William Blake’s “The Tyger”

It seemed a long time since I last had a new performance to share. I checked, and found it’d only been a week, but since then the moon has had a red eclipse, and in my country there’s been a couple of mass shootings motivated by ignorant ethnic hatreds. Willful ignorance combined with violence is particularly ugly, and presently a state-leader with missiles and bigger guns wants to kill to impress too.

I’ve completed no new pieces. I tried to start two, but so far nothing is developing. So today I thought I’d present this new-to-you performance of William Blake’s “The Tyger,”  mostly because it’s pretty good and I don’t have anything else ready. I made that decision this morning, and then I suddenly realized that “The Tyger,”  a poem first published in 1794 by a mystical Englishman, has turned just about right for this ominous spring and our current year.

Over 40 years ago, I was in bed and my partner asked me how I could account for the presence in the world of evil.*   Strange place and time for that question — for in that moment I was more impressed with beauty and joy. I stumbled for my answer: good was always present in the universe, and always powerful enough to overcome evil — but not always both at the same point. Alas, “not always” is more painful than it sounds to nakedly say.

Visionary poet William Blake asked that question too. Blake was born into a family of religious dissenters and progressed to rebel even further from Christian dogma. He intuited a moral universe where evil was caused by over-justified powers of the creator. Interesting thought that. In “The Tyger”  poet Blake asks a manifestation of terrible predatory power a series of rhetorical questions, meaning to direct our thoughts in the direction of his conclusion.

Now, to get to my performance of Blake’s poem, we need to make a jump cut. Ready?

Year of the Tyger

Year of the Tyger, three times.

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In what’s usually called the Chinese zodiac, years go through a 12 year cycle. I wrote this musical setting for a video of an event in 2010 tied to the Chinese Year of the Tiger. In order to extend the length of performance to the length needed for the video, I refrained Blake’s “Tyger Tyger burning bright” stanza after every verse, a tactic which makes it longer than I’d like it to be today. As it turned out, the video ran longer than planned, and I needed to cross-fade even my lengthened “Tyger”  with another piece then for the final cut of the video. Given how long ago the recording was done, I only have that completed mix from the video’s soundtrack, so “The Tyger”  I present today ends on the start of that cross-fade.

The “Chinese Zodiac” progresses, and as it goes we’ve once again come to the Year of the Tiger in 2022. I think this performance from the previous Year of the Tiger retains its power and so I present it to you now.** There’s an audio player gadget below that will play it for many of you, and where that’s absent, here’s a highlighted link that’s an alternative way to play it.

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*This all seems way too Leonard Cohen doesn’t it? No, it actually happened like that.

**I often find I have one more question as I think I’ve finished a post. This time, I asked myself, what year in the Zodiac cycle was Blake’s 1794? Why, another Year of the Tiger of course.

The Most Popular Parlando Piece for Summer 2021

If you’ve followed this Top Ten countdown series of the most liked and listened to audio pieces this summer at the Parlando Project you’ve taken a bit of a journey, and I thank you for coming along. The kind of music I create and present here varies, and lately I’ve been doing some louder stuff with electric instruments which may not be your cup of noise. Stick with Parlando, we’re like Minnesota weather — we’ve got four Seasons!  and they play in repertory. Now on to the most played audio piece here this summer.

A Cradle Song by William Blake  You can think of this honest lullaby as a Blake out-take. It sounds like it belongs in one of his pair of engraved books of short poems, Songs of Innocence  and Songs of Experience,  but for whatever reason it was never engraved by this artist/printer/poet.

In the original post*  I commented on why I chose to perform this piece of worry and comfort. I said then that lullabies are designed to comfort the parent and  the child, and this piece still comforts me as transitions proceed around my life. Perhaps it’ll comfort you too. And as a bonus, here’s a chord sheet of my music for this text of Blake’s. I played this with a capo on the 4th fret, so the recording sounds in the key of C# minor, but the chords shown here have more open strings, and acoustic guitars love open strings.

A Cradle Song

Blake’s lullaby, with my music to suit.

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Speaking of musical variation, I spent time yesterday in my studio space playing a Stratocaster electric guitar as part of my yearly September 18th commemoration of the death of Jimi Hendrix, and that squall delayed by a day this wrap-up of our summer Top Ten countdown. During this, a sixteen-minute torrent of notes was recorded yesterday, and being in the room with that sound too comforted me as much as this lullaby’s soft acoustic guitar.  I’ve edited the live take down to six and a half minutes, and there are words too, a sort of found poem. Follow this blog or check back, it’ll be here in the coming week.

To hear my musical setting of Blake, you can use a player gadget below if you see it, and if you don’t, then this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play it.

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*Each bolded piece’s name listed in this countdown is a link to the original post and presentation of it, so if you like a piece or want to know more about my original encounter with it, clicking those bolded links will take you there.

A Cradle Song

Today’s audio piece is another simple arrangement, just acoustic guitar and voice, but the simplicity allowed me to move quickly from composition, to arrangement, and finally to recording an acceptable performance.

I only decided to record this text, by the English mystic, poet, and artist William Blake early this morning. This week was already scheduled for two important life transitions in my family by those older and younger, and this poem seemed to say something from that universal point in all lives when everything, when all, is change before us.

So, Blake cast this story as a lullaby, which is by design a calming song meant to accompany change from wakefulness and worry to sleep and the hallucinations, visions, or amorphous brain activity of dreams. The infant in his poem may not understand, may even dread this nightly change. It’s only a daily moment, but mysterious for one so new to experience, and so the poet-singer as parent is there to soothe the infant — and themselves. Here’s a link to the text of Blake’s poem that I used.

Is this only a story of an infant, or does the mystic Blake mean to say more about us? I believe he intends more. Infancy is only a starting point, an illustrative state before change. If we’ve been parents, we could recall our experiences in helping the infant journey from this beginning point. Blake wants to take us there to show us something.

And so it is this week. A grandmother is moving farther from memory and autonomy, graceful and befuddled, to a new care setting; and a teenager is moving too, earlier in life with more paths before them, yet more sure, and we don’t know how much to guide or understand. Yes, in-between are us middle-people who need to help both, and yet we’ve never been on exactly either’s path ourselves.

The lullaby is for the child and the parent. The parent and the child.

Blake The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun
Typical “sandwich generation” work for women as illustrated by William Blake.

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When I composed the music and performed “A Cradle Song”  I thought it was from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.  And it has been included in the Songs of Experience  portion in some editions, but not by Blake himself. Blake even seems to have toyed with an additional stanza I didn’t sing or know, and the supposition is that today’s text may have been meant to be the Songs of Experience  compliment to the other Blake Cradle Song that was engraved in Blake’s Songs of Innocence* — but that Blake changed his mind or was unable to complete the engraving for Songs of Experience.  Both Blake cradle songs have been set to music: the Songs of Innocence  one by Allen Ginsberg, the one I sing today by Benjamin Britten, but I have taken my own path and done my own music for today’s version of Blake’s “A Cradle Song.”  You can hear it with a player gadget that some will see below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window to play it.

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*There are other contrasting, paired poems in the two books.

A Verb or a Title

Today was a not-too-old, but widely observed American holiday. Yesterday was Thanksgiving, a holiday initiated by some indigenous Americans and some illegal immigrants who celebrated a military alliance and an autumn harvest together in the 17th century. As one native wit put it: we did the giving, we got no thanks. Invasion and conquest, colonial crimes—there’s no American exceptionalism in that.

Still and all, Thanksgiving’s purpose is generally to recognize a day to be grateful for what one has, the sufficiency of family, friends, life, community.

The day that follows, now given the unlikely name of “Black Friday,” reflects another facet of American culture: it purports to be a day designated to try to purchase all those things one doesn’t have,  or those things one thinks friends and family don’t have yet and should get for Christmas. What an odd juxtaposition!

What did I buy for Black Friday? I watched a streamed Patti Smith concert. A minor expense with no crowds and no rush to get the last one before it’s out of stock—though with artists of my age, in our time, there’s always the chance that what performers once offered will soon go out of stock faster than big-screen TVs or whatever Apple Corp object is offered in our naked garden. Patti Smith has spent much of her life cultivating a vocation as an American artist, earnestly so. That earnestness is a strong spice in her presentation, not to all tastes, but I found it helpful as a young person. She once chanted “I am an American Artist, and I have no guilt!” I suspect that wasn’t a report of something achieved, but a maxim to goad herself toward a goal. She got further to her goals than I did, but for either of us—and for you—a question is brought forward: is artist a verb or a honorary title?

Shopping needs answered with my virtual ticket, I enjoyed the concert during which she reminded the audience that tomorrow is William Blake’s birthday. Ah Blake, another inspirational artist. When I was still a teenager the idea that someone could remove the scrim in front of reality and converse with what they found there was a romantic temptation, but also there was this other thing: Blake marshalled enough skills technical as well as artistic and creative to make his art books with only as much resources as he could obtain, often by being his own technical arm.

A visionary depiction of Black Friday shopping? “The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan” by William Blake. Note that Admiral Nelson is wearing his mask way too low for these Covid-19 times.

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This project is about to present its 500th audio piece. It’s been a stout 4 years and a few odd months work. I often think of how much better it would be if I had additional musicians and singers who can do more than I can muster. I listen to work of other recordists whose audio quality surpasses mine, but for William Blake’s birthday this highlighted section is a link to a post from way back at the beginning of this project that talks not of Blake’s birth, but of the day he died. It discloses an unusual connection and possible inspiration to another set of poets who came by that place much later.

Obviously Five Believers (Thoreau, McClure, Whitman, Blake, Ginsberg)

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.”

Five Believers Six Angels

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.

Confucian Ode on Blake, Dickinson, and Whitman

It’s time to wrap up our National Poetry Month celebration, and once more I’m going to present a piece where I wrote the words as well as the music, a piece in celebration of the unpredictability of poetic genius. In the “Song of Myself”  section I presented a few days back, Whitman proclaims that America contains multitudes, plain and profound things, contradictions—and furthermore that everyone of us can contain all and each of that.

He could have spoke the same of the world, even if he was a believer in American Exceptionalism. But he wasn’t alone in American beliefs. Artist, printmaker, and poet William Blake thought as much in London even as we struggled here for independence. And in the era Blake wrote his “America, a Prophecy,”  in our America, a young woman, who had been abducted from Africa and enslaved, Phillis Wheatley, filled the next fold of her future by writing her book of poetry.

And by Whitman’s time we had Emily Dickinson, born a free white woman in a prosperous household, yes, but not yet in a time when those of her gender could hold for the power of her own mind. Her grandfather, her father, her brother all made and read the law, but she fully became Shelley’s unacknowledged legislator of the world.

In all the oppressions and focused indifference of America and the world, humankind still has these poets. Let us wonder and rejoice in them—and also those living now—who, whatever their given lot in life, open themselves to a blessed consciousness and find someway to convey it to us.

Speaking now of my poem that makes up today’s text: I think I called it a Confucian ode not only because I tried to use whatever understanding I have of how Li Bai and Du Fu expressed themselves in 8th century China, but in the sense that the much older odes collected by the school of Confucius were intended to instruct society as a whole, not just serve as an anthology for other poets.

Confucian Ode to Blake Dickinson and Whitman

Here the text of today’s piece. Classical Chinese poems don’t use punctuation either.

 

The process of explaining poems can suffer from the explaining the joke or speaking about music dangers. But since I have a passing acquaintance with this poem’s author, let me say a few words about my intent this time. In the first stanza, I note the priors from which our three poets came: William Blake’s father was a hozier, a maker of socks,*  Emily Dickinson, as we’ve already discussed was the daughter of a lawyer, and Walt Whitman’s father was a house carpenter.

If poetic accomplishment was a matter of instruction, none of them would have stood a chance. Of course, there are other poets with fine educations, and poets whose households were steeped in literary culture and expectations; but in the area of poetry, they historically stand side by side with these of more modest backgrounds.

A couple of years back I presented two poems together, one by Carl Sandburg and the other by Ezra Pound that spoke of Dickinson and Whitman. The better educated Pound takes a side-swipe at Whitman who he declares he once merely detested, saying Pound’s time is for carving, though grudgingly, that Whitman “broke the new wood.”

Pound has a point. I too think Whitman could have used a good editor, though perhaps then he wouldn’t be Whitman, so capable of maddening us to contradiction with his excess. In this year’s portion of “The Waste Land,” “Death by Water,”  editor Pound took the exceedingly well-educated Eliot’s lengthy tale of a shipwreck and drowning and carved out the sharpened epitaph we now know, that I could present this month. So, in the second stanza I make my bow to craft, and to those of us who help preserve and present the work and souls of poets. I speak of this craft and preservation as a container, much as the poets are containers for the blessed consciousness they open themselves up to receive.

In the third stanza, I make a new connection to the first two stanzas. I speak of those wealthy in this world, with fine socks and gloves, lawyers to take care of their contracts, and builders to make their towers. If you are an American these days, you may think I refer to a particular someone who puts his name on lots of tall buildings—but that name is writ in water. By such actions and pride they are saying the buildings are not the point, they—their selves—are what is contained in them.

Trump tower with shadow on name

If we’re labeling things, the top on the other side should say “noggin.”

 

I end the poem with another stanza and a final couplet, continuing to tie the preceding in. This is my attempt at the “music of thought” I speak about often when I speak of poetry: a power that finds harmonies in thoughts, images—rhymes in things not only in words. Why must we say and share our poetry? Because it’s not ours. In acts like the Parlando Project and histories of much, much more, humanity preserves and presents it, and celebrates it in National Poetry Month.

Yes, if we wrote it, we stayed still to write it down, practiced the discipline to convey what blessed consciousness may have conveyed to us, removed the words and other personal cruft that obscured it, cut the cord and buried the now shabby afterbirth. We share it, not because it is ours, but because it has worth.

Thank you for reading and listening, thank you for the kind words. Thanks to Dave, Heidi and Bert for helping make this project happen. April is ending, but May can be filled with poetry too, so follow this and spread the word. The player to hear my performance of “Confucian Ode on Blake, Dickinson, and Whitman”  is below.

 

 

 

*And so, by way of a footnote, our April-born William Shakespeare’s father made gloves.

from The Book of Urizen, Chapter 9

Let’s return today to the English mystic and poet William Blake, but continue on a thought that is inherent with the last two pieces, one by Yeats and the other by a long-winded guy who writes this. Poetry, just like other writing can, within its levels, do any number of things. One can seek to teach, to reassure, to tell stories, to amuse, to make philosophical points, or to abstractly portray beauty in poetry. Some poets, some critics, some projects, believe some of these are more worthy aims than others. From one day to another I may favor one of these over another in my reading, my performances here, in my own writing.

There’s a certain “high church” of poetry that feels that which aim and which methods are used in reaching it is crucial—and that other choices harm the art. I’m not smart enough, or well enough read, to know if they’re right.

But there’s one thing impactful poetry shares with the other arts: that’s the texture of the immediacy of experience, of how its creation, its creator, its reader, its listener feels and shares of any of this.

So, it largely makes no difference to readers today what political side William Butler Yeats was on in the Irish Civil War. And if post-WWII “Westerns” dealt with certain horrors: racist terrorism, genocide, colonialism, and the responsibilities of citizenship in an uncertain and sometimes buffered way, well so be it. What remains is the emotional and perceptual core transferred now.

Today’s piece is a section from one of William Blake’s “prophetic books,” a series of very small editions he wrote, illustrated, colored and printed himself. As a young man I admired that. Blake bows to no other as far as “Indie Cred,” “get in the van,” and DIY spirit. Furthermore, he developed (or envisioned) his own mythology to explain his metaphysical outlook.

I can still remember first reading about Blake in a list of minor poets*  in some leftover textbook of one of my parents sometime in the mid-60s. The note said that while he wrote some charming short lyrics he later descended into longer works that were judged as borderline insane. To many a young person that’s not a tragic story so much as it’s intriguing.

A year or two later the rock’n’roll band The Doors dropped a Blake line into an album cut and I eventually was able to get a few paperbacks collecting Blake poetry. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” youthful Byronic mythos was part of this no doubt.

I couldn’t make head nor tails out of Blake’s “prophetic books.” I could see the Milton and Books of Moses references, but that didn’t illuminate things much. In the decades since, there have arisen many Blake scholars who worked out his structure and epistemological themes to a great degree. That’s helped. But even then as a teenager, and now as an old man, I could and can still catch glimpses of how it felt to apprehend and sing these things Blake wrote. The poems are like their illustrations in Blake’s great plan for “illuminated books:” they are meaningful in their impact without necessarily telling you what they are meant to mean within some overall structure. And that’s probably how visionary works should be.

Blake's Ancient of Days on St. Paul dome

A recent special exhibition of Blake works in London was celebrated by projecting one of Blake’s most famous images on the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral. Not shown: the irony of nonconformist Blake’s image on a national religious landmark.

 

So today I’m going to perform part of the final chapter of Blake’s Book of Urizen  which comes after Blake has told something like a condensed tale of “Paradise Lost”  or the book of Genesis;  but with his own vision of the creation of the world and religion and the fall and fate of humankind. It doesn’t require that you understand or agree with Blake’s ideas if I can help illuminate Blake’s words so that you can understand the feeling of creating in a failed and fallen world.

In Blake’s mythos mankind is descended from fallen Eternals, blind to the infinity of the universe and their own souls. When we see his famous picture of a bearded Urizen with a compass at right angles measuring the world it’s not only a picture of visionary might—it’s the picture of a fallen, blind Eternal assiduously measuring a world with a puny device.

I didn’t go directly Doors rock’n’roll for today’s audio piece, instead the words led me somewhere else, to one of the things that influenced that band: the mythos of another visionary: Sun Ra, the Birmingham Alabama born Afro-American who recast himself as a prophet from the planet Saturn, and thereby encoded African and Afro-American culture as an infinite thing.

So Afro-Futurist saxophones today in gratitude to Sun Ra and to William Blake. The player to hear my performance is below, and the full text and illuminated plates of Blake’s Book of Urizen  is here if you‘d like to read along, The section I perform is near the bottom, Chapter 9, verses 3-6.

 

 

*Blake started gaining some reputational ground by the late 19th century in England, but American literary forces lagged in appreciation for him.

The Fly

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.

Songs_of_Innocence_and_of_Experience_THE_FLY

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.

Fall 2018 Parlando Project Top 10 Number 7-5

7. A Poison Tree words by William Blake.  When I posted this piece this fall, I remarked that Blake never seems that popular with the blog readers/listeners here. Dave and I have always sung Blake pieces since the early days of the LYL Band, and so we persist anyway.

Well, this piece finally allowed William Blake to break out. I can’t say exactly why, but I’m just glad it found an audience.

When I first encountered Blake as a young man, one of the things that I admired about him was his DIY/Indie spirit: apprenticing as an artist/engraver, doing his own coloring, writing his own texts, devising his own mythology, making his own prints. In the psychedelic Sixties there was this appeal because Blake was a visionary, the man who was reported out talking to angels in trees. Well those are the reports—but the work says he did a lot more than that, using his hands and applied energy. Reminds me of one of my mottos: Creative people aren’t people who have great ideas. Creative people are people who make things.  Of course, you’ll need some ideas, some vision that we need to see—but sometimes you’ll come upon those on your workbench scattered and shining amid worn tools.

 

 

The Angel by William Blake

In pickup basketball games, Blake always played skins. Also no pants.

 

 

6. Gone Gone Again words by Edward Thomas.  Thomas has been a blog favorite here ever since I followed the connection from Robert Frost to him, and discovered that I had unwittingly nearly reenacted his most famous poem Adlestrop  on a visit to England.

Thomas seems to have suffered from depression and other issues throughout his life. I don’t think that sadness inspires deep poetry, so much as battling it does, and Thomas’ poem is a compressed record of that battle as well as his beloved countryside of England during WWI.

 

Edward Thomas thin and thoughful

The return of the thin white duke, throwing darts at Blenheim oranges

 

5. Jade Flower Palace words by Du Fu.  I’ve noticed that I was using a string section of some sort (or its Mellotron equivalent) for every piece so far. Finally, we break that pattern as a conventional, unadorned LYL Band rock-combo instrumentation is used in this live recording.

There’s something I feel in Du Fu’s poem that is very near to Edward Thomas’ that is just above in the countdown, so it’s a nice coincidence that they slot together in popularity this time.

During the Parlando Project I’ve taken to doing my own translations from non-English language sources, including this one. Particularly with classical Chinese poetry this is risky or audacious on my part. I’m not sure if I should be encouraged by the number of inaccurate translations that are out there, including some that are fairly well-known—for example: the Chinese translations of Ezra Pound, which I’ve loved even after learning of the translation errors present in them.

I sometimes view my task as translator like I view my job as a musician who wishes to cover someone else’s song without merely duplicating it. I don’t want to be unfaithful to what the writer intended, but I do want to express it, in my own country’s language, in my own time, to my own audience. To do so, I may pull things toward my own language and my own grasp of the author’s imagery to keep what comes out vital.

That may just be an excuse for my own weakness in foreign languages and other skills of translation. Still, though Ezra Pound’s River Merchant’s Wife or South Folk in Cold Country  are not what Li Bai wrote, they are powerful works. But then, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”  isn’t Otis Redding’s “Respect”  played back faithfully either.

 

Jade carving

“There are many paths away from here. How long are any of them? None of them go on forever.”

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.