Comic-book Keats – a new way to prevent the ‘end of poetry’?

labelledame11I may be coming late to the work of Julian Peters. It is possible his illustrative work has been bringing young people to poetry for some time without me realising it. However, there may be some others out there, like myself, who have not yet come across an artist who, in my opinion, has found a way to ‘re-package’ the poetry of the 19th and 20th century in a way that might just convince  the cynical that there is life in poetry yet.

Julian Peters is based in Montreal and has translated a number of familiar poems into comic-book recreations so striking that they have been widely exhibited. However, even though I am a member of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, I missed Peters’ inclusion in the 2012 exhibition ‘Illustrating Keats’ at the House in Rome. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is wonderful, with a young man  (looking, purposely I am sure, rather Keatsian) recounting his seduction by the beautiful woman – ‘La belle dame’ – who casts her chilling spell over him, as she has done many another ‘pale knight’. See the whole piece here on Peters’ website.

couverture1On that site you will also find his other work, which includes Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe,  The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot and a terrific manga-style presentation of  When You Are Old by W B Yeats.

I read an article recently in The Skinny, in which Bruce Sterling & Jon Lebkowsky discussed the apparent ‘death of poetry’.  Bruce Sterling said:

“If you’d asked John Keats if there was any ‘truth’ in the journalism of his day, Keats would have said no, that all the newspapers were organs of party faction, and that the ‘truth,’ and also the beauty, was in poetry. Our own society doesn’t have ‘Poetry.’ Poetry is already gone. We don’t miss it any more than those un-novelled societies miss novels.”

That statement feels like a punch in the stomach to me. I disagree so forcefully that I could shake Sterling (although in the article he is really expressing his views on the future of the mass-media and there is at least some recognition that poetry is older, and more ‘needed’ than journalism as it is practised at the moment). There is much to be enjoyed and gained from reading poetry, even if poets are no longer the Byronic celebrity super-heroes of the 19th century.

I really enjoyed browsing Julian Peters’ website and seeing some of my favourite poems in a new light. The comic strip versions are utterly different from the Pre-Raphaelite representations of Keats’ work but they are striking nonetheless. What do you think?

Keats in Rome – a personal pilgrimage

That year I was asked many times what I intended to do on my birthday. I mark the passing of another year each chilly February, so generally the day is spent snuggled up in the warm eating and drinking. However on this occasion I was determined to do something different. How I enjoyed responding with ‘Oh, I am visiting a cemetery’. Just for a change, as you do.

This was not an eccentricity on my part though. I was fulfilling a long-held ambition to travel to Rome to visit the Keats-Shelley House on the Piazza Di Spagna where Keats spent his final months and where on the 23 February 1821 he died of tuberculosis, aged just 25.  He was buried in the ‘Non-Catholic’ cemetary behind the Pyramid in Testaccio on the outskirts of the city and I was determined to spend my birthday morning on that very spot.

I am not the only person to have made such a pilgrimage. The House occupies a wonderful position at the foot of the Spanish Steps.   The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association acquired it in 1906,  to preserve it as a memorial to Keats and to other English Romantic poets who spent time in Italy; Shelley, Byron and Leigh Hunt. The video here details Keats’ last days and the history of the house.

For me though, this video doesn’t really bring out the intensity of the feeling you get as you walk up the stairs into the apartment Keats shared with Joseph Severn. It is not exactly as he knew it of course. As the video explains, on returning from the funeral  Severn found that all their possessions were being burnt; the Roman authorities believing this was the best way to avoid contagion. However, the small room that was Keats bedroom is set out in much the same way as it was for him. It is small, narrow, with a high ceiling and one window looking out over the fountain in the Piazza. It is not cheerless, but its tomb-like dimensions must have been claustrophobic in the extreme to one who was in any event struggling for breath. The ceiling is as he might have seen it – a chequerboard of carved daisies seemingly already growing over him..

I stood looking out of the small window at the only view Keats had of the outside world in those last weeks. A nun was pulling a shopping trolley just at the foot of the steps, and groups of young tourists were sitting eating ice creams from the nearby cafe. Seeing life going on outside that window was somehow as moving as the wonderful collection of treasures collected in the cabinets in the museum housed in the main salon.

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