A Poison Tree

Earlier this month I mused a bit about renowned poets’ “batting averages” when I use their words here, that the hall-of-famers and MVPs don’t always get the most likes and listens, that many of our most popular pieces use words from poets that are much lesser known. Of course, those levels of response may be secondary to the music Dave and I supply and our performances having their own range of attractiveness, or it could be that the subject matter of the popular lesser-known poems resonates in some way with audiences.

Perhaps it’s just random fate at play, but poet and artist William Blake never attracts much of an audience here, though he remains dear to my heart for his stubborn individual persistence and production. Blake is an 18th Century writer who looked backwards to Milton and Dante as much as he predicted the early 19th Century romantics. In America, he’s loved by some outsider poets such as Allen Ginsberg* and Patti Smith, but in England he may be encountered as the lyricist of a national anthem “Jerusalem.”   Compared to our founders of American Modernist verse, he can be in his “prophetic books” more long-winded than Whitman—and yet also as seaming simple and elusive as Emily Dickinson in his short lyrical poems. If you hear Blake as hard to value or difficult to appreciate quickly, you are likely hearing him right.

Take the piece that the LYL Band performs today, “A Poison Tree.”  It’s Dickinson-short, and like some Dickinson, if you give it only cursory attention, it seems like a simple moral tale. It certainly starts off like one. To paraphrase, I was mad at my friend, but we were open about it, and it all blew over; but with my enemy, I kept my anger a secret from him and it didn’t go away. This poem was even once published under an (ironic) title “Christian Forgiveness,”  and that may be what you expect to hear extoled. After its few moments this poem ends, it goes away, and that could be what you think you heard. But it’s stranger than that—unvarnished fairy-tale strange.

Blake A Poison Tree page

One nice thing about William Blake poems: I don’t have to hunt for illustrations

By the third verse the poet/speakers’ hidden, festering anger, has produced an apple, an Adam and Eve apple, a Snow White apple. Sure, magical realism, expected poetic imagery this. How’s the plot going to go on from here? Will he wicked-witch-trick the foe into eating the apple? Will he somehow reconsider his anger and resolve it? Will he somehow eat the apple himself by some misapprehension? Will he patent the apple’s genetic design and make so much money that the foe will be forever jealous?

Two lines into the third verse, it goes somewhere else than any of those easily comprehendible endings. The enemy sees that apple, that property of our poet/speaker. He wants it! He breaks into the speaker’s garden and steals it undercover of the night. Thus, the poison apple kills the foe. And the poems speaker sees this and is “glad.” Roll the credits, and anyone who’s been paying attention should walk out puzzled.

What the fruit!

Could Blake be saying that hidden anger is dangerous material, you need to be careful with it, as stuff could happen? Or is it a more elaborate allegory? Is Blake saying that our enemies will covet our anger, even if we think we are keeping it hidden, and the foe, seeking to seize this anger (perhaps it’s righteous or powerful) will kill themselves? Or, in the context of Blake’s overriding mythos—where the righteous, authoritarian deity, similar to the Old Testament Jehovah, is not simply good, and must be opposed—is Blake demonstrating that our festering anger will turn us into a trickster god who will allow the fall of man from Eden? Or is this a simpler anecdote about passive-aggressive sins, where the story is: well I was mad at him and he was my enemy after all, so why warn him off from my poison apple, he had it coming?

To those attracted to it, “A Poison Tree’s”  power derives from this mystery couched so simply. But if it only confounds you, that’s OK too. The Parlando Project tries to vary things—not to confound you, but because we’re attracted to a diversity of ways this can work or fail.

To hear the LYL Band perform Blake, use the player below.

*Allen Ginsberg sang Blake poems regularly, once issuing an LP of his performances with an eclectic group of accompanying musicians and performing them live. His unguarded and guileless performances of Blake were one influence for what I do here.

2 thoughts on “A Poison Tree

  1. Blake was undoubtedly a vanguardist of purest kind. The problem with Blake was, perhaps, the incompleteness of his oeuvre; similar to maybe Rimbaud, he did not have the necessary conditions to expand his poetics beyond his own poetical constraints. Far too common — and always sad — Blake is, like many, under-appreciated. You mentioned Ginsberg and Whitman rightly so, but I would also add Frost, perhaps even above the former. Frost had the zest of poetical simplicity and levity of Blake, and a lot more space to explore it.
    Thank you for this, I loved the article and read.


    1. Blake did have the constraints of bohemian poverty that held him back somewhat, but among the things that endear him to me were his persistence and his Indie/”Get in the van” level of self-sufficiency. Envisioning, writing, drawing, engraving, printing and inking his own books, Very few have tried to gain that level of control over their expression. And as a pioneering English Romantic, he had break new ground in his outlook there too.

      To be a true Blake scholar I’d have to wrangle with his intricate self-generated mythology. I’ve waded in that just enough so as to not seem to be an obvious fool, but I fear that I’m not that interested in world-building and complex allegorical constructs (which hampered my SciFi fandom as well).

      I’ll need to revisit Rimbaud again someday. I read him as a younger man in English translation, feeding off an interest in French poetry and the Patti Smith connection, and though there were some outrageous lines, he didn’t grab me then. If you look around here there are a few of my translations from French poets performed. Robert Frost on the other hand is one of the poets I use for words often here, along with his great friend Edward Thomas.

      I’d dearly love to do more of the Beats and the older and younger generations that abutted them–and their peers who stayed away from the Beat circle too, but alas ,none of their work is clearly free of copyright. The “reading to jazz” thing is one obvious influence for me, and having seen Ginsberg read a couple of times and sing one his Blake songs made an impression too.

      Anyway, thinks for reading/listening…and for thinking independently.

      Liked by 1 person

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