When Keats and Rexroth Saved My Life

Beauty is twice beauty when we’re talking about John Keats. “The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing — to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.” I remember reading that for the first time and lifting, lifting inside, like a sea creature who becomes itself by rising.

I was in the hospital at the time. I was barely seventeen and I’d largely given up on life. My parents were alcoholics and by turns abusive and distant. I was legally blind and unable to keep up in school. Classmates were cruel. At a loss to imagine a robust method to end it all I starved myself. Anorexia was easy. Not eating was a discipline. By the time I hit 100 pounds I looked like John Lennon or Mick Jagger—thin by means of corruption, cool, pale, faintly menacing.

There was that damned Keats. “Make up one’s mind about nothing…” How does one explain the moral imperative of adolescent thought? It’s easy to describe its delinquency but not its aspirational qualities. I was sick. Incredibly ill. Strengthening one’s intellect seemed both superfluous and everything. Let the mind be a thoroughfare. Could I imagine another me?

I had some help from other poets. I read Rexroth and was surprised by this:

Yin and Yang

It is spring once more in the Coast Range

Warm, perfumed, under the Easter moon.

The flowers are back in their places.

The birds are back in their usual trees.

The winter stars set in the ocean.

The summer stars rise from the mountains.

The air is filled with atoms of quicksilver.

Resurrection envelops the earth.

Goemetrical, blazing, deathless,

Animals and men march through heaven,

Pacing their secret ceremony.

The Lion gives the moon to the Virgin.

She stands at the crossroads of heaven,

Holding the full moon in her right hand,

A glittering wheat ear in her left.

The climax of the rite of rebirth

Has ascended from the underworld

Is proclaimed in light from the zenith.

In the underworld the sun swims

Between the fish called Yes and No.

That a person could conceive of fish in the underworld and that the sun could swim fish like between yes and no—this, I saw, was what Keats meant. This was the everything principle that Keats and Rexroth brought to me while I lay in my sickbed and boy scouts raised and lowered the American flag beneath my window and the body, mine, so thin it was actually throbbing, a body which was about to fall away, reached out for the ancient dropped lifeline of ascendant blazing solar fish and atoms of quicksilver.

Make up one’s mind about nothing. It’s the most complex sentiment one can read.