Stephen Altman - The Blog
All about Life, John Keats and Blues for the Muse

  • Stephen Altman

The weather (if not the climate) is getting better here in Shepherdstown. Because autumn's arriving, and because John Keats wrote "To Autumn," the perfect poem, I had thought of posting it today. But if you're at all familiar with Keats, you know the poem already, and if you're not you can find it with a click or two. Instead, here's a small series of remarkable observations about Keats and the end of things by Stanley Plumly, from his book, The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb, which he published in 2014. Plumly met his own end in 2019. He writes:


The Italians have a term, crepusculari, for the writers they have categorized as the sunset poets, Keats being among them, especially since he died in Rome. Italy, of course, is not the only country where the crepuscular occurs, where the eye fills with light, the falling light. The painter’s eye, like the poet’s, may have a lot on its mind, but its first responsibility is to see, to allow the imagination to come to terms. What is the great subject in nature if not sunset, the long slow end of each day? It is mortal time made immortal, as we attend it, again and again. The archetypal brilliance of Keats’s “To Autumn” is its recognition of the passing of the season as represented in the passing of a day—spring, summer, autumn, winter; morning, afternoon, evening, night—with the emphasis on the harvest moment, the sheaves, the binding up of the last of the light, as “The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft; / And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.” The day, and all it adds up to, passing into night, the light leading into the dark . . . what else is there except our acceptance of this passing and our longing to transcend it?


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[The sketch of Keats was made near the end of 1816 by his friend Joseph Severn. Keats was 21.]

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  • Stephen Altman

I’ve heard it said that an artist is someone who gives up the dirty business of chasing money, fame and romance in order to pursue his art, through which he hopes to be rewarded with money, fame and romance. I’m way past all that. I’ve published a novel in verse. What better proof could I offer that my motive is art for art’s sake?


There’s an old New Yorker cartoon that’s got a man in his underwear sitting on the examination table and a doctor in a white coat. The doctor has grim news. "Mr. Farnsworth, I’m afraid there’s a novel in you that has to come out.”


Say hello to Mr. Farnsworth—although I must say that even though my novel’s out (and it’s my second novel, to be technical about it), I can feel the next one begin to stir. I think it was Yeats who wrote:


And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Shepherdstown to be born?


Did I get that right? In any event it can’t be the money, fame and romance that have got the beast slouching around in my vitals again. It’s the fact that people like me have to write—or, as in my case, have to suffer over wanting to write till finally, after a long and gruesome mating dance with the demons sloth and doubt—they get it done. Then (as was said by Michael Corleone in a somewhat different context), just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in.


So now the question is whether the next story ought to be in verse. The jury, for the time being, is out on that.


Speaking of the jury, if you've read my verse novel Blues for the Muse and liked it, would you be so kind as to post a review online? Unheralded novels by unknown novelists need all the help they can get! Amazon would be a good place to start.

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The cartoon above is by Tom Cheney for the New Yorker. As for the cartoon with the doctor and the guy with the novel that's got to come out, I'm afraid you'll have to wait till I can find it. I tried.

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  • Stephen Altman


Recognize the woman in the blue facemask? Of course you do. But if in present-day life you encountered Botticelli's Venus--or, more to the point, Viña Fumento, the heroine of Blues for the Muse--that facemask (or the lack of it) would drastically change the experience, don't you think?


Now what would you do if, years after you'd begun writing a novel set in "the present," the world started masking-up? (I know there are millions who won't wear a mask, but that's a different discussion.) Is it believably "the present" if your story is set in Rome--one of the world's great metropolises--and there's no mention of facemasks? Or any mention of covid at all?


This is, to understate it, a trivial question in the face of all the death and mourning all over the world. But if you happen to be off in your imaginative la-la-land, writing a poetic confection like BFTM, you still have to think about it. If you leave out covid, then the story must be taking place either before covid arrived, or at some hypothetical time in the future when it's somehow behind us. No masks, no social distancing, no sub-woofer-level anxiety every time you're out in public. There's no telling whether that time will be next year or the year after or never. But it can't be "the present."


I think this is what's called a quandary. My solution was just to make believe there was no question to answer, and leave it to readers like you to think of it--if you happened to--and put it aside, just as you have to suspend some portion of your disbelief to enjoy any work of fiction. (You don't ask, don't they ever need the bathroom? Don't they ever get a junk call? Where are all the other people they know?) Half the art of fiction is the art of leaving things out. You give your readers enough dots to connect so that they can fashion a usable vision in their heads. You have to give them enough dots to work with, but you can't give them all the dots. You'd be foolish to try--things would get tedious fast--and anyway you just couldn't do it. Reality has too many damn dots.


But my hope is that when you meet Viña Fumento and Tom Jerome, you'll supply some dots of your own.


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I found the image of a health-conscious Venus on the GQ website.











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