I'm not sure if it's flesh or rind
that's sweet -
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 becomes the day,
which makes for me the kumquat taken whole
best fruit, and metaphor for the soul.
(from Tony Harrison,
A Kumquat for John Keats)
Harrison offers Keats a substitute for the grape, suggesting that this little citrus fruit better expresses how melancholy dwells inside delights.
The idea of poets alive and dead swapping imagery in order best to express feeling is heartening; since life often seems beguiling and confusing, a little help in capturing the paradoxes is always welcome.
Theatre explores too: one of its privileges is being allowed to wade around investigating the human condition and then communicating one's findings. However, if it's distillation and quintessentiality one's after, then a poet is required - they will always find the pith.
I gave Kumquat to a friend who'd had more than a bad year: it was Tony Harrison who'd searched for words of comfort I couldn't have found and it focused me on our need to respect the poets in our midst.
Comparing Ode to Melancholy to Harrison's poem, I find I'd go for kumquats too. Maybe because Keats was still a young man, he expressed his anguish as an open wound; his older counterpart displays instead a grim humour which hovers between the bleak and the beautiful - it helps instil the necessary perseverance.
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.
Painful realism - and so well said.
Jude Kelly is artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse; her production of 'Comedians' is at the Lyric, Hammersmith, to 24 July
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