John Keats’s Letters on “Negative Capability” and “The Poet Has No Identity”
One of the most important influences on my development both as a poet and a novelist are two letters written by the English poet John Keats in 1818. In the first letter, addressed to his brothers George and Tom, Keats develops the concept of “Negative Capability,” which he defines as the ability to “remain in uncertainty” as one writes. I believe that Keats has touched on something profound here that is integral to the creative process.
By definition, creation involves uncertainty. When you create, you make something that has not existed before. If there is no uncertainty, if everything about your subject is already known, then you cannot add to it by creating something new. In his letter to his brothers, Keats suggests that writers needs to find the courage to write without knowing where they are going and without judging if everything they are saying is logical. Keats calls this “negative capability.”
When I write, I intentionally enter this state. I don’t judge what I’m doing or worry about endings or goals. I write whatever comes to mind and let the poem create itself. A poem initially comes from my inner voice, often bubbling up from the depths of my unconscious as a wordless image that translates itself into words. That said, it is vital to recognize that this spontaneous first draft is not a finished poem. The state of “negative capability” does not extend to revision. In order to succeed, poems must be crafted with the logical part of your mind. To turn a first draft into a finished poem, you need to summon all the strength of your intellect, drawing on everything you have read and thought. You need to revise, revise, and then revise again, all the while preserving the power of that first draft while transforming it into a work of art.
In the second letter, addressed to his friend Richard Woodhouse, Keats claims that “the poet has no identity.” This is an invaluable concept that is as important for a novelist as it is for a poet. What Keats is saying is that poets must put aside their identities, abandon their egos, and fully imagine what it is like to be other people even if those people are wicked when the poets are virtuous, cruel when the poets are kind, deceitful when the poets are honest. In other words, Keats is again suggesting that poets must be able to suspend judgment and spontaneously empathize with everyone and everything. This radical act of compassion is at the basis of poems which transcend autobiography as well as the creation of characters in novels who are believable and have psychological depth.
Thanks to Keats, I have learned to put Mary Mackey aside when I write and become Ophelia, Juliet, Cleopatra, Leda, Cytherea, a Portuguese conquistador, Carmen Miranda, dengue fever, Elizabeth Bishop, Santa Teresa, a ball of army ants, a tropical jungle, a flock of parrots, a troubadour who lived 6,000 years ago, and my own mother. To have no identity is to become, for a brief, joyous moment, all things. It is a great gift, a touch of infinity, the soul of great poetry.
From John Keats On Negative Capability: Letter to George and Tom Keats, 22 December 1818]
… several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
From John Keats On The Poet Has No Identity: Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818
As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.
When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated – not only among Men; it would be the same in a Nursery of children….
Mary Mackey’s original Chapter One essay can be found here.
Mary Mackey received a BA from Harvard and a doctorate from the University of Michigan. Her award-winning writings reflect her experiences in the cities and jungles of Latin America, her childhood summers on a western Kentucky farm, the visions and dreams of high fevers, and meticulous research for her historical novels. She is the author of eight collections of poetry including The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams: New and Selected Poems 1974 to 2018, winner of the 2019 Eric Hoffer Award for the best book published by a small press and a 2018 CIIS Women’s Spirituality Book Award; and Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and Finalist for the Northern California Book Reviewers Award. Her poems have been praised by Maxine Hong Kingston, Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, Dennis Schmitz, Al Young, and Marge Piercy for their beauty, precision, originality, and extraordinary range. She is also the author of fourteen novels, one of which made The New York Times Bestseller List. A Professor Emeritus of English at California State University Sacramento, she was one of the founders of the CSUS Graduate Creative Writing Program and the CSUS Women’s Studies Program. In the late 1970’s she joined with poets Adrienne Rich and Susan Griffin and novelist Valerie Miner to found the Feminist Writers Guild. From 1989-1992, she served as President of the West Coast Branch of PEN American Center involving herself in PEN’s international defense of persecuted writers. Mackey’s literary papers are archived in the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library, Smith College, Northampton, MA. Her collection of rare editions of small press poetry books is archived in the Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Room. Mackey’s teaching and public readings are famous for their hilarity as well as for their memorable insights.
This essay was originally published on the Chapter One page at https://marshhawkpress.org/poetic-influences-mary-mackey-on-john-keatss-negative-capability/