Keats's Odes: A Lover's Discourse
February 2021; UK edition, Verso Books, Nov 2022
"Risky, passionate criticism....A brilliant and refreshingly unprofessional book." - Ben Lerner, The Paris Review
"It is nothing short of a perfect book, one that understands how poetry can transform one’s life." - Juliana Spahr
In 1819, the poet John Keats wrote six poems that would become known as the Great Odes. Some of them—“Ode to a Nightingale,” “To Autumn”—are among the most celebrated poems in the English language. Nersessian here collects and elucidates each of the odes and offers a meditative, personal essay in response to each, revealing why these poems still have so much to say to us, especially in a time of ongoing political crisis. Her Keats is an unflinching antagonist of modern life—of capitalism, of the British Empire, of the destruction of the planet—as well as a passionate idealist for whom every poem is a love poem.
The book emerges from Nersessian’s lifelong attachment to Keats’s poetry; but more, it “is a love story: between me and Keats, and not just Keats.” Drawing on experiences from her own life, Nersessian celebrates Keats even as she grieves him and counts her own losses—and Nersessian, like Keats, has a passionate awareness of the reality of human suffering, but also a willingness to explore the possibility that the world, at least, could still be saved. Intimate and speculative, this brilliant mix of the poetic and the personal will find its home among the numerous fans of Keats’s enduring work.
Boston Globe, Best Books of 2021
Finalist, Poetry Foundation Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism
Anahid Nersessian offers a radical and unforgettable reading of the British writer's odes—one that upends our sense of his poetic project....[S]he is in a class of literary scholars that is entirely her own.
- The Nation
[Keats's Odes] appears freed by the sensuousness of Keats’s own verse, standing on the verge of becoming something more than literary criticism. While not an imitation of Keatsian style, Nersessian shares his willingness for vulnerability and for writing that enfleshes the experience of being subject to the world because you are a subject in it.
- Los Angeles Review of Books
Among the many gifts of Nersessian’s interpretation of Keats is the insight that to truly love is to be open to the world, both despite and because of its great pain....When th[e] final chapter ended, I felt bereft, abandoned: I wanted to ask Nersessian — undignified, almost begging — not to leave so soon.
Nersessian weaponizes her searing prose—and Keats’s verse—for a very personal and yet deeply political mission. This short book is highly conscious of the world’s evils, but makes a passionate case for humanity in the face of modern capitalism and the climate emergency. It is all the more powerful a reading of Keats because it rejects the simplistic contortionism that political readings often adopt.
- Camden New Journal
A deep and accessible delve into the poetry of one of the great Romantic poets. It is the perfect antidote to the way most of us had his poetry foisted on us in school as it's a wonderful combination of reverence for Keats’ sublime writing and reality-based analysis.
- Blog Critics
Keats’s Odes is brash, skeptical, and tender by turns. . . . Nersessian’s prose is bold, irreverent, declarative, and feral. Hyperbole and slackness are deceptive: every phrase feels carefully pitched.
- Times Literary Supplement
In imaginative, lucid prose, Nersessian proves that criticism can be loving, literary art.
- The Boston Globe, Best Books of 2021
The book’s intimacy, vulnerability and determination to provoke is true to Keats, and Nersessian’s genuine feeling for his work is never in doubt. One can’t help but be pleased that two centuries on, Keats’s odes still inspire engagement and love.
- Washington Post
Intense emotion abounds in this literary blend of analysis and autobiography. . . . In six essays that examine each of Keats’s Great Odes, Nersessian tells a 'kind of love story' between herself and the poems.
- Publishers Weekly
"[A] model for what criticism looks like right now; it’s so state-of-the-art that its contemporaneity glows on every page. Urgent, brave, a little elusive at the same time that it is also confrontational, weaving autobiographical vulnerability with critical verve, like a series of letters addressed to an unknown reader who’ll be willing to follow every turn[.]"
- Public Books
In previous books, Nersessian has shown herself an excellent scholar of Romanticism. With Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, she proves that her criticism can have memoiristic range, too. . . . What most impresses about Keats’s Odes is how deftly Nersessian moves from Keats’s vulnerability to her own.
Nersessian’s knack for tapping into the emotional center of the odes comes from the third part of her book’s approach: including a personal narrative. She isn’t afraid of bringing her educated, loving, and damaged self (or at least the persona of one) into the discussion.
- Arts Fuse