November 6, 2012

“John Keats Still Writes Poetry”: The Birthday Poet and Princeton’s Prodigious Encyclopedia

A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence ….

—John Keats in letter, Oct 27, 1818

Finally I’ve found an occasion worthy of a column on The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (PEPP) the monumental volume (1639 pages, 700 contributors) just published in the new, greatly expanded fourth edition by Princeton University Press. Halloween may seem an unlikely holiday context for a volume that devotes over a million words and a thousand entries to the unscary subject of poetry, except that October 31 is also the 227th birthday of John Keats (1795-1821), of all poets surely the one most likely to dominate the electoral college of verse should there ever be an election for the standard bearer of English poetry.

Keats the Key

To explore a book this immense it helps to have a key and Keats will be mine. He makes his first appearance in the African American Poetry entry in reference to the conflict between Countee Cullen, who was “extravagantly admiring of Keats” and Langston Hughes, whose major influence was the blues. If you have the genies of the net at your disposal, and if Storming Sandy has not stolen your power, a click of the mouse will give you Cullen’s “To John Keats, Poet, at Spring Time” (“‘John Keats is dead,’ they say, but I/Who hear your full insistent cry/In bud and blossom, leaf and tree,/Know John Keats still writes poetry”). No need to stop there. Every page, every entry in the encyclopedia is freighted with leads to follow online, where Cullen’s bio tells you that no one knows for sure when or where he was born (May 30, 1903, is the best bet), though it could be either New York, Baltimore, or Lexington, Kentucky, the state Keats’s brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana, the recipients of his best and longest letters, emigrated to in 1818. Another virtual side trip and you can learn something of George’s life in Louisville as a civic leader and patron of the arts.

Finding Kunin

The site of Keats’s next appearance further indicates how the encyclopedia extends its reach into the wider world. Located under “A,” the “Poetry as Artifact” is the contribution of one A. Kunin. What to make of that “A”? Not only are the first names of contributors abbreviated in the PEPP, so are oft-used terms like classical (cl.) and modern (mod.) and centuries (cs.). This big book couldn’t breathe without abbreviations. But who and where is Kunin? Male or female, Andy or Ann?

Back in 1993, when PEPP’s third edition was published, the “information superhighway” was still a work in progress, and you’d have worn yourself out tracking down Aaron Kunin, who turns out to be “a rising star in the poetry world.” That’s according to the Holloway Series in Poetry website, where you can see a video of Kunin (thin, glasses, Afro) reading from his work. He teaches 18th century literature at Pomona College and gets good marks on Rate Your Professor (“I love him,” “the sweetest guy,” “oh what a dreamboat!”) except for the complaint that Mr. Kunin “tends to talk too long about small details.” A student in his Milton class (the “oh what a dreamboat” person, in fact) says he “can relate biblical characters to a fashion photograph of a mini skirt without the slightest hesitance.” Clearly this is someone who was born to contribute to a 21st century encyclopedia on poetry and poetics.

Keats’s connection to “Poetry as Artifact” is his sonnet, “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer.” After bringing in Heidegger, “a mod. exponent of humanist trad.,” and “15th and 16th cs. processed knowledge through cl. poetic models,” Kunin comes to the conclusion (hardly a great perceptual leap) that when Keats writes about Chapman’s translation of Homer, Chapman’s text brings him “closer to Homer than to Chapman.” Meanwhile no mention is made of Keats’s “Ode On a Grecian Urn,” arguably the most famous poem ever written about an artifact.

E. Rohrbach’s Capability

The only entry in PEPP that Keats himself generated is, not surprisingly, “Negative Capability,” a term coined in one of those extraordinarily rich letters sent to George and Georgiana in America. Google images of E. Rohrbach, the article’s author, and you find that “E” is for Emily, who is instantly appealing with her long dark hair, intense, intelligent gaze and potent, mysterious smile. It’s refreshing that rather than going off on tangents, Ms. Rohrbach, an assistant professor at Northwestern University, wisely uses much of her modest portion of PEPP to quote from the poet’s letters, including, most effectively, the Oct. 27 1818 one to Richard Woodhouse on the “poetical Character” that contains the line claiming that the poet is the “most unpoetical of any thing in existence.”

All unpoetical bets are off when Ms. Rohrbach merges the man “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” with the one who “has no self … is everything and nothing … lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.” Once you accept the notion of the chameleon poet, the poetical spirit that has “no self” but freely inhabits “everything and nothing,” what’s to keep the poet from an intimate encounter with his interpreter, who as a visiting professor at Rutgers in 2008 lectured on “the Romantic sense of time as a teeming present that produces an excess of what can potentially be known, due in part to the way that knowledge of that present rests on an imagined, dark futurity.” Imagine fair Emily murmuring of “dark futurity” in Keats’s ear at some dinner party in eternal London, she the “soft-spoken professor … a bit quirky but genuinely nice,” as described in Rate Your Teacher.


I’ll admit that last rendezvous was a bit over the top, but flights of fancy are going to happen when a sane, sensible, well-meaning reviewer confronts a tome of such dauntingly formal proportions with an agenda that “covers the history, theories, techniques, and criticism of poetry from its earliest days,” including comprehensive and in-depth coverage of international poetry, with articles on the poetries of more than 110 nations, regions, and languages, particularly in non-Western and developing areas, as well as an entry on postcolonial poetics. Of the more than 250 new articles, there are essays and descriptions on recent terms, movements and related topics that are either “new or previously under-studied.”

While it can’t be called blatantly unpoetical, PEPP appears to be the forthright opposite of the poetical stereotype, no fancy design elements, no embellishments, no flowery friezes or “leaf-fringed legends.” The cover design seems solid and sensible, at least until you take a closer look at the cluster of miniature uniform spheres reminiscent of the Pac Man video game played obsessively by fathers and sons alike in the early 1980s. Look inside those tiny spheres and there are fingers, toes, noses, eyes, ears, mouths, some with lipstick, smiling, some with teeth bared; there’s even what appears to be a navel. Open the book to the copyright page and you learn that you’ve been looking at a piece of visual or “evident” verse in the form of a collage called “Love Poem” (1964), by the Czech poet and artist Ji í Kolá  (1914-2002).

The truth is, when you look through The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, you find interspersed with categories like “Catalepsis” and “Catachresis,” “Ictus,” and “Prosimetrum,” entries on “Emotion” and “Empathy and Sympathy” (Keats makes appearances in both). Terms suggestive of the deepest expressions of human nature seem at first appealingly foreign to the informative function associated with and expected of encyclopedias, which of course is what poetry is all about. I can’t imagine what Keats would have done if faced with this mountainous prospect, but my guess is that another October poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (born ten days and 23 years before Keats) would treat it with the most eager attention, as if it were a ten-day hike through the Lake Country whereon he would plant as he walked whole fields and gardens of marginalia.

The editor in chief of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which is also available online, is Roland Greene, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. The general editor, Stephen Cushman, is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. Associate editors include Clare Cavanagh, a professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University; Jahan Ramazani, an English professor at the University of Virginia; and Paul F. Rouzer, who is associate professor of Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Minnesota.