as well.
The cast of characters introduced by the Cheltenham Elegies invites interrogation on all levels. It is not merely that the dramatic
intricacies between characters are awash, sodden with ambiguities; what Bakhtin
calls dialogism, the sense of interplay, in works of literary art, between
multiple voices, which manifest dualities within or against the integrity of
individual works, is acutely present. Once it is acknowledged why and how the
dialogism in the Elegies functions (always to add richness and nuance to the
dual sense of Cheltenham as both a physical locale, objectively existing in
standard space/time coordinates, and a metaphysical stage, subjectively
existing in the individualized space/time coordinates of individuals, affirming
both substance and essence and lack thereof), the interactions, abrasive or
supportive, between the various, plaintive voices (if the Elegies have an
analogue in Keats’ Odal Cycle, it is Nightingale) can move into focus as
another textual site. They are a drama being performed on the
physical/metaphysical stage that is Cheltenham,
which is a stage both solid and evanescent. Yet, what angles we see of the
actors are always dependent on textual “lighting effects,” which add to the
sense of ambiguity, and both ambiguity’s potential enchantment and its eerie,
debilitating darkness. In Elegy 415, for instance:
There’s something sweet and sickly
about teenagers fucking. Even laid
down by the jagged rocks that bordered
Tookany Creek. I think of them there,
and know he’s getting wasted. What’s
draining out of him is the will to live.
She always gets him off somehow. Then
they would walk over to the Little League
field and huddle in the dugout. He didn’t
even wind up graduating from Cheltenham
on time. I can’t get over thinking who he
could’ve been. Am I the only one?
The idea, among various conjectures, that this particular
protagonist is both a first-person narrator and also the fallen, manhandled
victim being referred to in the third-person, is a relevant one, creating a
sense, within the dialogism of the Elegies, that single characters are allowed
to generate multiplications of themselves within the poems, out of the
emptiness or hollowness of their own solitude. This is a motif in the Elegies
which takes Bakhtin’s conception or formulation and torques it more towards
metaphysics than Bakhtin perhaps intended— the acknowledgement, first, that
individual consciousness can encompass, within its confines, multiple voices.
Or, that dialogism subsists between competing voices within the
consciousness-space of autonomous individuals. Then, that the manifestation of
these competing voices in the work of literary art, their (as it were) eruption
into text, manifesting a new “set” on the stage which is Cheltenham, and what Cheltenham is. The dialogism between Cheltenham
itself and its voices creates a complex mandala with the various voices
manifested by autonomous protagonists in the Elegies; and the crux of the
mandala is to create and sustain drama within the Elegiac Cycle.
Within the Cycle, Elegy 415 stands as a signification of
dramatic tension and ambiguity, around the metaphysical import of a voice which
initiates a dialogue which may or may not constitute a meta-dialogue. One
inversion of these usages— the attitude and atmosphere of the Elegies is not
carnivalesque, but an anti-carnival. The atmosphere embodies an assortment of
rides and swings whose purport is a purgatory for souls, or (as an analogue)
the purgation of ghosts, phantoms, and demons from individuals who dare to pass
through it. This Cheltenham
carnival/anti-carnival of souls is a ghostly or shadowed one. As is typical,
the ghost presence in Elegy 415 is merely a multiplication of the protagonist’s
presence from the first into the third person— and this metaphysical imbroglio
moves Bakhtin into a space in which dialogism evinces dramatic tensions which
enumerate that dialogism itself can manifest from fathomless depths and
beleaguered subjectivity, as well as from carnival impulses issuing from the
multiplication of surfaces.
Keats’ chiasmus with
Equations: the schema of not-silence and not slow time (“wild ecstasy”)
freezing into permanence in the Odal Cycle, and the mind’s perception of
“frozen ecstasy,” is also predicated on virginity, and images of virginity—
innocence and adolescence are preferred to adulthood. Equations takes and
freezes, from “wild ecstasy,” images of adulthood, and adult consummations
(“ravishings”). The polarity between the Odal Cycle and Equations, between
unconsummated (“never canst thou kiss”) innocence and completed, consummated
marriage/intercourse, with Equations itself standing as inscribed, ambiguously
sentient Grecian Urn, lifts Equations over the constraints of Romanticism,
Romantic sincerity/subjectivity, and into self-awareness as another kind of
cycle, to see how the human mind can perceive/learn from text-frozen
consummations, divested of their original heat/abandon (pipes, timbrels).
On hybridity, and
what Equations/The Jade Episodes lack as prose poetry— the hyper-sensuality of
Flaubert’s prose manifests intermittently, but never with the
absolute/absolutized sense of glamour or “presence” which inheres in Flaubert—
to bring this text to a place where the chiasmus between pornography and
ontology does not descend into abstraction and (almost) evanescence, requires
attention paid to tactility which the text responds to avidly, but (again)
never with Flaubert’s graceful/foreboding sense of enchantment and
surface/depth displacements, disappearances, and abrasions. My own prerogative,
as author of the text, is to iterate the judgment that 80% of the requisite
tactile presence manifests to lift the text authoritatively above an
uncomfortable sense of being stranded in abstraction; to raise the text to the
level of (say) Apparition Poems, more would need (to quote an American MFA
commonplace) to be shown rather than told. Yet Equations, in trailblazing
ontology-pornography (as a mode, perhaps, of textual “noir”), via cognition and
meta-cognition, must manifest the accursed share of the told and not shown
(truth/beauty, beauty/truth); the final antithesis of who Jade is, and
protagonist’s sudden loss of rose-colored spectacles around “fullness” (or
pregnancy with/of the immanent), must move the text towards its completion of
an explicated dialectic to fulfill the text’s expectation horizon. The text as
a prose/poetry hybrid, privileges itself to do these tricks, and the text’s
status as “self-privileged” in its unique autonomy as mandala/cycle amounts (in
a way) to Emma Bovary privileging herself to commit adultery (from Philadelphia
this time); transgressing against the formal bounds of poetry and prose, with
their individual, imperious demands, enacting (in semi-subterranean, “in utero”
fashion) the rock music/pop culture archetypal armature of the “punk.”
The Jade Episodes do
the same trick both for the unnamed protagonist and for the reader—
loosening/unfastening the shackles of conventional romance/intercourse (thus
the dictates of conventional pornography) towards the evanescence of purified
ontological awareness of the Other. The employment of cocaine, both as a kind
divination tool and as a wedge into platonic transcendence, is relevant,
because it effectively replaces one form/manner of artifice with another—
sharpening individuals into processes of abstract/concrete individuation, and
boundaries against the merely tactile. Because Jade and the protagonist are
lovers physically too, and because Jade’s form/manner of hollowness is more
ambiguously involved in understanding and reason (rather than Emma Bovary’s
mere sensibility), she becomes (to borrow an assignation from Geoffrey
Hartman’s Wordsworth criticism) a boundary figure for the protagonist, linking
him to another, novel world: a torque on Wordsworth’s hunger-bitten girl. Her
Otherness manifests its antithesis, and then the protagonist moves smoothly
towards synthesis to complete the book’s dialectic. It is her sense of separate
distinctness which does this; even if, through Jade and her drugs, we learn the
ineluctable nature of artifice where verticality of consciousness and
transcendence are concerned.
We, as an artistic community in Philadelphia in the Aughts, went out of our way not to stay on the surface. We wanted to create art which had some depth to it. As such, the tendency in Philly for us was not to put too much effort into our appearances. We dressed casual, and offhand. It just so happens that many of us were also photogenic. What animates this collection (and raises it above the level of La Boheme meets Beverly Hills 90210) is that many Free School artists were also competent photographers; particularly Mary Harju and Abby Heller-Burnham. The trio of Mary Harju paintings herein included make their own statement— “The Fall” is a testament to the vicissitudes of my relationship with Ms. Harju, and her absolute formal proficiency; her self-portrait, “The Vessel,” demonstrates the raw courage of the best confessional art, drowned in luscious Spanish coloration; and her 2007 portrait of me explores the subject’s devilish androgyny and the issue of who the witch is and who’s being bewitched. The inclusion of Abby Heller-Burnham’s masterful urban mood piece, “The Skaters,” is meant to lead curious viewers to her entire oeuvre; and her photo portraits of me (alone and with Mary, which is on the cover here) demonstrate that a serious painter’s facility can be successfully applied to taking quality photos as well. Mary had the same knack, as her stark black and white portrait of me in Clark Park in West Philadelphia shows. Many of the anonymous portraits here are also stunning— the sleek moodiness of Mike Land at the Last Drop, and the loopy insouciance the camera caught from deep-in-his-cups Nick Gruberg.
In some ways, Center and West Philly architecture speaks for itself— the facades pictured here are elegant and decrepit in equal measure. The atmosphere generated is almost Parisian, which brings to light another Philadelphia Gemini (I have elsewhere ascribed the sun sign Gemini to Philly) contradiction— often portrayed by the American press as ugly or gritty, its architecture aligns it more with the nicer sections of western Europe. The portraits in this collection are all expressive— Matt Stevenson’s brusque ragamuffin exterior is unmistakable, as is Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum’s Neo-Romantic decadence and the dark punkishness of the Bad News Bats. That’s a key element of the entire Flickr set— darkness. Not that we were ones to mope; just that we, as a collective, preferred to dwell (as most serious artists do) on the dark side of things. The strangeness of this conglomerate of artists is profound— that we shared a vision which not only chafed against the rest of the Philadelphia art community but against the entire history of indigenous American art, all in the unselfconscious spirit of youth, and from one urban heart of America. On a fundamental level, we didn’t know who we were or what we were doing, and we benefited from this lack of knowledge. Had we known what the odds against us were, we might’ve been stymied; but the fertility of the Center City scene sheltered us, and we were able to persevere. Darkness and innocence are strangely mixed in the Philly Free School— as is queerness and straightness. Those of us who weren’t queer were queer in spirit. The queerness we shared was a taste for shadows, apparitions, multiple meanings, and a passionate engagement with art’s Collective Unconscious.
The trigger for this piece of writing was a pseudo-personal public
update published in the social-media phasebuke echo-chamber of Florida
Bradenton's Bethany Pope.
An academic poetry doctor, Faulkner-Wisdom
Awards finalist, and author of A Radiance, and a forthcoming collection,
the Underworld. Resident in Swindon, England, she wrote, 'Oh sweet,
suffering Jesus'; telling the public she was unable to get a refund from
Amazon after downloading a kindle book that was full of 'the most
asinine and idiotic' 'notes written by Oprah', that she couldn't turn
off: 'When I saw this sentence I was compelled
to carry on'. Dear sweet Lord Jesus, Merciful Buddha, Tender Vishnu,
SOMEBODY save me from this horror before I throw my kindle clear across
The conversation below
it consists of very short single-line comments that range from, what
seems, or could be contextualized without much real effort to seem, as
asinine as the Oprah note Pope evinced as proof of another writer's
The first comment to strike this reader's ear as sounding, in a purely literary sense, somewhat asinine on the page, is: 'Try asking Oprah for compensations for a laugh.'
The humour here can be read either way. It could mocking Pope, or be
genuinely trying to cheer her up over the money, that, at this point,
before receiving a refund (the subject of a further public update), Pope
believed she'd lost.
conversation then quickly took a negative turn when the contributor
that made the joke about asking Oprah for a refund, wrote:
'I would put a review up saying how terrible these notes are. Might warn others.'
didn't forensically analyse the forty-two comment stream there, but
quickly grasped, scrolling and skim-reading the one line aphoristic
comments; that after a few one-line notes performed in a tone of
annoyed disapproval, the bulk of the exchange turns into a series of one lines
condescendingly mocking as supremely distasteful those that claim not to read much poetry
themselves, but who write and read their own in public. An innocuous and mundane
conversation consisting of comedic comments and tones of displeasure,
irritation and complaint; that became a trigger for one's own writing
and response to it published here. ...
the past two decades the publishing model has been utterly inverted.
We've gone, historically speaking, very briefly from one extreme to the
other. Twenty years ago if one wanted to become a published poet it took
a lot of extremely hard work and dedication. Writing writing writing
until eventually one is writing so much a voice readers recognise
emerges. And though the odds were more than a one in a thousand chance of a fairy
god-editor plucking from a slush pile the first manuscript you sent out,
when you plugged away one eventually connected with a coterie of like-minded
poetry lovers and writers, producing, when compared with today, a tiny
amount of store-quality publications.
business of getting a manuscript into printed book form was far more
expensive and time-consuming than now. Someone wanting to publish their
own books twenty years ago would spend years learning the many different
roles needed to go from a hand or type-written fistful of poems, to a
shiny new attractive publication. And the vast majority of poetry books
that were published, unless it was by a corporate press, had very
little-to-nothing in the way of advertising and getting the word out
even regionally about their poems for sale.
It was a very
socially lonely time for most poets, unlike today; with
no way - unless one
had millions of pounds to buy air time and pay for commercials - of
reaching in print the millions of book-buying people all
over the globe we take for granted are the audience and customers we can
instantly connect with today. And all
the things that were then in the hands of a very few globally powerful
editors, are now at the fingertips of everyone. We are, finally, all on a
playing field, professionally, in relation to the publishing and
business side of selling poems; because anyone with an internet
connection can decide we are
an independent po-biz editor, and within hours be publishing and selling
books worldwide. We can create in a week what previously took
years of dedicated learning, continual slog, rejection, learning and
experience; not to mention many thousands of
pounds, and tens of thousands of hours of writing. And the powerful
attraction to that profoundly playful source of our own writing, which
we're blessed to be born with in the digital age
There has been a revolution throughout the
world, in publishing, and culturally, in the way we communicate, and in
how one can present ourself in public as someone whose language the
Reader can trust the words of when it comes to English poetry.
one is English it helps, when speaking, virtually, in America, to drop
the reserve, one finds, and get stuck in trolling and trash-talking with
fellow Americans in that uniquely global capitalist poetic culture we
share online. When one restricts one's vision to the purely domestic
realms, the free back and forth conversational flow rarely reaches the
anything-goes post-avant level of linguistic exchange and open craic one
experiences when in the thick of debate with fellow N. Americans.
think this is because we English are very much a product of our birth
status in a multi-tiered Class and Honour System, that can be very
spiritually challenging and difficult to get our head round when we are
one of the
99% of English people born outside it. A child of immigrants, without a
title, only with what can be subtly contextualised as that most
of things by posh-sounding
snobs performing in letters little more than a disapproving one-line
note and tone of
voice; the openly working-class English voice speaking from the
English Republic of Letters; in which everyone is welcome and free to
write whatever the heck ye goddam wanna. Issuing not the short and
snarky superior literate ejections that reveal an entire
intellectual apparatus built of falsehood, fear and envy; but an honest
May your hair grow golden and your heart be filled with joy
May your eyes always see and your ears detect duende
May your mouth sing from the soles of the feet up highest
May your hand and head together make the greatest poetry.
In the continuum of visual art, an oeuvre of nine paintings is not particularly significant unless the nine paintings happen to be masterpieces. With Philadelphia painter Abby Heller-Burnham, this appears to be the case. The limited oeuvre here on display encompasses a dazzling array of formal and thematic material— precise attention to painterly nuance and detail balanced with an idiosyncratic (intermittently “queer”) vision of urban life in early twenty-first century America. A painting like “The Skaters” embodies this vision— the moody chiaroscuro of the scene, its ambience of desolation, which is a specifically urban (in this case, Philadelphian) ambience; balanced with meticulous formal execution which is nonetheless skewered against conventional painterly representation; create a complex construct which is too formal to be aligned with post-modernism, but also both too dark and too strange to be aligned with middle-of-the-road pictorial art.
To be short; “The Skaters,” and Heller-Burnham’s other masterpieces, are something new under the sun. All are illuminated by the painter’s keen and quirky sense of multiple meanings, of representations whose import multiplies when observed closely and carefully. “The Walls Have Ears” presents a maze of possible meanings and levels of interpretation— the most obvious level concerns sexualized love between women; but the picture finds many ways of being queer, as the games it plays with identities and perspectives are blisteringly intense and complex. It’s a complexity which doesn’t disavow absurdist humor and irony. Compared with what is typically seen in New York galleries, it’s a narrative feast. Many of these paintings are narrative feasts— “The Lost Twins” could be taken as an art-related allegory, or a critique of allegories; a humorous indictment of the process of artistic canonization, or a humorous portrayal of the artist’s vulnerability in the face of time and canonization; a self-portrait, or a parody of self-portraits; or all of these things at once.
This is what Heller-Burnham’s paintings have which has frequently been missing from New York art; a sense of absolute formal and thematic richness, and of boundlessness in richness, resultant from the exercise of intense (newly, American) imagination. “On the Other Hand” is a narrative feast in another direction— the social mores of American “indie” culture meeting the transcendental religiosity of Renaissance painting. The juxtaposition is bizarre, and uncanny— it collapses many centuries together in a novel way, to lampoon hipster culture; but this lampoon is executed with the absolute technical authority and mastery of the Renaissance masters themselves, and so winds up transcending its status as a lampoon. Not since Picasso has a visual artist fulfilled this many imperatives at once— that the painter is female, and queer, is a triumph both for American art and American feminism. Yet, Heller-Burnham’s scope as an artist is too broad to be tied wholesale either to formalism, the American (in its novel Philadelphian form) or queer politics— as with all superior artists, there is a universality to her creations broad enough to align her with the most durable humanism. If the oeuvre of her masterworks is small, it is a smallness which the paintings themselves belie— each painting represents an incision into the aesthetic consciousness of the West in 2013. Like Picasso, Heller-Burnham has her way of enacting phallocentrism— and her uncompromising originality is as brutish in its sharpness. Heller-Burnham not only enacts, but is, an American artistic revolution.
For those of us born in the 70s and 80s, who lived through the Aughts in Center City and West Philadelphia, our perception of Philadelphia will always be skewered by the sexualized over and undercurrents which animated, charged, and lit the Philly arts scene on fire with sexual energy during that time. Many of us were annoyed by the misconception the media created of a not-fully-sexed Philadelphia; but we were disarmed on that level. I have said elsewhere, and it bears repeating, that if the city of Philadelphia has a sun sign it is Gemini. It is another way of saying this: Philadelphia from within looks and feels vastly different than Philadelphia seen in a cursory way or from a distance. The sultriness around our scene was warmer and more human than the scenes we had all read about in New York and L.A.: we weren’t motivated by money or dope deals as such, or the desire to create and maintain images of/for ourselves. The hot blood that ran through McGlinchey’s, Dirty Frank’s, the Good Dog, and all our other hang out venues had some actual romance in it; we all went so far as to care about other people. The Gemini twist, as ever for Philadelphia, is that if the seeds we plant ripen correctly, Philadelphia may go on record as one of the hottest scenes in the history of the arts, thus overturning a century of bad press, neglect, abuse, and widely spread misinformation, and a corrupt arts-dissemination system with it.
Art and life have a way of co-mingling which can be difficult to finesse for an author. Because I dared to place her image on the cover of this book/pdf, I might as well announce what will be obvious to those who knew me and the Philly scene during the Aughts: the female protagonist of "Trish" is modeled on Philadelphia painter Mary Harju. The life I built with Mary (and with the Philly Free School) was highly unusual; we were artists without being rich kid dilettantes or drug decoys; lovers without being mutually exclusive; Penn students and graduates who went out of our way not to be academic; and human beings who tossed and turned on our own emotional waves without trying to fake balance or calm. It was a scattered life we had, and a haphazard one; but the love and affection we shared was genuine. In fact, if I have ever had a Laura or a Beatrice, it is Mary. The difference, of course, between myself and Plutarch and Dante, is that Mary and I consummated our relationship very fast. The heat we had for each other never quite let up, either. The picture on the cover here was snapped at a party thrown at Mary’s house (4325 Baltimore Avenue) in the early Aughts. That house was an experience in itself— it was filled, always, with artists, musicians, and other bohemians. On certain nights, everyone in the house would be intoxicated on something or other. Many nights I spent there, I felt as if the entire house had ascended into deep space, into some other, more germane part of the universe than West Philadelphia. I have memories of floating down hallways and stairs. Mary was a wonderful playmate and an excellent mate in general. She was never boring. And, to the extent that I hope this piece conveys the intense electric excitement I felt in her presence, it is a reminder that these elevated feelings are always possible, even during a Great Recession. It is the Gemini stare of Philadelphia down the barrel of a shotgun.
UK Poetry Magazine's National Conversation Failure.
Magma poetry magazine is a UK Arts Council subsidised publication
that bills itself 'one of Britain’s leading poetry magazines', claiming
it is 'more than a magazine, but 'a community of people, open to
everyone passionate about celebrating a wide mix of poetry.'
year it is undertaking what it calls a 'National Conversation'
'designed to provoke thought, ignite debate and encourage all of us to
move deeper into the art form.'
However on Magma's Facebook page,
that consists of little more than the odd link to articles elsewhere,
and which, accepting on face value its claim of promoting healthy robust
'national conversation' and debate, should welcome contrary opinions;
this response to a link posted there yesterday (6 July 2015) to a pdf
article from the current Poetry Review issue (Summer 2005) by Jack Underwood on Jennifer L Knox, was immediately hidden from public view, and, rather than being deleted, was made visible only to my Desmond Swords and All Ireland Poetry Slam Facebook accounts.
because it reveals the mentality of whoever's editing the Magma
Facebook page. Rather than delete the comment and be upfront and honest
about their editorial practice and where they really stand on those that
take a contrary position, they attempted to give the impression to me
that the comment was publicly visible, in keeping with their much
publicised National Conversation, which the non-exclusionary and
inclusive language blurbing the ethos of it ostensibly claims to be all
I only discovered this after writing and
publishing the comment, by using another Facebook account I use for the
uncovering of such social-media duplicity by those claiming they're all
about fostering freely expressed dialogue and critical conversation,
when they are clearly not.
am not a huge fan of either poets' writing, because I think that the
language of their 'poems' is very overrated and much closer to that
found in quirky narrative prose anecdotes with the odd poetic flourish.
Reliant wholly on that irony of speaking tone
that can only be written by the very young unable to recognise that
'ironic voice' alone does not transmute the pedestrian prose it is
speaking into some sort of high-poetic intelligent comedy-magic on the
page just because a few people bray loudly at their own in-jokes.
we're encouraged to believe, by a few well placed editors and their
supporters, as having a cutting-edge conceptual pedigree wholly new and
exciting to the English line. Don't read the words literally, we are
urged, but think of them as being really great ironically rendered
poetry arising out from some kind of deeply intellectual and
experimentally innovative literary play by England's finest new poetry
custodians being all very American.
and peddled by a handful of editors as the latest seismic innovation in
post-pomo English poetry that has escaped its factional British Poetry
Revival antecedent and is now an inclusive come all ye mainstream
variety of the New. But of course is really reliant on little else but a
sub-Monty Pythonesque crazee narrative tone and shock-value voice that
is all very middle-class and connects with very few readers, but a
handful of smugly self-congratulatory nerds and geeks who find this sort
of thing funny.
quotes extensively from Knox, but in my ear it all sounds very
anti-intellectual, depressingly childish and banal. This line being
pretty much standard fare: “Hey check out that dog’s ass wow that dog’s
ass is hot that dog’s got a hot dog ass I want squeeze that dog’s ass
like a ball but a hot ball a hot ass ball.”
stuff is little better. Slowly enunciated prose anecdotes that rely on
the ubiquitous and wholly unearned
intonation, by a self-congratulatory pleased-with-itself middle-class
English voice in print through the vagaries of passing literary fashion
and a small micro-scene of hipsters and expensive editorial blurbing,
that, I am certain, will be assessed in the not too distant future for
the somewhat, only in my own opinion, over-praised and unremarkable
pedestrian language it really is when stripped of the inessential
background po-biz noise blurbing how great it all is, and left on the
page to speak for itself.
i find interesting structurally, in a general sense, is the disconnect
between poetry and prose in contemporary English poetry culture. We are
given the impression anything goes and it is a great time to be an
independent experimental crazee doing your own thing, but as soon as you
become satirical about it in spontaneous critical conversation, most of
the self-declared crazees suddenly become very precious and straight
squares, making it plain that there's an acutely conservative and
exclusionary agenda in operation behind the tenor of inclusion and
social revolution that the rhetorical surface of the critical language
surrounding this 'new' poetry ostensibly suggests.
in which coteries and bands of poet-friends are ruthlessly not engaging
in real debate or critical conversation, but communicating, in the
main, in a Facebook micro-bubble language in which brevity and witty one
liners are the norm, and those keen to test ideas by live
conversational print, are very much in a minority and not at all
encouraged to speak. With any of this kind of new experimental
creative-critical spontaneous prose writing comedically deleted and
blocked from the social-media pages claiming to advocate conversation
and contemporary critical debate. Not for the language itself being
inappropriate or offensive in any way, but purely for speaking honestly
in a voice trained not by a process of seeking validation from
publishers, but by the act of just doing it, critical prose, anywhere
there's a free online page and an audience.
one's long-term literary faith by continual free-writing practise and
the methodical study of bardic tradition and its fourteen year
poet-training curriculum, rather than the Tudor poet-courtier model, in
which knowing your place in a pecking order and prize-culture is the
paradigm most cleave to from the very beginning to the very end of our
writing journeys. Rather than developing and evolving over years of
practise, our authority on the page reliant solely on the approval of
one or two of the dreaded pasha Poetry Editors.
majority of whom were unable to embrace the online revolution because
it undermined their own roles of being the gate-keepers of 'good'
poetry. That can only ever be the opinion of a person, expressed in
varying degrees of eloquence and relevance. If, for example, a voice
were to appear on the majority of social-media pages claiming they
promote conversation and debate, The Poetry Society
being the most obvious one, speaking the hot ass argot and sweary fuck
off blah blah blah that Underwood finds so titillating in poetry, that
voice would be deleted for being offensive; yet somehow the same
banality in this prose-as-poetry, is lauded.
Another fact and facet of growing up in Cheltenham: the prevalence of what I call sanctioned American middlebrow-ism. The ideal, sanctioned American middlebrow text is a novel or a play (serious poetry, for reasons I'll get to, is too threatening) which shoots, with expert aim, right for the middle of the tepid, insipid road- just artsy enough to display some heft or rigorousness, but not artsy enough (i.e. innovative or inventive enough, formally or thematically) to alienate the typical suburban home-owning audience member; characters memorable, but not individualistic enough to inspire anyone to rebel or lash out at restrictions; situations challenging, but always reinforcing the master narrative that everything's real, everyone's real, and we're all leading cohesive lives; and a patina of glamour around the heroic, blandly courageous, hip if strangely innocuous author who brought the damned thing into the world. All the sanctioned American middlebrow names stand in a row, basking in the warm glow of New York, Broadway, press junkets, and strange literary venerability in those magical repository spaces: The New Yorker, Harper's, The New Republic, New York Review of Books, The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly: Bellow, Malamud, Updike, Miller, Mailer, Mamet, T. Williams, Cheever. Anything tinged even a bit European is too uppity for this group: other Mandarinite names: Stoppard, Amis, Nabokov. If I have to laugh at Cheltenham (again), it's at just how far the blarney extended, in my youth, to make sure real poetry couldn't happen; which is to say, that no individual may develop his/her consciousness against the collective interests of our corrupt, yet culturally with-it, community. Lameness squared, brains neutered/spayed.
That's why real poetry is so threatening: it can only be done the right way by cohesive individuals, against the interests of conglomerates/corporations, and in such a way that conglomerate interests are killed by it instantly, as has happened many times in history. When the poetry in a society is set loose, places like Cheltenham sink into a morass of discontent and squalid self-abnegation. Poetry is, must be, when it is major high art consonant, as individualistic as individuals can be. So, Cheltenham: what happens to David Mamet in the twenty-first century? Will you be dropping the name David Mamet (or Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill) in 2050? I think you and I both know the answer to that question. If I feel the need to write this, it is because I will admit to some residual bitterness (still) about the place I was raised, and what a cultural cul-de-sac it was. With the press beating me and my peers to death with Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, and our teachers, parents, and other authority figures weighing in with Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and even (for the daring) Camus and Kerouac on the side, it's a bloody miracle any of us lived to figure out what the wages of low-brow-ism and middle-brow-ism are in a time of crisis. As in, only the classicist impulse can get you through an era of trauma in one piece. And, as the cultural dwarfs shout out Snob!, it can't matter much, because what the hell else are they supposed to say? Read the new Philip Roth?
Shelley, in Adonais, has a way or manner of referring to both John Keats, and Keats' poetry, as flowery, or flower-like, or even just Keats-as-a-flower and his texts ("melodies") as flowers as well. Shelley's most grandiose moments, especially within the elegy Adonais, tend towards perversity or twistedness; just as Keats' apogees lean towards the straightforward or earnest. But the question I'd like to raise is a tangent to Shelley's designation of Keats and all things related to Keats as "flowery," and it has to do with a substitution of sorts: let's say what is "flowery" in serious art or poetry could also be called "ornamental." That is, meant to heighten sensation, especially sensations of enjoyment/euphoria, without changing or challenging the substance of human thought or consciousness. Does Shelley find Keats to be, in his life and art, ornamental? Is prosody, the melodic richness of language, merely ornamental or an ornament? As I have said before, but it bears repeating in this context, if you eliminate Keats here, dismiss his prosodic achievement as merely ornamental, you have (also) to take out Bach and Beethoven. By Shelley's definition (it would seem), all music is "flowery," ornamental. If I cannot accept this designation as more than a half-truth, it is because what music, in poetry or in its more purified form, does for human consciousness, as a conduit to rendering the most heightened forms of emotion as palpably as possible, is substantial, and adequate to evince the seriousness of the narrative-thematic levels of literature which have more gravitas for Shelley. Little but music teaches us how we feel, and that the importance of emotion is permanent.
So, when Keats sings to us of Psyche, his sadder but wiser girl, it is built into his achieved aesthetic balance that what is flower-like gives us more than half of Keats' earned gravitas, but by no means the whole thing; while Shelley's music is adequate, but does not display the emotional fluency or dynamism of Keats'. Then, it follows that the narrative-thematic levels which predominate draw us back to his texts, and the emotional heft of Shelley's best verse is twisted into a taste we may have for the gnarled or ghastly (and scarred and riven). This is why, at the end of the day, artists of consequence will have a difficult time choosing Keats over Shelley or vice versa; they are so distinct from each other, each the creator of his own universe or consciousness-world, that the comparison has the quality of being apples and oranges. Shelley's condescension, in Adonais, is one of the attitudes that is gnarled in/from him, or twisted, or perverse; just as Keats does, in fact, make a fetish of flowers and flower-like vistas. In a time of recession, serious students of poetry will have to choose from day to day both what they enjoy and what they prefer. What happened later in nineteenth century England- Swinburne and Tennyson taking flowery aesthetics into a realm of no intellect/no imagination, while Victorian mystery novels got twisted, perverse- is not of as much interest as the century's predominant opening salvos, as the twenty-first gets underway with its own twisted flowers and perverse ornaments, and pendulums are prepared to swing back and forth.
Another recessional lesson: that the primary pleasure or enchantment to be drawn from human life is in one's brain and the quality of one's thoughts. Look at what a recession is, and what a recession does: throws individuals back on their cognitive resources, and either the cognitive depth is there to move the whole she-bang forward, or the human life is essentially over. For the walking dead this might pass muster, but not for me. Imagination is an expression of cognitive depth: so that, when an individual gazes into the night sky, into space, they can draw some kind of imaginative strength from the possibilities of drawing down "space" into their life or consciousness, and thus extending the space their cognitive capacities takes up. This, when quotidian reality sinks into the trough of the lurid and/or macabre. As to where else to look, for what might be genuine cognitive sustenance in a heavily recessional time: the answer to me is crystal clear- high art, philosophy, and science. These are the best human repository spaces for the highest cognitive vistas the human race is capable of opening and exploring.
As per the place of a settled expression like Keats' Odes in all of this- it pays to remember that, if created with enough imagination or cognitive depth, the best products of high art, philosophy, and science create their own self-sustained, self-justified universes, to be inhabited by whatever brains have leave to inhabit them. All the cacophonous garbage stuffed into our brains- pop culture crap, media drivel, inane conversations, in fact everything which denies the truth consonance of humanity's triumph only in the cognitive- looks lurid and macabre in the middle, or in the bottoming out period around or after, a major recession. This vulgarized garbage, if the situation is steep enough, can turn a decent human brain into pulverized mush. There is nothing more macabre then a decent brain, crippled by inanity into lies, duplicity, and denial. In fact, that's what's so eerie about a recessional period- how many people are willing to deny what they see. In certain situations/contexts, the claustrophobia of complete denial is so intense, so demoralizing, that it is difficult to imagine getting through this without suffering grievous wounds. Still, que sera, sera.
One may learn the important lesson from a recessional time: the consideration of why the major Romantics chose to incorporate, both into their literary endeavors and their generalized consciousness, energies from without the charmed circle of the human race, rather than within; to forge a workable relationship, worth writing about, with trees, mountains, rivers, birds, flowers, and the like. One answer is painful, but simple: the consciousness of a Keats or a Shelley has more in common, both in its intentions and in its creative capacities, with what inheres in natural objects (trees, mountains, etc) than with the average human being, and with average human consciousness. It's a byproduct of both age, and experience; to understand, on a profound level, how middling most human consciousness is, how involved in delusion and duplicity, and then to see how this charmed, or not very charmed, circle might be broken. If you can access higher realities in a meaningful way, there would seem to be no reason not to do so. In terms of a lesson from Romanticism worth learning, that is one, though it may or may not be the most salient.
What Modernism and post-modernism gave us, where literature is concerned, is the sense that these relationships, between the human mind and the Otherness of nature, are silly, adolescent, frivolous. The problem is that most human consciousness is, in and of itself, silly, adolescent, and frivolous, and to stay within the charmed circle of the human (or, to get even more narrow, the charmed circle of textuality) is to stay a child, repeating ad infinitum that we are the center of the universe, and that the human race should be homogenized the right way. A homogenized human race manifests no individuals, and if there is nothing outside the text, the cosmic egg is both cracked and unusable. Why Keats and Shelley are older than those who followed and inverted them is that they bring to the surface how wildly uneven both the human race, and human consciousness, are, and that higher consciousness, when it manifests, needs to recognize both this variability (rather than a vaunted homogeneity) and the means to transcend it, sometimes within the charmed circle of the human, sometimes not. The flimsy quality of Modernism and post-modernism takes what makes Romantic poetry superior and pretends it is the pursuit of unreal phantoms; it's just that the human race, more than nature without us, has a problem with the unreal and with phantom systems of government, and when consciousness cannot attach to higher realities, it falls into a trough of stale ironies, incomprehensible symbols, and perverse lecherous inversions of lowliness into sublimity and cacophony into harmony.
Shelley's conception of nature, as presented in Mont Blanc, hinges on an essential perceived duality- what is sublime against what is "ghastly, scarred, and riven." That the Ravine of Arve is referred to as "that, or thou" is significant- "that," third-person nature, or "it" nature, can be taken to signify the ghastly, scarred, riven aspect of this "clear universe of things"; "thou," second-person nature, or "you-nature," can be taken to signify the natural majestic or sublime, companionable and personal against "it." Shelley has, at his disposal, models and/or conceptions to gauge what best represents the Power or "secret strength of things" which is seen to under-gird both nature and human thought- the mind's musings on itself (self-reflexive musings), or the equally self-reflexive pursuit of poetic/creative "ghosts," or a language/linguistic universe. That Shelley opts for visible, material Nature, in its duality, as the most workable model or synecdoche of this Power indicates that Shelley's conclusions seem to follow an imperative drive towards the crowning of empiricism or materialism over imagination, in a manner that Kant might approve of. It is the streak of a scientific ethos in an aesthetic context, and purifies Shelley's conclusions: re-affirmations of duality.
Keats, in comparison, likes things companionable all the way through. He attempts to impose "thou" status on everything, and to live in, and write from, a resolutely personal universe. Not just personal; a personal universe tinged by imagination into an ultra-personal, or hyper-personal universe. The first line of Grecian Urn, "Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness..." gives (to some extent) the entire anti-empirical game away. Oddly enough, Keats' connection to "that," to a third-person situation, context, or universe, is manifested by the mysteries of his prosody- where it comes from, its power and secret strength, how it manifests. It is not, it must be noted, particularly accounted for by Keats himself; he is, in Romantic terms (apropos here), the conduit or channel for it, and absolved by this position from the rigors of having to account for its empirical manifestation (or, as they said in Regency England, "numbers").