Poet's Choice

By Mary Karr
Sunday, June 22, 2008

We live in a blockbuster world, and if I ever get blue about the relatively small audience for poetry, I think of John Keats, dead at 25 of a consumption that carried off his mother and that he probably picked up nursing his youngest brother. Keats apprenticed as a pharmacist, which back then meant holding down the unanesthetized as a surgeon sawed off some festering limb. While Keats lay gasping for breath in a skeevy room in Rome on a mattress the size of a kid's pool float, he composed a tombstone inscription to fit his non-blockbuster status: "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water."

In Rome, years back, I visited the museum built around that room. There's a glass case holding the silver reliquary necklace, once worn by a pope, with a lock of Milton's hair that inspired Keats. (Back when I was 25 myself, I'd marveled at a lock of Keats's hair in Harvard's Houghton Library, where I'd go sometimes to escape the computer company where I worked. I'd been in love with Keats's odes and the fatality of "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles": "My spirit is too weak -- mortality/Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep, . . ./I must die/Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.")

That day in Rome, staring down at Keats's plaster death mask, I heard my name and turned to find -- bizarre coincidence -- a former student. He'd become a surgeon and was the last kid I'd pick for a literary pilgrim, since he was a lackluster poet. He even admitted taking my morning class just to free up his afternoons for lab. And he hated having to memorize a poem per week. But near term's end, he was chilled to the core by a girl reciting a Keats poem. It had burrowed into him and, over time, kept making him feel alive.

It's an unfinished poem written when Keats's putative fiancée had dumped him once and for all. Try reading it slow, out loud, pausing a bit at line ends and punctuation. In doing so, you'll be sipping breath in time with Keats himself.

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calm'd -- see here it is --

I hold it towards you.

As the surgeon recited it, the Italian attendant came forward, and we were all lifted from time together. The plaster face of Keats stared up. Not a blockbuster -- that fragment -- but the depth charge it set off in us may well trump any action-movie explosion viewed by millions.

Mary Karr is the Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company