Keats Tweets — Blog Comments, Insults, and the Unconscious

Imagine if Keats had had a blog.

I’m thinking about the possibility of responding to his critics. The critical response to Endymion was harsh, as Keats himself foresaw it would be. Leigh Hunt and his “cockney school” had already been savaged in the press. Keats sensed the inherent weakness of his long poem — which is bad, though it contains many brilliant parts — and famously tried to head off the critics by writing an apologetic preface, in which he admits that the poem exhibits “great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished.” He adds that if he felt he could improve the poem in a meaningful way, he would not allow it to be printed; and that he’s not attempting to “forestall criticisms”; but that he hopes to “conciliate men” who will see — what, exactly? What the poem or the poet could be in time? At any rate, needless to say, it didn’t work.

It was the age of newspapers in Britain. There were dozens of them that printed frequent, scathing, highly involved reviews, not just of poetry and literature but the burgeoning London theater as well. Lord Byron had already had his go-round, as a fledgling poet, with the critics; his response was the long satirical poem “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” (over 1,000 lines!) in which he lambastes seemingly anyone who had ever slighted him, in fact or perception (or might ever think of slighting him in the future). Here’s what he has to say about Coleridge:

Shall gentle Coleridge pass unnoticed here,
To turgid ode and tumid stanza dear?
Though themes of innocence amuse him best,
Yet still obscurity’s a welcome guest.
If Inspiration should her aid refuse
To him who takes a pixy for a muse,
Yet none in lofty numbers can surpass
The bard who soars to elegise an ass.
So well the subject suits his noble mind,
He brays, the laureat of the long-ear’d kind.

(Seriously, is there anything Byron couldn’t do as a poet? Satire, comedy, epic, elegy, lyric… he could do it all.) The above, incidentally, did not make Coleridge flinch from groveling at the younger poet’s feet when Byron held creative control at Drury Lane, one of only two “patent” theaters in London, and Coleridge was desperate to break back into the theater… But that’s another story.

After Keats’s first volume appeared, he was attacked on two fronts: the aptly named John Croker wrote a negative piece in the April 1818 Quarterly Review, and this was followed by an even more biting and personal critique in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, August 1818, written by “Z” (John Lockhart). (Click here for an excellent site that compiles both reviews, as well as links to Leigh Hunt’s enthusiastic introduction of Keats, and Lord Byron’s various put-downs.) What was obvious even then was that the reviews had as much, or more, to do with attacking Leigh Hunt and his circle as they did with singling out Keats.

Croker admits straight away that he hasn’t thoroughly read the poetry. He actually compliments Keats as a writer possessing “powers of language, rays of fancy, and gleams of genius,” before lamenting that he’s fallen under the spell of Mr. Hunt.

Lockhart, meanwhile, frames his review squarely in terms of class and the whole problem of the unlearned, “Cockney” school. He begins by complaining about the spread of literacy and the desire to write to the lower classes — “our very footmen compose tragedies,” etc. — then ridicules Keats for his association with figures like Hunt and Haydon, hardly mentions the poetry at all (come to think of it, he likely read even less of it than Croker had), and finally advises Keats to take up his erstwhile career in medicine — “It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John.” To me, this is the far more dismissive and damaging review, clearly aimed at strangling Keats’s career at birth. It’s no wonder it was published under a pseudonym.

I suppose all of this shows that literary criticism 200 years ago could be every bit as harsh and unfair as it can be today.

But there’s a difference. And I’m not even sure that the biggest difference is the fact that so much of it’s now digital, and online. After all, as noted above, there were a great many literary reviews and media devoted to poetry and theater, so many that one could reasonably expect that just about every new publication or production of any note would find a critical response, and fairly quickly at that. There was already the issue of “anonymous” reviews, in which inhibitions about what one might say, as well as any pretense about fairness, could be cast aside.

Rather, the difference I’m concerned with is made possible by criticism migrating online, in the form of blogs etc., but it’s got nothing to do with increased volume or frequency or speed. It’s the simple fact that authors, as well as their allies and enemies, can instantly respond to any critique, either in the comments threads that so many blogs maintain, or on blogs of their own (and now, of course, ancillary discussions can take place on Facebook and Twitter).

On the face of it, this remarkable democratization of the critical space is a wonderful thing. Along with the increased presence of women authors and publishers, diversity of voices in the small press world, and access to alternatives to the mainstream press, it would seem to be a wholly positive development. But there’s a problem…

The recent shutting down of the comments thread (and erasure of all previous comments) at Silliman’s blog has been much remarked upon. In a recent post on The Compass Rose, Curtis Faville, one of the writers whose frequent comments were wiped out by Silliman, takes aim at Jessica Smith, whose own blog post about the harsh comments on Silliman’s blog — in the most recent case following a positive review of Joseph Massey‘s book, but also stretching back to a positive review of Smith’s own poetry — is widely seen as precipitating Silliman’s extreme measures.

Got all that? The reason I’m focusing on Faville’s post is that his remarks, and the comments thread that accompanies it, neatly (actually, not neatly… maddeningly, yuckily, sickeningly) provides a case study in the positive and negative aspects of blogging and comments threads in general. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it proves Smith’s point. But Faville’s post, which already pushes the envelope of getting personally insulting and sarcastically dismissive with regards to Smith, is then followed by chiming in from various parties (and Faville himself, responding to them), some anonymous or pseudonymous, some not, that’s stomach-turning in its whacked off-kilteredness.

I’ve been reading Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. In explaining how jokes come to be made, he writes

Let us assume that there is an urge to insult a certain person; but this is so strongly opposed by feelings of propriety or of aesthetic culture that the insult cannot take place. If, for instance, it were able to break through as a result of some change of emotional condition or mood, this breakthrough by the insulting purpose would be felt subsequently with unpleasure. Thus the insult does not take place. Let us now suppose, however, that the possibility is presented of deriving a good joke from the material of words and thoughts used for the insult — the possibility, that is, of releasing pleasure from other sources which are not obstructed by the same suppression. This second development of pleasure could, nevertheless, not occur unless the insult were permitted; but as soon as the latter is permitted the new release of pleasure is also joined to it. Experience with tendentious jokes shows that in such circumstances the suppressed purpose can, with the assistance of the joke, gain sufficient strength to overcome the inhibition, which would otherwise be stronger than it. The insult takes place, because the joke is thus made possible…

Essentially, what I read here is that repression makes jokes not only possible, but necessary. We want to insult someone; we can’t do it to his or her face; our unconscious works to overcome this inhibition by framing the insult inside a good joke, then smuggling it up to consciousness via that joke. (Needless to say, there’s a parallel here with dream-work that Freud himself draws, and one with the work of poetry that poets might draw.)

The implications of this when it comes to online writing, especially comments threads — not only on blogs but, as Faville points out, everywhere on the web — are really staggering. Cloaked in anonymity and far removed from personal contact with the object of their scorn, comments authors have no inhibitions. Nothing prevents naked biases, hatreds, prejudices, vitriol, etc., from bubbling straight up to the surface and spewing forth. This might explain why so many blog and online newspaper comments are so humorless, ugly, and mean-spirited, saying far more about the anxieties and insecurities of the comment authors themselves than whatever the topic is. (I already noted that Lockhart published his mean-spirited, anxiety-ridden review of Keats simply as “Z.”)

I would invite you to peruse Faville’s post, and then the comments thread, and see if you see what I mean. The post itself begins by insulting Smith (“Looky-Touchy-Feely”), goes on to direct some anger at Silliman for seeming to cave in to her demands, then sarcastically considers some of Smith’s complaints on her own post about comments threads, before lecturing her on the realities and rigors of literary criticism.

The comments thread is, as I say, a case study in off-topic jibes and insults. It starts off that way and only gets worse, with Jim Behrle jumping in to trade barbs with Faville, followed by more personal insults among Kirby Olson and various anonymous figures, and winds up some 60 comments later with an actual challenge to a duel… You really can’t make this stuff up.

But I want to close by imagining Keats with access to his own blog (perhaps called “The Pot of Basil”) — and Twitter account; my friend Sarah once provided the perfect name for it: “Keats Tweets”. Would Keats have written a response to his harshest critics, complaining about the ad hominem nature of their attacks, calling out “Z.” and demanding to know his identity? Would Byron have jumped in under a pseudonym in the comments thread, perhaps calling himself “Manfred” or taking a name from his beloved Greeks, insulting Keats for his short stature and urging him to quit writing poems?

Would Keats have tweeted something terse and pithy, a variation on what he wrote to John Taylor in 1818: “But it is easier to think what poetry should be, than to write it”?

I like to think so…

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8 Responses to Keats Tweets — Blog Comments, Insults, and the Unconscious

  1. Dear Mr. Hadbawnik:

    With respect to the brouhaha over the poetry of David Massey and Jessica Smith, which originated some while back at Silliman’s Blog, it’s useful to be aware of the issues under dispute, before considering the consequences of the disagreements evolving out of them. Silliman’s agenda is to present the work of writers in such a way as to promote a certain point of view about contemporary poetry. Silliman and I happen to agree on about 90% of what he says about the history of poetry in English since 1900, but we differ about the significance and value of competing trends and writers since 1960. This is the subtext of much of what used to take place on Silliman’s comment stream. It’s my assertion that Silliman, wearing his public wig, frequently (over-)praises the work of certain younger poets, whose efforts–though weak and well-meaning–serve his purpose by exhibiting characteristics which he wishes to promote. As a functional device for facilitating difference of viewpoint and opinion, comment stream boxes are a useful tool, but they’re difficult to control–which is either a problem, or an opportunity, depending upon how you regard them. In citing Smith’s complaint as a primary motivation in shutting down the comment box, Silliman was saying, in effect, that he wouldn’t tolerate differences of opinion about matters dear to his program. In the larger context of Silliman’s “Quietist” discussion, Smith may be seen as an unfortunate pawn in the campaign. Nevertheless, Smith’s complaint, on its face, is an abusive castigation of everyone who ever commented at Silliman’s Blog. Smith herself had, on occasion in the past, made disputatious comments there. Silliman sought to undermine the commentary of everyone who had posted there over the preceding 8+ years, and implied that differences of opinion, no longer welcome at his site, ought to be taken elsewhere. I freely acknowledge that full reviews based on a full reading, have more integrity than comment box remarks.

    Taking Silliman at his word, I chose to write blog reviews of poets upon whom he had lavished extravagant praise. Reading the Smith Blog entry which was the instigation for the comment closure, I felt a strong response was warranted, given her sophomoric, and extraordinarily discourteous swipe. As an example of the kind of unfortunate (and symptomatically bizarre) blog behavior which you’re at some pains to indict (above), I would point out that the tenor of Smith’s remarks is ironically a perfect instance of the case. I’ve not yet read or reviewed Smith’s book, but I shall shortly. Will my reaction be markedly different from what I thought when Silliman originally reviewed it? Perhaps.

    I too, like you, Mr. Hadbawnik, am a small publisher, with a long history of commitment to alternative publishing, and new writing. I do care about literature. I also care about taste, and standards. I’m unlikely to praise writers, or publishers, or critics, whose work or choices or opinions I have clear disagreements over–even if they’re friends.

    With respect to your historical anecdote about Keats and his critics, certainly you don’t mean to imply that Jessica Smith is a contemporary Keats, or that any criticism of her is to be construed as a discouragement to genius. If that’s what you are implying, I must demur. Surely you jest.

  2. dhadbawnik says:

    Dear Mr. Faville:

    Thank you for the response. What you say about the history of Silliman’s blog and the agenda he might have regarding the promotion of younger poets’ work is a good point, though I can honestly say that I’ve not been an avid follower of the blog, and my own comments there could be counted on one hand. The more general point is one that I wanted to touch on in my post, but ran out of time — that being, pretty much ALL poetry criticism is now written by poets themselves. In fact, as we are both examples of, poets necessarily make up (almost) the entire critical, editorial, and publishing apparatus that accompanies poetry. And this is another obvious shift from the romantic era and pretty much every other era that’s not enough considered.

    One of the repercussions of this is that the lines blur, in good and bad ways, between critic-editor-poet-publisher (and now blogger, twitterer, etc.). So it’s undoubtedly a fact of life that criticism takes on an agenda, as Poet X seeks to solidify his own position by damning Poet Y and promoting Poet Z. In Keats’s day there were obviously agendas as well — political in the case of Byron, class AND political in the case of Keats — that impacted their critical reception.

    Ultimately, I couldn’t begin to suss out a “right” and wrong” in all this, in terms of who should be allowed to say what where — I was mostly trying to add to the discussion about vitriolic comments threads and further my own understanding of how and why they function. I did think your treatment of Ms. Smith was harsh. I have a hard time believing that Silliman shut down his comments on account of her post — it may have only provided the excuse, it may have been something he was considering for a long time, who knows. I agree that it’s most unfortunate that he chose to wipe out the historical threads. I appreciate your efforts to give full readings to new books of poetry by younger poets. I enjoyed and mostly agreed with your reading of Massey. And I look forward to what you’ll have to say about Smith.


  3. dhadbawnik says:


    with regards to the use of keats… no, i wouldn’t say that anyone in this story is analogous to keats. i was only trying to offer some perspective on harsh criticism in the world of poetry by citing a famous case. but it is true that, especially given the above factors (re. poets with agendas, etc.), criticism — or, better to say vicious attacks, put-downs, snide remarks masquerading as such — has been aimed at certain individuals with the main purpose of destroying or damaging their careers. and lurking behind such attacks one often finds issues of class and, now that the pathways of literature have more and more become open to women and diverse voices, sexism and racism — all of which does find an echo with the critical response to keats.

    the natural habitat of such attacks tends to be the comments threads to blogs and other online literary resources, for all the reasons outlined above. i would agree with you that mixed in with these are legitimate critiques that can and do add to the discourse….

  4. Sarah Peters says:

    Great post, David! I really like your Freudian interpretation of online vitriol. Your post Inspires a lot of thoughts. But I guess the central thing that bugs me about online commentary, is that often commenters seem to put words in the mouths of others in order to twist their “opponent” into a straw horse to incinerate. I find that practice far more offensive than just the idiotic slurs that wind up everywhere penned by someone hiding behind a pseudonym. And I hate the trolls who are just trying to stir things up–in a serious discussion.

  5. Andrew N. says:

    Now that the comment thread has been wiped out, it’s impossible to know what exactly was said. I read Smith’s post about it and she never quotes anyone directly, only makes generalized criticism, accuses them of being angry males, whacking off, etc. I don’t doubt that characterization. Highly-trafficked comment threads are generally cesspools of snark and arenas for pissing matches. Though I do agree with Faville’s general point that criticism like this comes with the territory. It’s like your mother always told you: ignore it. Or as my dad alway says, “Don’t wrestle with a pig. You’ll both end up dirty.”

    That said, I’m just not sure what the fuss is all about. These sorts of meaningless wars over minute differences in aesthetics really bore me, as almost everything does with poetry these days. Some future sociologist/anthropologist will face a difficult task in trying to figure out what these poet people were so heated about when everything they write will look like part of the same quasi-avant-garde-same-same. It’s a bit like the Judean’s People Front and the People’s Front of Judea. SPLITTERS!!!

    Right now I’m much more interested in your comments on Freud. As someone who sided with Jung in the divorce, I’m much more inclined to view humor as having the potential to unite us in some kind of transpersonal experience, in that certain forms of laughter are really our recognition of unconscious truths that connect us to deeper aspects of our humanity. To be sure, in forms of humor like snark and sarcasm and insult comedy and satire, there is always a target we are seeking out. When I laughed at a Tea Party joke on the Daily Show, probably the pleasure comes from repressed rage. (Jon Stewart is the most repressed man in comedy. You can always read anger in his face….and actually I’ve read that off camera he’s a serious pain-in-the-ass to his “enemies” much like he was on his famous Crossfire appearance.)

    However, Freud’s theory cannot account for laughter associated with puns, absurdity, silliness, or great joy. Humor based on whimsy, uplift, and random association. Like everything he did, here Freud reduces all human emotion to repressed elements and infantile regression, and so on. And like everything he did, he was half right. He just always ignores the higher reaches of human consciousness and development and reduces everything to repressed emotions, psychosexual pathologies, survival instincts and latent childhood trauma.

    None of this could possibly explain why, just to continue with the Monty Python references, we laugh when a knight is banging two empty halves of coconuts together. No one’s laughing at the knight as a form of ridicule as a result of repressed anger. We’re laughing from the unpredictable and silly expression of something novel. I could give you some literary examples, but I’ll stick with Monty Python for now.

  6. dhadbawnik says:


    thanks! i don’t know why, but right now and this past summer things have really been stirring up, from the ‘rethinking poetics’ meltdowns to this and various other things.


    funny you should bring up jung, whose name is verboten here in buffalo… literally, i am risking arrest and banishment just typing it. freud definitely got this territory in the divorce.

    the short answer is that freud, in the segment i quoted, is talking about what he calls “tendentious” jokes, jokes with a purpose. he does account for wordplay, puns, and nonsense jokes that have no repression attached to them as motivating factors… (and the key thing here, the part i find valid, is the WHY of joke-making… it’s easy to see why repression would motivate you to want to take the piss out of someone via a joke.) the why of other kinds of jokemaking is more obscure — freud seems to explain it by the play of childhood, a desire to get back to that state, and perhaps the simple relief of being freed from logic and “adult” viewpoints. perhaps here jung is more satisfying.

    as for the monty python gag you mention, it’s not the knight banging the coconuts together… it’s his squire or footservant. isn’t there a bit of a social commentary element in there? taking the piss out of chivalry, pointing out in some small way how it’s actually reliant on the work of the servant? but is that what’s funny about it?

    i do think that what’s missing with freud is an account of how humor changes over time — what was funny to the medieval mind is not funny to the modern mind, and some of the jokes freud thinks are terribly funny are not funny — at least to me.

  7. dhadbawnik says:

    In the interest of fairness to Mr. Massey, I want to go back and clarify something I wrote earlier … that i “enjoyed” Mr. Faville’s review of Massey’s book, and “mostly agreed” with it.

    I deliberately didn’t elaborate on this (nor write about it in my initial post) because, frankly, I’ve not read Massey’s book. I’ve read individual chaps of his, seen him read, and read his work in various journals — including, of course, kadar koli, which i publish.

    “Enjoyed” was probably a poor choice of words — given the negative thrust of the review — but what i meant was that i appreciated the in-depth look at numerous poems of Massey’s, with detailed explanations of the critic’s views, so rare these days when critics seem more enamored of their own words than the poems they’re reviewing.

    When I said I “mostly agreed,” again, that might have been stating it a bit too strongly… But, to be clear, what I agreed with was that the samples I’ve seen of Mr. Massey’s poetry do tend to exhibit a rather limited range, both in imagery and voice — personally i would love to see him pushing harder at the form — and in this Mr. Faville’s review raises a valid point, in my opinion. I also agree that there’s definitely something THERE in Massey’s poetry, and I share Faville’s expressed hope that he continues to develop…

    While agreeing thus far, I have a different interpretation of these elements — I know nothing of Massey’s models, and I have no idea how or in which direction his poetry will develop. It seems to me that, while perhaps getting more attention than less well known poets who are doing as or more interesting work (this was a bone of contention in Silliman’s comments, raised by kent johnson, among others), the quality of Massey’s poetry at this stage of his career is just where it needs to be, and there are scores of poets who would love to have a comparable career to this point.

    more than that i’m hesitant to say. i’ve seen poems of massey’s that i admire. faville excerpts some from the book and points out ‘clunky’ line breaks, awkward constructions… all i can say about that, not having read the whole book, is that working in such short lines, as massey does, there are bound to be clunkers. there are clunkers in every book of creeley’s that i’ve read. the margin for error is just too thin. aside from that i would urge you to read the review, read massey’s poems, and decide for yrself…

  8. Andrew N. says:

    Well now, certainly the jokes made at the expense of the French knights a bit later are jokes of the type described by Freud, as are a good many jokes in that film, but the coconuts are nothing like that. Obviously we all laugh for different reasons and sometimes many reasons at once, but the coconut bit for me is funny because…..(famous last words) of surprising it is that coconut shells are making that sound and also the juxtaposition of serious expressions and purposes with the play-acting of the coconut shells. Also I think because it plays well into the low-budget nature of the film. The killer rabbit later in the movie is funny for these reasons as well. But it seems Freud has different categories of humor and so I should check that out to see if he allows me to be funny without some lesser unconscious motive. A paper on a Freudian analysis of that movie’s humor would either be fun or devastating and ruin it forever. So I should stop.

    btw, nice touch with the “yrself…” very creeleyesque

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