Tony Harrison / A Kumquat for John Keats

I have recently returned to reading the works of Leeds poet Tony Harrison after finding his book again following moving house. I have had a copy of his selected poems on my bookshelf for nearly 10 years because of Harrisons’ upbringing in Leeds, the setting of some of his poems and the local vernacular he weaves into his work.

Harrison is famous for his poem ‘V’, but it was always ‘A Kumquat for John Keats’ that resonated with me when I first read the book, and I decided to study this poem again in an attempt to fully understand why I connected with it so much.

The poem is essentially a reply to Keat’s poem ‘Ode to Melancholy’, which explores the idea that Melancholy and Delight are inextricably intertwined. Harrison poses the idea that the Kumquat fruit, which has both a sweet skin, and a bitter pulp, is a better metaphor for this idea, and wonders what Keats would have thought about it. Using the Kumquat as a metaphor, Harrison ruminates on the contrasts of life, using the fruit to symbolise the sweet and sour tones of life, what Keats would have thought about the fruit, and wonders what his opinion on growing older would be if he would have recovered from TB and lived longer.

I found this blog post which summarises it clearly, and I would like to use the visual of a Kumquat fruit as a connection to the themes explored by both poets, in some of my photographic images.

See the full poem below.

Today I found the right fruit for my prime,

not orange, not tangelo, and not lime,

nor moon-like globes of grapefruit that now hang

outside our bedroom, nor tart lemon’s tang

(though last year full of bile and self-defeat

I wanted to believe no life was sweet)

nor the tangible sunshine of the tangerine,

and no incongruous citrus ever seen

at greengrocers’ in Newcastle or Leeds

mis-spelt by the spuds and mud-caked swedes,

a fruit an older poet might substitute

for the grape John Keats thought fit to be Joy’s fruit,

when, two years before he died, he tried to write

how Melancholy dwelled inside Delight,

and if he’d known the citrus that I mean

that’s not orange, lemon, lime, or tangerine,

I’m pretty sure that Keats, though he had heard

‘of candied apple, quince and plum and gourd’

instead of ‘grape against the palate fine’

would have, if he’d known it, plumped for mine,

this Eastern citrus scarcely cherry size

he’d bite just once and then apostrophize

and pen one stanza how the fruit had all

the qualities of fruit before the Fall,

but in the next few lines be forced to write

how Eve’s apple tasted at the second bite,

and if John Keats had only lived to be,

because of extra years, in need like me,

at 42 he’d help me celebrate

that Micanopy kumquat that I ate

whole, straight off the tree, sweet pulp and sour skin-

or was it sweet outside, and sour within?

For however many kumquats that I eat

I’m not sure if it’s flesh or rind that’s sweet,

and being a man of doubt at life’s mid-way

I’d offer Keats some kumquats and I’d say:

You’ll find that one part’s sweet and one part’s tart:

say where the sweetness or the sourness start.

I find I can’t, as if one couldn’t say

exactly where the night became the day,

which makes for me the kumquat taken whole

best fruit, and metaphor, to fit the soul

of one in Florida at 42 with Keats

crunching kumquats, thinking, as he eats

the flesh, the juice, the pith, the pips, the peel,

that this is how a full life ought to feel,

its perishable relish prick the tongue,

when the man who savours life ‘s no longer young,

the fruits that were his futures far behind.

Then it’s the kumquat fruit expresses best

how days have darkness round them like a rind,

life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.

History, a life, the heart, the brain

flow to the taste buds and flow back again.

That decade or more past Keats’s span

makes me an older not a wiser man,

who knows that it’s too late for dying young,

but since youth leaves some sweetnesses unsung,

he’s granted days and kumquats to express

Man’s Being ripened by his Nothingness.

And it isn’t just the gap of sixteen years,

a bigger crop of terrors, hopes and fears,

but a century of history on this earth

between John Keats’s death and my own birth-

years like an open crater, gory, grim,

with bloody bubbles leering at the rim;

a thing no bigger than an urn explodes

and ravishes all silence, and all odes,

Flora asphyxiated by foul air

unknown to either Keats or Lemprière,

dehydrated Naiads, Dryad amputees

dragging themselves through slagscapes with no trees,

a shirt of Nessus fire that gnaws and eats

children half the age of dying Keats …

Now were you twenty five or six years old

when that fevered brow at last grew cold?

I’ve got no books to hand to check the dates.

My grudging but glad spirit celebrates

that all I’ve got to hand ‘s the kumquats, John,

the fruit I’d love to have your verdict on,

but dead men don’t eat kumquats, or drink wine,

they shiver in the arms of Prosperine,

not warm in bed beside their Fanny Brawne,

nor watch her pick ripe grapefruit in the dawn

as I did, waking, when I saw her twist,

with one deft movement of a sunburnt wrist,

the moon, that feebly lit our last night’s walk

past alligator swampland, off its stalk.

I thought of moon-juice juleps when I saw,

as if I’d never seen the moon before,

the planet glow among the fruit, and its pale light

make each citrus on the tree its satellite.

Each evening when I reach to draw the blind

stars seem the light zest squeezed through night’s black rind;

the night’s peeled fruit the sun, juiced of its rays,

first stains, then streaks, then floods the world with days,

days, when the very sunlight made me weep,

days, spent like the nights in deep, drugged sleep,

days in Newcastle by my daughter’s bed,

wondering if she, or I, weren’t better dead,

days in Leeds, grey days, my first dark suit,

my mother’s wreaths stacked next to Christmas fruit,

and days, like this in Micanopy. Days!

As strong sun burns away the dawn’s grey haze

I pick a kumquat and the branches spray

cold dew in my face to start the day.

The dawn’s molasses make the citrus gleam

still in the orchards of the groves of dream.

The limes, like Galway after weeks of rain,

glow with a greenness that is close to pain,

the dew-cooled surfaces of fruit that spent

all last night flaming in the firmament.

The new day dawns. O days! My spirit greets

the kumquat with the spirit of John Keats.

O kumquat, comfort for not dying young,

both sweet and bitter, bless the poet’s tongue!

I burst the whole fruit chilled by morning dew

against my palate. Fine, for 42!

I search for buzzards as the air grows clear

and see them ride fresh thermals overhead.

Their bleak cries were the first sound I could hear

when I stepped at the start of sunrise out of doors,

and a noise like last night’s bedsprings on our bed

from Mr Fowler sharpening farmers’ saws.

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