A Conversation About John Keats with Dr. William Ulmer
Not long after the publication of his third book, John Keats: Reimagining History, in 2017, Professor William A. Ulmer sat down with Dr. Sara Pirkle Hughes and discussed his writing process for the book, why he fanboys over John Keats, and his secret desire to one day write a spy novel.
Why don’t we start by talking about your writing process? How long did it take to write this book?
I wrote this book in about two years. That’s super fast for lit crit. I had to work on it around my teaching responsibilities. I didn’t write every day, but I would work on it Friday through Monday of each week. I’ve been teaching Keats for years, so I knew his poetry well, and so I wrote it quickly!
When did you first fall in love with Keats?
He was one of the first poets I liked in high school. I’m still interested in him, even though I wrote a book on him! Writing a book on someone can kill your interest in them, but I still want to write about him. I’m very interested in Keats these days.
Do you remember a moment from high school when you read something by Keats and thought, “Yeah, this guy is saying exactly what I wish I could say”?
Well, I got interested in reading literature, and for one birthday, my parents gave me three modern library books of poetry: Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley. I have no idea why they picked those three poets, but those are the people I’ve written books on. So that’s kind of weird!
Wow! Were your parents academics?
No, but I have an academic uncle. He was a psychology professor, but he had a lot of literature on his shelves, including the Romantics. I wonder if they asked him some advice in trying to choose books for me, because these were poets that were on his bookshelves.
Keats is so well known. What are the challenges of writing about such a famous British poet?
Your question answers itself: there is so muchwritten about him. In the past couple of decades, there have been some scholarly disputes about history and politics and romantic poetry. I waded into some of the contention and took people’s arguments and just turn them slightly to make a little room for myself.
Were there moments when you lost interest in your writing, or did you stay engaged the whole time?
I stayed energized, because this one came so fast. There were eleven years between my first book and my second book, so writing a book in two years is almost too fast! Because my kids are grown, I had no distractions, so I was writing too quickly to get bored.
Last year, a colleague and I were discussing literary criticism as a frustrating pursuit. Other than graduate students, do people still read criticism?
The only people who read Keats scholarship are other Keats scholars, so there’s a professional community of scholars who are in touch with each other’s writing, but their writing gets disseminated further in institutions of higher education, particularly in graduate classes when students are doing research for their own work. Then, there’s a further dissemination in undergraduate lit survey classes in the way Keats is taught in those classes.
You’ve written about many of the “old dead white guys” in your scholarship. Do you ever envision reading against the canon and focusing on writers who have been discriminated against?
The writers who have dominated the canon are not the only ones worth reading, but they’re the ones that have produced the kind of writing that I’m most interested in. I’m an “old dead white guy” type of fella.
I tend to think of Keats as being very modest and conservative. Did you find any quirky or funny tidbits from Keats’ life in your research?
Oh, Keats was a riot! I knew in advance that he was quite a “punster” and he liked wine. He drank and he may have visited a brothel in Oxford.Peoplethink he got syphilis and started taking mercury for it. I guess the biggest surprise, as I was writing the book, was really realizing just how good the poetry was.
If you could ask Keats one question that no one else could answer, what would it be?
There’s a big controversy about whether his character, Madeline, is or is not awake when she has sex in “The Eve of St. Agnes.” Some critics claim she’s too groggy or dreaming, so she’s being taken advantage of. I would ask him if Madeline was awake or not. In my argument, I have her awake and knowing damn well what she’s doing!
My doctoral advisor said it’s impossible for someone to be a prodigy in poetry because it takes life experience to produce exceptional poetry. He argued that Keats came closest to being a poetic prodigy. Is it noteworthy that Keats was so young, or is it reasonable to expect this type of work from writers in their early 20s?
The youngest is Rimbaud – he was 17 – that’s pretty damn early. Great poetry rechannels tradition. Keats was a voracious reader; according to some accounts, he read Hamletthirty times. I’m more than twice as old as he was when he died, and I haven’t read Hamletthirty times. That’s why Keats was able to accomplish what he did in such a short amount of time. Poetry is not a purely formal art form. It’s referential. Keats had some traumatic early life experiences, but he accomplished what he did because he was a big reader.
As a writer, you probably just want to enjoy the accomplishment of finishing a book, but because everyone asks writers what their next book is about: are you working on the next project?
I may be. I have some ideas, but I don’t know if they’ll materialize in a book. I have some further Keats ideas. If I write another book, it’ll be a short book about Keats.
Do you do any creative writing, like poetry or fiction?
I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a mystery novel when I retire, but that’s such a cliché: the person who retires and then tries to write a novel! But I like puzzles – I like figuring things out, so if I ever wrote something creative, it would be a spy novel. We’ll see!