Remarks on Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Consider the following article excerpt, not just as one way of rereading Keats’s poem, but as a way of thinking about your upcoming teaching assignment. Jeffrey Robinson, a professor for over 35 years, decided to teach in a way that made the material less familiar and made his students less sure of the correct way to read a poem. What are the advantages and disadvantages to his approach of “deformation”? Besides “Grecian Urn,” which other poems might benefit from a strategy like his?

Robinson, Jeffrey C. “Deforming Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.” “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: Hypercanonicity & Pedagogy. Ed. James O’Rourke. Romantic Circles Praxis Series (2003). Pars. 2-6. Web. 12 Feb. 2013.

What in this poem…makes it seem, in Jerome McGann’s word, pre-read and thus not read, as poetry, at all? First, Keats’s “Ode” has an enlightenment structure: many questions are asked, in stanzas I and IV, that assume, rhetorically, the presence—available to the speaker or not—of answers…. This is precisely analogous to and encouraging of the preferred ritual of reading poems, particularly in school and university classes: the relentless search for the poem’s meaning.
[…]
Pre-reading, in this case, occurs in the presence of a poem that triggers a preferred ideological habit of mind; the gratification we get is the purely secondary one of fulfilling the habit…. Deformation is a general term for breaking fetters of reading, coming both from sources internal to the poem and internal to the mind of the reader. It is a form not of pre- but of re-reading…. In teaching the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” I offer techniques of radical disruption and defamiliarization (a term, along with “deformation” itself, coming from the Russian formalists), of risking the powerful idea that forms are not sacrosanct, that nonsense in poetry is at least as important as meaning, that poems may “contain” nothing, may refuse the domain of and trajectory towards answers altogether. The result is not the abandonment of critical enterprise but a nearly mystical resurgence of conscious power in the presence of a poem, a surge in thinking and excitement. As the poem appears in/as unfamiliar juxtapositions that I have “made,” it occurs to me that those juxtapositions, startlingly, are “there,” part of the poem itself….

When I deform a poem, I bring to it a highly selective consciousness and intervene materially in its existence, just as Keats does in encountering the Grecian Urn. Think of his decisions and, so to speak, his self-selected regulatory practice!

  1. he addresses the object; apostrophe is a decision, not something demanded by the urn
  2. he asks it questions
  3. he looks not at the urn as a pot or at its use, nor at the act or nature of looking at it, but at the pictures painted on it
  4. he looks at the pictures strictly as instants of narratives
  5. he attempts at the end to generalize its significance and value
  6. he reveals nothing about himself openly, but the fact of apostrophe and the indicators of various emotional and perspectival registers show that his experience of the urn is a major part of what he wants to say on its behalf.

He has deformed the urn in the sense that he hasn’t talked about it, for example, as clay or as ash; he has left out some things in order to emphasize others. The urn is not an object; it is deformed in that it is only its illustrations, its meanings. One thing is certain: for the speaker this encounter with the urn is full of surprise, and what he has seen has “overtaken” his mind….

How different is his practice of selection from, say, deciding to read the poem last line to first? from re-writing the poem as only the sequence of the last word in each line? of reading only its nouns, or its verbs, or its adjectives? of re-writing the poem in the shape of an urn? or in the shape of the ash it may have contained now floating free to earth? or reducing each line to its first two and its last two words leaving out the “stuff” in the middle? or…discovering in sequence, as my student Alex did, the words the beginning letters of which spell out O-d-e-o-n-a-G-r-e-c-i-a-n-u-r-n…

*****

All of the exercises Robinson discusses can also be considered cut-ups or found poetry.

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