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Anahid Nersessian

In 1819, at the age of 24, John Keats wrote six poems that are collectively known as his “Great Odes”. He died two years later in Rome. Anahid Nersessian’s book Keats’ Odes: A Lover’s Discourse (Verso, 2022) is formed of six essays responding to each poem, with a sensibility attuned to the political dimensions of those works and in particular their parallel expression in the writing of Marx. Nersessian also – and relatedly – examines the poetry’s sensual power, one that draws in the ugly and violent, suggesting that any art that looks to describe life must represent a certain breach with the Romantic sublime. As she writes, “Will we choose to believe in an art that launders pain and calls that an ethics? Or will we opt for something else, not knowing necessarily what it might be but certain it will involve the loss of something precious – an elegant idea, a charming concert, a way of being effortlessly in the world?” As she shows, a poem might be able to love as well as describe the world, and so help to bring about the conditions for its being changed.

Interview by Nell Whittaker

John Keats

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a faneIn some untrodden region of my mind,Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind

— John Keats, “Ode to Psyche”

NELL WHITTAKER John Keats’ “Odes” were written during a time of huge social disruption, as you write in the book’s introduction. The Romantic movement itself was a response to industrialisation and imperialism, and the Peterloo massacre happened concurrently with Keats writing the poems. You wrote this book just before the pandemic and it was published 200 years after Keats died from tuberculosis, a respiratory disease endemic during that period. What is the role of literature and literary criticism in the context of crisis?

ANAHID NERSESSIAN Criticism has different functions for different critics and for different audiences. The readers who are usually drawn to my work are interested in thinking about how the arts serve us or fail to serve us in times of crisis – so, they tend to be left wing or left-oriented one way or another. At the same time, I’m always hoping to introduce more people to the kinds of ideas that are in this book and to show them that despite what they might believe, there really is not a huge distance between the Romantics and Karl Marx, and also, as you said, that there’s not any distance at all between Romanticism and a critique of the Industrial Revolution; they are, in fact, completely historically coincident with one another. The people who have been alienated or annoyed by the book are people for whom it’s very important to believe that there’s a strict separation between the literary and the political. My instinct is that such people like to think of the political as a benighted zone; it’s horrifying to them to encounter Shakespeare and Boris Johnson in the same sentence. A degraded understanding of the political tends to make people look to literature primarily as a respite – a zone of beauty and truth “outside” the shameful everyday. But literature, especially the poetry I love best, is born of the desire to resist life as it is presently lived, and not merely to brush its horrors under the rug. My dearest hope for the book would be that, if you came to it not already being interested in the history of radical thought and its poetic articulation, you might leave with an expanded sense of what literature is, where it comes from, and what it can do.

NW That understanding of literature as having political import came to you early. You write about being an Iranian-American child in the 1980s and 1990s, and there’s a moment in the book where you write about being assaulted and harassed by people who didn’t even know where Iran was, and you say, “I figured out early on that WASPs can’t be trusted with their own culture”. It belongs to you as much as them.

AN Absolutely. I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before, but certain people can choose to distinguish between the personal and the political and others always experience their personhood as politicised. I grew up in New York City, which is typically seen as a very liberal place, but during the 1980s and 1990s when the conflict between the US and Iran was at a high pitch it was an absolute given in every airport that my father would be pulled over, that his bag would be opened, that he would be separated from me and my mother. There was always a sense of being – if not exactly targeted – under a certain degree of suspicion. I felt that way in school as well. I was often harassed by other kids, particularly once the Gulf War started, because they just didn’t care to know the difference between Iran and Iraq. Many people who feel like outsiders when they’re young often find solace in competence and for me, the solace was being really good at reading books. The discipline of English was a place where I felt psychologically at ease, and that continues to be true, for better and for worse. When you’re the kind of person who finds work less stressful than your intimate life, you take on way more than you should as a means of coping and then you run yourself into the ground. That kind of over-functioning is something that I learned very early and now I’d like to say I’m trying to unlearn, but that would be dishonest. I’m not trying very hard.

NW The second part of the book’s title, A Lover’s Discourse, is taken from Roland Barthes’s 1977 book. Is the book a dialogue or a discourse? There’s an interesting line in the postscript where you write: “The truth is there is no voice that I don’t hear louder than my own.”

AN Yes, although people often misquote that to me as, “There’s no voice I hear louder than my own”, which has exactly the opposite meaning.

NW I had to reread it a few times. What is it like to be in a dialogue in which you have the quietest voice?

AN My relation to literature is often passive and absorptive. This is what Keats called “negative capability”, the sensation of going into a room full of people and feeling their identities press upon him until he’s “in a very little time annihilated”. I never really feel myself to be in dialogue with a poem; I feel more as though the truth of that object has invaded me, and I have to process it in my own idiosyncratic way or I’ll go mad or fall ill. So the line “there’s no voice I don’t hear louder than my own” is partly an explanation of that phenomenon and also of this sense that I think some of us experience in love, which is that the other person, the love object, comes absolutely to control the texture of the universe. Their personality, their voice, their tone, becomes the entirety of your reality. That can be thrilling, but it can also be very frightening. I think that that’s the condition that [Keats’ fiancée] Fanny Brawne was probably in, vis-à-vis Keats. Even though he said to her constantly that she had absorbed him I think that she must have felt very enveloped by his intensity in a way that was quite uncomfortable.

Karl Marx

Words – lies, hollow shadows, nothing more,Crowding Life from all sides round!In you, dead and tired, must I outpourSpirits that in me abound?

— Karl Marx, “To Jenny”

NW You write that Keats’s work, in stark contrast, is pushing outwards towards us. How are they operating so differently?

AN That’s the million-dollar question, right? Keats himself, in one of his letters, describes Wordsworth’s poetry as an instance of the “egotistical sublime”, which means something like: this poetry is so selffocused that it’s locked within its own consciousness and can’t get out or care about anyone. This has nothing to do with the austerity of Wordsworth’s language, though maybe it has to do with his strangely impersonal register. Keats’ poetry is less strenuously autobiographical than Wordsworth’s and – combined with its much headier sensuality – that creates an opening for the reader to enter into the poetry in a way that Wordsworth’s poetry really doesn’t, or at least I don’t think it does.

NW If Wordsworth represents the egotistical sublime, he’s the foil for Keats, who you describe as expressing the erotic sublime.

AN It’s fascinating to me how sexless Wordsworth’s poetry is. He has zero interest in sex or sexuality at all, which is unique among the Romantics. In fact, one could say it’s unique in poetry in general. It’s a very strange and largely unremarked-upon absence in his work. I would guess that sex was simply not interesting to him as a category of experience. He had a child out of wedlock with a woman in France when he was hanging around to witness the French Revolution, so he clearly at some point in his life was overcome by reckless passion and acted upon it. But otherwise, if he comes within 20 yards of intimacy it’s always in highly sanitised language celebrating the marital bond, et cetera, disappointingly dry and disappointingly sentimental.

NW I was interested to read your piece on Leonard Cohen in the Los Angeles Review of Books, as there seems to be a throughline. You write that Keats’s poetry “wants to belong to us”, so that communality in its political sense is located in erotics and the body, and you’re thinking of Marx here as well, and “remaking the body into the condition of shared freedom”. Do you feel like you’re reclaiming the relationship between sensuality and politics, particularly from Keats’s early detractors who thought that his interest in sensation was an essentially sordid preoccupation?

AN I hadn’t thought about this until you brought up Leonard Cohen, but in the chapter on “Ode to Psyche”, there’s a lineage traced from the ancient Sumerian poem “The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi,” a heart-stoppingly gorgeous and extremely pornographic sacred text, through to the legend of Psyche or the myth of Psyche then into Keats’s “Ode to Psyche” and then forward to Marx. One of the things that people love about Leonard Cohen – including me, and you’re getting at this, too – is the productive collapse of the sacred into the erotic into the political. It’s not my favourite of his songs by a long stretch, but this conversation makes me think about “Joan of Arc,” which is a song about the Resistance as much as it is an erotic hymn to the dream of being consumed by love. Keats would have loved it.

William Wordsworth

AllTurned to the cleanly supper-board, and there,Each with a mess of pottage and skimmed milk,Sat round the basket piled with oaten cakes,And their plain home-made cheese

— William Wordsworth, “Michael”

NW In the book, and particularly in the chapter on “On a Grecian Urn”, there is an apprehension of love as something that can be wielded as power. You quote Anne Boyer…

AN I was about to say that, yes – “the suffering called gender named by capital as love”. Oh, that’s such an incredible line.

NW It is. What does love mean throughout the book?

AN The chapter that was hardest to write was on “Ode on Melancholy”. There’s a couple of paragraphs there following a quotation from a Stephen Rodefer poem that I must have rewritten 20 times. They were excruciatingly difficult because I was trying, more or less, to dramatise an answer to your question: what is love, essentially? How do I experience it? I ended up saying that there is a kind of love like a riot, explosive and full of potential and solidarity, on a continuum with the kind of solidarity that multiple people could have with one another. It is political in that sense, even though it’s intensely intimate. I then describe the pain of love as it gets poisoned by neurosis, by anxiety, inhibition, unmanageable ambivalence, failures of transparency, all the impasses and hazards that interrupt the possibility of a pure and emancipated form of relation. Anyway, those sentences are the heart of the entire project; I’m still not satisfied with them.

NW Earlier, you spoke about competence being a form of refuge, but in the book you write that, “in grad school, I learned that good writer is a synonym for con artist”. How does that kind of self-suspicion present itself in the project of writing?

AN Well, I went to the University of Chicago, which has a reputation for what is often referred to, in the university, as rigour. When I was there, there was no question that what was most important was idea and argument. Style was utterly irrelevant – and indeed, the more beautiful your writing and the more interested that you were in questions of form, the more suspicion you would fall under. My advisors truly thought of it as their mission to beat the aesthetic out of everyone. I felt very grateful for that at the time, and it was less traumatic for me than it was for other people because I never fancied myself a writer; I fancied myself as a critic, and perhaps to some degree, a theorist. I didn’t care if people thought my prose was too elegant to be serious – that was neither here nor there to me – but I had friends who found that experience profoundly destabilising. But you know, my teachers all love that line! They all respond to it by saying, “but that’s true! Being a good writer does make you a con artist!” Isn’t that hilarious? Because I’ve always wanted to be a critic and because, for me, the critic is a very distinct person from the writer – I am well aware that not everyone sees it that way – it’s new and uncomfortable for me to admit that I actually do find style and form important, and not just seductive. Writing is an idea finding a rhythm. If you’ve ever been edited in a way that feels clumsy or aggressive, you’ll know that if the rhythm of your prose is changed its content is changed, too. Anyway, I don’t know if I’m a good writer or if I’m a con artist, but I’m learning to be more comfortable with both appellations.

NW Is poetry the purest expression of the connection between rhythm and idea?

AN Different poets have different relationships to this question. There are some poets whose poetry is full of ideas and interested in argument or in theorising about problems in the world or problems in the self, and then there are poets who are much more interested in the oblique but no less intense apprehension of sensuous experience. I don’t have a strict preference for one kind of poetry or another, and I don’t have a preference for poetry that imagines itself to be philosophic song, as Wordsworth thought of his poetry. I take on all comers.

NW But you’re not Wordsworth’s biggest fan…

AN No, I’m not, it’s true, although I’m obsessed with him. I love teaching Wordsworth and I love writing about Wordsworth, but I would not say that I read Wordsworth with great pleasure.

NW My only real encounter with Wordsworth extends to reading Lyrical Ballads [1798] at school, but I also harbour dark feelings about him. One poem from that collection describes an old man in these terms: “Few months of life has he in store / As he to you will tell, / For still, the more he works, the more / Do his weak ankles swell.”

AN I was motivated to write about my dislike of Wordsworth partly because so many people approach his poetry as though it’s terribly uncomplicated, as though it’s just a straight-up edifying meditation on life, childhood, fatherhood, nature. It’s interesting you said a dark feeling, because I find his poetry to be very, very dark, and deeply disturbing. The ways in which the poetry is literally repulsive – it really pushes you away – simply hasn’t been captured in the criticism. I want to stay in that dark space; I want maybe to illuminate it.

NW Is it repulsive because of its formal inelegance, which corresponds to an ugly set of ideas?

AN That formal inelegance is one of its mechanisms, and if you read Wordsworth’s poetry out loud, like The Prelude – “Michael”, too, but particularly The Prelude – there’s a lot of gridlock. The metre will stumble over itself or grind to a halt or become, in some profound sense, unutterable. That corresponds to Wordsworth’s own habit of psychic self-interruption, which makes it very hard to do what he seems to be telling us to do, namely, identify with him. So, Wordsworth asks you to align your consciousness and your sensorium with his, but then the poetry violently shoves you away and wraps itself in a self-isolating obscurity that is impenetrable to the idea of an other, much less to the idea of collectivity. I’ll be thinking about Wordsworth for the rest of my life.

Leonard Cohen

Who cares what I sayI’m not who I wasI’m paid what I payI’m always in love

— Leonard Cohen, from Book of Longing

NW The Cohen song that for me brings all these ideas together is “A Singer Must Die”, in which he is making a play at disavowing the political by appealing to sex. He sings, “in rings of her silk, in the hinge of her thighs / where I have to go begging in beauty’s disguise”; essentially, all I was ever doing was trying out the poetry in order to get to the woman. He’s pretending that that pursuit has no political dimension at all.

AN Maybe there’s an analogy to be made here that what Keats is to Leonard Cohen, Wordsworth is to Bob Dylan. Dylan is a paradigmatic example of the egotistical sublime and also an artist who almost never writes about sex. There are lots of lovers in Dylan’s songs, but you would never in a million years find a line like the one you just quoted in one of them. There’s none of Cohen’s submissive attention to the body of another. My first encounter with Cohen’s music was through some Judy Collins record my parents had, and of course Judy Collins has this absolutely crystalline voice, like a smooth bird or a bell, a perfect, beautiful voice. She covered a lot of Cohen’s songs, and I was so moved by the lyrics I asked my parents about the person who wrote them. They played me a recording of Cohen singing his own songs and I was horrified. The lyrics were so passionate but his voice was utterly flat, even deadpan, and then in later years his vocal cords were so wrecked that he didn’t sing but growl. That’s what I’ve come to love so much about Leonard Cohen – the imperfection, the rasp. Barthes has a wonderful essay called “The Grain of the Voice” that describes the texture of the voice as the body’s residue in song. In Cohen all you hear is the body; it’s so vulnerable and, in its vulnerability, so powerful.

NW My friend asked me a question years ago I’ve been trying to answer since, which was why do women love Leonard Cohen? I think that one answer is that there’s some apprehension there of the suffering called gender.

AN And the fear of its insurmountability, and yet of the desperation to surmount it. In that chapter on “Ode on Melancholy,” we find that love is a wild, even communist force that can’t always withstand the shit it bumps into. Still, love is also a commitment to renewing the drive to connect over and over and over again, and that’s what all of Leonard Cohen’s songs are about. There’s a fearlessness and a courage in them that is so moving, and always dependent on a relation to some other – whereas again, with Dylan, his ego is completely self-sustaining. The world of Dylan’s songs depends only on Dylan. No one else is there to engage or interact with or be addressed. But all Cohen’s songs are apostrophic. It’s all a lovers’ discourse.

NW How does love relate to romance? Keats and his peers are the Romantic poets, and then you describe the desire for poetry to have socially transformative power as a romantic idea, particularly in relation to contemporary poets like Sean Bonney.

AN I’ve been rereading [Vladimir] Mayakovsky’s essay, “How Are Verses Made” [1926 / 1970], which I often do because it’s so brilliant and funny. At one point, Mayakovsky says something like, “Most poetry is written with the sole purpose of getting a girl to walk out with you in the evening”, but this is not the kind of poetry we should be writing, it’s too shallow and self-interested. The poetry of romance is poetry that is just trying to get girls to walk out with you in the evening, whereas all of Keats’s poems are love poems, which is something else altogether. Now, to be clear, in terms of their genre, almost none of them are love poems – maybe “Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art”, is – but he wrote almost no straightforward love poems, and certainly none of his most famous poems would fall into that category. I don’t think the poetry is intended to be seductive, exactly, even though it does surround and enraptures us. It doesn’t have a narrow social objective but a wholly transformative one, it wants to change the way in which we experience the world on a somatic level, and it wants to make the world present to us with a new intensity. It’s not romantic but erotic, keyed into a much more diffuse and yet almost unbearably vivid expression of desire.

NW In the “Grecian Urn” essay you make the controversial claim that the speaker is a persona or character that Keats is voicing, and that speaker is describing something he doesn’t understand himself, which is the ugly and violent underside of what we call culture. Can that poem be a love poem, even though it’s about sexual violence?

AN That’s a beautiful prospect. Yes, I think it’s a love poem, because it attends to that which has been silenced. There’s a beautiful line that I remind myself of often – a line that changed my life, really – in the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality: “there is not one but many silences.” “Grecian Urn” is a poem about those many silences, and I love your idea that one of those silences is art, because art is also very often a silencing of life, whether we like it or not. Trying, even in an indirect and partial way, to animate and recover that which has been silenced, or minimally, to show that something was here and was lost, is an act of love. Although I would hesitate to say it’s an act of radical love, in this case it would be true. ◉