Perhaps today’s audio piece and what I came to write about it has an interesting path. In words it’s a medium-length journey—so I beg your patience—but the places it goes are vast. Eventually, we’ll answer a question you may not have asking: who’s buried in William Blake’s tomb?
It started with an illustration drawn by Sergio García Sánchez which I saw on Kenne Turner’s blog this month. Turner’s blog has a great deal of manipulated and beautiful nature photography, mixed in with things he notices in his desert region location and occasional poetry, so it was unusual to see a drawing at first, but his post correctly located the words in the drawing and let me recognize the white haired old man whose beard is a star’s journeywork in this cartoon. The man in the drawing, the words, was Walt Whitman.*
Perhaps because Whitman’s words were embedded inside a drawing, they seemed Blakean to me as I read of that grain of sand, a hinge in the hand across the starry dynamo machinery of night. The main effect was to grab my attention and bring thoughts of doing it for this project.
And so I composed a small orchestra piece of music to accompany my reading of this piece, taken from the 31st part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” using the 1855 edition. I’d normally give you a link to the text, but the two links above to Turner’s blog or to Sánchez’s picture are the best way to see the 1855 text I used which includes a line that was dropped in later editions, the line with the farmer’s girl and her iron tea-kettle that reminds us back to earth and daily life. For many compositions I’d be done.
And then last week poet Michael McClure died. He’s a poet of many events,** he read at the “Human Be-In” in San Francisco at the beginning of 1967, he can be seen briefly in The Last Waltz movie reading Chaucer to the rock glitterati—but he may be most famous for being an organizer of the famous Six Angels in the Same Performance reading at the San Francisco Six Gallery in 1955***
I know McClure best from a record album he made with ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and flautist Larry Kassen called The Piano Poems in 2012. This was nowhere near my introduction to the Beat-associated “jazz behind poetry reading” style, but it’s a very good one. Listening to that helped build my own convictions for this project back then.
One of the poems performed on this set is McClure’s “Action Philosophy.” Though he didn’t on Piano Poems as released, McClure would often introduce it by saying that his poem begins with words written by Henry David Thoreau. That led me to think about combining McClure’s incorporation of Thoreau with Whitman’s Blakean lines about the universe’s manifestation in everyday nature. After all, McClure extends Blake’s and Whitman’s vision, seeking to become the animals he sees, to inhabit them fully. That’s the animal meat of his poem, but it’s in a reality sandwich on this deli menu—those separated first and last lines present a vital dichotomy. Here’s the text of McClure’s “Action Philosophy.”
Fifteen jugglers, five believers, six angels in the same performance! Tell your mama not to worry, ‘cause they’re just my friends. Yes, learn to play the triangle and visionary poetic figures will flock to you.
That first line: “That government is best which governs least” is taken from Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience,” an essay that soon became important to certain liberation movements. Thoreau himself was speaking about the Mexican-American War and slavery in his essay, oppressive evils that he felt he had to take action against. Gandhi and Martin Luther King made explicit reference to this work of Thoreau in their movements against colonialism and American racial subjugation. Lines from it had vital currency during the anti-Vietnam War movements of The Sixties.
But that’s not what I associated this line with from my life in the later 20th century, or where you may most likely hear it today. Now if you see this line quoted, (perhaps misattributed to Thomas Jefferson, not Thoreau) it may be used to buttress some form of conservatism, particularly conservatism that has a claim to libertarianism. Libertarianism is a complex subject, too long to explore here today, but on the other hand, elements at the foundation of the Beat literary movement were anarchists, an alignment that would have fitted Thoreau.
Now we take another side-step. Back in the 1990s I worked with Gary, a white database programmer from South Carolina. He aligned strongly (as do some technology people today) with libertarianism and the political right that was ascendant in parts of America at that time. He was a great fan of Thoreau’s line, though I think he’d attribute it to his fellow Southerner Jefferson, rather than the Yankee Thoreau. From talking with him I felt that his philosophical libertarianism might have protected him somewhat from the racism, acknowledged or unacknowledged, that can be found in a lot of American conservatism. When he would talk about his political opinions, I’d say “Well, that’s not me, but you know a lot of the folks I read are anarchists, and they sort of have the same feelings about the dangers of governments.”
Gary replied with a question that might take a long time to answer. “What’s the difference between libertarianism and anarchism?”
What an interesting question, and how long could that answer go on? I improvised my first thoughts, observational ones that day Gary asked it decades ago. “Well, some of it is just cultural associations. They dress differently, they listen to different music. And some of that is reflected from where they are moving from: Libertarians come largely from right-wing backgrounds and anarchists from left-wing ones, though each of them may be disenchanted with something from the Right or the Left respectively.”
McClure’s “Action Philosophy” takes what might be a book-length examination and instead put a distinction into his poem’s first and last lines. The world of the Randian side of libertarianism is perfectly fine with hierarchies and a thought that the unfortunate are the unworthy, or if not that, the unavoidable. Most anarchists—and from McClure’s final line spoken here today, McClure himself—were not. So the first and last lines today are a meaningful combination.
That was my process, a path of liberties and syndication, from within which the piece emerged as the Whitman Blakean section enclosed in McClure’s poem which seemed so Whitmanesque. My performance and recording was done, and yet I went to bed last night with a question in my mind. “What did Whitman know of William Blake? Those lines seemed so Blakean to me.”
Those who read this blog know that when I’m reading a poem, performing, and experiencing it, there’s often one more question that comes from that process. I did a little research today, and found sources that say that at the time of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman probably didn’t know Blake’s work, but by later in the 19th century he certainly did; and that some of those reviving and extending attention on Blake also saw the strange connection between Blake and Whitman—I wasn’t the first. Here’s a link to a very fine summary written by Sarah Ferguson-Wagstaffe of what links are known and were noticed in the 19th century, and even a short bit from Whitman’s own private writings about how he felt he was different from Blake. Ferguson-Wagstaffe may be writing for a scholarly website, but she doesn’t bury the lede: Whitman designed his own burial tomb inspired by a drawing of Blake’s.
How did they come to similar forms of poetic expression? The translated Hebrew poetry of The Bible influenced both strongly. And the same political philosophies informed both men, Blake knew Thomas Paine, Whitman was reading Thoreau and Emerson. And maybe the muses, the angels, the wake-waves of ghosts from the last movements of the dead moving in our air pressed similar things into each poets’ ear. Right after Ginsberg read “Howl” at the Gallery Six reading for the first time (and by some accounts it was the first public reading of any kind Ginsberg or McClure had ever given of any of their work), Lawrence Ferlinghetti contacted Ginsberg from out of the Gallery audience and said “I welcome you on the beginning of a great career.” Ferlinghetti no doubt knew he was echoing what Emerson had written to Whitman in response to that 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.
For those that note that I’ve borrowed a song-title from Bob Dylan, I point out one of my favorite investigations from this Project: my non-original, but still little-known, discovery that Bob Dylan was filmed doing the famous hand-drawn placard presentation of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with Ginsberg gesturing in the background in an alley at the very site that William Blake died. To warp the old joke: Who’s buried in Blake’s Tomb? Whitman. Who was illuminated at the site of Blake’s death? Bob Dylan. Is McClure, carrying his nesting twig of Thoreau, and angel or a condor now?
To hear a performance mixing in Thoreau, McClure, and Whitman with my music for a small orchestra, use the player below. Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Thanks for sharing these ghosts with me.
*Should I have used the more multitudinous verb “where” here?
**McClure didn’t even have to be there. In the summer of 1970, I was working frying hamburgers in Port Chester New York. Down the road was the Capitol Theater, one of those converted to rock concert venues of the age. At a bar in town Janis Joplin was drinking with Bob Neuwirth, and Joplin started riffing on a line from a McClure poem “Come on God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz.” Neuwirth scribbled the night’s journeywork on a paper napkin. Later that day she performed the resulting song at the Capitol Theater. Me? I just kept frying those burgers.
***True to their anarchist-hearts, the reading seems to have been blessed with several “organizers” but happened anyway. Kenneth Rexroth MC’d, Phillip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Michael McClure, and Allen Ginsberg read. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, Ann Charters, and Jack Kerouac where in the audience. Since it was at this reading the Ginsberg premiered his long poem “Howl,” that seems to have become the summary of the event, but the edges of the blast broke more windows. The 22-year-old McClure read a poem about the death of whales, showing that his “Mammal Patriotism” was already forming.