Kissing Matters: Keats’s Material Addresses

To launch the KLP, we’ll be featuring responses, written by the founders, to Keats’s first extant letter, the verse epistle ‘To George Felton Mathew.’ You can read the poem here, and the previous response in the series here. Once collected, all responses will be here.

Dear all,

I am with you in this “great partnership,” maybe even ineluctably as a partial friend.  Almost as soon as Keats begins to characterize his “great partnership” with George Felton, he calls himself, or perhaps them both, a “[t]oo partial friend!” (11).  Keats’s classic wit perhaps could not pass up the pun on partiality’s meanings, companionate in their opposition.  The partial friendship might be that relationship that is always incomplete, qualified, limited, and imperfect not simply because most of us are flawed humans but because even friends always remain, in some sense, withdrawn from us.  This isn’t all for Keats, as such a fragmentary or incomplete understanding may just as well stem from our own selfish desires and biases and rivalries, or perhaps even more strange, our desire to favor someone, to project our own liking for and flattery onto them and their experiences.

Even at this early moment in Keats’s writing career, such partiality comes from or is perhaps exacerbated by something of the virtual experience of verse:  “Too partial friend! Fain would I follow thee / Past each horizon of fine poesy” (11-12).  This simulation, by its very nature fragmentary and yet seductively immersive, works as much through a series of sensory descriptions that might evoke Felton’s response as through an encompassing projection on the screen of the imagination. So Keats’s verse seems formed to elicit from Felton a series of discrete responses even as it subtends the act of reply with a narrative worlding where Keats and Felton might take that magic carpet ride beyond the horizon of nineteenth century poetry.  If Keats is an arch-poet of virtuality, it might be less about getting as close to another person’s subjectivity through the prosthesis of the imagination and more a kind of constant material mediation, like a continual stream of texting, a series of rampant and constant encounters with material-poetic screens.

So as much as I am only partially with you, I quite can’t be with you in brotherhood. Not just because, as Ian and Anne both so wonderfully argue, I am a double agent of our absent-present correspondence but because in this space where I spend so much of my day—typing, pausing, twirling my hair, clicking and reclicking on my inbox, command-tabbing from Word to Chrome and back again, I stay for so long.  In this space of fingers and eyes and screens that hold different boxes with your many beautifully crafted words, I maybe naively can’t but feel as though I am with you in some small but persistent sense.  Maybe not the whiskey stained, shaky handed manuscript letters and their material, moving bodies that Emily so delicately traces.   But if the brotherhood that initiates the poem through partial rivalry and loving bias begins in a world of presences and absences, I can’t help but want to see the poem as ending elsewhere, in the non-brotherly transformations of the Matthew’s non-human journey, his stint as swan-fish-flower-river.  Yes, I know using that world I’m about to use—the non-human—will elicit the sigh that perhaps rightfully belongs to the current hot fuzz of OOO.  But what happens at the end of the letter, like what I think sometimes, at some moments, happens in the material screen-space of our profession, marks a turn to a post-masculine, post-human transformational interaction between two entities in the world.

When Keats tracks the end of this journey with Felton to “the source, bright, pure, and undefil’d / Whence gush the streams of song” (), he Keats is not ultimately after pure, ummediated poetic bliss, a stream both he and Felton can dip into together to redeem their partiality.  Rather, we find a host of differences ontologically mediated:  Felton was a flower that, after having been plucked and thrown into that stream, is changed by Apollo into a goldfish, then a black-eyed swan.  Though the non-human transformations here create an oblique end to a story that seems to project a design for “being with” or entering into productive conversation, perhaps Keats and Felton are well beyond human conversation.  Like that silent bride and the full-throated nightingale, Felton’s non-human flower, fish, and swan become what speculative realists might call recalcitrant objects whose perforated forms resist our tendencies to anthropomorphize them, to understand them as living subjects in communication with human thought and feeling, and instead garner their own ontological status largely, if not totally, withdrawn from human subjectivity.  So Keats’s address to Felton, his attempt to project a poetic epigenesis that they might both share if only through Keats’s own virtual experience, ends in an object’s silence and its a perpetually untold tale.

Yet this isn’t the whole story, since three more lines get us to “Kissing thy daily food from Naiad’s pearly hands.”  Finally, a Keatsian kiss at the end of a long, flirtation with flush’d Aurora, the Muse, the Naiads, and even chaste Diana!  But not quite that sort of intercourse.  Kissing pushes us past a model of relationality where Felton, as a proxy for Keats or other poets, can only either advance or withdraw from an object, whether the anthropomorphized feminine keeper of poesy or the non-human raised on its streams.  This final movement of kissing suggests a different relationship between the poem’s sets of partial friends (Felton-flower and the stream, the poet and his inspiration, and Keats and Felton), something more along the lines of what Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter has described as a vital materialism.  Bennett posits an inherent relationality between humans and objects that is not subsumed into human desires or thoughts, rather, an assemblages of things and forms of agency “distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field” (23).   In other words, Keats manages to displace human subjectivity at the origins of poetry itself and instead conjures a field of relations between various things whose emergent interactions form poesis itself.

Poetry becomes not the act of kissing or being kissed, not the tale told or the tale listened to, not the feeling of sensation or being felt, but “kissing,” a congregational energy that super-charges the air with a new nexus of materials, a particulate exchange between speaking voice and shining river.  What is at stake, finally, may be a model of interaction that is not so much immediacy or absent response but a limited, quantum material exchange, the momentary kissing of all the streams.  Certainly in ways I cannot articulate, I have been materially changed by all your mic checks, still rushing by me.

Kate Singer

2 thoughts on “Kissing Matters: Keats’s Material Addresses

    • Oh wow! Your great great great grandfather was an important early influence on Keats’s development as a poet. Thanks for reading!

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