24 June 2012

Poetry workshops continue: screening of Keats film in the autumn

The workshop I ran a week ago here in Hamburg about writing Renga - ancient Japanese group poems - produced wonderful results, which I hope to be able to publish here soon in the next few days. My heartfelt thanks to all of you who took part - you made it special!

Meanwhile, my poetry education work continues on Saturday, 15th September, 2.30 pm, with a public screening of Jane Campion's film about Fanny Brawne and John Keats at the Naturschutzhaus, Fischbeker Heideweg 43, 21149 Hamburg. After the film there should be the possibility to participate in a poetry writing workshop (writing in German & English), using Keats' poetry as a starting point. Here, below, is a piece that I wrote for the London Review of Books blog in spring 2010 about the film, which they didn't take. (Occasional fascinating stuff on that blog, but the set-up appears to be rather a carve-up. They won't take a post on what maybe the first decent English language bio-pic of a poet, but they will post a LRB writer superfically plugging his latest novel.) Anyway,
I still stick by what I wrote about the film, LRB publication or no .....

Jane Campion's film Bright Star (view trailer)
the love story of Fanny Brawne and John Keats, has been in UK
cinemas since the autumn, and is still running in London.
So far, no one from the LRB has wanted to write about it
 either in the print edition or on the blog. That surprised me.
A good film about a great world poet comes
along every 50 years or so if we're lucky. It's been no
box office hit - you can work out from the box office
takings http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/2009/BRSTR.php that
c. 300,000 people have seen the film world-wide. Yet even
that should make it the biggest event in the
popularisation of Keats since the intense wave of
editions of his poems published between the 1850s and the

 So who is Campion's Keats? He's humorous and good at
playing with Fanny's younger brother - a young teenager -
and sister - aged 7 or 8. He's a hundred times more
likeable than the romantic poet stereotype, lone and
palely loitering, that colours how we have read him. And
yet Campion still foregrounds his death - and one
particular conception of his death - too strongly.

 After the point in the film when the news is brought to
London that Keats is dead, Campion puts this simple
message across the screen: "Keats died believing he was a
failure." Campion wants to give us closure. Andrew
Motion, Keats' biographer, acted as advisor to the film.
His chapter on Keats' death confirms Campion's message on
the one hand - and on the other shows it to be
negligently misleading. The depressive even suicidal
thoughts are obviously there - how could they not be? - a
young man dying under a painful and terminal illness,
knowing that his life's work has received next to no
positive critical resonance. Yet in the midst of that he works on an inscription for his tombstone, choosing a
metaphor of water to describe himself, a metaphor of
unceasing movement and transformation. This doesn't match
with Campion's Keats, just thinking himself a failure:

 "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

 That's the line that Keats wanted on his headstone. Has
anyone else noticed how uncannily close Keats' lines are
to Rilke's final lines of "Sonnets to Orpheus", which,
coming close before his death, can also well be
understood as the poet's final words of self-conception? - 

 "And should the world itself forget your name
 say this to the still earth: I flow.
 Say this to the quick stream: I am."

(Taken from Don Paterson's Orpheus: A version of Rilke, 2006)

 And can we do anything with this water? I did something.
Inspired by Campion, I re-read "To a Nightingale" - and
aged 34, and despite the handicap of having an English
degree - I got it for the first time. Thankfully, I'll
not detail this process. But I got it.

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