- As a teacher of Romantic poetry for 35 years, I have become impressed
not with how hard it is to teach, say, "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
but how easy it is. And this I have found disturbing because it implies
that on some level the poem is already known; it has not brought its
reader to and beyond the horizon of the familiar, which as I see it
is one of the main indicators of poetic success. When I ask students
to deform a poem after we have discussed it in class, they re-make their
understanding of a familiar code of reading in a "sweet struggle"
of engagement that honors the poem as an innately resilient and active
principle of mind.
- What in this poem (and by implication many Romantic poems and, for
that matter, many poems) makes it seem, in Jerome McGann's word, pre-read
and thus not read, as poetry, at all? First, Keats's "Ode"
has an enlightenment structure: many questions are asked, in stanzas
I and IV, that assume, rhetorically, the presenceavailable to
the speaker or notof answers. The urn as unravished bride proleptically
contains its ravishment as a natural outcome in the ritual of weddings
that parallels the consummation of questions asked. And even if stated
in a kind of elegiac or tragic negative, other elements are structured
around narratives of completion: lover meeting and kissing, trees leafing,
ritual sacrifice being performed, citizens leaving and then returning
to their town. The poem spins out a series of irreversible narratives
of fulfillment. This is precisely analogous to and encouraging of the
preferred ritual of reading poems, particularly in school and university
classes: the relentless search for the poem's meaning. (Jack Stillinger's
recent book on multiple readings of "The Eve of St. Agnes"
simply demonstrates that in that poem the ritual can be varied in an
astonishing number of ways.) Historicism hasn't particularly changed
matters: it simply provides a ready source of answers and, while heightening
the resonance of words, images, and voices in poems, it reinforces the
- Questions and answers typically presume a questioner who, in the "Ode
on a Grecian Urn," is the speaker propelling the poem passionately
through a series of probings and meditations and finally conclusive
praise. We readers become interested in him, as a kind of familiar anchor
of reading lyric: the fate of the speaker (the concern of Abrams and
Bloom in their immensely influential studies of the "internalized
quest romance" of Romantic poems) as the major category of meaning
and as the crucial thread that further, through consciousness, binds
the enlightenment narrative and rhetoric together. And finally we congratulate
this speaker's probings as exemplary of the work of enlightenment
which again corresponds to the ideal of reading poetry as work.
- Pre-reading, in this case, occurs in the presence of a poem that triggers
a preferred ideological habit of mind; the gratification we get is the
purely secondary one of fulfilling the habit. As McGann and Lisa Samuels
say, speaking more generally about encounters with instances of traditional
poetics: "the rhetorical power of a work of art will ultimately
work against itself, dulling our sense of its own freshness" (Radiant
Textuality, p. 108). And in the language of Blake and Clare, "poetry
fetter'd fetters the human race." Deformation is a general term
for breaking fetters of reading, coming both from sources internal to
the poem and internal to the mind of the reader. It is a form not of
pre- but of re-reading, a nostos of a more aggressive
and wily and yet, oddly, more leisurely and "lazy" or unwarranted
return to the poem. In teaching the "Ode on a Grecian Urn,"
I offer techniques of radical disruption and defamiliarization (a term,
along with "deformation" itself, coming from the Russian formalists),
of risking the powerful idea that forms are not sacrosanct, that nonsense
in poetry is at least as important as meaning, that poems may "contain"
nothing, may refuse the domain of and trajectory towards answers altogether.
The result is not the abandonment of critical enterprise but a nearly
mystical resurgence of conscious power in the presence of a poem, a
surge in thinking and excitement. As the poem appears in/as unfamiliar
juxtapositions that I have "made," it occurs to me that those
juxtapositions, startlingly, are "there," part of the poem
itself. Amazement accompanies my thinking. Adorno: "the only true
thoughts are those which do not grasp their own meaning." (Minima
- When I deform a poem, I bring to it a highly selective consciousness
and intervene materially in its existence, just as Keats does in encountering
the Grecian Urn. Think of his decisions and, so to speak, his self-selected
1) he addresses the object; apostrophe is a decision, not
something demanded by the urn
He has deformed the urn in the sense that he hasn't talked about it,
for example, as clay (Greek Anthology) or as ash (Thomas Browne);
he has left out some things in order to emphasize others. The urn is
not an object; it is deformed in that it is only its illustrations,
its meanings. One thing is certain: for the speaker this encounter with
the urn is full of surprise, and what he has seen has "overtaken"
his mind. His experience bears little indication of pre-reading (a fact
that our growing knowledge of cultural, literary, and artistic sources
can only underscore).
2) he asks it questions
3) he looks not at the urn as a pot or at its use, nor at the act
or nature of looking at it, but at the pictures painted on it
4) he looks at the pictures strictly as instants of narratives
5) he attempts at the end to generalize its significance and value
6) he reveals nothing about himself openly, but the fact of apostrophe
and the indicators of various emotional and perspectival registers
show that his experience of the urn is a major part of what he wants
to say on its behalf.
- How different is his practice of selection from, say, deciding to
read the poem last line to first? from re-writing the poem as only the
sequence of the last word in each line? of reading only its nouns, or
its verbs, or its adjectives? of re-writing the poem in the shape of
an urn? or in the shape of the ash it may have contained now floating
free to earth? or reducing each line to its first two and its last two
words leaving out the "stuff" in the middle? orperhaps
most radically (in the manner of Jackson Mac Low)discovering in
sequence, as my student Alex did, the words the beginning letters of
which spell out O-d-e-o-n-a-G-r-e-c-i-a-n-u-r-n:
All these examples came from the minds of my students who had been practicing
deformation for several weeks and who now felt comfortable with the playful
aggressiveness deformation usually requires, sensing that such outrageous
acts in fact belong to the strangeness of language, image, enchantment,
and consciousness that is the occasion of poetry.
||Our Deities Escaped
||Cold Emptied River In ArcadyGods Never,
||Never Remain Unravish'd
- To say that deformation is simply another name for selection minimizes
the radical scale of its intervention. Describing the experience, my
student Andrew wrote:
I slowly crushed the piece into different shapes. I broke
it down and built it up again. I RETURN, RETURN, DELETE, DELETE, DELETED.
Up and down the words skipped, lines jumping and leaping all over
the computer screen trampoline.
- Notice here how material the poem has become. . .or is he talking
about the urn itself? If the ekphrasis that is Keats's "Ode"
assumes a distance between art object and poem, this deformation emphasizes
the visionary tendency of both media to veer empathically towards each
other. (Traditional readings would keep them mutually uncontaminated.)
The reader furthermore has identified "interpretation" with
megalomaniacal destruction and re-creation: crush one urn/poem in order
to create a second one in words (his poem re-written as a hieroglyph,
a concrete poem in the shape of a Grecian Urn). But magically, the reader's
initial choice and "regulatory" actI will re-form this
poem in the shape ("O Attic shape!") of an urngives
way to the acrobatics of the poem's words and lines independent of his
controlling hand, eye, and mind. This is "thought that does not
grasp its own meaning." The reader actively performs the poem which,
no longer an object and a container of meanings, performs back.
- Deforming poems thus produces a condition of reading that underscores
the principle of experimental poetics, insisting that the making of
a work of art requires both a regulatory practice (e.g. read the poem
from last line to first, re-write the poem in the shape of an urn, re-write
the poem diastically) and an openness to "chance," or experience.
This confluence acknowledges a poem as at once under the control of
the conscious ego and recording materials beyond its control and creates
the poetic narrative of a mind expanding beyond the limits of the familiar
and the known. Such a reading practice enacts the process of defamiliarization,
a freeing of idiom from convention.
- The urn never provides answers to the questions, it never "yields"
to the ravishing ardor of the speaker. The deformation helps us wonder:
does the apostrophic act represent a strange fantasy about art's salvific
power?that it could answer our needs? In one of the most unusual
readings of the "Ode" proposed, Dorothy Van Ghent, viewing
the "sequence" of the Odes as a Keatsian journey archetype,
claimed that the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" signified a failed
quest of the hero because of his expectation that an "answer"
to his questions about the sources of life (Who? What? from whence?)
would appear with a finality from beyond experience and imagination.
The deformation suggests that within the goal-driven heat of the speaker
resides an "answer" in the form of the non-controlling intervention
described by the student. (An answer given, monumentally, from eternity
is itself a fantasy of control, as is the assumption that meaning, or
meanings, reside permanently in a poem independent of the reader's interventions.)
- Watch what happens when Ruscha deforms the poem by listing only the
last words of each line (last five lines of stanza V):
or (from stanza II):
- Each is a version of the renovative paradigm of visionary poeticsfar
from either the consoling vision of an all-knowing but enigmatic urn
or the ironic and skeptical vision of incomplete but theoretically possible
knowledge. In these deformations one observes a sketch of the comic
drama of hope, fulfillment, and abundance, sprung from waste and isolation,
that characterizes visionary poetics; the important point is that the
sketch resides within Keats's Ode. At the same time this renovative
trajectory is juxtaposed, say, with what happens when the poem is read
from back to front: a movement towards the silence of unanswered questions.
- These two very different kinds of deformations shift attention from
a linear, "penetrating" narrative leading to possession, through
knowledge, of the object's value, a hidden depth of value, towards a
non-subject-object-oriented set of what might be called spatial harmonics
of words, the "unheard melodies" of the poem. Traditional
readings of Keats's poetry (even up to the present day) assume a speaker
of normative consciousness, a person testing the "limits"
of visionary apprehension, an assumption encouraged by Keats's decasyllabic
line (associated with speech conducted from the perspective of the social
world). Deformation reminds one that persons speaking to urns, nightingales,
seasons, and ancient goddesses are not in a state of ordinary consciousnessthey
do not have their feet on the ground. In fact, their words may not even
belong to them: a poem like Keats's "Ode" may be a stream
or field of unheard melodies or harmonics that impose on or complement
one another in unexpected ways. If, for example, you read the poem backwards
and arrive, now late in the poem, at the line "What leaf-fring'd
legend haunts about thy shape / Of deities or mortals, or of both?"
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
- The "legend," strangely split from its crucial prepositional
modifier, is associated with non-verbal nature, with silence and quietness.
Legend as story haunts but does not reveal itself; legend as explanation
for symbols on a map does not explain. Reading backwards, the "shape"
itself remains mysterious. Indeed, the questions that open the stanza
vanish like water in sand; or rather, they vanish in the anticipation
of the answers they might produce, but they become vivid as "pure"
questioning, in their detail, the shape of the stanza: they fill out
the image of a questioning consciousness that haunts the space of the
poem. Deformation makes one realize how fragile the monumentalizing
and epistemologically optimistic trajectory of the "original"
poem is and how precarious is the voice of normative consciousness (a
point revealed in the following short-line deformation of part of the
last stanza, short lines typically being associated with a transformed,
disembodied or de-materialized consciousness:
Thou, silent form,
Dost tease us
Out of thought as doth
- Deformation often speaks against monumentalism and certainty in poetry;
it makes one see that the overwhelming drive for the oracular truth
(as Beauty) found outside the precinct of experience but blessing it
is a rescue fantasy. Students find such discoveries, that is, they find
the opposite experience of deformative intervention, exhilarating, even
if deformation often presents poetry more akin to perceptions of the
greater world realities of entropy and oblivion.
- Consider Adam's deformation, a re-writing of the poem as ASH, big
lines of poetry floating free from the top of the page to the bottom,
as if he had emptied the urn of its ritualized contents of death. But
what is the substance of ash?practically nothing, the way words
are just signs, not meanings, more non-sense than meaning in poetry!
Meaning exists but as an epiphenomenon, accompanying the reading, accumulating,
like ash itself as a residue of meaning, haunting the shape of the poem.
- The shape: in Ovid's phrase, a poem is an imago vocis, an image
of the voice. All poems are, in some sense, concrete: meaning-centered
reading practices (whether focussed on internal relations or historical
ones) typically "pass by" the actual sight in search of the
signified, like a train speeding through a tunnel. If you see the "Ode"
as ash, as an urn itself, as a short-lined poem (the "stuff"
of the middle removed), as prose, as a poem with one word per line,
you have created a set of commentaries on the visual impact of the original
and can no longer assume Keats's choices of line-length and stanza as
simply the default position, the transparent container of the poem.
- Reading the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" this way raises the question:
do poems "contain"? or are they surfaces? spatial arrangements?
Deformation produces the (all too infrequent) condition of re-reading.
To deform a poem is to create a second version of it, the first already
known, if only in a "pre-read" way. Reading the poem from
poem's close to poem's opening, we are haunted by what has become the
leaf-fring'd legend, or dream, of the original. As we read, we picture
it in glimpses; we recognize it, but strangely. At the same time we
are not reading naively: we have already read the poem, and the consciousness
of that poem produces, surprisingly, a spatial image of it as we see
it reworked, or in Keats's word, "overwrought." The overwrought
(in the emotional sense) search for meaning reduces the poem's space,
the poem as an inhabitant of the cosmos (a "real thing," as
Keats would say), to a mere line, with meaning "contained"
within the poem.
- When she wrote her "diastic" deformation based on the line
"Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty" (pick a word from the poem
beginning with "B," then a word with "e" as a second
letter, another with "a" as the third, and so on), Lisa showed
that one harmonic of the "Ode" is "Truth, [is] thus,
never near." Or, as Jessica wrote after rearranging the poem so
that all rhyming lines were together, "the thing [urn] is gone,
and now there is a poem which is slowly growing incomprehensible"
(anti-enlightenment trajectory). In both instances not knowing as a
condition of the experience of the poem attests, I believe, to the proximity
of poetry to death and the invitation it makes to the mind of the reader
to expand outward to touch that which is incomprehensible to us; the
poem becomes a kind of underworld image into which the reader descends
and travels and observes. In Lisa's poem the world becomes populated
with divine as well as human life, and the words, as in Keats's famous
line, seem to come from afar; her poem, in fact, may be unpacking the
Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty
Beauty is sweeter struggle.
Truth, thus, never near.
Though beneath the bride of youth,
Deities breathing beauty
Shape leaf-fring'd truth.
- Truth still is relevant to us, but not because we are "winning
near the goal," but because we envision a cosmos which values it.
The gods shape it, even in its incomprehensible (to us) form, "leaf-fring'd."
(We might call "divine" the presence of Lisa's poem within
Keats's.) Focus, instead, on the sweeter struggle that is beauty, active,
engaging, even sexual, and notice that "shape" has been transformed
from noun (object) to verb (action). What sweeter struggle could we
have than to read this deformation kaleidoscopically with Keats's version?
In terms of contemporary experimental poetics (from Mallarme onwards)
"truth" belongs to a "constellation," a set of correspondences
in the cosmos; at the same time it is a signifier in the river of language
that is the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," beyond the power of any
human ego to control it. One begins to realize that Keats, too, was
trying to write a poem about letting go of control but that in this
poem he may have been committed to a different, enlightenment rhetoric
of control. Harmonically, however, a more expansive poem resonatesone
not beholden to the "fetters" of subjectivity, of conventional
syntax and punctuation, of voice, and even of objects as repositories
of truth. The motto of the Ode's harmonics might be in Keats's sonnet
on what the thrush said:
O fret not after knowledgeI have none
And yet the Evening listensHe who saddens
At thought of Idleness cannot be idle
And he's awake who thinks himself asleep.
- This "thought of Idleness" brings to mind another outrageous
idea about deformation in Keats's "Ode"that Keats himself
may have written his own deformation of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn,"
calling it an "Ode on Indolence," the subject of which confirms
a surprising, counter-intuitive consensus in my class about the act
of deformation itself as "leisurely," even "lazy."
Somehow, as vigorous, aggressive, even industrious and productive as
deformation appears, it feels beyond the pale of the work ethic that
furrows the brows of scholars and students alike and yet limits both
vision and engagement. In that later poem, which Keats "enjoyed"
writing more than any other in his "1819 temper," the speaker
alludes to an urn in describing a visitation of three figures:
They pass'd, like figures on a marble urn
When shifted round to see the other
again; as when the urn once more
Is shifted round, the first seen shades return;
And they were strange to me, as may
to one deep in Phidian lore.
- Readers tend to see this poem as "imperfect," "weak,"
"immature," compared to the "great" monumental Odes,
but "Indolence" supports my class's view of the deformed version
of the "Grecian Urn": it proposes a different poetics, strategizes
against the enlightenment ardor for knowledge and possession and fulfillment
of the ego: "Vanish, ye Phantoms! From my idle spright, / Into
the clouds, and never more return!" It disregards "depth"
and celebrates surfaces: "My soul had been a lawn besprinkled o'er
/ With flowers, and stirring shades, and baffled beams: . . ."
It invites repetition, remarking that an urn is shifted round more than
once so that sights on it "return." The famous textual history
of the poemthe uncertainty about the sequence of stanzassuggests
that the poem has no inevitable trajectory but exists in space. (Imagine
deforming the poem as a circle of stanzas!) It notes not the familiarity
but the "strange"ness of vision and asserts the figures' life
independent from the wishes of viewer or maker. And finally it promotes
the condition of readerly indolence and implies praise for that habit
of mind. Going further, it values what Bataille finds definitive in
poetry, its excess of expenditure, its inherent wastefulness. (See Marjorie
Levinson for a more elaborate working out of this issue.) In both of
his Odes Keats attempts to promote the Urn as object beyond its use-value.
Yet my students seemed to accept a course in "lazy" (not use-
or meaning-oriented) reading, not as trivial but as a form of serious
play. In a course on Romantic poetry, another group of students were
surprised to discover, upon reading the "Ode to a Nightingale"
backwards that that poem was not about "accepting tragic reality"
but about vision in a drugged state (Hemlock, a draught of vintage)
and that drugs and oblivion might be what poetry is really about (the
true, the blushful Hippocrene), ending as it does with a drowsy numbness;
ditto for Kubla Khan when shifted round from back to front.
I believe my students discovered that their pleasure in and their acute
consciousness of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" increased with
the riskiness of the playful interventions. Where were they at such
moments? Feet clearly not on the ground, clearly not hearing "the
voice of busy common-sense," they nonetheless were affirmed, gathering
the meaning of things more or less in a dreamy state, as was the poem
passing before their eyes. How much more do we really want to accomplish
with a student reading a poem?