Anahid Nersessian is a thinker’s thinker, and a writer’s writer. When I read Anahid, I have to read everything at least twice, so that my kvelling at the brilliance of the line—humorous, frighteningly correct, its syntactical muscle—doesn’t overwhelm my ability to think with her. Anahid is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of three books: Utopia, Limited (Harvard University Press, 2015), The Calamity Form (University of Chicago Press, 2020), and Keats’s Odes (University of Chicago Press, 2021; Verso, 2022). In the early fall, as Anahid was preparing to go to the UK to celebrate the new edition of her latest book, we spoke by phone about the role of the critic, the guises the critic might wear, reading, and misreading.
Hannah Zeavin (HZ): Keats was a doctor who forsook medicine to be a poet. In the new preface to Keats’s Odes, you tell us he was never fully convinced that this was the right move. He wondered, might it have been better for humanity to keep tending the sick and the poor?
The argument of the book is that Keats was wrong about his worry, that indeed it was better that he turned to poetry. This recalled for me the contemporary debates on what the use of poetry is—and isn’t. So, what’s the use?
Anahid Nersessian (AN): Andrew Motion, who wrote a lovely biography of Keats, also wrote a novel called The Invention of Dr Cake that imagines Keats essentially faking his own death and starting life over again as a physician—which I can actually imagine! I don’t think he would have run out of steam as a poet, but I do think he would have become exhausted at some point by poetry’s social limitations. And poetry does have social limitations.
It’s easy to ascribe a certain kind of transformative power to art and culture, at the expense of thinking, in hard and serious ways, about what it is that we want from life and how it is that we can get it. But in my heart of hearts, I’m a Shelleyan: that is to say, I’ve devoted my own life to teaching poetry because I believe that it does have a transformative power—again, within limits, but after all most things have limits. In his “Defence of Poetry,” Shelley suggests that poetry helps us “imagine that which we know,” by which he means it encourages and trains us to have new ideas about how to work with what is given, how to push past our constraints, how to have a vision of a better future and haul it into the present. I’m drawn to poets like Diane di Prima, Amiri Baraka, Juliana Spahr, and Sean Bonney—all of whom are in the book—partly because they have, I think, the same feelings I do: they keep one foot in a necessary skepticism about poetry and another in a deeply romantic vision of its potential.
A line I come back to a lot is from one of Juliana’s poems: “all the art that has had a crowd scene in it in which the crowd has been loved, I have loved.” That’s a really beautiful distillation of what it means to continue to believe in the work of culture, and the work of reading, writing, teaching.
HZ: Why Keats?
AN: I often say that Keats is my favorite poet, and sometimes people who have seen my naked arms and know I have a tattoo of one of William Blake’s engravings will snap cleverly back at me, “Oh, not Blake?” But for me having a tattoo of Blake is like having a tattoo of a Bible verse. It represents a moral or, if you like, metaphysical commitment.
I read Keats’s love letters to Fanny Brawne when I was quite young—maybe too young! Those letters are designed to enchant and seduce, and they certainly had that effect on me. Interestingly, one of the readers’ reports on Keats’s Odes suggested that the book was based on my identification with Keats, and that I identified with him because we were both outsiders—he was a working-class, not Oxbridge-educated poet, and I took a lot of grief as a kid because my father is from Iran, I have this funny name, I spoke a different language at home—all that stuff.
I was surprised by that reading of the book, because I actually don’t have a strong identification with Keats. If I did, I doubt he would be one of my favorite poets. I do feel powerfully identified with Fanny Brawne, and always have. I would guess that’s partly because when I read those letters, I experienced myself as their addressee, which is perhaps inevitably what happens when you read a letter outside of its original context. But I’m also not a person who’s capable of verbalizing uninhibited passion with the ease that Keats did, and we know from Brawne’s letters to Keats’s sister that she had sort of a wry, skeptical, maybe slightly cool or measured personality. Meanwhile, because none of her letters to Keats have survived—except for the last ones, which are buried with him, unopened—she ends up appearing as the more reticent partner. Her near-invisibility from the historical record is profound to me, because I’m also the kind of person who has been less present in the historical record. So, I’ve always recognized myself more in her than in him.
I’m also not a poet. Though I know many.
HZ: And why the odes?
AN: I can’t give a very good answer to that, because I had no plans to write the book. I was asked by Alan Thomas, my editor at the University of Chicago Press, if I knew of any literary anniversaries that were coming up that anybody—not me, anybody—could write a book about. It was 2019, and the only anniversary that I could think of was the bicentenary of Keats’s death in 2021. Alan came back at me and said, do you want to write a book about Keats? And I love an assignment, so I said okay! I wrote it in five months, so very, very fast, with no premeditation whatsoever.
Now, why the odes? Well, they were all written in one year, so they come as a package. And at least half of them are just incredible poems: it’s extraordinary that in this space of about nine months Keats wrote “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “To Autumn,” and at the age of 23, too. That is bananas! So all that in itself is irresistible.
Academia encourages the conquest of the material and the conquest of the reader; that’s just not my bag.
HZ: The preface to the new edition of Keats quickly gestures at the pandemic and moves on. I realized that Keats was written in the final semester before all of our lives were upended that particular way. Let me ask you—it’s almost a counterfactual—about writing about the poet who was a doctor not during the pandemic, but before it.
AN: It was really important to me in writing the new preface that I say something about COVID without trying to make the book topical in a way that it was never intended to be. I remember reading a few of those articles that came out in the early months of the pandemic about the lessons learned from the Spanish flu or tuberculosis, and being predictably irritated by their lack of historical awareness. That said, the point of continuity across all those pandemics and epidemics is poverty, which of course makes people more vulnerable to illness and to death. Even though TB, or consumption as it was called in the 19th century, famously killed a lot of great writers, it was overwhelmingly a disease of the poor and its spread was exacerbated by the living conditions of working people in London and industrial cities like Manchester. Those were Keats’s patients when he was training as a doctor at Guy’s Hospital, which was a hospital for poor people who were judged “incurable”—so, TB patients, cancer patients, people with severe injuries, and so on.
The new preface doesn’t equate TB to COVID, but it acknowledges the fact that Keats’s time was also a time of rolling pandemic. Between the 18th and the early 20th century, TB was the leading cause of death in the United Kingdom. It was a human crisis that became the new normal.
HZ: The iconicity of consumption and young poets held at great duration—it still circulated in a minor way when I was a teenager—though coughing then was from cigarettes, not sickness. But with COVID, any glamour has been completely absent. It has a different set of politics.
AN: We now know that the proper response to any highly contagious illness is to contain it as much as possible. But quarantine was not the norm for TB. Keats was obviously very sick and probably contagious, but he continued to live in the same house as his lover and her family and among his friends while he was dying. Contrast that with the fact that during COVID, people have so often died in hospitals by themselves, isolated from their loved ones. This raises important and very difficult questions about what sorts of rights we have as individuals who are also members of society, what sorts of ethical responsibilities we have to one another, and what care means and who does the work of care.
HZ: You bring up devotion and connection in the face of death in the book.
AN: Yes, one of the wildest things that happened at the end of Keats’s life is that none of his close friends were willing to be with him when he died. Joseph Severn, who moved to Rome with Keats and cared for him for the last few months of his life, was actually a peripheral figure in his social scene. His best friends—his roommate Charles Brown, to whom Keats loaned all this money he couldn’t afford to lend, Benjamin Haydon, to whom Keats also loaned a lot of money, Leigh Hunt, who had been his mentor—were in some cases literally in his debt but they all stayed behind, and Severn got stuck with it.
So, Keats was a really good friend to all of his friends, but it wasn’t exactly reciprocated in his time of most dire need. And, you know, who wants to volunteer to see their 24-year-old friend die a slow, painful death a thousand miles from home? Not many people.
HZ: Not many people.
AN: One of the things I find most moving about that whole story is that Severn was very religious, and he became terrified that Keats was going to try to kill himself—which by the way was not at all an unreasonable fear, because Keats was open about having no moral prejudice against suicide. In his letters to their friends back in London, Severn would talk about hiding the knives in their tiny apartment and trying never to leave Keats alone. When you think about these two young men in their early 20s trying to negotiate something so extraordinarily difficult more or less on their own, without anything resembling modern medical treatment, it kind of blows your mind. When Severn agreed to accompany Keats to Italy, he absolutely had no idea what he was in for. But he rose to the occasion, everyone pretty much agrees on that.
HZ: The time has come to talk about the other thing the book does—in addition to provide vital new readings of Keats. The book reads you. But rather than offering a full autobiography—filled with names, dates, facts—the book, in your own words, aims to write about “patterns of intensities” rather than produce a “narrative of facts.”
AN: The writer Sarah Viren spoke at my university not long ago, and she said something that really stuck with me about the distinction, for her, between truth and honesty. I’ll bungle it, but she was contrasting truth in the sense of subjective reality—the idea that we all have our own truth, our own experience, our own take on a situation—with an idea of honesty as a relation between people. In other words, I know what is true for me, whether you’re capable of recognizing or affirming it or not, but if I want to be honest, I need to be honest with you; honesty happens in a room, you know?
I wanted Keats’s Odes to be an honest book, a book that had a clear sense of responsibility to a number of people, including but not limited to Keats, and a clear sense of fidelity to a number of situations. Keats’s Odes is about Keats and poetry, but it’s also a book about the aesthetics of personal disclosure. It’s like Dionne Brand says in The Blue Clerk: “I have withheld more than I have written,” and that withholding, instead of being pure absence, is actually a felt pressure within the text. Ultimately what I hope is that a complete stranger could read Keats’s Odes and find something of themselves, because I’m not overly present in it—because the details of my life and personality are there without dominating the narrative or the tone.
There is often a demand made on women, on people of color, on anybody who comes from a population that is not historically given a large or highly visible cultural platform, to produce their biography as an authentication of their right to speak, and preferably to give as much detail as they can about an experience, particularly if the experience has been hard or traumatic. I hadn’t thought about my own tendency to be elliptical or obscure when it comes to talking about myself as a feminist choice, but I did feel as though I wanted to refuse to be forced to say more than I wanted to say. I wanted to refuse to be forced to describe my life in the terms of a certain kind of literary realism. To me, it actually feels far more revealing to describe an emotion with precision than to tell you who said what at what time on what day. To me, that work of description is much more raw and much more uncomfortable.
Someone who is actually in the book read it and accused me—I think “accused” is the right word—of being an exhibitionist. On the one hand, that really hurt my feelings, but on the other, I was thrilled! Gratified and thrilled.
HZ: Now I’m thinking about the way that you projected yourself into the emptiness, the vacuum of the Keats/Brawne correspondence.
AN: One of the things that is so interesting about Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne is that you cannot infer a damn thing that’s happened between them just from reading his letters. Of course, the letters are incredibly intimate, and they reveal so much about Keats’s temperament that it can feel like a horrible invasion of privacy to read them. But, in terms of daily life—and remember, Keats and Fanny Brawne lived in the same house, saw each other more or less every day, and were separated only by a wall—his letters tell us almost nothing about their interactions, what they talked about, or any of those concrete details. You certainly have no clue what kinds of things she’s said or done to or with him, though he often accuses her of being glib or insensitive, or of various minor transgressions.
He’s a poet, and he’s just bombarding her with his truth. Thinking about that distinction between truth and honesty, I’m tempted to say that truth in the sense of a subjective intensity is the object of poetry, or of the poet. Anyway, it was for Keats. And when Keats writes those letters, there’s no honesty in them: there can’t be, because Fanny Brawne is simply not there. He never says “I saw you yesterday, you were wearing this dress.” Instead he says “Yesterday and this morning I have been haunted with a sweet vision—I have seen you the whole time in your shepherdess dress.” Does such a dress even exist? We have no idea. What’s most vivid to him is the vision, the fantasy of her. She loved him, that seems beyond a doubt, but who knows what she made of his insistence on always speaking at her rather than to her? It was probably infuriating. But you know, he was really young, and I like to think he would have grown out of it.
It’s important to remember that, for a very long time, Keats’s friends and, later, his biographers and assorted literary critics were able to put out this misogynistic line that Fanny Brawne was a coquette who didn’t care about Keats at all, and that her indifference had driven him into his grave. They were able to do that because her letters to him were gone, but also because his letters had so little, really, of her in them. That started to shift when her correspondence with his sister was published in 1937. There she says, of her relationship with Keats, “I have not got over it and never shall.” When he died, she cut off all her hair and stayed in widow’s weeds for at least three, possibly six years, and wore the engagement ring he’d given her until her death.
All this talk about Fanny Brawne makes me want to invoke the poet Rosie Stockton’s call for “no wages/no muses.” I think Brawne would sympathize with that demand.
HZ: Is the critic from Keats’s Odes the critical self enacted in your other, “public-facing” criticism, or is it for you yet another genre, distinct both from the academic books and from the Odes?
AN: The public-facing criticism that I do is primarily reviewing. Reviews are a type of criticism, but the audience is broader, and I don’t choose the books I review in the same way that I choose the books I write about in an academic monograph, or the way I chose Keats. I said earlier that I love an assignment, and that’s true: I’m deeply psychologically gratified by being told what to do, so if an editor suggests something to me, even if it’s not a book I would necessarily pick up on my own, I almost always say yes. Ultimately, I probably find it more satisfying to write about an author whose work I’m not already very invested in, because it forces me to find a new language, and there are few things I find more exciting. When I feel myself to be working in a very granular and technical, almost mechanical way with a text, I’m at my happiest. “What’s going on? How is this thing put together?” Those are the questions I lead with when I’m working on a review, and if I’m lucky, I can get the reader interested in them too.
The genre of academic writing often requires you to put your proverbial stamp on a text or a problem. I’ve never been especially comfortable with that as an expectation for intellectual work, or for intellectual life. Although I have pretty strong opinions about most things and will give them if pressed, I’m most comfortable listening—perhaps because (like you, Hannah!) I was raised by psychoanalysts. That’s probably evident in my critical writing, which is very rarely polemical, unless I have occasion to talk about scholarly trends that I think are reactionary or damaging. I’m happy to present my ideas in a way that feels maybe gently prodding, but I really don’t like to come out swinging, though I admire it when other people do.
That said, in The Calamity Form, there’s a chapter on Wordsworth that begins with the sentence “I don’t like Wordsworth.” Some people just loved that—especially people who also don’t like Wordsworth—but others were really rubbed the wrong way, less by the sentiment, I think, than by the way it sort of breaks the fourth wall of academic writing. If I review something in the New York Review of Books and it’s clear I don’t particularly like it, the readers of the New York Review of Books are aware that I’m giving my own opinion, and that while perhaps I’m hoping to influence their opinion, I’m not staking anything morally grand on whether or not we ultimately agree. But academics are much more in the business of producing norms, so if I say “I don’t like Wordsworth,” a professional Romanticist reading that phrase might respond, “Are you saying we’re not allowed to like Wordsworth?” No, I’m saying I don’t like Wordsworth—in that chapter, as a preliminary to a discussion of some very specific features of his poetics. In general, I speak only for myself. Academia encourages the conquest of the material and the conquest of the reader; that’s just not my bag.
This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohen.