Last week I wrote about some favourite anthologies and promised to recommend some new ones for winter reading this week.
But for some reason, I was forgetting that I’m also a full-time academic in the penultimate week of a teaching semester.
So — with apologies to the anthologies — this week’s newsletter will be sourced from my day job. First, though, I will link to the books I had in mind, and hope to say more about them another time…
Altered States, ed. Sarah Shin and Ben Vickers (Ignota Books)
Concrete Poetry: A 21st-Century Anthology, ed. Nancy Perloff (Reaktion Books)
Hollow Palaces: An Anthology of Modern Country House Poems, ed. Kevin Gardner and John Greening (Liverpool University Press — currently 50% off with WINTER21)
Swirl of Words / Swirl of Worlds: Poems from 94 Languages Spoken across Hackney, ed. Stephen Watts (PEER)
You've got so many machines, Richard! An anthology of Aphex Twin poetry, ed. Rishi Dastidar and Aaron Kent (Broken Sleep Books — forthcoming, January)
The rest of this newsletter is a short essay I wrote last night as a coursework model for first-year Literature students, who have been asked to submit a personal response to a short text. Last week, we read two chapters from Anahid Nersessian’s recent, personal study of Keats’s Odes. So I chose a stanza from “Ode to a Nightingale”:
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
“I cannot see what flowers are at my feet”: the first line of the fifth stanza of John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” is the one that haunts me most. Its unadorned, monosyllabic diction sounds like a sad statement of fact, made by somebody speaking in the dark. As Anahid Nersessian observes, with a poetry of her own, this is a “slow poem, in which every exquisite phrase falls like a hand of cards softly folded”. Here, Keats makes the simple beating out of an iambic pentameter (“I cannot see what…”) sound beaten, defeated.
Why does it have this effect? One answer is that it marks the darkest moment of the poem, which is also the exact midpoint of its eight stanzas. Despite the initial happiness of hearing the “summer” loveliness of the bird’s song, the poet also feels how far it is; heard, but not seen, up in the trees. “I will fly to thee”, proclaims the previous stanza, but then doesn’t – it stays on earth, in the dark (“here there is no light”).
But the line also haunts me because it makes me aware of how difficult ecological awareness can be. We are often told these days to “think of the environment”. But what does that actually mean? And what would it have meant to Keats, who lived and died before “the environment” had even entered the English language? (According to the Oxford English Dictionary, our modern use of the word to mean “the natural world […] as affected by human activity” has only existed since 1948.)
Many people can’t name the flowers at their feet even when they can see them. But there is a pleasure in learning how to speak this language, which for me has become part of learning how to “think of the environment”. It matters to me — it makes me happy — to know that the pink wildflower growing near the wheelie bins in my front garden is not just a weed, but Herb Robert. And knowing that means I don’t mow it when I cut the grass.
Keats cheers himself up by naming flowers too. The rest of the stanza is all about bringing the natural world to life by imagining it, as we fast-forward through the English seasons, from “white hawthorn” blossom which appears in late spring, to the “coming musk-rose” which flowers in late summer (after the nightingale – a migratory bird – has left the country).
The stanza ends on the memorably onomatopoeic line “the murmurous haunts of flies on summer eves” (say it out loud, and hear how the sounds of “murmurous” and “summer” seem to make the line hum). That last word, “eves”, threatens to draw us back into darkness. But the flowers here also help to give a happier meaning to the sad opening line too: when Keats speaks of “soft incense” and says he can “guess each sweet”, he is reminding us that even if you can’t see these flowers, you can smell them.
 Anahid Nersessian, Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 31.
[Postscript: close-reading this stanza left me wondering about the time scheme that makes the late-summer musk-rose ‘mid-May’s eldest child’. It can’t mean the first-born, so presumably it means the child who survives longest — just as Keats, eldest of three, had already outlived his youngest brother, Tom, whose death from tuberculosis haunts the third stanza (‘where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies’).]