A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness . . .
So begins “Endymion, A Poetic Romance” by 19thcentury poet John Keats. His words came back to me in a dark moment, a reminder of how beauty in nature and in art helped many of us get through the pandemic.
In 2020, Aeolus House released a posthumous volume of 100 poems by W. J. Keith. They were selected by publisher Allan Briesmaster from 1,000 that the late poet had tucked away in folders ranging in subject from art and poets, through birds, travels, and sequences, to those dedicated to his wife Hiroko. The title Making Small Things Perfect startled me, and not just for its humility. Other perhaps than a jeweller, these days who dared speak of aiming for creative perfection? Because the book promised writing that aimed so high, I immediately ordered a copy. I am always eager to read a poet from whom I can learn. I was not disappointed.
What struck me most was Keith’s verbal precision, a hallmark of the book. However, his phrasing often went beyond descriptive accuracy. It opened into a further dimension that shivered with insight. For example in “The Fear”, pondering the horrors of a prolonged “medical, scientific death”, Keith concluded with the opposite, expressed simply, in words that are not only gratifyingly exact but beautiful in their own right:
. . . better still (as natural
as loving, O yearned-for god of mercy)
a blessed blending out of calm sleep into
the calmest sleep.
However, the beauty inherent in artistry encompasses more than images that are pleasing or attractive. For example, listen to Keith on the poetry of George Johnston: “the halt and stutter / of dithery rhythm”. The description is not “pretty”, but sharp-focused and vibrant, without a word wasted. Yet like the salesperson for a finely engineered high-end automobile, I could still call it “a real beaut”.
Sometimes even a single word would reverberate into a meaning larger, unexpected, but feeling so true. For example, “drifting, low, slow, / with their black clawed wings /and tiny indecent heads” (from “Turkey Vultures”); or “the militancy of sparrows” (from “House Finches”); and my favourite, the “denial of night’s lonely / enormity” (from “The Meaning”).
What did it take to simultaneously hone and deepen such phrasing? Did Keith labour for hours hunched over his desk or have a direct link to the Muse? Likely both?
What price perfection!