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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“There are many paths away from here. How long are any of them? None of them go on forever.”
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.
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.
Here is a short piece about an intense memory experience, where you believe you are fully re-experiencing something from earlier in your life. This is not déjà vu, and I don’t even know if there is any similar widely used term with plentiful accent marks over top the letters for this. And since this is a subjective experience, I can’t say for sure how common it is; but for me it happens fairly often. In these moments I’m not merely remembering something, I feel I’m re-living it, with access to the entire sensory experience—but the experience is felt by a mixture of the past me mixed with the present me.
This can be pleasant or not, but it always feels spooky to me. Subjectively (there’s that word again) it feels like the nature of time itself is being exposed, that the concept that time passes could be an illusion, that all time is happening now. Or that time may move in a boustrophedon manner wrapping back and forth next to itself.
Boustrophedon writing runs left to right, then wraps back right to left and so on “as the oxen turns” when plowing. Conceptually, what if time doesn’t run forward, but wraps back next to itself, or even over itself? Cue the hippy-trippy background music now. Also, be careful about stepping in the bovine exhaust.
I suspect some of you are going “Oh wow, that’s heavy.” Some “That’s some mystical B.S. there!” Others may wonder if chemical intoxicants are involved (short answer: nope). Some of you may even be puzzled about what I’m talking about, not having had the experience, or having had it and not stopping to fully encounter it.
Still, this is a subject that poetry allows, because, like all arts, poetry is about sharing the subjective human experience. Now-a-days this sometimes goes by the rubric “sharing one’s own truth.” I’m not fond of that phrase, though I believe compassionate people use it with good motives. Somewhere I’ve picked up the first principle of objective truth, even though that cannot be knowable out to all its edges, even if it must be handled with approximations.
So, I will make no Blakean claims of mystical revelation with “Summer For,” but you may still find this an interesting experience to share for three minutes, along with some skittering acoustic guitar accompaniment. The player to hear it is right below.
I’m often fascinated by things that touch the material we use here. Where there’s William Blake, there’s often some mystery, and in reading Blake’s America, A Prophecy, one small, seemingly mundane thing intrigued me. Several times, in parts of the poem I didn’t use in the selection the LYL Band performed for Independence Day, Blake names real, not spiritual, beings who he views as central figures in the American Revolution from his vantage point across the Atlantic.
Right near the start, in line 4 of his poem, he has it that “Washington, Franklin, Paine and Warren, Gates, Hancock, and Green meet on the coast glowing with blood…” and later “there stands Washington, and Paine, and Warren…” and finally “Washington, Franklin, Paine, and Warren, Allen, Gates and Lee…heard the voice of Albion’s Angel…” For some readers, this would just be a mundane list of names.
This article is for the other kind.
As a grade-school kid, even before I became enamored of poetry, I was a history buff. Washington and Franklin would easily have been known to those following the American Revolution, even across the sea. Paine, would be Tom Paine, who, while not a general or rebel government officer, was a chief propagandist/agitator who traveled to England and Europe to spread the new republican message. Political radicals like Blake would certainly have known of him, and the two writers shared London connections and may have even met. Lee, would be Henry “Light-Horse” Lee, who was both a cavalry officer in the Revolutionary army and an important politician in the American congress. Gates, was Horatio Gates, a General in the American forces. Green, is likely just a typo for Nathanael Greene, another important General on the American side. Allen, would be Ethan Allen, known as a resourceful commander for the colonists’ side in New England. Hancock, he of the big signature on the Declaration of Independence, was a leader in the colonial congress.
Nothing all that shocking in this list of American Revolutionary principals then, and it shows that Blake was at least following those American events, not just communing with his angel visions.
But, there’s one thing that bothered me, and I couldn’t let it go. Who was “Warren?”
If you search on Warren and American Revolution you’ll hit on a remarkable man who was not known to me before wondering about this: Joseph Warren. A Harvard educated physician, he was a leader in the leading rebel center of Boston Massachusetts. Poet Longfellow made Paul Revere and his ride before the dawn of the first battle of the Revolution famous, but it was Warren who sent him to warn Concord that the British were coming.
How did he know that the redcoats were going to make a secret move to round up the leaders of the opposition to British rule? He may have gleaned the info from the wife of the of British commander Thomas Gage. And if you want to follow another rumor, there may have been a little side-action going on between the handsome rebel leader and the British commander’s wife.
Warren fought in those first skirmishes, and when the first pitched battle in the Boston area was forming, Warren (who now had been newly commissioned as a General) deferred to other men in the rebel army who had military experience to lead in the upcoming battle of Bunker Hill. Instead, he asked to fight as a private in the forces. Serving as such, on the front line, he was killed at that battle at age 34. Some who knew him said, that had Joseph Warren lived, he had the charisma and talents to have out-shown even George Washington.
What a story! And one unknown to me until I thought of looking into that bothersome name in William Blake’s poem.
But, he’s not the only candidate. Joseph Warren died early in the Revolution. He was well known to the British authorities in Boston, but I’m unsure how well known he was in England or to Blake’s radical circle in London. “Warren,” Joseph Warren, is listed as the author of the “Suffolk Resolves” a 1774 public repudiation and refusal to abide by the “Intolerable Acts” made by a Massachusetts organization resisting British rule, and this declaration did receive some notice in England.
There’s another candidate, with connection to Blake’s circle, even though Mercy Otis Warren is, if anything, more obscure than Joseph Warren. Apparently, these two Warren’s are not related, though both were living in colonial Massachusetts. Oh, and Mercy was a woman.
Too-little-known patriots: Joseph Warren and Marcy Otis Warren
I’ve already mentioned that Massachusetts was a hot-bed of resistance to British rule. Mercy was also in the center of those efforts. If one thinks of current political efforts being organized via social media, the 18th Century colonists used good old postal letters to do the same thing, and Mercy Otis Warren was a leader in these Committees of Correspondence. As a woman in that time and place, there was no official position in the colonial government or military forces, but as a writer she was prolific in attacking the offenses of British rule, writing satiric plays, patriotic songs, and pamphlets extoling the cause. Mercy Otis Warren remained a staunch republican after the end of the Revolution, being one of the hard-liners who opposed adopting the Constitution without a Bill of Rights. In 1805, after Blake had published his America poem, Warren published one of the earliest substantial histories of the American Revolution where she warned against authoritarian elements in the Federalist party.
Noting that Blake always placed Warren next to Paine in his lists, I wondered if Mercy Otis Warren was his Warren, as the two were like as polemicists rather than government or military officers, and both wrote of a broad definition of the rights of man. Blake’s late 18th Century London radical circles included a writer and early British feminist Catharine Macaulay who was a friend of the American Mercy Otis Warren. That Blake seems to link women’s emancipation with an end to slavery and colonial oppression in America, A Prophecy caused me to think that just maybe this woman was his Warren. I even found an article in the University of Bucharest Review from 2013 where its author Ruxandra Topor states that Blake’s Warren is Mercy. The author doesn’t say why they believe this, but so far that’s the single published identification of Blake’s Warren that I’ve found.
However, the vast majority of Mercy Otis Warren’s published revolutionary writing was done anonymously or under pseudonyms. Though she did publish one collection of writing under her own name in America two years before Blake engraved his book, it seems unlikely Blake would have known her name in 1793. Still, she may have been akin to Paine in her thoughts and actions, and like Paine, she had an ex-officio importance to the Revolution. Remarkably, she may have done all that, risking all for her country despite an 18th Century glass ceiling—and she’s someone else that I first heard about because of this list of names in Blake’s poem.
July 4th is celebrated in the U. S. as Independence Day, the day that our congress signed a declaration of independence from the British Empire. I know this project has an international audience. So, why celebrate a provincial event here?
Because the American Revolution was not simply a patriotic event. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that its initial battle was “the shot heard round the world.” What was so singular about it? It was not merely an anti-colonialist act—after all empires have had rebellious provinces forever, and empires always fall—but it was also an act that founded the modern democratic republic. Overthrowing a colonial government, as the American patriots did, is not in itself a remarkable event. I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifices, the risks, they took. I don’t mean to overlook the evils inherent in armed struggle. I won’t today seek to re-litigate the proximate issues of the Revolutionary War, with its details of commercial interests (including, yes, commercial interests in human properties) and debate the best tactics for redress of grievances. No, those are all important, but they are not what makes the American Revolution worth our unique attention today.
Silent thoughts in the room: What a fine statement of the Rights of Man we sign today! I hope they wrap this up before traffic on the turnpike gets crazy. None of my slaves have learned to read, right? Why am I the only one wearing a hat? I can’t get tickets to Hamilton? I am Hamilton! All middle-age white guys, when does the prog-rock concert start?
Americans did not replace a king with a president for life. They didn’t exchange one dictator for another. They were not, in the end, interested in only replacing a bad man with what seemed to be a good man, and job-done. They instead instituted an imperfect, constantly challenged and constantly changing structure based on human rights and rule by reason and popular consent. The struggles, the risks of the Revolutionary generation were indeed great, but they pale in contrast to the struggles and risks born by the successor generations who sought to maintain and improve those structures. So, this is not a holiday honoring a person, a generation, or a concluding event, but instead, it is one marking a beginning.
Today’s piece was not written by an American, but by an Englishman who followed those revolutionary 18th Century events, but dealt with them on a spiritual plane: William Blake. The words come from his self-created 1793 book America, A Prophecy, which he wrote, lettered, illustrated, and printed himself. It’s not an account of the actual battles, and its characters are largely his own imaginary beings, but he never lets his visionary eye fall away from what he sees as the core struggle in the events. It’s spiritual—not in sense of its fantastic stage—but in the sense of its divining the essence of the battle: human beings being held back from their potential and dignity by corrupt structures.
A plate from William Blake presenting part of today’s song
In our worldly plane, the men who signed that declaration were all men, all white men, mostly men of property, and yes, we should remember that some of those men of property’s properties were indeed other men, women, and children. Blake explicitly understood that. In his prophecy, the essence that they are declaring for, the angelic forces that cry for freedom and dignity are for all nations, for all genders. If the American structure had to struggle for generations to refuse slavery and give full citizenship to women, Blake says that, in essence, and in the philosophy of their republican structures and statements, they have already declared those evils as tyranny, even if they don’t perceive that yet.
It’s almost a reverse Faustian bargain, isn’t it? Instead of the devil tricking them to eternal slavery, freedom’s angels have them agreeing to dissolve their allegiance to a bad king—but the codicils they have signed declare for more than that! They’ve put their lives on the line to declare that humans have inalienable rights and that governments must work with the consent of the governed. How entirely can they understand what that entails? July 4th 1776 is a Thursday. Some are no doubt thinking of Friday; the men of foresight, to the possible course of the rest of the war; the wisest, perhaps, are thinking, of what, a generation ahead?
The sections I use from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy are spoken by an angelic character he calls Orc, who personifies the overturning of the old tyrannies. With the limits of our short-piece format I’ve tried to give some flavor of what Blake understood was being overturned by the American Revolution. Musically, it’s a simple structure, though not the most common of chord progressions. I tried to chant Blake’s words with as much passion as I could in this one-take performance by the LYL Band. If you are in the U. S., enjoy your cylindrical explosives and tubular sausages, but do not mix the two things up. Their shapes are similar, but keep your mind on their essences. The performance of an excerpt from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy can be played with the gadget below.