The state I live in, Minnesota, has a reasonable list under “claims to fame.” Lots of lakes, a funny accent, Prince, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis* and Bob Dylan. And bugs.
It may be all that water, Some of the Twin Cities sits on what was once marshland, and even when it forgets that, the bugs have longer memories such that the oldest joke in the state is that the Minnesota State Bird is the mosquito. Farther upstate to our northern forests the most feared animal isn’t the bear or wolf, but the tiny biting gnats and other larger and blood-hungry black fly species. All and all, it’s likely there are no vampires in Minnesota. Too much competition.
I’ll go to English romantic poet, political radical and mystic William Blake for today’s piece “The Fly” from his collection Songs of Experience. Blake’s short poems can be shockingly brief in a way that Emily Dickinson’s sometimes are too. For a simple looking poem with only small and common words, there are numerous commentaries explicating the mystic or philosophic meanings of “The Fly.” It opens with an uncomplicated setup: a fly bugs Blake one summer day, he brushes it away, something a hundredfold mundane. In an impossible way, he says he did this thoughtlessly, as he’s got four more short stanzas packed with thought and meditation.
Here’s the text of the poem as Blake the artist presented it. Toddler Robert Frost in front right is telling the woman that Allen Ginsberg (pretty in pink) is playing badminton without a net again.
For a mere 30 words in two stanzas Blake speaks on the similarities between the insect and himself. In a typical explication of this poem, the first stanza’s shoe-fly act, self-labeled by the poet as thoughtless, is read by those as a swat, killing the fly. But Blake doesn’t describe that as I read it. Instead I read it as a mutual act of interruption. Blake has interrupted the fly who has interrupted him.
The fourth stanza in my reading sums up a value Blake sees in this interaction, a stanza which would be quite obscure if this was indeed a meditation on a sudden death of the fly. The fly’s interruption wasn’t thoughtless after all, it caused thought in Blake.
The “Dance and drink and sing” line is not, or at least not only, a paean to the joys of living. It’s a remark on the superficialities of life for a fly and human, in the Buddhist sense, maya. “Thought is life…and the want of thought is death” is Blake’s precept here. It was good that he and the fly engaged in a momentary summer dialectic. The final stanza is mysteriously balanced. If to think is to live, the unconsidered life is death. The human choice should be then to think, to interrupt thoughtlessness. In the final stanza, is Blake saying that the fly’s insect’s brain cannot choose, and that humans who don’t make their possible choice for thought may be happy flies, but they are not exercising their human potential?
I wonder if Blake was knowledgeable of Socrates and his claim that he must be a gadfly to society, the presenter of bothersome ideas, the interrupter of the thoughtless, or if this was an independent realization. Others certainly borrowed it. Gandhi liked Socrates’ fly thought. Martin Luther King used that gadfly line of Socrates in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” too, and it even inspired the periodical that alternate Parlando reader Dave Moore started up that he called The Gadfly a half-century ago.
Minnesota also had a reputation for political progressivism. Maybe it was the bugs?
I won’t interrupt you long for today’s audio piece, my performance of Blake’s “The Fly.” There’s a player gadget below.
*Literarily, a step down in fame, we also have Robert Pirsig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance living over a shoe-store a couple of blocks away from where I’m typing this, and Robert Bly, he of the deep image and a revised-standard-version of masculinity. Some would even claim John Berryman, an interstate grump who was teaching here when he took a faith or faithless leap off the Mississippi bridge that I once traveled over between my job at a hospital and my last few dollars of college education. I kept walking, and encourage you to do so too.