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

In honour of Keats200, the bicentenary celebration of the poet John Keats’s life, works, and legacy, poet Amy Mackelden has set us a new challenge. She offers writing prompts and poems that explore illness, and use our bodies as inspiration.

This challenge is now closed. Congratulations to the winners, whose poems you can read in the sidebar. Congratulations, too, to the longlisted poets whose work impressed the judges: Helena Aeberli, Lauren Aspery, Anna Bailey, Rachel Brooks, Grace Carter, Jack Cooper, April Egan, Katie Garrett, Mac Goodwin, Sarah Henderson, Kaycee Hill, Divya Mehrish, Rhona Mylne, Iqra Naseem, Mia Nelson, Brooke Nind, Sinéad O’Reilly, Veronica Shen, Elizabeth Thatcher, Maggie Wang and Eve Wright.

Two masks forming a white cross on a red background

The challenge: write a poem inspired by John Keats, illness poetry, and the pandemic

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.

Last year, I co-edited The Emma Press Anthology of Illness, a collection of poems written entirely by poets writing about their own experiences of illness, disability, mental health issues, and loss. 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. Authenticity is paramount when writing about illness, and 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.

There is, perhaps, no better time to write illness poetry than in the middle of a global pandemic, which has affected us all. Whether you have firsthand experience of COVID-19, know someone working on the frontlines, or have been dealing with a separate illness during the pandemic, the past year has brought health issues into sharp focus. If you don’t feel your own connection to illness is strong enough to be the basis of new writing, your life during the current pandemic could be your source of inspiration for this challenge, from watching Boris Johnson’s seemingly endless livestreams to how you feel about nationwide lockdowns.

Challenge: Use John Keats’ illness writing as inspiration

John Keats by Joseph Severn 1819. Oil on ivory miniature, 105×79 mm. National Portrait Gallery.

2021 marks the 200th anniversary of John Keats’ death. If you’ve read or studied Keats, you’re likely familiar with his best known poems such as ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ or ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. However, in 1821, at the age of 25, Keats died from tuberculosis, ‘a bacterial infection spread through inhaling tiny droplets from the coughs or sneezes of an infected person’, per the NHS. It’s thought that Keats caught the disease after caring for his brother, who passed away two years prior in 1819. As well as being a poet, Keats underwent extensive medical training, and had initially pursued a career as an ‘apothecary-surgeon’ or doctor. Keats died very young, but he used his experiences, and his condition, to inspire some of his poetry.

Task: Read ‘When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be by John Keats.

When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be
By John Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
   Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
   Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
   Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
   Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
   That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
   Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

Using the first line as a prompt, consider how you would continue the sentence, ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be…’ Write down ten different examples, for instance:

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.

Once you have ten examples, remove Keats’ first line, and form a new poem from your own continuations. For example, my poem would start:

I watch Netflix until my brain stops hurting
I Google my symptoms, which only makes things worse…

Edit, extend, and change your poem until you are happy with the result.

Challenge: Explore modern day poetry about illness and disability

Daniel Sluman reads at Wordsmiths & Co: November 2012

In recent years, writers and artists with illnesses and disabilities have been seeking to tell their own stories. One such writer, Daniel Sluman, is an amputee poet and disability activist. In ‘Letter, he writes about a moment of diagnosis in a hospital when he was younger. The poet observes the everyday details around him, from ‘his mother’s make-up / shaking to the floor’ to ‘someone else’s blood sizzling’ under his own skin.

While Sluman’s writing recalls the events leading up to finding a ‘tumour on the x-ray’, the poem is an example of stopping time, making observations about everyday details, both unusual and extraordinary, to conjure the feeling of his diagnosis.

Task: Think of a moment in your life when you were impacted by illness. This might be the moment you discovered that COVID-19 was spreading, a time you attended a GP appointment, or picked up a prescription for you or someone else. With your moment in mind, answer the following questions in as much detail as possible:

  • What time of day is it?
  • What season is it? Can you feel the temperature in the room?
  • Notice what’s on the floor, on the walls, out of the window, around you?
  • Is anyone else there, and do they say anything?
  • Are there any sounds? Music? Television?
  • Notice your body. Has anything changed?
  • What did you learn in this moment?

Using your notes, create a poem in a structure of your choosing about your moment.

Challenge: Reflecting on emotions and mental health

The Emma Press Anthology of Illness book coverWhen editing The Emma Press Anthology of Illness, we wanted to include poems about mental health, exploring conditions like anxiety and depression. Just as people living with invisible illnesses often struggle to explain their conditions to others, managing mental health can be lonely and tricky to describe. Emotions are a part of everyday life; whether you’ve sought treatment for your mental health, or have faced tough situations and been forced to confront difficult emotions, writing might be a way of helping you to sort through your thoughts and feelings.

Task: Read an excerpt from ‘Someone’s Emotional Problem’ by Rhiannon Grant.

I clearly don’t feel
the way I’m supposed to feel
but I can’t seem to produce
whatever feeling I’m supposed to have

Perhaps, like the poet, you’ve attended an appointment related to your mental or emotional health. Maybe you practice mindfulness or another form of self-care, which has been particularly helpful during the pandemic. You might be more aware of your mental health during the pandemic, and may have been impacted by recent world events and the anxiety of not knowing what will happen.

If you feel comfortable doing so, write a piece about self-care, and some of the ways you have been supporting your mental health and wellbeing, either during the pandemic or on a day-to-day basis. Think about the big things (appointments, conversations, medication), or the small (relaxation, exercise, reading, journaling). If you have unusual methods of self-care, make those the focus. If your mental health self-care is a work-in-progress (like mine!), write about what you’ve learnt about looking after yourself and your goals for the future. If you’d like to find out more about self-care, including some suggestions, have a look at the NHS website.

Most importantly, there is no wrong way to complete this task. It’s about reflecting on your emotions, so if your poem is about meditating while looking at pictures of The Rock, that is absolutely fine. Or it can be more serious if you like.

Selected illness reading list:

Happy writing and good luck!

Prizes

Submit a poem or poems about health, illness and the body inspired by the prompts above. 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 ‘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.

Enter Now: foyleyoungpoets.org (written on a background of stars and a moon with a silhouette of a face in portrait)You might also want to enter this poem in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, with a chance to win some amazing prizes and further development opportunities. We can do that for you. If you are aged 11-17 on 31 July 2021 and would like us to automatically enter your poem into the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, please write in the subject line ‘Enter me into Foyle’ and provide us with your date of birth, school name (if applicable) and home address (so we can send you a Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award anthology next year) in the body of the email. Please note: published work is not eligible for entry into the Foyle Award, so winners and commended YPN challenge poems will not be entered into the Foyle Award. You’ll only be entered if you’re not a winner in this challenge.

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

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