A Workshop with John Keats

If you ask them, most teachers are very happy, occasionally, to replace their usual mask with the one of an eager student. I don’t often get to participate in writing workshops as a consumer, but when I do it’s always fascinating. For the last one I took part in, I chose it because of its intriguing promise to use Shakespeare’s work as its starting point. Last weekend I was drawn to Amy E. Weldon’s workshop at Keats House which promised to do the same with Keats’ work.

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This event was part of Keats House’s bicentenary celebrations and a dozen of us gathered in the atmospheric Chester Room on a sunny day (Keats gazing down at us from Joseph Severn’s painting on the wall). Amy Weldon – a Professor of English at Luther College, USA, whose book on creative writing has recently been published by Bloomsbury – was very good at reminding us of the presence of ‘Brother John’ in the surrounding fabric of the house and its beautiful gardens, where he wrote his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Probably no-one there – teachers, journalists, writers of poetry and teen fiction, autodidacts – really needed it, but she also kicked off with an enthusiastic reminder of the importance of “books and ideas”. And it was a number of Keats’ own ideas – as expressed in his letters – that we discussed first of all.

Severn, Joseph, 1793-1879; Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the importance of Keats’ ideas for my own work and it powerfully struck me again, joining Amy and the other workshoppers in considering them, how coherent they are, despite being expressed and developed in scrawled letter form over a period of 2 or 3 years. From his ‘taking part’ in the sparrow’s existence, or that of the stoat or field-mouse, to the belief that poetry ought not to startle or amaze with itself (but with its subject), to his understanding that “extensive knowledge” is what gives a writer the kind of shoulders that are sufficiently “fledged” to enable creative flight, to his brilliant, improvised description of the gathering of such knowledge in the letter written in Spring 1819. The latter is the vale of soul-making letter to his brother George in which our identity (Keats’ word is ‘Soul’) is accumulated/created through the heart’s emotional encounters with the world. Without such encounters – the sparrow, the stoat and field-mouse, and this is what he means by extensive knowledge, we must extend ourselves in such encounters with the Other – we are not able to suck an Identity from experience and – like children who die tragically young – we have had “no time to learn of, and be altered by, the heart”.

Such encounters – vigorously and passionately advocated by the workshop leader – formed the basis for the creative side of the rest of the day. We were sent outside to roam around the garden in search of sensory images, in particular, the May-time flowers in their blooming colours and scents, the birdsong, the noise of traffic or quiet conversations of other visitors, the smooth or veined surface of leaves, the rough gravel paths. On the day, I didn’t taste anything myself – perhaps others successfully used all five senses! We jotted as if our lives depended on it – the task made easier by Amy’s insistence on the messiness of writers’ notebooks, on the provisional nature of whatever it was we were writing.


Amy’s approach on this occasion was to direct us towards fairly openly/widely-defined tasks – as in this first one – rather than setting out a framework within which to work. Such frameworks might be formal or linguistic (repetitions, the use of particular words and so on) or models derived from other writers and can often lead workshop participants towards experimenting, bumping us out of our usual modes, forms and tones. Nevertheless, we all returned from the task with plenty of notes and – for those who attend such events – Amy’s suggestions as to next steps were familiar enough. Circle the “interesting” moments in what you have written down (interesting here is wholly self-defined). Find and remove editorial (directive) words like ‘beautiful’. These latter tend to be adjectives and adverbs and, if not removed, they were to be replaced with more directly sensory words – so not ‘beautiful’ but ‘lime green’. Another suggestion – which I found very difficult to put into practice – was to remove all words of more than one syllable. But you can see the direction of travel here: the valuing of plainness and the directness of sensory experience over anything close to judgment or the writer looking to ‘persuade’ the reader.


During lunchtime – apart from feeding and drinking – our tasks were to make a list of ten things we “noticed” and to actually make an attempt to draw one thing. In each case – Amy was always clear on this – anything was to be grist for the mill, so we had to resist bringing in censorship or evaluation: two people wearing identical hats; the type of cakes on sale down the road; overheard comments from passers-by; what they were promoting at Keats Pharmacy near the station. I drew a house on Devonshire Hill. Very badly.

Once we’d gathered again, Amy quoted John Ruskin on the value of drawing, I think to the effect that even writers ought to try to draw as in doing so they begin to see more “brutally” or clearly. I can’t find the actual quote itself but, having drawn my house on Devonshire Hill, I can testify that he’s right. It makes you look first – language comes second. However dismal the results, I’ll try drawing again. We also shared some of our ten observations – though interestingly neither the observations nor the drawings were developed any further on this occasion.

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Instead we read an extract from Amy’s book, The Writer’s Eye. The extract suggested that an ‘image’ is a mental picture (probably from the past) that releases emotions into your mind in the same way as a bunch of mint leaves from a garden releases flavour and colour when steeped in water (good image). These sorts of mental images can be starting points for poems or stories – much more so than (the common colloquialism of) starting with an ‘idea’. The latter tend to be dead, whereas the ‘image’ is by definition enlivened with emotions. So our next task was to find such an image in ourselves and to write on it (again our instructions were open as opposed to delimited or framed). Later we had the chance to re-cast what we had written – perhaps re-starting from ‘interesting’ things we had again circled ourselves.

There had so far been no reading round of anything we’d written (apart from some of the 10 things observed over lunchtime). Eventually, we were put into pairs to give some feedback on the final piece written, now read aloud. Amy’s instructions here were interesting. The listener was only to offer two types of comment. The more positive one was in the form of ‘More like this’. And to express reservations, rather than ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘I don’t get this’, we were to say simply, ‘This stops me’. I thought both these formulations worked well and I would use them again.

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It was a good day and I’m sure we all came away with several pages of material to work on. One of Amy’s stories stuck in my mind and, though about a prose writer, is applicable to poetry too. A friend of hers goes to a burger joint. Over the grill, with his back to the customers, the owner is flipping burgers, not looking round. The friend gives his order. Still the guy goes on flipping burgers, not looking round, not responding. After a moment or two, the friend orders again, verbatim, just to be clear what he wants, perhaps just a little louder. Still without turning round, the owner says simply: ‘Yuh said that already’. The writer friend, I presume, did get his burger, but he also came away with the guy’s phrase as a memorable maxim for those of us who write, then out of our anxiety to communicate, to be understood, write it again: ‘Yuh said that already’. Time to pick up your editing pen . . .


How to write about ‘sacred objects’

Recently, I spent a weekend at the house I now know as ‘Wiltshire’. It’s where I grew up through the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. I’ve been living elsewhere for so many years now and ‘home’ is in north London so the old county name suffices in most conversations to communicate what I mean: ‘I’m going back to stay in the house of my childhood’.

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I’m doing the pedaling here – circa 1960

My parents still live there, both into their 90s, but managing with a little help to live independently. (See my earlier blog on memory and nostalgia here) It’s what has happened there over the years that makes me want to label it ‘sacred’ ground. From the Latin ‘sacer’ meaning holy, the word originally meant connected with God, sanctioned by religion, a valorisation that was religious rather than secular, a value determined from outside the sphere of the self and in the Latin words ‘sacerdos’ and ‘sanctum’ implying something cut off from the mundane, something distant.

But even in the continuing absence of any religious sense in my life, certainly any external religious authority that might determine this or that object or action as ‘sacred’ I still want to use the word – even as I confess this is a value determined solely by my own view of the world. But I do think that my sense of the ‘sacred’ is coupled with the passage of time. I don’t think anything can be instantly ‘sacred’. It has to be re-examined, worn, re-visited.

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My Dad is well into that phase of old age when he wants to give everything away. There has never been very much to give, of course, and recently he has taken to wandering round the car-empty garage, picking out old tools and rather hopelessly asking myself and my two brothers whether we have any need of them, because he doesn’t any longer. The answer is really ‘no’ but occasionally I relent not to appear too ungrateful. However, on my last visit, I’d broken my flimsy Homebase-bought garden fork a couple of weeks earlier, trying to lever out a slab of paving. So when Dad offered me his old fork I took it.

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It’s unpromising material for sacred eminence but because his hands have held it for over 60 years, wearing the shaft smooth, because his muscles and the instep of his right foot have pressed and shoved and pulled at it over that length of time it makes the grade. Sacredness is sort of metonymic here then. It stands for him. This is something I respond to in Seamus Heaney’s poems, in particular the first part of ‘Mossbawn’, dedicated to his aunt, Mary Heaney. (Read the full poem here)

Reading it over again I’m struck by its focus on particular ‘sacred’ objects – the “helmeted pump”, the “slung bucket”, the warm wall, the bakeboard, the stove projecting its “plaque” of heat (that perfect choice of word suggestive of decorative and commemorative without becoming over-blown or monumental). His aunt’s actions and her domestic implements are likewise noted and linguistically nailed (the poet’s precision echoes his aunt’s):

Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

The final quatrain reverses the more usual order of figurative language to begin with the abstraction which is said to be “like” the actual object, love embedded in its everyday setting as much as the meal scoop is submerged, absorbed, integral to the meal bin, sustaining domestic life:

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.

Heaney performs this magic in the present tense (a fact he rather flaunts with that “Now [. . .] now”) despite it being evidently a long-harboured, cherished memory. What might have been lost to the ravages of time is brought back into the present. I like to note that the word ‘holy’ dates back to the 11th century and the Old English word ‘hālig’, an adjective derived from hāl meaning “whole”, used to mean “uninjured, sound, healthy, entire, complete”. Lacking the authority of an external God, what is sunk deep into our past lives can be simultaneously brought back into the present, whole and holy, and this is what we might designate as ‘sacred’.

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One object from ‘Wiltshire’ I once managed to write about is the garden gate. You can just glimpse it in the background of the picture above. The adult is my own aunt (not really an aunt but my mother’s best friend). I’m on the left of her here. The poem originated in workshop exercises directed by Myra Schneider (her website is here) a few years ago now. With thanks to her, what follows is my own formulation of her process.

  1. This is an exercise in memory and tapping into feelings surrounding specific objects. It seems to work for most people and I have tried it among school children as well as with experienced writers.
  2. List a few – 2 or 3 – objects which have significance to you. They may be possessions, objects once possessed now lost, toys, gifts, even houses or rooms, but try to think of specific objects – your sense of it needs to be precise rather than diffuse.
  3. From your list select one you feel now particularly drawn to
  4. Now write a description of it. Try to avoid infusing it with any particular feeling – the more objective the better to begin with.
  5. Now underline a few phrases in what you have written which you find interesting.
  6. Now write more freely around your object, allowing in specific memories and feelings which perhaps cluster around this object, people associated with it.
  7. Again underline particular phrases and passages you like.
  8. From all this material, especially what you have underlined, try to assemble a more finished piece.

And here’s my poem – originally published in ‘An English Nazareth’ (2004)

The gate

was inch-tubular for economy’s sake,

a post-war issue for a self-built house –

Hammerite black now, but once white,


earlier cream, its soft curves and corners

a rough square between cement gate-posts.

A big-thumbed latch on the left,


beside it, a schematic sun-rise of tubing,

beneath, the squared-off wire grid

I’d work my toes into, find the springy dip


of my weight on the straining hinges,

hook in elbows and I’d swing, I’d swing.

Then a jarring crash and decrescendo:


the muddy-booted, casual back-heel

of my brother after football on the grass.

Gentle click-clank of the sneck as Mum


bent to secure it with as much care as

she shook slippy fried eggs onto my plate.

The half-way firm, suddenly stunned


impact as Dad’s hand swiped, held shut –

his sluggish pirouette and up the path,

coming home with an empty Thermos.


And then me, arms shaking at the ridges

of concrete under my trike, Dad stooping

to frame the cream gate, the hedge beyond,


the telegraph wires converging on clouds,

wires dividing the bright air at my every

effort to remember until it appears


all that muddle of love has so long gone

unremarked between us, there is no need

to hearken to it, though a bad day shows


every possible latch broken while another

is effortless, finds the point of purchase

into the give and spring and swerve and space.