Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Letters of John Keats

It might be surprising to a lot of people to know that John Keats, the great 19th century English romantic poet, was best remembered by other children at school as a fist fighter. A prominent aspect of the best portrait we have of Keats, a pencil drawing by his friend, Charles Brown, is his surprisingly large and powerful fist which he is leaning his face against. It is a very interesting portrait in that it presents not just the true image and un-sentimentalized vision of Keats himself, but also some of the great conflicts that defined his life. On the one hand we see the powerful boxer's fist and the broad shoulders of a young man in his prime. On the other had we see him supporting his head on that fist in exhaustion, and we see his flushing cheeks, both indications of the tuberculosis that would soon take his life.

There's been so much written about John Keats that it might seem pointless, or even pretentious to add anything more. I write about him here partly because he was my favorite poet, but more so because not just his poetry and his biography, but his ideas are still very worthy of study. These ideas, put forth mostly in his letters, offer terrific insights to those struggling to write and understand poetry, and to the struggle to understand life itself. I myself have taken up poetry again, after a 35 year hiatus, and in that process I've come back to study Keats. The reason I've come back to Keats at age 54 is that he became arguably the best poet in English before his death, at just the age 26, and only composed poetry in the last 5 or 6 years of his life. Such a rate of achievement was meteoric, and having made the decision to write poetry at this relatively late age I feel I can greatly benefit from the ideas of a poet who's work advanced at such a rate.

The perception of Keats today it seems, at least in the popular consciousness, is that he was a dreamer; a sort of wilting flower too delicate for this world who wrote pleasingly effeminate lyrics of little or no interest to the world today.* This conception of him as a mere dreamer is a reversal of the truth. As I said Keats was a fighter. In his short life he fought bullies in the schoolyard when teased him about his small stature (he was just five feet tall) and later he fought against class prejudice, against time, against poverty, against disease and against death. In spite of all this he became a doctor, but gave that up to become a poet, a notoriously difficult career to live on. Through it all he never let himself be influenced by other writers to the point it hindered him in the search for of his own voice. The incredible courage of Keats' is at the root of his unparalleled achievement. So much for the wilting flower view of John Keats.

Thou was not born for death, immortal bird!
No hungry generations tread the down,
The voice I hear this passing night was heard,
In ancient days by emperor and clown,
Perhaps the self same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth when sick for home
She stood in tears amid the alien corn...

-John Keats

Perhaps it was all that Keats endured that enabled him to write such immortal lines as those above, lines of great beauty but also steeped in the inexplicable suffering, frustration, and injustice of life. Such lines would represent genius at any age but written at just 24 they show a remarkable ability to convey tragic experience. Yet in spite of such mature ability, in my estimation these lines couldn't have been written by an older poet. They retain the freshness and sensual clarity most often lost with the passing years: a loss that too often makes the writing of older poets feel wooden and academic. Keats was able to combine this sensory clarity of youth with the method of composition and life experience of a much older poet and in his letters Keats chronicles much of the artistic territory he crossed in the process of becoming a great writer.

He was born a Cockney in London, the son of a livery stable owner who died when John was a child, after being thrown from a horse. His mother died soon afterwards as well of tuberculosis. Perhaps a decade later his younger brother Tom also preceded him in death from tuberculosis, the same disease that would kill Keats himself at the of age 26. Added to the difficulties and misfortunes alluded to above his inheritance from his father's business was tied up in court all his life, and never seeing a cent of it he and his siblings lived in desperate poverty. Lastly, Keats fell in love with a woman shortly before he died and so suffered the full awareness he would die before his love could be requited. The notion that someone who faced such a life with courage and dignity was a pansy says nothing about Keats but everything about certain aspects of our own society.

This last point has a deeper relevance I believe than simply to literature. Our misconception of Keats seems to arise from a larger misconception of courage as a whole. Those who display the greatest virtues such as the self-sacrificial stamina and the endurance needed to hold society together - often in spite of gteat social disadvantages - are often vilified and denigrated as being weak, while those who live primarily for themselves and their self-aggrandizement are often admired and seen as courageous. So in the general consciousness a man with the courage of John Keats comes to be seen as a pansy while men such as Donald Trump or John McEnro are seen by many as being courageous, as winners.

Keats was a fighter who confronted terrible adversity; a compassionate man of exceptional sensitivity he was not afraid to engage that compassionate side of himself. So let us presume that what mankind does best; what is at the root of our dominance over the earth is our ability to communicate. This is where the the unseen power of a poet comes into play. The ability to write exercises real, if somewhat abstract power in the world, because it influences the intellectual climate of the age - which in turn influences everything. This was true in the time of Byron, in the in time of Homer, and in the time of the King James Bible and is still true today. Ideas are power, therefore studying the letters of Keats is powerful, for it may allow us a greater effect upon our times. Those who have dismissed Keats as an inconsequential pansy might take that into consideration in forming their concept of a real man. I would highly recommend a study of Keat's letters to learn about writing, and about the brevity of life. John Keats didn't have much time.

*Please understand that I'm not condemning the feminine here. Women have, of course, written great poetry. I'm condemning the effeminate in the context of an affectation, not femininity itself.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
*image John Keats, pencil on paper, by Charles Brown

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Night Bus

The Western fire is burning down to cinders;
Retreating traffic is subsumed in immolation.
And I see dark shapes pass me on the roadway,
Born from darkness, to darkness they return.

It's ages since the brightly lit buses came,
In sunshine, festooned with bright balloons,
I had bright hopes setting out that morning,
But the sun's low and I'm stranded at dusk.

Once they scheduled many buses on this route,
And from among them I could pick and chose.
But I've missed the last bus from Desolation
So I'll watch as the day burns down to ruin.

Now the cheerful riders have passed beyond,
They seemed to look past me in the gloaming.
But I've walked this road before at night,
The whole way from Prospect to Desolation.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 1016 Brent Hightower
*image public domain

Saturday, October 15, 2016


Crowds pass by on the ancient streets
Hushed and weary at the end of the day.
And like them I can find nowhere to rest.
Though I too long for the end of day

Gardenias are blooming outside my window,
In a white profusion, as soft as velvet.
Their scent drifts in on the evening air,
Lingering, sensual and sharp, like pain.

When you left me you took everything.
Leaving me here in this empty room,
With just these flowers and regrets,
Soft and resilient as memories of you.

Such beauty is a power in the world,
You touched me and I lost my balance,
I'm dizzy with just the thought of you,
Like seeing heavens in all their glory.

The spice of gardenias on a dying wind,
Of these unblemished flowers takes me,
Back to our days together in this room
To a love fate won't let me forget.

Brent Hightower
copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
*image public domain

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Trying Times

I'd like to preface the essay below with a personal note. It may seem I choose fairly lofty topics for the essays in this blog and one might well ask... What the hell makes him think he knows anything about such things?

Well the answer is I don't think I know anything more about them than anyone else, and I certainly don't pretend to have expert knowledge on any of the subjects I raise here. My intent is to simply ask the questions I think ordinary people such as myself should be grappling with (particularly in a democracy), in what are by any standard extraordinary times. The original thrust of this blog was to provide a forum for readers to discuss such questions informally, without the pressure to claim any form of expertise. We've heard from the experts, We've followed their advise, and the world is a fucked-up mess. So the we might as well give it a shot ourselves. That was the intention anyway.

I've long been attracted to the Socratic method, through which ordinary people can seek answers to the questions raised by such times as these, and also simply answer the questions raised by living in the midst of this extraordinary and mysterious experience of life itself. Please don't think I think I know all the answers to any of these questions, or that what I think is right. As I explained in my essay Truth in the Mutable World, although I believe firmly that truth exists and seeking it is the imperative of life, I don't believe it's possible to be right all the time, nor do I really give a damn about being right in that generally accepted sense. The concept of right and wrong itself can be a misleading one. Truth may be static but because this world is mutable than truth in the context if this world is mutable.

In any case it turned out I had almost no responses to my invitation for a dialogue, so I posted some essays in which I gave some of my own thoughts and these received sufficient attention that I thought it was worth going on. So I changed my focus to my own essays and some of my literary work. Since I started this blog 2 years ago I've had about 15,000 hits, which I think is neither terrifically good nor terribly bad, for a blog like this, so I continue to plod along. I'd like to also apologize for my editing. I've never been a good editor at all, and the blog format tends to make me feel I should regularly get something out here. I don't know why, but it does.

All things considered it's a strange time for writers. It's extremely difficult to publish with the established book publishers, let alone periodicals. Yet I don't want that to stop me from writing because the ideas and works of ordinary Americans should be aired, whether or not there is any financial interest in doing so. A culture advances upon the the creativity of it's individuals or it does not advance at all and the drive for mere material profits cannot be the overriding preoccupation of any society that wants to either last long, or be that of any culture that is worth lasting long in. Furthermore, the line between allowing the market to determine what gets published (and therefore what shapes our minds)and that of outright censorship is a fine one. In the end somebody, somewhere, needs to care about real culture and those who attempt to create it, as an indispensable aspect of any meaningful society.


The Times that Try Men's souls

When Thomas Payne wrote the above words 250 years ago... Well, all I can say is he hadn't seen notin' yet! It's also a good time to be a writer though because there's an almost infinite number of things to write about, and one of these almost infinite things is the effect of these almost infinite number of things on our personal lives. That's what I'm going to write about today:

In the 21st century despite all of our labor saving devices most of us have to perform countless, often inconsequential, tasks to survive. When one thinks about this it's good to remember that the point of modern technology - from steam engines to the home computer - was to make our lives easier and more prosperous. Instead of giving us more leisure time to advance our human capacities to make a better world, technology has exponentially increased the complexity of our lives, while the rewards of increased efficiency are accrued by only a minuscule percentage of the population.

Our ancestors lived straight forward lives, such as that of tilling the fields, and there's no question that their life was difficult. They endured famine, disease and hardship. Yet in compensation they took a deep, even mystical satisfaction, in working with the earth. They could actually see and feel the outcome for their labor, and in the end we are faced once again with encroaching famine, disease, and hardship. Whether the bargain we made in trading age old ways of life for the complexity of modern society was worth making is an open question. I myself would not be alive without modern medicine for example, neither would billions of others. Yet It's clear that in the process we've set in motion a catastrophic wave of extinction on this planet.

We need to remember that every living thing has an essence, and of that essence life is made. Consciousness is what makes the universe real. Without consciousness and the interaction of one being with another confirming our perception of reality and its meaning, reality cannot exist. With no one to perceive the world, the world unperceived ceases to exist. The living presence of a juniper tree, for example, is not replaceable. Once it's gone, it's gone forever. Juniper has died, and If juniper dies we've lost a living spirit, a piece of the only thing that really matters or that we can be reasonably certain is actually real. We have lost a piece of what comprises the sum of life: it''s beauty, it's mystery.

So we have made a bargain, and what have we really gained from this Faustian bargain? In the last several weeks I've had to be be my own auto-mechanic, carpenter, receptionist, butler, valet, editor, IT specialist, housekeeper, publisher, bureaucrat, chauffeur, writer, veterinarian, marketing consultant, and councilor. What I'm trying to say is that rather than our lives being simplified they are becoming too fragmented for the attainment of happiness, or in many cases even sanity.

From a personal standpoint I must deal with a spatial learning disorder that has dogged me all my life, an auto-imune disorder that's given me chronic poor health, a wife with bi-polar disorder and a daughter with autism. I don't need any more challenges in my life. I'm by ancestry English, Irish and German, and was raised in an Irish-American family that was typically undermining, argumentative, begrudging, eloquent, alcoholic, irreverent, bombastic, cynical, brilliant, iconoclastic, and had as a credo an amalgamation of these things and the psychic wreckage of medieval Catholicism. In other words we were a fucked-up mess, and we were by no means alone in that situation. In all honesty I think we must admit that most families are a fucked-up mess. So how can anyone deal with all of this and more besides? And even beyond all of this, buried under all our difficulties is the human need to self-actualize. In spite of it all we may feel that we have something valuable to offer the world. For many of us this need to self-actualize is one of the central elements of a meaningful life, and if we're so inclined we should certainly pursue those aims.

Yet I think we need to also allow ourselves the understanding that we can't live consumed by the demand for ever increasing productivity, and these innumerable complications, and also pressure ourselves to achieve something of more lasting significance, such as art, or music, or literature. So instead of being self-critical (which is the way most of us were taught to deal with these questions) under the circumstances we should give ourselves a medal for simply carrying on from day to day - for simply surviving the onslaught of these times.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower