‘The Weariness, the Fever and the Fret’: Writing Illness, Health and John Keats

2021 marks 200 years of poet John Keats’s legacy. In honour of Keats200, we have teamed up with writer Amy Mackelden to challenge you to explore illness in your poetry.

We welcome entries from schools and groups. Use this class entry form to enter students from your class or group.

Two masks forming a white cross on a red background

Amy writes…

John Keats was born in London in 1795, and in his short life made a huge impact on English poetry. He was a brilliant writer of odes, sonnets and long romances. Unlike many of the other celebrated poets of this period, he did not have a formal literary education and was even scorned for his Cockney roots. After training in the medical profession, Keats contracted tuberculosis and died at the young age of 25.

Whether you live with a chronic illness or disability (or are close to somebody who does), have dealt with minor sniffles and scrapes, or have felt the impact of the current pandemic on your life, there is much inspiration to be found, starting with the work of Keats.

Too often, sick and disabled people’s stories are co-opted by others, which is something we’d like you to consider with this challenge. It is far better to write about a personal experience with a minor ailment than to use another person’s story. Some people will have experienced illness in close friends and family, may be dealing with a difficult diagnosis, or will have spent time in GP surgeries or hospitals. Whatever the outcome, poems inspired by the issues of health, illness, disability, and death are best accessed from a personal, rather than imagined, viewpoint.

Here are some ideas to get started with your entry:

  • Read ‘When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be by John Keats and write your own poem beginning ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be…’ Write down lots of examples, like ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be I watch Netflix until my brain stops hurting.’ or ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be I Google my symptoms, which only makes things worse.’ Add as many ideas as you can, then remove Keats’s first line. Now you are left with:
    I watch Netflix until my brain stops hurting 
    I Google my symptoms, which only makes things worse…
    Edit it until you are happy.
  • Write about a moment you were impacted by illness. Add as many specific details as you can. What time of day is it? Is anyone else with you? Do they say anything? Notice your body. Has anything changed? What can you see and hear around you?
  • Write a poem about your self-care strategies. Think about the big things (appointments, conversations, medication), or the small (relaxation, exercise, reading, journaling). Have a look at the NHS website for more about self-care.

For more details about all of these prompts, visit the extended challenge page.

Prizes

Submit a poem or poems about health, illness and the body. Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network, and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and other goodies.

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged 25 and younger, based anywhere in the world. It’s free to enter and you can send as many poems as you like. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 28 March 2021. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.

Send your poem(s) to educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk with the subject line ‘John Keats challenge’, along with your name, date of birth/age, gender, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in, and how you found out about this challenge (e.g. YPN email/Twitter/Instagram/through a teacher/through a friend etc.). This data is used for statistical purposes and to help us reach as wide an audience as possible.

If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 28 March 2021, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.

We welcome entries from schools and groups. Use this class entry form to enter students from your class or group.

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk.

Keats 200 logo

Black and white photo of Amy Mackelden smiling
Photo: Laura Hol

Amy Mackelden is a disabled writer and the weekend editor at Harper’s BAZAAR US. Her bylines include ELLE, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Bustle, and she’s written about health for Healthline, The Paper Gown, The Checkup, Folks, HelloFlo, MS Society, MS Trust, and Byrdie. She is the recipient of a Northern Writers’ Award, and co-founded Butcher’s Dog magazine.

Published February 2021