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

  • Stephen Altman

Fridays are Scrapbook Day here. The title of this past Wednesday's post, "I feel as if we've met somewhere . . ." brought to mind a scrap I'd saved from a short story called "Of Love: A Testimony," by that wonderful tormented writer, John Cheever. The quote has nothing to do with what I wrote about in the blog post but a lot to do with how Jerome and Viña get entangled in Blues for the Muse.

Cheever writes:

True love and hate are matters of first sight, rousing a strain deeper than memory. And yet they have the character of a memory unexpectedly startled like remembering a friend at the sight of his umbrella or a voyage recalled by the east wind. Meeting an enemy seems more a matter of recognition than discovery and it is the same, only deeper with a lover. Where have I seen you before? he wanted to ask her while he stood there talking with [his friend] Sears. And yet he knew that he had never seen her before. It was like being thrown back to a forgotten afternoon by the taste of an apple or the odor of woodsmoke.


[You know the two kids in the photo. It's like the past before the past, isn't it?--that feeling of being "thrown back to a forgotten afternoon." It may not be about lovers as such but is very much about "the taste of an apple or the odor of woodsmoke."]

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  • Stephen Altman

I was out walking earlier today, putting steps on the Fitbit before the real August heat set it--when a question popped into my head: "Who are you to talk about Keats?"

A question, I must say, that had never before occurred to me.

I'm no academic, that's for sure. I've never pretended to anyone--least of all to myself--that I know more than any other attentive amateur about Keats's life and work or his place among the critics (or, God forbid, whether one literary "theory" or another has gotten hold of him). But I do know as much about him, I believe, as is necessary to love him. Love does not require credentials.

And in this case--my case, that is--love is the important thing. Love and constancy. In 1819, when Keats wrote the odes and other works for which he is best known, he was 23. He was as tall as he'd ever get--five feet, three-quarters of an inch. He had no social status and he had no university. He was an orphan; he'd lost his father when he was eight, his mother when he was 14. He was now, at the core, alone: He had two brothers to whom he was utterly devoted, but one had recently emigrated to America, the other, age 18, had just died, horribly, of tuberculosis, with Keats nursing him at bedside in the rooms they shared. Tuberculosis was what his mother and her brothers had died of; now his brother; and in two years Keats himself. He had already thrown over medicine--he'd spent five years in training as an apothecary and surgeon--for the sake of becoming a poet. Thus far the critics had beaten him like a gourd. He had a disposition that swung from bright to bleak and back unpredictably, and he suffered. He had, in real ways, nothing. But two things he loved: his own gift for poetry and the thought of where it might take him if he were given the years on earth to get there; and Fanny Brawne, who lived next door. The year in which Keats fell for Fanny Brawne was the year in which he became a great poet, the year in which he wrote the works for which we remember him. He wrote "Bright Star" for her that year:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

John Keats's greatest poems are chocked with wisdom and consolation and loveliness and if you get me started I'll begin reciting them to you. But the young man who'd been dealt a whole lot of bad breaks, and who drove with a fierce power to take his genius and his love for someone else as far as he could in the brief time that he had--this is what won me decades ago. My love of the boy is what qualifies me to talk about him.

[The photo was taken in 2015 in the borough of Southwark in London, outside Guy's Hospital, where Keats was a"dresser," a kind of surgeon's apprentice, before he gave up medicine for poetry. The moment captured here was as close as he and I ever came to meeting in person.]


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  • Stephen Altman

Today, my first review!

It helps to have a friend you've known forever and who happens to read everything, who teaches literature courses at the Johns Hopkins/Osher Program, and with whom you've been sharing bits of Blues for the Muse since you started composing the damn thing back in 2013. That would be George Clack, old friend and colleague, former blogging partner and--it'll be obvious in a moment--discerning reader.

George finished BFTM and posted the first review on Amazon. First reviews online are like the breath of life for a new book (yes, that was a hint to my other readers). Here's George's review:

In the Age of Woke, it’s rare to find any works of what I like to call Old Guy Fiction getting published, let alone one that takes the form of a novel in 202 sonnets. But Blues for the Muse is a rare throwback, a story that will appeal to those of us whose cultural heroes are Frank Sinatra, Philip Roth, Elmore Leonard, Billy Wilder, and, not least, the poet John Keats. The plot begins in the cemetery in Rome where Keats is buried as our hero Tom Jerome encounters a mysterious woman in an azure dress. Jerome, a movie producer of a certain age, is a self-ironic fellow with a romantic streak, an eye for potential movie stars, and a mordant awareness of his own advancing years. Naturally, he’s a sucker for an Italian beauty who could be played by a young Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale, or Monica Vitti.

Viña, this femme fatale, happens to be a mobster’s wife who mistakes Jerome for a hit man sent by her jealous mob boss. She flees from Jerome on stiletto heels at first, but when she discovers he’s no gunsel but a moviemaker with a knack for banter and negotiating, she offers to star in his next film. Thus the hook is set.

To see if this is your kind of thing, try this bit from that first meeting:

He had a cemetery temperament, The melancholy muse inside his head That made of every moment some huge event In this, The Life of Tom Jerome. He had no dread Of anything but ordinariness. And then he saw the woman in the azure dress. Much of my reading pleasure in this book comes from witty rhymes like these snapping into place, just as they do in Lord Byron’s Don Juan or, to cite a more contemporary work, The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. Such poetry is a rich feast, requiring concentration on the reader’s part and an ear for the English language. For old school English majors and denizens of Turner Classic Movies like me, Blues for the Muse is best savored in the form of a few sonnets each night before bedtime. It may even stimulate the growth of a few neurons.

So does the old guy get the girl? Well, you could say yes and no, but you’ll have to read BFTM to know what I mean.

Full Disclosure: I once blogged with Steve Altman at 317am.


[The photo, from back in the day, is of Virna Lisi, Italian movie star, ca. 1960. Couldn't find an azure dress, but the hat's very nice, don't you think?]

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