Contemporary Poets on Negatively Capable Poems, Part 1

Re: Keats’s 21-27 December letter to George and Tom Keats

Over the next three days the KLP will feature reflections from contemporary poets on poems that they find to be particularly negatively capable. Today’s reflections come from Katy Didden (on Vievee Francis’s “A Flight of Swiftlets Made Their Way in”), Anna Leahy (on Anna Swir’s “Woman Unborn” (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)), and Murat Nemet-Nejat (on Orhan Veli (multiple poems)).

Read Part 2 here
Read Part 3 here

Katy Didden
Ball State University

Negative Capability as Negative Space: Vievee Francis’s “A Flight of Swiftlets Made Their Way in

Two weeks after I heard about this project to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of Keats’s letter, my students and I read “A Flight of Swiftlets Made Their Way In” by Vievee Francis. In the poem, the speaker testifies to an experience of being invaded by swiftlets (small birds in the swift family) that “settled along [her] cage,” “Flew into the emptiness of [her],” and then “nested lickety-split in [her] walls.” In the beginning, the speaker admits her desire to harm the swiflets, “to take their tiny frames/ and snap their necks.” Maybe more than anything, this moment, when the speaker admits to villainy, might demonstrate what I think Keats meant by Shakespeare’s negative capability—something about the the way in which Shakespeare brings humanity’s violent impulses to light, from Shylock’s “The villainy you teach me I will execute,” to Richard III’s “I am determined to prove a villain / and hate the idle pleasures of these days.” What makes Francis’s lines so effective is the tone, which is not apologetic or even confessional, but more matter-of-fact. In the next line, she dares the reader to admit to the same brutal impulse, to acknowledge that this feeling is an indelible part of human nature: “Tell me / you haven’t wanted to stifle what hovers / dumb before your heart?” Because she imagines snapping their necks and does not, we get a fuller picture of the speaker—a comprehensive look at self and shadow. In this way, I think negative capability relates to the artist’s ability to perceive negative space—to shift seeing so that the shadow takes shape, and can therefore be regarded; to add dimension to what’s seen. Her action not to harm the swifts becomes, in sharp contrast to her initial impulse, more persuasive and remarkable.

To see negative space is also a means of making what should be impossible, material. This is essentially the work of figurative language. Like Keats does in “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” where he builds realms of gold out of the emotion of reading,until Homer launches him to a peak in Darien, Francis makes this phenomenon of being inhabited by swiflets seem more real for the way she situates them in one body that becomes a series of hollows, from a cage, to a cave, to a tomb (“from which the stone has been rolled”). In a sense, she has reversed the artist’s looking, and made what is material into a space of shadows, “I have never been whole, / so there was room.” Where Keats’s poem builds to a crescendo with the speaker adopting the posture of a discoverer (one who colonizes), Francis’s speaker calls out from the position of the occupied, and the final move is a gesture of Ovidian transfiguration, where the speaker, like Philomela, becomes the bird, “wind-borne,” and leaves human language behind for the percussive code of wings, using a word that in our language is a mark of violence, but in Francis’s new patterning becomes the means of taking flight:

wings within beating beating beatingbeating

beatingbeating beating


Katy Didden is the author of The Glacier’s Wake (Pleiades Press, 2013). She holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri, and her poems and essays have appeared in journals such as Poetry Northwest, The Kenyon Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Sewanee Review, Ecotone, 32 Poems, and Poetry. She is currently Assistant Professor at Ball State University. More info at
Click here for info Vievee Francis’s book, Forest Primeval, from Northwestern University Press.

Anna Leahy

Is there anything that remains as mysterious to us as our own individual nonexistence? Though I know that I was born and didn’t exist before then, few ideas challenge the limits of my thinking as much as trying to imagine not being. Hence, my dread of death.

In her poem “Woman Unborn,” Anna Swir ponders existence before having existed. The poem begins five minutes before the speaker’s birth, then ten, then an hour. Swir writes, “I go back, / I run / into my minus life.” The poem feels methodical because we understand reverse chronology, as the speaker travels back years, “through epochs / in which there was no me.” The speaker dwells, at least fleetingly, in the experience of what she might have been in other times, a spinster, an unloved wife, a water bearer. As methodical and clear as the sentences are, this going back in time relinquishes reason and embraces uncertainty. The poem—this thought experiment—urges the reader to consider, what might it have been like, this world without me? And without me—without my consciousness, my imagination—how can I possibly imagine the world?

Vladimir Nabokov begins his memoir, Speak, Memory, with a similar notion: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Swir moves into that dark, eternal uncertainty. There, she finds, in a combination of playful negations not unlike those in the second stanza of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” that “nonexistence so much resembles immortality.” If to live is to be mortal, then to not exist is to be immortal. But, wait, to be immortal, one must live and go on living. No, to be immortal, one must not be subject to death; the immortal experiences eternity. Of course, if one does not exist, one is nothing at all. Without that crack of light that is an individual’s life, can there be, as Swir suggests, “a reverse of life”?

Before Adam and Eve, “it’s dark,” and there’s nowhere—and no time—left to go. That’s where “nonexistence dies already / with the trite death of mathematical fiction.” Even then, at the edge of this conceptual abyss—at the beginning of time and with the curious already—that’s too much logic. Is nonexistence erased by existence? The poem makes one more turn of time back on itself: “As trite as the death of my existence would have been / had I been really born.” She was born, of course, as we all have been. For all of us, then, death remains the most pedestrian of mysteries, illuminated only by our knowledge that we did not always exist.

Anna Leahy is the author of the poetry collections Aperture and Constituents of Matter and the nonfiction book Tumor. Her poems and essays appear widely, and her essays won the Ninth Letter Nonfiction Award and the Dogwood Grand Prize in 2016. See more at
Click here for info on Anna Swir’s book,
Talking to My Bodyfrom Copper Canyon Press.

Murat Nemet-Nejat

Negative Capability and Orhan Veli’s Infinite Quietness[1]

To me negative capability expresses itself in two ways: first, through a reticence to use words, a practice to withhold, an extreme, radical economy of words; the second, through the ability to wait, not to act, wait for the moment the reveal itself, its Zen reality. In both senses, the Turkish poet Orhan Veli is a supreme possessor of negative capability.

You can pass by
All these houses
By streetcar,
But your house
Is further away.[2]

The breathtaking power of this poem derives  from what is not there, the endless yearning beyond tiny bits of visible facts: “these houses.”

Along with the economy of what is presented, there is the bareness of language, a simple statement that a pubescent child or a declarative sentence a foreign student learning how to speak English may utter: “You can pass by all these houses by streetcar, but your house is further away. ”

In the poetic manifesto to the “Garip” movement In Turkey in 1941, of which he was one of the leaders, Veli says, “In order to rescue ourselves from the stifling effects of the literatures which have dictated and shaped our tastes and judgments for too many years, we must dump overboard everything that those literatures have taught us. [I] wish it were possible to dump language itself.”[3] Devoid of rhetorical excess and even metaphors, only facts, a series of ordinary acts: a radical reticence:

The Guest

I was bored yesterday towards evening;
Two packages of cigarettes didn’t do me a thing;
I tried to write, no good either;
For the first time in years I played the violin,
Walked around,
Kibitzed watching people play backgammon,
Sang songs off key,
Caught flies—a boxful.
Finally, damn it,
I came here to see you.[4]

In Orhan Veli, negative capability is often a state of boredom (or melancholy or restlessness) that advances towards stasis—as facts, objects in the outside world emerge in their own language, and the ego loses the consciousness of a self and appears to itself, newly, as a guest.

In his poetry, negative capability reveals “the isness of is,” stripped of frills, its underground rhythms and its radiant beauty:

How beautiful the color of tea
In the morning
In the fresh air.
How beautiful
The fresh air
How beautiful the young boy
How beautiful the tea
Is. [5]

Veli’s “boxful of flies” and Keats’ inviolate and elusive “unravished bride of quietness” of “The Grecian Urn” belong to the same infinite universe where time reaches a standstill, the space of negative capability.

Poet, translator from Turkish and essayist, Murat Nemet-Nejat’s recent work includes the poems Animals of Dawn (Talisman, 2016), The Spiritual Life of Replicants (Talisman, 2011), the collaboration with the poet Standard Schaefer “Alphabet Dialogues/Penis Monologues”; the translations Seyhan Erözçelik’s Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds (Talisman, 2010), the republication by Green Integer Press of Ece Ayhan’s A Blind Cat Black and Orthodoxies (2015). He is the editor of Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry, (Talisman House, 2004). He is presently working on the poems Io’s Song, Camels and Weasels, and a collection of translations from the Turkish poet Sami Baydar. The Spiritual Life, Animals of Dawn, Camels and Weasels and Io’s Song are part of a seven-part poem The Structure of Escape.

[1] Orhan Veli (1914-1950).

[2] I, Orhan Veli, Poems by Orhan Veli, translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat (New York City: New York: Hanging Loose Press, 1989), p. 112.

[3] I, Orhan Veli, p. 9.

[4] I, Orhan Veli, p. 88.

[5] I, Orhan Veli, p. 105.

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