THE POETRY READING—LEAVE JOHN KEATS ALONE
The room was not antiseptic. Ancient stains of blood
littered the floor. John Keats, where did you sit—
not sure if life was worth living, love worth loving,
not sure you would escape TB?
No anesthesia, and the young physicians-in-
training huddling in their seats, standing in the back
against the wall, the heat of each other’s bodies
compacting compressing a small stuffy room,
but on the stage, their patient—blindfolded—without
anesthesia. . . Were you doodling Keats when they screamed?
Were you imagining mountains in Greece, fields in
Kentucky? Did you see the blood hit the sawdust,
the fragments of flesh which were discarded,
as Michelangelo discarded flawed marble?
If you had known you would not have written,
wouldn’t you? You would not have loved,
you would have ceased in your heart to live. . .
Is that, was that the meaning of your exile—
into the city of myths, fables, and
Michelangelo, your very own Rome?
There is a story behind this poem, but it is not worth telling with too much telling detail. Suffice it to say that I once attended a poetry reading given by an accomplished, intelligent, academic poet who read a poem about John Keats sitting in his college’s surgery theatre musing about moving to Kentucky to live with his sister. The poet in question painted Keats as an idealistic romantic always looking afar... it is a stock image, and it belies the reality of who Keats actually was.
I think central to the poet’s misconception was a complete inability to appreciate how primitive surgery was in Keats’ time. Keats lived from 1795-1821. The first surgical anesthetic ever used, ether, was first used in 1842. Prior to that time, patients would have to be strapped down, given a healthy dose of liquor, and something to bite on. Lister’s ground-breaking article “Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery” was published in 1867. The idea of germs (put to the test by Louis Pasteur in 1862) didn’t exist when Keats was a student.
In this context, can anyone imagine any of the students staring wistfully into the distance—while the subject of that day’s demonstration was writhing in pain?
Keats was naturally drawn to medicine as a young man given his family circumstances. His father died early in his life from an accident. His mother and brother both died from tuberculosis, a disease which would eventually claim Keats himself.
So the questions that struck me, listening to this poet meter and rhyme on about Keats the dreamer was: how can you get this so wrong? You are an academic, writing about a particular time and a place, didn’t it occur to you to do some fact-checking? (This was 1994. Well before Google. I think the era prior to 1998 will be known as B.G. And this era’s anthem could well be “I started a joke”.)
Perhaps I’m wrong, but I believe this poem (the poem I wrote, above) has two flaws. First, it is a poem that needs context—having read what I’ve just written here, I’m sure if you re-read the poem it will make more of an impact with you. And second, it is a poem written to two people, two disparate people, at once: the academic poet and John Keats, the deceased. Because it has two audiences, there is a cognitive disconnect.
Anyway, not sure why I was thinking about it, but I thought I would share it with you today. (And yes, this poem was written in 1994.)